Looking back on the first year for Southie hotspot Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, Eater caught up with owner Eric Aulenback, executive chef Nick Dixon, and general manager Mike Shaw to get a recap of the year, from pizza to what it's like to be in Southie to the blizzard that changed it all.
Congratulations on year one! Where did the concept for Lincoln come from?
Nick Dixon: We wanted a casual menu that was accessible for everyone. We knew we wanted to do pizza, and we knew that we wanted to do a wood fire, and we kind of built the menu around those two cooking styles. As far as the vision for Lincoln, we just wanted to bring a fun environment to South Boston.
Mike Shaw: I think Nick said it right: there was ample opportunity for us and for Nick to showcase an A+ food program. We have some of the best food in the city, and people love coming here to eat. The idea was to build a room, and much like what Lincoln did for the United States, we wanted to unite South Boston. We wanted to have a room that accommodates every person who lives here.
We very seriously have wedding anniversary parties going on for people in their 60s 10 feet away from our friends at a local company that come here a few days a week. To have all that going on is a really cool thing. That was one of our goals when we opened up a year ago, to have something for everyone, and it's a really humbling thing to actually see come to fruition.
This building that is now Lincoln is amazing. What's the history of it?
ND: It was an old warehouse and most recently a Payless Shoe Store. Before that, a drugstore, and before that, an old department store. I just think the bones of the building are amazing. You have this incredible tin ceiling and the brick wall with all the hardware. When we first came in here, it was a small Payless, but once the demolition started, we found that ceiling and wall, and we were just psyched. I can remember bringing friends in here at the very beginning, and everyone was just so psyched about it; it's just all so real. The bones are just amazing, and we wanted to keep and showcase that.
What do you like most about being located in Southie?
MS: I firmly believe that we are in the best neighborhood in Boston, and I mean that sincerely. Since I moved back, I've lived in Southie, and I've worked in the Seaport and then here, and I just love it here. I love the people and the opportunities that we have. Not a lot of neighborhoods allow you to cater to so many different people. You know, people who have lived here for years and those who are just moving here, that's really hard to find in a neighborhood in Boston. For us to have that is awesome.
To be able to welcome somebody new to the neighborhood and to be able to do that on a nightly basis is incredible. We were joking recently because on September 1st, there are just so many moving trucks on the streets of Southie, and it's incredible. I've never worked anywhere else like this, where we essentially have the chance to open a new restaurant every year because we have an entirely different guest base every year. We just have an opportunity to have our guests make this their regular hang out spot and hopefully take ownership of it and make it their home.
And you're still doing a shuttle program, aren't you?
MS: Yes, that's one of the cool programs that we do. Southie Shuttle is a great local business that we've partnered with, so basically at any time you can call them during our operating hours up until 10 PM, and they'll pick you up. The other end of that is that recently they've extended their hours until 2 AM, so often people will see the Southie Shuttle waiting out front. It's just something we wanted to provide for our guests. We want them to get out and have a fun night and get home safely, and sometimes cabs are tough to get. It was a no-brainer for us, and it's just expanding our access for folks who don't have a car.
What's your most popular item on the menu?
ND: Definitely the pizza. That's our number one selling item, and the burger is number two. We also sell a lot of eggs, especially huevos rancheros at brunch. Our French toast is also awesome. I think we do an excellent brunch, which is fun for me because I really enjoy cooking eggs. Pizza, burgers, pan-roasted chicken, our steaks, and the scallops do really well.
MS: And the short ribs! They are served over truffle mac and cheese, and towards the end of service, you can find me in the back shoveling that in. I just love it.
You've been building quite a reputation for your pizzas...
ND: With Neapolitan pizza, there's really only one way to do it, and you just have to decide if you're going to do it well or if you're going to do it poorly. There's really just one dough recipe, one mixer. There are a couple of different flours that you can use, but all of the ingredients have to be Italian. I just think it's a magical pizza, really. It's super airy, and the crust is crunchy, and we just let the product speak for itself.
Tell me about that beautiful wood fire oven.
ND: Yes, the pizza oven. Eric and I did a trip out to Las Vegas. We knew we wanted to do pizza, and there are just so many great pizza places out there. We went around trying them all and finally found a style of pizza we liked. We then talked to a lot of people and ended up training with a gentleman — all he does is Neapolitan pizza. We spent a month with him, training and learning all about pizza. We then finally found an oven that was right and worked for us, and we brought it back here. We also squeezed in a wood fire grill, and the sky's the limit with what we want to do with the menu.
What's your favorite memory from your first year?
MS: [Looks at Nick.] Are you thinking of the same one I am?
MS: Yeah, Nemo. The snow started on Friday, and the luckiest thing in the entire world for us is that we hired locally. We have a very big restaurant and staff. Maybe to ballpark it, about 85% of our staff live in Southie. The storm got pretty bad early on, and we got a call from the Boston Globe saying that they heard we were open, and they were doing a story on places open during the storm. We talked to the guys in the midst of people walking in, and then he put it on the front of Boston.com, and that was it. The floodgates were open.
We were running around like crazy. Nick had three guys with him in the kitchen and was pumping out food. The front walkway looked like a ski resort, and we were checking cross-country skis, and people were wearing snow goggles. It rolled for two days straight. It was the busiest weekend that we've ever had to date, and it was just so fun for us. We just did what we needed to do to make it work, and to this day we still have people talking about that weekend. As crazy as it sounds, we're really hoping for another big snowstorm again this year.
ND: That was a really big moment for us. We just all came together. The entire kitchen staff slept in my apartment, which was weird. We also just had a big chalkboard of what we had left, and we'd cross things out as they ran out. It was great bonding for our staff and for our clientele, and while a lot of places were closed, we just did it. We were understaffed but we did it.
MS: We had no cleaners — we did all of the cleaning and all of the work short-staffed. It was just a huge moment for us because you can plan all of the staff parties and trainings that you want, but to have something naturally happen like that was just really incredible.
Is there anything you wish you did differently during the first year?
MS: Absolutely. How long do you have? From my standpoint, I think we did our best, and we underestimated the volume and response that we'd receive and the amount of people that would walk through our door when we first opened.
I've already expressed my love for this neighborhood, but if I could go back and do things differently, I'd have had more faith in people coming out to check out a new joint. I think we did everything in our power to over-deliver. It was the first two months of us being open, and we already had lines to get in on Tuesdays and Wednesday for dinner. I just remember looking at Eric and Nick and thinking, "What do we do?" But we worked hard to bring everyone in and did the best we could.
Any big plans for year two?
ND: For me, I'm trying to focus on doing a lot more events in the back room. I also want to invite other chefs and industry people to our restaurant so that they can check it out and have a good time.
Eric Aulenback: There are two elements that we planned for but were left unexplored due to our volume. One was events and the other was entertainment. We have an entertainment license now, and we're trying to figure out how to integrate it as an amenity, and we'd like to do it. Also, events. There's a curtain that runs in between the rooms that we can use to have events, but the restaurant has been full since we opened, so we've said no to a lot of events. Now we're trying to figure out how to get that to work.