Chef/proprietor Tony Maws and chef de cuisine Dan Scampoli hardly know what day of the week it is at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, the newly opened sibling to Craigie on Main. It's Wednesday when they sit down to chat with Eater, and they've been open for just over a week. Things are looking good — it's been crowded non-stop — but Maws and Scampoli are both perfectionists. And masochists. While the first week has met or even exceeded many of their expectations, they're constantly reevaluating their systems, fixing what needs to be fixed, improving what's already good, and probably not sleeping very much.
So, does it feel like it's been a week?
Tony Maws: Does it feel like it's been a week? I think neither of us really knows what day it is right now. There are moments when it absolutely feels like a week, and there are other moments when we don't even know where we are because this whole thing has been such a whirlwind. Mostly in a good way, but there's so much to do, and it happens so fast. We've been on a roll, not taking days off right now and all that kind of shit, but that's normal. That's what we signed up for. But I have to be reminded often what day it is?
Dan Scampoli: Fact.
TM: ...so I can figure out who I'm ordering what and where from.
What's your general feeling about how the week has gone?
DS: Actually seeing this place in motion with our guests here — and the vibe — is 100% more than I anticipated. It's really awesome in here. It's more than I could ever wish for. We're packed. I feel like we have a really good crew right now. Obviously, it's opening a restaurant — we're all putting our helmets on. We're coming up with systems now that are allowing us to be better in the future. But one of our main focuses right now is to produce really good food — right now. There is no later with that, and like I said before, I feel like we have a really good staff, both front and back, and we're all kind of just putting our helmets on and rockin'.
TM: At the same time, we're still learning about our staff. When we moved little Craigie to what's now Craigie on Main, I absolutely took for granted - didn't even think about it - that while the challenge was there, I was taking my core, my group, to another location. Things that we were figuring out were how to cook Craigie food in that new spot and what systems needed to be in place to elevate what we were already familiar with. But everyone was on the same page with the language, lingo, a lot of the techniques even though we altered them — but we were already working together for a long time.
At The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, with really only a few exceptions, this is a group that is entirely new to our family, to the language we speak, to even what the expectations are for some of the techniques. And that's not a bad thing; that's reality. It's just our approach needs to be very different because people's expectations are there, and I'm flattered by that — I'm honored to have those expectations. Now, Danny and I and the front-of-house managers and everybody needs to figure out how to get people operating in a way that not only lives up to those expectations but beats them.
How did you feel when you woke up on day one?
TM: Again, I didn't even know it was day one.
DS: Yeah, it just felt like any other day. You wake up; you know there are going to be some curveballs thrown at you; you come in, like I said before, with your helmet on and just raring to do it the right way, staying as focused and calm as possible. In a leadership role, if you have a lot of anxiety, your cook's going to have anxiety, and we're trying to limit that as much as possible.
TM: At the end of the day, you can only do what you can do. There's no work ethic in this building that's ever going to be questioned. If everyone's doing his best — I know this is cliche, but it's true — if we're all doing what we're supposed to be doing, that's all we can ask for. The things that we're learning along the way: log them, write them down, improve upon them, move on. That's part of the process.
And I think that's always the process. That's still the process at Craigie, too; it's just that maybe the evolution is now a little more nuanced. Systems have been in place for a very long time there, whereas here, they're a little more obvious and big and tangible — they feel clunky. But it's still the same thing. Take what's working and try to figure out if that can be refined; take what's not working and fix it.
Any specific memories that stand out from opening night?
DS: At 11 o'clock, I actually had a second to pop my head up and look out into the dining room?
TM: 11 o'clock at night.
DS: 11 o'clock at night. And I looked down the bar, and we were, like, four, five deep. I was like, this is going to be a special place and something I'm really proud of.
TM: Again, I'm thrilled that people have been really looking forward to us opening this place, and it's a mixed blessing, of course. But the familiar faces — in the industry and those just familiar to us, people we've been cooking for for a decade now who came to our opening night just to celebrate with us — was really...it was just awesome. For one second in the madness of opening a restaurant, you can actually begin to feel a little sentimental about it. That was it.
Did you run into any surprises or major setbacks this week?
TM: Yeah, 864 of them...
DS: ...an hour.
DS: It is what it is when you open a restaurant. You don't know if a piece of equipment is going to work until you actually cook on it. Plans could look great, and conceptually we think we have things where we want them, but then the next thing you know, it doesn't work. That's opening a restaurant.
Have you already made any changes to the menu or anything else based on feedback you've received?
TM: Feedback has been fantastic. We all know what needs to happen, and we'll never make excuses. We're very proud of the work we're doing today, in week one. But it's week one, and this whole learning curve for everybody is going to make us a better restaurant. Danny and I are never going to serve food that we're not proud of. Danny worked the grill by himself last night for the first time, 'cause we've been training somebody else, and I think we were both looking at it not just critically but constructively and thinking, I could really do it this way. If we do this, we can do this. If we do that, then we can do that. And that's just part of it. And we didn't set the fire alarm off...knock on wood. I did do that back at Craigie Street Bistrot when I opened that?
DS: The first five days in a row.
TM: Right now, it's not the glory stuff. We're trying to fine-tune how the dish pit works, because it's not as efficient as it needs to be to keep up with the volume we've been doing, and we never could have anticipated that on an architectural drawing. And where the plates go, literally. I know it sounds stupid, but cooking on a line — we're factories. That's what we do. We're all little factories. And if everything is working efficiently, fantastic. If I can literally move this pile of plates six inches over to the left to allow me to get to it faster, that's what we're doing. There's a lot of that.
Have you paid much attention to the early amateur reviews popping up on sites like Yelp?
Both: [Staring at each other.]
TM: Oh, come on. Your answer's no, right? [Laughs.]
DS: Well, I would say that anyone's feedback is extremely important to us. But we feel very confident in some of the things that we do, and — I don't want to say that we don't listen to them; obviously we do — but if we think our chicken dish is delicious, and one person doesn't like it but everyone else does, we can't just keep changing everything for every single person. It goes back to the fact that we feel really confident in what we're doing. For the most part, people love our food.
TM: Yeah, I'm always curious. People are people. The conversation about what people decide to write, why they decide to write about a restaurant in the first week, that's a whole separate conversation. Again, I am floored by the fact that they would come here in the first week; that to me is something that we've earned because of all of the hard work we've put in over the course of years.
So at the same time, if Danny and I thought objectively about the chicken dish and that it really wasn't working for us, then of course we're going to do something about it. And if someone pointed out that time and time again it's not coming out at the temperature we want it to be or something, we need that feedback. But you do have to kind of weed out...I mean, it's hard to be objective, or subjective, or both, depending on the review, but you definitely notice trends, and we address them.
What dishes have proven most popular so far?
TM: It's a good split. I mean, obviously people walk here and see this big grill and immediately ask what's coming off the grill, and that's awesome. But then on the flip side of that, the spaghetti that Dan and I whipped up — kind of as a riff on something we've done at Craigie on Main before, but kind of different, and very much its on Kirkland thing — that's gone over way more than I expected. I know, it's spaghetti, but we're serving it with chicken liver, and people have been flipping out, so that part's great.
Knock on wood, people have been favorable about pretty much everything, and that could change tomorrow, but we know what good food tastes like, and now we've got to train everybody else to help us make that happen on a nightly, plate-by-plate basis.
Are you finding anything on the menu to be a harder sell? Do people tend to be weirded out by dishes like the salmon head, for example, or are most people that come here already into the more adventurous options?
DS: I wouldn't not recommend anything on our menu, and I feel like we've built our reputation in the past that if you come here, no matter what's on the menu, it's going to be good. So, people do tend to come here and try things out. I think another thing that's been working really well for us right now is our chalkboard specials. I don't know if that's the correct terminology that we'd be saying to our guests, but that's what I call it in the kitchen — different lingo. But yeah, they come in, they look at these boards, and they're like, I'm going to have that. Which is awesome. And that allows us to kind of change things.
TM: While aesthetically Craigie and Kirkland are going to be different, the philosophy that we have towards food and about food is not going to change. Any of the heads and things like that that we put on the menu — and we've been saying this for years — it's not for shock value. I'm not trying to be interesting about it. I'm serving food that we like to eat.
You take a bunch of cooks and you go into Chinatown, and we sit at one of those big tables — we're not ordering beef and broccoli. And it's not because we're trying to be cool; it's because we think that certain things taste delicious. And tendons that have been braised for a long time or heads that have been slow-cooked, I mean, they're delicious. Are they different than what some people have grown up eating? Yeah. But they're not different to a lot of people. If it's different to one, it's not different to some. We serve what we serve.
At the same time, someone's going to walk in here wanting a beet salad with bleu cheese, and we're going to have our version of that. And the chicken that's on the grill is far from innovative, but we're doing it, and it's awesome, it's delicious. So, it's a lot of different things on the menu for a lot of different people.
Here's a cheesy time machine question for you. If you could go back to the day when you started to conceptualize what this would all look like, is there anything that you would change? Any advice you would give yourself?
TM: We worked with Peter Niemitz to design this restaurant, and we brought to him a whole bunch of images of things that I was thinking about with this place. Honestly, if I were to close my eyes right now and imagine that and then open my eyes and look at this restaurant, it has probably actually exceeded my expectations.
In terms of other things that I would change, the short answer is, who has that information, or how would I ever address that? We had a lot of really good, hardworking, smart people planning this for a long time, so I feel like anything that we could have been prepared for, we were. Even being prepared for the things that we couldn't be prepared for, and being able to handle them, that's part of opening a restaurant. Psyched that the people are coming now, but it's a little bit of...I don't know if it's remorse or whatever — we get better. I know everyone wants new, new, new; that's exciting, and that's the way the media work right now. That's great, and honestly, we get a lot of attention, so I've got absolutely nothing to complain about. But anybody who walks in the door, week one, who thinks that this is a finished product, that's just not being realistic.
Again, we're never going to serve anything that we're not psyched about, but we still have some servers who are learning our language, some cooks who are learning our language, and that's only going to improve with time. If people think that we're doing a good job now, then just wait. And if you don't think that we're doing a good job now, then come back, because I guarantee you this is only going to be a ship that's going to keep on sailing.
Any specific new features or changes in mind for the coming months?
TM: Have we gotten that far?
DS: Yeah, not really.
How about types of events that you'd want to eventually hold?
TM: No, we just want to do what we're doing really well. In terms of how this place evolves for the types of things that can happen in this building, I don't want to be premature. We want to have service after service that we're really, really proud of, and we're pretty much doing that, but every once in awhile, we're still running a dish to the wrong table because that's just part of this. So, make the people that are coming happy first and then we'll worry about the big picture stuff later.
DS: I think something that's pretty indicative of both me and Tony is that a year from now, we're not going to be OK with what we're doing. We're always trying to find ways to get better, do better things, put different things on the menu, make our cooks better, make ourselves better, make the people above us better. Have our guests who come in have a better time than when they came in the first time.
We strive to hit 100%, and we will do everything we can to push ourselves to get to that, knowing that that goal is not attainable. But we'll do everything we can to make it happen. It's kind of...I don't know if narcissistic is the right word?
DS: Masochistic, there you go. But that's just what we do and it's a mentality that we have, and that's not going to change.
TM: If anybody looked at us right now and took a picture of us, narcissism would be the furthest thing from anybody's assumption.
Any other thoughts you'd like to share?
TM: We're perfectionists. Like everybody who's coming, we also want this place to be great right away. And I have to literally and figuratively step out of this building and look in and think objectively — are we where we're supposed to be after week one? And the answer to that is absolutely — and maybe then some. The volume, the people, some of the people we've hired. Exceeding expectations. There's a lot of really fantastic stuff that's going on. Are we doing it perfectly? Well, we're moving — it's up, it's running, people are coming. They're eating, they're drinking. Like, holy crap, this has been a really good thing, and people have been having a lot of fun.
If there's anything else that's just exceeded my expectations, there's a vibe in this place that I would expect to see after a year or two, after it's really matured, but people are having a lot of fun, and it's building. And at the end of the day, that's why we're doing this. It's not for magazines, it's not to get my food noticed. We're supposed to be throwing a party, and we've actually been throwing a lot of big parties in our first week.
DS: I like to make people happy. It's genuinely something I like to do. I happen to be able to cook food that makes people happy, and this place is a great opportunity to do that. Like Tony was saying before, it doesn't matter if you go to Craigie on Main or if you come here. Our mentality is the same. We're going to cook great food, and we're going to train people, we're going to hire people who want to do the same thing. Having that atmosphere around is awesome. There are not many companies or restaurant groups that hold that as a?
TM: Did you just call me a restaurant group? Ah, shit.
DS: Well, you've got two. It's a group. But to have that across the board - we hire people who fit a system that works for us. And I get to manage people that way, and that's a great thing to come into. I don't have people who come in, clock in, clock out, and don't care. Everyone here cares a lot, and I couldn't ask for anything more.
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