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Audubon's Jay Bellao, Beau Sturm, and Josh Childs on the Transformation of Audubon Circle

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Photo, from left: Beau Sturm, Jay Bellao, and Josh Childs/Rachel Leah Blumenthal

In March, the team behind Trina's Starlite Lounge and Parlor Sports announced that they were taking over Audubon Circle, a restaurant near Fenway, and turning it into Audubon. Weeks later, right on Opening Day at Fenway Park, Audubon opened. Jay Bellao, Beau Sturm, and Josh Childs chatted with Eater about their dedication to the existing clientele and staff, how the first couple months have gone, and more.

The transition from Audubon Circle to Audubon seemed to happen very quickly. How did this all come about?
Jay Bellao: I previously worked at Audubon Circle with Beau. We kept in good touch and in a solid friendship with Chris and Matt, the owners of Audubon Circle. At a certain point I came in here and had a wonderful time. Some of the employees that I had previously worked with were still here.

I shot Chris a phone call, asking him if they'd ever want to step aside from the restaurant aspect of the space (they own the building.) I told him we'd love the opportunity to sit down and talk and try to continue what they've done here for so long. We weren't looking to get the space, gut it, and redo this entire thing. We sat down a couple days later and started to get the wheels in motion for us to come in and begin the new Audubon.

What did you do in terms of renovations? I know you got rid of that prominent table with the particularly pointy corner…
JB: While the table was beautiful and very aesthetically pleasing to the space, it was certainly something that needed to move on, and we felt that a drink rail there opens up the space and kind of creates a flow near the entrance. It's a little bit more welcoming than walking directly into a table when you walk through the front door.

We also hung a couple televisions. While they're not the most aesthetically pleasing thing, they're more of a business venture. We're next to Fenway park, near BU, hospitals. You want to be able to provide people with a couple different things to view, whether it's the Red Sox and the Bruins on at the same time or CNN during the day.

Beau Sturm: You probably won't even recognize some of the coolest renovations. A lot of the things that Jay did were really thoughtful, from being in the space for so long. He recessed the terminals for the registers to make a nice clean line and put the registers in cabinets, kind of hidden. Josh hung this really nice Durock that lightens the space up. All of these things in combination kind of make it seem like maybe something happened — I'm not really sure what. It's a thoughtful, subtle thing. It's a beautiful space, so why change it too much?

What have you carried over from your other venues in terms of mentality and concept?
JB: I think the most important thing at any of the places is that we embrace neighborhoods. We want to be part of a neighborhood, we want regulars, we want to recognize everybody's face. We want the hospitality aspect of all of the places that we're associated with to be first and foremost of everything we try to do.

The space itself has been here for 18 years; Kenmore and everything has evolved around Audubon Circle for so long that it was important to us to make sure that we weren't trying to reinvent the wheel. We weren't trying to alienate the crew that was here. We were just trying to give them a little bit more of a fresh look, some new cocktails, wine, beer, food. But the most important thing is that they're there and they're supporting us. We want to make sure in return to support them and make sure they're happy and comfortable and understand how appreciative we are.

What was it like opening on Red Sox Opening Day?
JB: It was fun! The Red Sox energy around here is always fun. It definitely adds a different dimension to your restaurant. We were fortunate enough where the staff was kind enough to stay with us, so during the build-out process, three-and-a-half weeks, they understood our timeline. We definitely did kind of a crash course in terms of getting open. Training was very quick. We weren't really all that worried about opening on Opening Day; we had people who had done it before. The success of opening day was the staff. Everybody carried us while we were sitting around staring at holes in the wall or thinking about something that needed to be changed. They didn't skip a beat.

BS: The kitchen, too. Suzi [Maitland], our chef, did an amazing job, and again, we were lucky enough to retain some people who had been here over 10 years in the kitchen, and the biggest change was probably the food menu. We really changed that quite a bit, and we were really pretty nervous about how that was going to go opening up on a super busy day, and it couldn't have gone better. Suzi and the entire kitchen staff did an amazing job; we were really impressed.

Is Suzi over here all the time now or still at Starlite as well?
JB: Both. If anybody through this entire process is carrying the team and working super hard and impressing the heck out of everybody, it's Suzi. She's been an absolute workhorse through this entire thing. She should be sitting here with us talking about this whole thing. None of it would have happened without her.

What are the most popular drinks and dishes so far?
JB: We're kind of doing this trial-by-fire education of cocktails with our staff. Since we weren't really afforded the time to do all this training before we got open, now is the time that we're doing a lot of it. We're really trying to instill in all of them wine and beer and proper mechanics of making cocktails, so right now our cocktail list is constructed of classic cocktails. We're selling more margaritas than I think we can count. Tom Collins are probably the most prevalent, too.

To compare to the other side of the river, it's a lot of brown spirits — a lot of Manhattans and Old Fashioneds over there. Over here we're getting a lot more fresh juice, a lot more citrus flavors. As far as the menu itself, it's pretty much been across the board. We tried to come up with something that kept some old favorites, to make sure that the prior clientele felt comfortable and welcome. The potstickers are still there; they're hugely popular. The corn husk flounder has been moving a lot.

BS: I'd put our burger up against anybody, too. Our burger's ridiculous.

JB: Especially during baseball season. A lot of burgers.

Is there anything that isn't moving as well that you really like and hope people get into?
Josh Childs: Bottled wine. Before, it was just wine available by the glass — and that same wine would be available by the bottle if you were interested. We tried to have a creative wine-by-the-glass program and a really creative and well-priced wine-by-the-bottle list. I think that's just a gradual process, people not being as used to it in this world of craft cocktails and craft beers. Wine has fallen by the wayside, so we really try to have it attractively priced. It's nice to know in a place like this that you can come in, even if you're getting a burger, and you can get a world-class wine at a really fair price, so that's our goal. It just takes time.

How have you felt about the reviews and feedback so far, both amateur and professional?
JB: I love it. I love all of it. It won't get fixed if we don't know about it. I think a lot of people have some hesitation giving feedback when it's face to face, and if you don't tell them that you genuinely want it, don't take any of it to heart, a lot of people who have a bad dining experience will leave — and that's the time when you wish they would just pull you aside and tell you what's wrong. We can fix food, you can fix drinks, you can make beer colder, you can make a new cocktail, you can fire new food — if they would just say it. You have somebody who's going to smile and help you through it. We want people to have fun and have a good experience, so I don't mind any of it.

JC: As far as written reviews, I think that you take the good with the bad. You can't get too elated over a great review, and you can't get too upset over something that's a little bit more negative. Hopefully take it constructively and learn from it and move forward. If you hold onto any — good or bad — for too long, you're not moving forward.

Any other thoughts on the first couple of months?
JB: It's really important to me that while the three of us are sitting here, credit is given to Suzi where that is due — and the entire staff inside. Front of the house, back of the house. I'm here stumbling through my words and saying silly things, but it's only because of them that any of this has been successful so far whatsoever. And these two guys. I'm riding coattails.

JC: Jay is deflecting; he is here all the time! I find in this business — I've been around a long time — always surround yourself with people more talented than you are, and you'll be ok.
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