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On the House: The Importance of Flexibility and Listening

This is the third installment of On the House, biweekly essays by Joshua Lewin, illustrated by Katrina Jazayeri, documenting the opening of their first permanent restaurant, Juliet.

Construction is well underway at Juliet.
Construction is well underway at Juliet.
Photo (and illustration below) by Katrina Jazayeri

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings." —Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

At Juliet we have a neighbor who stops by any time he sees us outside. He’ll have his dog Shaggy with him. His dog hates Chinese food, but this neighbor doesn’t mind it, although he prefers pupusas. For the best, he likes to walk over to East Somerville. Like his dog, he also has negative opinions on food. Some of the restaurants around the neighborhood he is a fan of; others he is not. He’s not afraid to tell me. And why should he be? This is his neighborhood too, and he is looking forward to having a new restaurant here on this corner. When it opens, he wants to enjoy it. He’d also like to consider working here, and I don’t see much reason why he shouldn’t. If everyone could be so open about their likes, dislikes, desires, and fears, my job would be a lot easier. Most take a subtler approach. We do our best to hear to all types.

Shortly after we first leased the space that will be Juliet, long before any construction had begun or was even planned, we spent a few Saturdays out in front of the empty storefront to meet the neighbors. Saturdays bring a big farmers market to Union Square and a lot of foot traffic right past the restaurant. The neighboring business, a design firm/retail shop called Loyal Supply Co., cut us vinyl lettering to apply to the windows. Katrina drew up some simple flyers. Looking something closer to official, the early stages of branding in place, we started having some conversations.

We met neighborhood residents who have strong opinions about breakfast prices, grass-fed beef, coffee quality, and bike racks.

We met neighborhood residents who have strong opinions about breakfast prices, grass-fed beef, coffee quality, and bike racks. We met residents who had more casual opinions about bread options, outdoor seating, and wine. Residents who had read about our plans, some of whom later supported our Kickstarter effort and are looking forward to our opening, and some of whom would prefer if we weren’t. Luckily not too many of the latter. We met allergy sufferers. The gluten-free, by way of medical necessity or just preference, were particularly keen to express their frustration with local breakfast options. As was the vegan contingent.

Gluten-free I was well prepared for. Vegan, less so. We are always happy to work with guests with dietary restrictions and preferences. In the case of vegan diners, in the moment, this generally means presenting a dish intended to be vegetarian with some omissions. An incomplete dish. But, given advance notice, we are more likely to design menu items designed with specific restrictions in mind. When a dozen of our neighbors express the same frustration with area dining options, I consider that pretty clear advance notice.

I’m tasting and testing vegan-friendly recipes for possible inclusion in our menu program, dishes that would be as satisfying to any guest as they are to the vegan one. It’s a choice made happily but one that likely would not have been made without getting out and having those conversations. More importantly, without being flexible enough to hear them.

Those conversations happened about five months ago. We are getting much closer now to being able to put some of what we learned out there to practice inside walls. Walking in the front door of Juliet now, you can see a skeleton in place and the beginnings of pronounced features. Now it’s just time to dress her up.

On the House 3 illustration

Katrina and I can do something this week that will be incredibly satisfying. We’ll walk in, and mimicking the path of a future guest, we’ll take a few steps to the front of the counter which is now in place (although still missing its top). At the counter, with pen and paper in hand, we’ll do the first dry run of service at Juliet. We have notebooks (folders, dry erase boards, pinned notes, scrapbooks) full of gently competing notions of what happens within those walls. But now we have the life-sized 3D model. Some of the lines in the notebook will be scribbled out. Some will be highlighted and starred. Many will be revised. In any case, many question marks should disappear.

We’ll be walking across a plywood floor in the newly framed bathroom as we make final decisions about wall color and tile shape. Exposed studs are still visible in the walls of the kitchen as we sign off on floor color. The majority of the broad elements are decided, many of them completed. We’re moving much deeper into the details. Schedules are now counted in numbers of weeks, not months.

It becomes a line crossed out in a notebook, a magazine clipping unpinned from the wall.

Like the early menu conversations, we have to remain flexible now too. Our vision of finished construction does not always match up with the reality of building materials or regulation. Before blueprint drawings were even completed, there were concessions made. Later, in our current stage, expense comes into play. Sure, that solid stone looks beautiful, but at $175 dollars per square foot, it isn’t in this budget. It becomes a line crossed out in a notebook, a magazine clipping unpinned from the wall.

We come to this project full of ideas, but sometimes we hear:

“That’s too expensive.”

“That’s not allowed.”

“That’s illegal.”

Or even, “Listen, that’s just a bad idea.”

Gasp.

Keeping a flexible mind helps ensure those concessions become part of a thoughtful plan instead of just omissions leading to an incomplete finished product. Just like the menu discussions. We could do things exactly our way, every time. But I find our finished product is better served by listening. Our art is better achieved by being willing to meet halfway.

We achieve our goals by exposing our feelings, our history, and our dreams through the hard — seemingly impossible at times — work we are willing to perform to deliver a product of indisputable quality, in how far we are capable of striving to help someone feel comfortable, happy, entertained, satisfied. Listening is an important step not to be skipped in this equation. We can’t be afraid of the red revision marker. Or, more accurately in our case, the ubiquitous fine-point Sharpie. For now we get to apply that way of thinking to light fixtures, counter heights, sinks, and paint swatches. Pretty soon we’ll get back to applying it to taste, presentation, and service. Regardless, we’ll continue to do our best to listen as much as speak.

Juliet

21 Union Square, , MA 02143 (617) 718-0958 Visit Website

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