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One Year of Barbecue and Pie at Rosebud

Joe Cassinelli reflects on how Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar has evolved in its first year — and how he went about bringing new life to the historical space.

Joe Cassinelli
Joe Cassinelli
Katie Chudy for Eater

Congratulations, one year in! That's exciting. How does it feel? Do you remember the first day?

One year in, it feels great. I do remember the first day; we had people come in remembering the old Rosebud, and they were pretty blown away with the transformation of the space. They were either in love with it or thought we were the devil. We've skewed more with people being in love with it, fortunately, and it's good, but we still get the occasional "You ruined the diner." It was pretty cool. It's a landmark space, and I'm proud to take it over and create what I did.

Can you give a brief history of the Rosebud and how it came to be what it is today?

The history of the Rosebud was what I was most excited about. I had to work with the historical society, and what they were most concerned with was the dining car. So the dining car is in front, and the kitchen was directly behind it, and it was all covered up and nasty. When I completely gutted it, I realized that it was in a completely different building, and that was the original restaurant that was in this space, called Jaunty Jack's. That was a modern snacker that opened around 1938. The modern snack bar concept didn't really work, so it was sold around 1941, and they attached the dining car to the front.

In the 1960s, they built out the room in the back, and that was a few different restaurants and a few different clubs. When I took over the space, I wanted to combine all of the spaces to make it feel like one giant space. The dining car was obviously going to stay, so we had to come up with a concept that was really Americana, and that's what we did. We brought in John [Delpha], who is my friend and chef here, who has a lot of experience with barbecue. It was a great way for us to bridge the old diner with what's new in the culinary scene.

Has anything changed over the course of the year since you took over the Rosebud?

I would say that we've become more adventurous. People didn't go for the casual stuff that we had on our menu like I thought they would go for. We had simpler plating, and we were serving things on metal trays and platters, keeping it low-brow. Through the course of doing dinners over the past year, it's been much more cuisine-focused. People have been gravitating much more towards the chef-driven menu items. One of our most popular dishes that was on the menu from day one was the dry fried green beans with the smoked pork, and we didn't think that was going to be a dish that would stick around a long time. We found that people were ordering less and less of the diner classics that we had. It was strange because then we go to brunch service, and everyone is going for the classics. The chef-driven menu items are ordered less at brunch.

Our cocktail program has also evolved over the year. The customers coming into the Rosebud seem to be looking for the fun stuff, so we've brought in scorpion bowls and hurricanes and tiki drinks. The bourbon program became much more focused on small batch, and we've seen a lot of interest in that type of beverage. The food scene is evolving; the drink scene is evolving. Vodka is coming back in a big way, and we've had a lot of infused vodkas. We also opened our patio for the first time this year, so that was big, but other than that, we've really tried to stay true to the course.

Our pie program was always a big thing for us, and it's really popular, even for brunch. We see a lot of people just order pie and a cup of coffee. We also added a late-night menu. We had a live music program too. This spot has always been a live music venue, and we wanted to have that as well. For about eight months, we had live music Wednesdays but just really didn't get the traction that we wanted, so we're thinking about going with a house band or something like that. We do vinyl nights on Fridays, which have been fun. We're just trying to always listen to what people want to do and what they think is fun, and we try to provide that.

You've talked about some of your most popular menu items, but have there been any other consistent standouts?

I'm surprised how well the hog's head for two has hung in there. We opened up with it on the menu, and it's become sort of a celebratory thing. We do two a night, and we usually sell out every night.

Any particularly memorable moments that have stood out to you over the past year?

I met a man who's probably somewhere in his 80s — when we were doing the remodel, he was going by in his electric wheelchair, and he asked what we were doing to the Rosebud. By this time the place was completely gutted. He told me this story about how after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he went right over to the Rosebud and had his last beer as a civilian before going down to enlist. He said that he hadn't been back since. I keep looking for him, and I don't know if he's ever been in.

Some of our parties have been really cool, and I'm always how surprised at how involved our customers get in our events. We've had a great response with customers who play music and want to play here, so that's been a great experience. There was one night that a customer pulled the fire alarm on a Friday night...yeah, that was memorable. Other than that, it's just been the usual peaks and valleys of having a restaurant.

You're obviously well-established in the neighborhood; what's changed in Davis, if anything?

I love the neighborhood, and Somerville has been great. Ever since we opened Posto back in 2010, our customers have really been family, and they float around to all of our customers. It's been great seeing the kids age. The jump from seeing a five-year-old to a 10-year-old is huge, and we've gotten to see that, which is pretty neat. Somerville has become such a dining spot.

I'm sad to see some of the changes to the square; all of the independents are getting pushed out, and there's very little gallery space as rents are getting pushed up very high. It's just making it difficult for other independent chefs to come here. I was able to do what I did because it was a bad economy, and I was able to get a good deal, but a lot has changed, and the city has had so much growth. I'd like to see even more chef-driven concepts in Davis Square, and hopefully rents will come down if they don't get rented. It's sad, we're losing Johnny D's, but the city is great, and that's what is driving those rents up. It's like we're all a victim of our own success.

What can we look forward to from the Rosebud over next year and beyond?

We're just going to continue to grow up. We're really in our infancy, and we're going to start focusing on our nightly specials. We're going to start expanding into a much more diverse and expanded pastry program; there's been a lot of demand for that. We'll be doing catering of barbecue. John has this tremendous experience; he's part of the barbecue team that just won the grand master championship at Jack Daniels in Tennessee, and we really want to utilize that and share his passion. We'll be expanding a lot on that.

Anything else that you want to share about year one?

The highlight for me has really just been seeing a restaurant be born and a staff come together. We've had staff members who were part of the opening team, and they've just left such a positive impact here. They've all really teamed up to create a positive environment, and after just a year, it means a lot to me that the staff is in love with this place as much as I am. Without such a great staff, it just does't work, and I feel fortunate to have that.

Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar

381 Summer Street, , MA 02144 (617) 629-9500 Visit Website