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Row 34's First Birthday: On Tautog, Empty Cash Drawers, and So Many Oysters

Island Creek Oyster Bar's sister restaurant opened in Fort Point a year ago, and general manager Jillian Rocco and chef Francisco Millan reflect on how year one has gone.

Jillian Rocco and Francisco Millan
Jillian Rocco and Francisco Millan
Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

Does it feel like it has been a year?

Francisco Millan: Not at all. It’s sort of weird how fast time passes, being busy and working in a busy restaurant and constantly changing. I remember what I was doing Halloween last year, just prepping to get this restaurant ready, and it amazes that it’s already here.

Jillian Rocco: I didn’t feel like it had been a year either, until I went back and looked at my Google calendar from November of last year, and at that point, I was like, Wow, that was a year ago. But in terms of daily operations, I think we’re so immersed in everything that we’re doing that it’s difficult to look back and see each milestone individually.

Do you remember any specific details from opening night or opening week?

JR: Probably my favorite moment was Skip Bennett, one of our partners from Island Creek Oysters, ripping down the brown paper that was covering the windows. It was kind of a harbinger moment of Ok, now we’re open to the public.

"There's no going back. Let's do this."

FM: Opening was like, Are we going to open today? Are we going to get all the licenses that are needed? And everything like that. And then it was here. We were done with friends & family, expediting that first ticket that came in and being like, Wow, this is the first real live ticket. We’re here. There’s no going back. Let’s do this.

Do you remember what was on that first ticket?

FM: I believe it was a lettuce cup and a chowder, to be honest with you, which are two of our most popular items. It was something short and small.

What are some other dishes that have been really popular?

FM: Deviled crab toast. And the smoked & cured really has taken off more than I expected. It was sort of us trying to differentiate ourselves from other seafood restaurants and also from Island Creek. Having Island Creek as a sister restaurant, and my having worked there, it was like, How are we going to do this? And it also amazes me how many whole fish we sell in a week. Close to 200.

JR: The smoked & cured board, the following that it’s gathered is really remarkable, and it provides a different element to the beverage side of things as well in terms of beer and wine pairing. When you think about oysters or fish, you’re always thinking about something lighter, more crisp, but the smoked & cured board allows us to really delve into other layers of beer and wine.

Is there anything on the menu that you’re particularly fond of that you wish people would order more often?

FM: I would say the crudos and ceviches; I would love people to dive into that more. And also when we have local sardines or mackerel or bluefish...for example, bluefish is a fish that sort of has a negative connotation towards it being fishy, but people haven’t experienced what fresh bluefish is like. Or something like tilefish — some of those fishes that are true to me and that I’ve grown to love. So rather than getting the striped bass, why don’t you try the tautog or a fish that you may not have tried, but you’ll grow to love?

Have you made any major changes over the course of the year as a result of feedback received or reviews published?

JR: In terms of the beverage menus, it’s really wonderful to watch Megan Parker-Gray, our beer director, kind of march to the beat of her own drum. People do come into this restaurant expecting to be able to get a Harpoon IPA, a Bud Light, beers that they’re really familiar with and comfortable with. But she’s really done a great job at diving in and educating people about all of these other facets of beer that people don’t know exist, so it’s been really lovely to watch her stand her ground with the beer program.

In terms of wine I think that we’ve had a little bit of a similar scenario where we’re really hoping to teach our teams to teach the guests about things like varietals or regions or styles of wines that they’re unfamiliar with. So I don’t think that we’ve necessarily changed in that particular respect.

Is the general vibe and the clientele that you get here what you expected from this restaurant, or has anything surprised you in that vein?

"Rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll."

JR: When we opened the restaurant, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to feel, and I think that we’ve had more business people at lunch than I was expecting, which has been really great. We’ve built some great relationships with a lot of the other businesses in this area. And the people who live down here are definitely on the younger side, so we have people in their mid-20s to mid-30s, early 40s, coming in, and they’re really excited about something different that they can sink their teeth into. It’s definitely a different vibe than our restaurants in Kenmore Square. I kind of had in my head during the opening, Rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ve worked at achieving that.

What has been the single hardest moment of the year?

FM: I don’t know if I can say there’s been one exact moment, as opening a restaurant is always...you change on the fly, and you sort of go with the flow of what happens, sort of learning the neighborhood, learning the clientele, and everything. Of course everyone says staffing, but luckily the core staff that we have here and the people who have been here from day one are a major part of this team, and we couldn’t have done it without them. And we have the support of [partners] Garrett [Harker], Jeremy [Sewall], Skip, and Shore [Gregory] with that.

But it’s any challenge that any restaurant has. Staffing, trying to differentiate yourself, and trying to have people coming out of here saying, Wow, that was a great experience all around, from the second they come into the host stand to ordering their beer to their interaction with the server, and then the food sort of caps off the night. But I can’t say there has been one specific moment for me that has been the hardest.

JR: I agree; I don’t think that there is any one particular moment that felt insurmountable. I recall about a year ago this time when the management team was thinking about opening, training, and it seemed like a really big challenge to be able to educate this team of people on the ins and outs of oysters, beer, wine, food, and also service and hospitality, so we spent a lot of time thinking about how to implement that. We would meet for hours on end every day trying to plan, and for me, that was the biggest challenge, because it was definitely looking at the unknown, thinking about people you hadn’t hired yet. How are you going to mentor them? How are you going to teach them? How are you going to get them to move around the space with grace and integrity? It was a challenge.

Is there a moment that you can pinpoint that was either the happiest moment of the year...or the point when you just felt like, Hey, this is working out?

"This is a full restaurant, people are here, and it's for us."

FM: I don’t know about the happiest moment, but just sort of seeing my gratification for all of this — seeing a Tuesday night where we have an hour-and-a-half wait. The tables are full. Being grateful for that and feeling like we’re doing something right. And how do we push forward to do it better and strive to do it better? But just seeing the dining room full and people ordering and people being open to trying new oysters and different beers and different wines and trying, like I said, tautog or whatever it may be, is sort of my proudest moment. Turning around and saying, This is a full restaurant, people are here, and it’s for us.

JR: And it’s alive. The energy is really tenacious. I think for me I have a couple of really proud or happy moments. One of them that I recall very clearly is we were sitting in our pre-shift meeting that we have every day before dinner service, and we had a guest speaker come in and talk to the staff. They asked if anyone had any questions at the end, and everyone’s hand went up, and they were asking really intelligent and smart questions. For me, that was just very gratifying to know that all of the educational initiatives that we’ve put into our team were really coming to fruition.

Do you have guest speakers a lot at your meetings?

JR: We do. Once a week, we have someone from the oyster farm come in to talk to the teams, but in addition to that we have various beer or wine people come in. As often as possible, we try to have the people who are actually working in the craft come and speak of what they do, and then on days that we don’t have a guest speaker, we always have something planned in terms of fostering teamwork, learning different oysters or beer, whatever the case may be.

What’s the best night and time for somebody trying to come in without a reservation?

JR: I would say Sunday nights on the later side. We get really busy right at 5 p.m., but 7:30 p.m. and on there’s usually a good chance of snatching a table. Mondays early in the evening are usually good, but otherwise I would recommend...well, I wouldn’t always recommend a reservation; it’s worth walking in, because we do release some reservations day of. But also just call the restaurant and speak with someone. It’s a good way to try to get in.

For someone who is coming in for his or her first visit, what would you recommend in terms of an ideal first experience — where to sit (bar, patio, etc.), what to order?

JR: It depends on the guest, but I think sitting at the bar is a really fun experience; the interplay between the guys shucking and the bartenders is always fun to watch. The bartenders are super knowledgeable about all things Row 34, and they’re really engaging with their guests, so I think that’s really fun. I really enjoy sitting in the lounge as well. You have a really awesome vantage point of everything that’s happening in the restaurant. But even with the winter months coming, the patio is awesome. It’s totally heated; it’s totally enclosed. Sometimes it seems like a hard sell, but once they get out there, they’re like, This is awesome. They’re taking their jackets off and enjoying their full dinner.

FM: In terms of food, start off with oysters and the raw bar, maybe smoked & cured, and then if you want something traditional, maybe a lobster roll; we certainly sell a lot of our hot and cold lobster rolls. If you’re open to trying new things, whether it be Boston mackerel or, for example, we recently had grilled octopus on the menu. The menu certainly is there to speak to both sides, whether you want your traditional — I’m here in Boston, I need a lobster roll — you can certainly do that. And if you’re like, Hey, I’m looking to try something new, for example we have striped bass on the menu, which is a very approachable fish, but it’s served with pumpkin romesco and a pickled cranberry salad, so we’re able to throw in some things like that.

So what’s in store for year two?

"We want to continue to push the menu and keep the guests happy while at the same time making it fun for ourselves."

FM: I don’t think anything drastic is going to change menu-wise. I think we are continuing to try to build relationships with fisherman and oyster farmers. Being located so close to the Fish Pier, we are able to have that relationship with a lot of our purveyors and wholesalers.

And just sort of finding different seafood to offer that people aren’t necessarily offering. For example, we have Chilmark oysters from Martha’s Vineyard. I was lucky enough to go down there one day and meet the grower, and usually they don’t get off the Cape, but we’ve been able to build a relationship through one of our purveyors to offer Chilmark oysters. And we want to continue to push the menu and keep the guests happy while at the same time making it fun for ourselves.

JR: For me, in thinking about the front-of-house operations and the front-of-house team, it’s really important that we get better every single day, so I don’t think there are any particular milestones that we’re looking to achieve, but we’re looking to hone our service, hone our knowledge, continue to work harder, work better, and grow together to be a more efficient, fruitful team.

What piece of advice would you give to someone about to embark on opening a restaurant?

FM: See your family and your significant other a lot beforehand, and get a lot of rest. And you have to go with the punches. One challenge, one day — try to overcome it like that. And take a deep breath; everything will be alright.

JR: Yeah, I think you have to learn to live with your mistakes, particularly when it comes to the placement of an oven or how you design this particular service station, for example. You’re never going to do it right, and the restaurant that you think you’re opening is going to take on a personality of its own, dictated by your guests and your team. You can never anticipate exactly what that’s going to be like. I also echo Fran’s statement of seeing your family and seeing your friends. And also taking that vacation that you don’t think you have time for. You should take that. Definitely take that.

What would you say to people who haven’t been here yet? Why should they try Row 34?

"Don't forget to put cash in your drawers on your first night."

JR: If you are really into interesting beer or interesting wine and you’ve not been down here yet, definitely come check it out. And if you’ve never tasted Fran’s cooking before, then you definitely should be here as well.

And I just remembered one funny moment from opening night. As you can imagine, a restaurant on its first live night is a little bit more chaotic than anyone would like to admit. I remember we went to process the first cash sale on the bar, and the cash door opened, and we didn’t have any cash in the house. It was just a funny moment because you plan down to the minutiae of every single thing, but we completely overlooked having cash in the cash register on opening night. Luckily we had some friends down the street that helped us out with some change, but it was one of those things I put at the top of my list to tell anybody ever opening a restaurant — Don’t forget to put cash in your drawers on your first night. [Laughs]

Row 34 - Jillian Rocco and Francisco Millan 2

Row 34

300 District Avenue, , MA 01803 (781) 761-6500 Visit Website

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