Nick Zappia and Liz Vilardi are the long time owners of The Blue Room, an anchor of Kendall Square first opened by Chris Schlesinger (or "Midas," as Zappia calls him). The husband and wife team opened Central Square's Central Bottle — a beer, wine, and specialty food shop — in 2009, a decision that ultimately led to last year's repurposing of an under-utilized back room at Blue Room into the popular and critically acclaimed wine bar Belly. Eater spoke with Zappia and Vilardi about the thought process behind the creation of Belly, how the many changes in Kendall have been felt at the Blue Room, and the possibility of a new Central Bottle in Boston.
Remind our readers about your history at The Blue Room.
Nick: My partners and I bought the Blue Room from Chris in 1996. My partners left in 2003, and my wife Liz and I got married seven or eight years ago, but she has been working here for 13 or 14 years. The last dozen or so years, the wine program has been all about Liz.
One of the funkier wine programs around.
Nick: Yeah, it's pretty funky. I like the little guy, so that's kind of where it started. But Liz got even funkier when we opened Central Bottle in 2009. It kind of gave her another voice and a different way to buy wine and a different way to look at it. All these new things started happening around us in Kendall and we kind of plateaued. So after we opened Central Bottle we realized there's all these young people that are our guests over there, and wondered how to get them over here. It took us a while to kind of figure that out.
Liz: The wine list at Blue Room is my baby, and it was always funky. When I got here it was funky and then it just stayed funky and no one was really paying attention. We opened Central Bottle and people thought it was so cool, and we were like "Okay, we have been doing it over there for a long time." The Blue Room was already 17 years old at that point. Who's paying attention anymore to a 17-year-old restaurant?
At what point did you guys look at the back corner of the restaurant and realize it wasn't doing what you wanted it to do?
Nick: It was probably about six or seven months before Belly opened. We turned our sights from Central Bottle to here again, to see what new life could be brought in.
Liz: We brought new life into it with our chef Robert Grant, who had worked for Barbara Lynch at The Butcher Shop. We were just starting to know his strengths and sort of a few weaknesses. One of his weaknesses was developing a menu that was detailed and fine on the plate but capable of being produced at the volume this place demanded. We could do 300 covers in the full restaurant, and with really fine detailed food, the kitchen got slammed. He was having a tough time trying to figure out how to make that happen. We reached out to Eli Feldman, who had previously been the director of operations for the BL Gruppo.
We started to walk around and look at it and started to talk about energy. Energy is a big conversation in restaurants, and we realized the back room sucked a lot of energy. You could walk in the door and it was kind of like walking into an empty restaurant, even though behind, you could be totally full.
Nick: It felt like the step-child's part of the bar.
Liz: Yet there were certain people who were very attracted to this side of the restaurant. It's an exercise in psychology, looking at who's coming back here. Ultimately we decided to try to bring in the fun of Central Bottle to liven it up and make it seem more youthful. Robert's got this amazing talent for charcuterie, which helps with kitchen timing issues.
Nick: One of the strengths that popped up during that time with Eli was that the Blue Room has two kitchens already. The back kitchen was used during the day for prep, but it was a full line that was just sitting there unused at night. Robert realized we could do something here with a completely different menu and not have it be held up by what's happening at the Blue Room. It could operate independently.
So during service, a cook is working for one restaurant or the other, but not both?
Nick: Absolutely. Robert has everybody work every station. It may be three months or four months in one particular area at Blue Room, then you'll switch onto the Belly line for another few months.
Even though you've been here 20-odd years, I'm guessing it wasn't a simple transition. What surprises popped up during the renovation of the space?
Nick: Nothing sexy, but things like plumbing. We already had a bar in the exact same location, but when the plumbing inspector came out and said "Well, 20 years ago when you did this, that was okay, but now the codes are different," we had to basically dig out the bar at the Blue Room. We had to tunnel under the concrete slab, but before we could do that, the landlord made us do an X-ray of the entire floor, so they could make sure there was nothing underneath.
Do you feel you're getting a separation between the two restaurants?
Liz: They do feel two different entities. They look completely different. We still have sort of our older set of customers at Blue Room.
Nick: But it has gotten younger!
Liz: It has gotten younger, which is really cool....
Is it getting younger because of the places around you? Or because people come into Belly?
Nick: I think it's a combination. West Bridge, Hungry Mother, they've all been driving a slightly different crowd to the area.
Liz: I think Belly has reminded people that there's something next door. I think they wander by because they're already in the neighborhood for one of the new places and make a point to come check us out. The Blue Room is such a beautiful room when it's kind of twinkly and you are walking by at night. It's also super fun when they walk into the Blue Room and think they are going into Belly. The door between the two is like the door to Narnia, because you open it up, and it's completely different.
A year later, how's Belly different now than when you had first conceptualized it?
Liz: It's funny, in some ways Belly is more like our concept now than when we first opened. We had brought in a friend of ours, who did the design and logo for us at Central Bottle and then redid the Blue Room logo. He was working very hard to try to get us to not name it Belly, and we would not give up on that one. He got us to open with these folded menus when we initially were thinking of doing placemat menus like what we had seen in Venice. The menu now has more food on it and it has lost some of its Italian words like "primi."
Nick: It just felt a little forced. People were coming in through the door, and they were looking at this little folded up menu and it felt like you couldn't eat here. So we went back to what we planned originally and got talked out of by our design guy.
Have your guests figured you out yet?
Liz: We are selling more food. Early on it was definitely more about wine. People were trying everything, because it was all brand new. You definitely get those three or four months of everybody and their brother wanting to try it out because it's a new place in town, so we sold a ton of everything. It was in the next three or four months where our regular guests weren't eating a whole lot of food. They would come in and drink wine, but they were only having a snack here and there. What happened to all that food they were ordering? We retooled, putting a little more focus on some more substantial first and main courses. It has come around, and it's definitely doing more in volume than we thought we were going to. It's been going great.
How are the family-style meals going for you guys? Are they driving business?
Nick: They are. It's the only way to reserve. Otherwise, it's just all walk-ins. If you wanted to come in for fried chicken, we would take a reservation. We've done that in New York at Momofuku many times, and we just think that's a cool way to get a reservation in a place like that. We are by no means Momofuku, but it feels good to us.
But we led off with lamb - the arm and a leg. That was awesome too. We started it in the winter, so it went from pig to lamb. Now we are headed to duck. All winter long we had groups of people in here every couple nights having a huge feast in the middle of an otherwise bustling place. Many people have come back and done it again and again. It was totally stolen from David Chang. That guy's got some good ideas.
Liz: I didn't think the s'mores would last, but I think they are going to come back again.
Nick: We have a fire every night in the winter, just to have a fire. We added s'mores to the menu. We hand people a board with all the stuff on it and they stand out there and make their s'mores. We did holiday parties for Bondir and Craigie on Main and, on a whim, made s'mores as a surprise during their parties.
It helps when Jason Bond is saying "I just had s'mores at Belly."
Liz: So true.
Nick: That's exactly what happened.
Do you now have the bug to keep going with new concepts?
Nick: I honestly don't. With the Blue Room and Belly and Central Bottle, it's a lot. We have our five-year-old, Lucien, who has just started Pre-K . The only thing that is penciled in on the horizon would be another Central Bottle before anything else.
On this side of the river?
Nick: I think we would want to go into Boston, even though Boston is a little crazy.
Do you guys get out a lot?
Nick: I can't say that we really do.
Liz: We like to take Lucien with us.
Nick: He is a really great restaurant kid. He came to Carbone with us. He had to wear a tie.
Liz: I don't think we would try to go to a restaurant on a Friday or a Saturday. Lucien has a huge crush on Joanne Chang. He loves her, and she might love him back. So he's always asking to go to Myers + Chang. We try to walk in there, and it's packed. "Why did we go out on a Friday? What were we thinking?" Luckily, when there's bar seats Lucien is totally fine hanging out at the bar, so we squeeze in and do our thing.
Speaking of bars, I know Matt Schrage recently helped redesign the cocktail program at Blue Room with a list concentrating on amaros. Do those cocktails get served here as well?
Nick: No, not really. What has happened here is Fanny Katz.
Liz: She was at Menton and she staged at Drink for a while. She then developed the bar program over at Taberna de Haro when they reopened. We hired Fanny as the bar manager here because we knew she had worked with wine at Menton, but she also has a great palate and puts together really great cocktails. Not to say that Matt didn't have any say. He had influence because he was around during that same time. I don't know if you know Ryan Connelly, TJ's cousin. He's sort of driving a cocktail change into vermouth and really taken ownership of that. Fanny definitely started it off and Ryan is carrying it.
Eater Boston intern Gabe Bellegard Bastos transcribed this interview.