Steel & Rye is one of several high profile restaurant openings this past year in towns whose residents traditionally had to travel into Boston or Cambridge for great food and drinks. Chef / owner Chris Parsons — formerly of Parsons Table — recognized an opportunity in an unused ambulance garage in the Lower Mills neighborhood of Milton and has been racking up accolades (three Globe stars, for example) ever since. Eater talked with Parsons and co-owner / general manager Dan Kerrigan about the past year, the challenges they faced as a result of early success, and plans they have to build a wood-burning bread and pizza oven as well as their own grist mill.
Congratulations on making it to one year. Does it feel like it's been a year?
(simultaneously) Yeah, it does. (laughs)
Kerrigan: We should've talked before this.
Parsons: Yeah, it does feel like a year. Compared to day one, it feels better, smoother, and more fun. We've gotten to know our space, kitchen and staff.
How did you come to open in Milton? It's not really considered a restaurant destination.
Kerrigan: That is exactly one of the reasons. It was an opportunity to build something that the community would really respond to. I liked the idea of building a restaurant where we could become really ingrained in the community, get to know them, and they could get to know us. It's fun and exciting to build something great in an area where you get great exposure and aren't lumped in with ten new openings in the South End or Somerville. It was a great way to immediately get some exposure.
Tell me about finding this space. It used to be an ambulance company, and a car dealership before that.
Kerrigan: It was originally a DeSoto dealer. Eventually it became the headquarters for Fallon Ambulance for 35-40 years. It had been vacant for about five years. The outside of the building really didn't show what was on the inside, so it didn't get leased as quickly as it could have. A friend in the meat business in Boston sent us over to take a look at the space. He knew we were searching for a spot just outside of the city limits.
Have you seen a lot of people coming in from Boston and other communities or is this mostly a Milton restaurant?
Kerrigan: It's definitely a mixed crowd at this restaurant. These last six months, we're definitely getting to know a lot of folks from Milton and have become a solid part of the community. But the whole year — since the beginning — we've seen a ton of people from the industry coming in from all over to check out the restaurant. And we've seen them coming back time and time again. We see a lot of regular guests who live in South Boston and Dorchester, too.
You have a lot of fun toys in the kitchen — some advanced pasta machines and the like — yet the food doesn't come across as a molecular gastronomy playground. How do you show restraint while playing with your toys?
Parsons: The real vibe of the restaurant is homey Americana. It would be really out of place to take the food in that direction. The tools and techniques just help us be faster, better, smoother, and more consistent. We do sous vide quite a lot, but you wouldn't know it. I have a vacuum machine and combi ovens which let us be more consistent with our bread program. We have a beautiful stove, but really that's super old-school.
Ted Gallagher — formerly of Craigie on Main — has created a great bar program. Do you interact with him much from the kitchen?
Parsons: I have a ton of respect for Ted's palate. When we come up with new dishes and I want to have someone taste something, Ted is at the top of the list. His cocktails are really well-balanced with sweet, acid, salt, and bitterness — which is just like any good cook. We talk about food a lot. And he comes to talk to me about cocktails, which makes me thrilled to talk with someone who knows so much about mixology and spirits. He makes everything in house, which I haven't seen before. I see him making shrubs and we're now using similar techniques in the kitchen.
This wasn't the first opening for either of you, but every opening is different. What did you learn this time around?
Parsons: (laughing) Humility? We were humbled. We learned a lot. It's a big restaurant. It takes a long time to break in a new team with a big space and big kitchen. The whole process of just getting comfortable is something different.
Kerrigan: Through the first six months we would say "being busy is a good problem to have," and then we would finish that sentence with, "but it's still a problem." When you're brand new, have a team of 65 employees, and you're trying to get everyone facing the same direction every day, doing the right things, being extremely busy can slow the learning curve and training process.
A lot of restaurants, particularly with strong bars, have been opening up around the periphery of Boston, instead of Boston proper. There's the theory that part of that is it's so damned expensive to open up a place in Boston. Are you an example of that?
Kerrigan: I think it's a trend that will continue. Whenever I'm reading about new restaurants outside the city, they mention that we're here because the rent is cheap. That's actually not necessarily true. We're here because there's a great opportunity. A lot of the people that are eating inside the city live outside the city. I think the trend is going outward from the city because people are realizing there is the business opportunity, with more interesting spaces available. I think often times in the suburbs, where rent is lower, the volume of business is lower. So, it's not always more profitable just because of rent.
Parsons: There were also all the benefits of being in Milton, which is a great town. Found this really beautiful space that made for a fun restoration project. Our neighborhood — Lower Mills — has a really interesting history. The more we learned about this neighborhood, the more it felt like the right home. The more we read about it, the cooler it is. There was a chocolate factory and the first grist mill in the country. It's neat to be part of the next phase of the food in the Lower Mills community.
Thinking back to opening night and opening week, are there any memories, good, bad, or at all?
Kerrigan: I always joke that I don't remember anything about opening week, but that's not really true. It went as good as it could have gone.
Parsons: With any restaurant, there's an element of what people expect you're going to be, what they think you should be, and then what you are. You get a lot of feedback the first couple weeks with the volume of people coming through. And we appreciated feedback, but sometimes it can be tough. I think we learned a lot. It really makes you sit back.
Anything you needed to fix right away?
Parsons: Absolutely. Off the top of my head, I can't think of one particular thing. But, in general, we were constantly moving stuff around in the kitchen and adapting the menu based on the way people used it. So there was a lot of little tweaking of how we execute, trying to figure it out.
You recently started brunch. Which, to me, is the sign of a restaurant that is feeling comfortable with how things are going on Saturday nights. How's it been going?
Kerrigan: That's exactly how we got there. We got to the point where we were managing dinner and were ready to take the next step and add something. We're really excited because the menu is not the same stuff you see everywhere. It has a great Americana / Southern vibe with it. Ted's drinks are great. After seeing how the opening went, we opened brunch on a much quieter note. We didn't advertise or market. We just opened the door one Sunday morning and let it happen naturally. It was a lot safer than our previous start.
Any future changes or additions coming?
Parsons: We're in the preliminary planning stages of adding a wood burning oven. We'll build a flatbread pizza and bread program from it. The "rye" in Steel & Rye comes from the grist mill that was here. So, we're going to buy a grist mill and actually start milling all of our own flours and grains. That should start happening at the beginning of the year, and we're super-excited about that. That's our biggest news right now.
· All coverage of Steel & Rye on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of One Year In on Eater [~EBOS~]