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A Year of 'Peppering the Bar With Tots' at Lulu's Allston

Joshua Culpo and Justin Dalton-Ameen got out of getting Father's Day gifts last year, on account of their restaurant, Lulu's Allston, opening that day. June 15, 2014 was a few months later than their target date in March, but the old-meets-new gastropub took off from day one.

A year into the first-time owners' run on Cambridge Street, Culpo, Dalton-Ameen, and executive chef Sarah Wade think back on all the tater tots that have passed through the window.

sarah wade
Josh Culpo, Sarah Wade, and Justin Dalton-Ameen of Lulu's Allston
Jacqueline Cain for Eater Boston

Tell me the story. Were you all involved in opening this place up?

JUSTIN DALTON-AMEEN: We opened June 15, after 16 months of construction. We opened to a nice crowd of customers and were really well-received by the neighborhood. We’ve been lucky. It’s been a good first year. We’ve built a strong bond with the community, which is important to us.

This place was previously Cafe Brazil, and you did a complete renovation. What were some of the things you had to do to open this place?

JDA: People were still coming in and sitting down looking for Brazilian food when there was still a giant hole in the floor. The floor came down, three walls came down, the kitchen got moved back.

Our original designer really had a vision of combining old with the new. All those shutters you see are reclaimed from a salvage yard; our hooks for purses underneath the bar were reaped from a salvage yard.

Literally, everything you see is brand new. Right down from where the placement of the front door it, to the doors in the back, to the placement of the kitchen, the layout of the dining room, everything was completely changed.

Was this your first place you opened up together?

Yep. [We previously worked together at the] Parish Cafe on Boylston Street. Josh’s uncle [Peter Culpo], who’s one of the owners here, owns the Parish. I was there for 10 years; he was there for five or six. When I left, I was the general manager, and he was the bar manager.

Josh and I conducted an executive chef search from basically the whole northeast and New York. Sarah responded to us; she was down in Greenwich, Conn., executive chef at the Hyatt. We drove down to Greenwich one early morning, ate fried chicken and bacon-wrapped chicken wings at 9 o’clock in the morning, and that was it. We signed her up after that. She’s been on with us since —

SARAH WADE: — October.

JOSH CULPO: She was also the last candidate we interviewed for the chef position.

JDA: We were looking for someone who could cook and also had — what do you want to call it — stage presence of being able to come out, talk to the people. We told her our goal wasn’t to be just a bar, but to be a restaurant where people came to eat.

"Restaurants have staying power. It’s the food that sets us apart."

Restaurants have staying power. We have a great beer list, but any other bar in the area can have the same stuff we offer at the same exact price. It’s the food that sets us apart, and that’s how we’ve always viewed it. We needed someone who could take the kitchen over, let Josh and I run the front of the house and beverage program, and have the programs play off each other well.

Does it feel like it’s been a year?

SW: No.

JDA: It depends. When we first opened, we were definitely pulling 120-hour shifts; we’d kind of tag in and tag out to go take a nap on someone’s couch who lived nearby. Schedule-wise, it’s become easier for us. We have people now that we can trust. When you’re brand new, you don’t really know anybody, you don’t know who your staff is. All you can really depend on is us. It’s become better in that regard. But yeah, sometimes it feels like we’ve been here for 10 years.

Going back to June 15, 2014...

JDA: I think we all got to get out of getting Father’s Day gifts that year.

We had a good turnout, and it just took off. It didn’t hurt that the World Cup was going on that summer. We serve food late; we serve brunch early on the weekends. That late-night food helps draw in the industry crowd, and when you get restaurant people in here, they start letting their customers know about this place Lulu’s that just opened.

Sarah, do you remember what was on the first ticket?

SW: Oh God, no. I bet it was tater tots. These two were doing nothing more than sending out tater tots, amidst all the other orders coming in that night. "Pepper the bar with tots," I believe was Justin’s quote.

JDA: There was a lot of promotional stuff going on in the first couple months. Having been in the Boston restaurant business since we were young lads —

JC: We got a lot of friends!

JDA: We got a lot of friends, but we also understand the importance of people coming here for their first time. It’s a brand new place; you have to give them a bit of a show.

There are some things on the menu people may never order; it’s our job to educate and get Sarah’s food out there. Now, it’s not an issue if she’s doing a special, but back then, people were doing a lot of burgers and tots. Now they’re doing everything from racks of ribs to hake.

Is there something on the menu you wish people ordered more?

"Because the staff really likes [the Vegan Buddha Bowl], they sell it really well."

SW: The one I put on the menu that I was afraid was not going to move is my Vegan Buddha Bowl. I thought people would be like, "This chick is crazy." It has actually become very popular, especially among the staff. I think because the staff really likes it, they sell it really well.

JDA: Don’t be deceived: The staff eats more cheese sauce than anybody else.

Thinking back to when you first opened, was there anything you changed early on, based on reviews you read or feedback you received?

JDA: Especially in the beginning, Josh and myself were always available on the floor. With a brand new place, brand new staff, there’s obviously going to be service complaints right off the bat. That’s to be expected, and that’s why we made ourselves available. If anything, the biggest change is the staff becoming more comfortable, growing into their roles.

SW: From a food standpoint, if it wasn't going to fly, it wasn’t going to fly. For the first two months, we were super receptive to everything that we heard, and I think that made the menu really strong really fast.

JDA: No question. And a lot of the menu items are things we opened with, just with tweaks. It comes down to consistency in our goal, and what we teach our managers and our staff is it should [always] look the same coming out the window. It’s hard to do right off the bat: As tough as it is to work with a whole new front-of-the-house staff, you’ve got a whole back-of-the-house staff that’s never cooked the food, has never worked with Sarah before. A year later, we feel comfortable saying if Sarah’s in the kitchen or not, the food comes out as she would expect it to look and taste.

You definitely came with experience, but what has surprised you most about opening your own place?

JDA: Josh and I are beach guys, so to open June 15, we had to really sacrifice a solid two months of the beach. I remember the first time we got down there was a Sunday at four in the morning. A year later, the tan’s coming a little bit stronger. But there’s no question: Free time goes out the window; personal relationships go out the window.

"If we didn’t come to the table 100 percent [and] put the hours in, it would have been easy to tell."

You’re kind of just dependent upon each other, and that’s really it. It was really sink or swim. There’s no one that’s going to back us up. If we didn’t come to the table 100 percent [and] put the hours in, it would have been easy to tell. Once you get all your systems in place, once you get a staff that gets it, it just makes everyone’s life a little bit easier.

JC: The one surprising thing for all of us was having everything brand new, yet having things break or not function properly. Sarah’s fryer went down [once]; we just kind of winged it. We couldn’t make donuts for two days. We had some plumbing things — leaks, water pressure, the water heaters didn't work properly from day one, so we ended up getting all brand new hot water heaters.

JDA: A big part of the restaurant thing is rolling with the punches. Even in the wintertime with the snow, we were open all the time. We closed early a few times when there was nobody out, but beyond that, we just opened, and it was another day at the office.

Is there a specific time you feel like everything clicked?

JDA: Yesterday was OK.

JC: Not that everything "clicked," but I remember, probably in August, looking around and seeing the place packed with a huge line out the door, and thinking, "We were hoping it would be like this." Hoping and realizing are two very different things. It was a good feeling.

JDA: Even if there wasn’t a World Cup game, it would be a Tuesday afternoon and the whole bar would be full with industry people. Once you start seeing repeat business from those kind of people, people who live it every day, they’re obviously coming not just to show face, but because you’re offering something that works well for them.

If someone is coming into Lulu’s for the first time, what would you recommend for an ideal experience?

JDA: There’s two different sides of Lulu’s. There’s the brunch crowd, which is a beast —

JC: It’s chaos!

JDA: — and then you have the dinner shift, which is a little bit of a slower pace. I always tell people to come try one of each.

SW: For the ultimate brunch experience: the white-trash hash, which is tater tots, braised short ribs, poached eggs, and hollandaise. You’ll want to die, but you’ll be very happy.

For dinner, you have to do apps, entrees, and dessert. You have to put a few things on the table, be it deviled eggs or pretzels, and you have to get your mac 'n cheese —

JC: Cheese sauce, cheese sauce!

SW: You have to have Justin’s cheese sauce. When we were writing the menu, I’d say something and [Justin would] be like, "You know what’d be really good on that? Cheese sauce!"

JDA: And you know what? I was right. It enhances everything.

What is one piece of advice you might give to some young, entrepreneurial restaurateurs?

JDA: Get a ton of money.

JC: Hope for the best, and expect the worst. People warned us in the beginning that things always go wrong, and at least the two of us said, "Nah, we’re on pace." We definitely were wrong.

JDA: It’s so much more than cooking food and putting out a menu. It’s managing people 24 hours a day, dealing with 50 different personalities.

SW: And love the neighborhood. Your regulars are your bread and butter. Make sure you love them and take care of them.

What’s in store for year two?

JDA: We go in front of the liquor board next Wednesday for a two o’clock license. [Lulu's was granted its 2 a.m. license to serve liquor. ] And then, you know, we’re always looking for more locations.

SW: And investors.

JDA: Yeah, more money and more locations.

Keep an eye on Facebook for information about how the Lulu's Allston team plans to celebrate the restaurant's first anniversary.

Lulu's Allston

421 Cambridge Street, , MA 02134 (617) 787-1117 Visit Website