"Because the Jungle is full of such tales. If I made a beginning there would never be an end to them." —Rudyard Kipling
I am writing this seventh installment of On The House from inside Juliet for the first time. Today, about fourteen weeks after beginning, Juliet looks more like a restaurant than a construction site. It’s quiet in here. I can think in here. The paints, stains, and other finishes are inviting and warm. The lighting is impressive. Most of it was installed over the weekend with a few finishing touches yesterday. Yes, we finally decided on the lights.
I am writing from a countertop placed at bar height in the front windows. It looks out over Union Square, a bus stop, and the high traffic corner of a neighborhood in flux that is Washington and Webster, where commuters from Charlestown, Cambridge, Boston, and beyond all come together in Somerville and are forced to get a look at our storefront before continuing on to wherever they are going.
About a year ago we started to brainstorm a specific business plan with these corners in mind. Fifteen thousand people live within a half mile. We are two of those people. Another countless number use this intersection on their commute to work, school, or play. They go by car, bus, bike, and foot. Someday, they might go by train.
Juliet is located at 257 Washington St., just outside the busy center of the square. This space itself was barely an idea when we first started planning. It was an option from the beginning, but while we kept the specific location flexible, we weren’t flexible about the target area being right here in our own neighborhood. A view like the one from these windows, we’ve been chasing for a long time.
This countertop was here in the space’s former incarnation as a neighborhood favorite coffee shop. We preserved a number of elements from that shop, although they’ve each been refinished and made our own. There is this counter, painted to match the framing supporting our solid slab redwood service counters. The hardwood floors which run throughout, stained with a custom blend by Katrina. Remnants of those floors have been repurposed into a lightbox-style sign, and a few more will find their way into menu design. A few prominent pendant and globe light fixtures left behind will compliment the additional warehouse style and schoolhouse glass pieces we’ve added. There is a fading wheat paste mural of a coffee-drinking man on our back door. We’d been fed a rumor that he might be a former employee. Katrina tracked down the artist who explained he was a representation of the people he used to see on the street, running for the bus. Whoever he is, we expect we’ll keep him around, at least in spirit.
We’ve spent a lot of time this year talking about the past and how we got to where we are. Talking about what motivates two people to open a new restaurant when there are already plenty of perfectly good — and a number of absolutely great — ones nearby. We’ve met our neighbors and told them our story, the story about two people who come to food and hospitality from very different backgrounds and meet in the middle over the love of sharing, storytelling, and technical proficiency all at once.
Eight months ago we potted herbs and flowers into some old wine crates that I had packed up my books and tools in the day I walked out of my regular job for the last time, almost exactly a year prior. Two temporary restaurants, a couple of invitations to the James Beard House to prepare dinner, three countries, and a host of American cities later we stood outside on Saturday mornings and shook hands. We discussed likes and dislikes and the changing neighborhood. We answered the question "When will you open?" with "Soon." We believed that.
Last weekend we finally cooked the Juliet menu for the first time, although in an alternate location in Boston. We are confident but cautious about a part of our concept that we think is very unique to us and has been a piece of our planning since the first hypothetical conversations we had about an unnamed future restaurant. Some of those conversations took place right here on this countertop in that old neighborhood favorite coffee shop.
We intend to take a high-service dining counter that serves just a few at a time, overlooking a gleaming open kitchen where the highest professionalism and craftsmanship are on display, and slot it right in like a jigsaw puzzle around the core of our operation. That core is a quick and efficient casual menu focused on the daily commuter and those fifteen thousand neighbors we’ve been doing our best to get to know for months. We want to open our doors and serve them first. We want to offer them both the everyday and the extraordinary all at once. We won’t hide either one. If a smattering of food tourists make their way to Union Square to see our show each week, we look forward to welcoming them too.
We previewed the breakfast menu for our full-service counter, reaching those would-be tourists to Juliet first, along with a few vigilant individuals from our neighborhood who made their way by as well. A brief role swap, and also something of a farewell to downtown Boston, where I’ve spent the majority of the last decade cooking as a commuter myself. Boston stamped us with approval that morning. Soon we’ll pack our eggs and butter, radishes and grains, caviar and brioche, and unload them closer to home where they’ll stay for quite some time.
We talk a little bit less about the past now and a lot more about the future and especially the present. Juliet is no longer someday. Juliet is any day. We received the majority of our kitchen equipment early yesterday morning. An oven is holding us up, but only a little, along with a three-bay sink. That sink, which was a long production to procure in the first place, was inexplicably shipped separate from its components and via two different carriers. I signed for the faucet this afternoon, but the rest will keep me awake for one more excruciating night. The three-bay sink is an integral piece of our health department application. I’ll be contented to see it arrive.
This time when we say "soon," though, we mean it. Well, we meant it the first time. But this time we are right. I know now that I am writing one of the last — but not quite the very last — dispatches from the process of opening a restaurant. Soon I’ll be back to running one.
Those wine boxes won’t see another season. We didn’t line the bottoms with anything to protect from water damage, and I’m sure they’ve rotted inside. That’s ok. They’ve been with me a long time. It’s been an unbelievably warm December so far. There’s a new poppy flower planted like a blowing flag in one of those crates. The warm weather might have brought some new basil or cilantro with it as well if those hadn’t been completely picked over by someone in the neighborhood some time ago. It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. Eventually it was disappearing in large clumps, leaving behind gaping holes and spindly dying sticks. I am hopeful that we just have a big cilantro fan in the neighborhood. It can be a divisive ingredient, but I do love cooking with it. I hope it wasn’t just plucked and tossed aside without a further thought. Cilantro makes me happy; senseless vandalism makes me sad.
We fought to keep those poppy flowers alive through the spring. This late bloomer will see us through to the end of our construction project and with a little luck might still be precariously bobbing around in the wind on opening day. But if not, that’s ok too. It’s a beautiful sight through these windows for now.