A year and two days ago, a fire in the ductwork at One Kendall Square brought about the temporary demise of a number of businesses, including four restaurants — The Blue Room, its sister and next-door neighbor Belly Wine Bar, Flat Top Johnny's, and Beantowne Coffee House. It's been an eventful year in the restaurants' absence, with extensive construction going on in the courtyard, the closure of West Bridge, and the openings of Mamaleh's and Smoke Shop.
Flat Top Johnny's was the first to reopen, debuting in mid-April 2016 with a newly revamped space for its pool tables and pub fare. Beantowne Coffee House followed on August 11, completely renovated and with plans to expand to Boston's Chinatown this fall. Today, The Blue Room officially returns as well, and its sibling Belly — which didn't have to undergo renovations — will follow shortly, likely on Friday, September 9.
A silver lining of the fire, said co-owner Nick Zappia, was the forced renovation. "When you're in something for 20 years and you make modifications over time, it's cumulative and not always impressive," he said. He bought the restaurant back in 1996; it had opened five years earlier, originally owned by Chris Schlesinger, Carrie Wheaton, and Stan Frakenthaler.
For Zappia and his wife Liz Vilardi, co-owner and wine director, there was never a question of whether The Blue Room would rise again as itself after the fire or whether they'd try something else with the space. "We never varied from The Blue Room," said Zappia. "When you have the opportunity — yes, you didn't want to do this; it wasn't in the plan — but when you have the opportunity to change things and make them better, then that's what you do."
Regulars will definitely recognize the space; the layout and general ambiance are basically the same. But plenty has been improved over the year. Some updates include the flooring — tiles that look very much like a hardwood floor. Back in The Blue Room's very early days, there was hardwood, but in heavy rain, the building tended to flood with some regularity, destroying the floors. For the last 15 years, it's been carpeted. "We could replace [the carpet] every other year and keep it fresh, but it never really felt as nice to me," said Zappia. The new wood-like tile is the perfect compromise: It gives a hardwood feel, but it's easy to maintain and clean.
The new Blue Room uses silver-bottom light bulbs to focus the light up towards the ceiling rather than down, "giving a warmth to the space that I felt was missing," said Zappia.
New curtains made of blue felt circles allow for easier division of the restaurant to accommodate semi-private dining, the bar area is a little bigger, and the kitchen counter on the far right now seats six rather than four. "20 years ago, no one would ever sit there, and now everyone wants to sit there, so it's kind of fun to change it up," said Zappia. But in the past, there was one particular person who did love to sit there — Julia Child. "It's so fun to talk to the cooks, and she just loved to engage them," said Zappia.
He expects to open the patio in time to soak up the final weeks of summer, although the popular lunchtime grill probably won't start up again until next spring; it requires its own staff, and it just doesn't make sense to hire for such a short period of time.
There are a few familiar faces at The Blue Room — the management team has returned, not to mention one of the restaurant's longest-term employees, Nelson, a 15-year veteran of the kitchen, doing prep and dishes. "He was the cornerstone of our daytime activity here, and he came back, and we were like, 'Thank god Nelson's back,'" said Zappia. "He's like the guy who keeps everything together." But there are plenty of new people as well, including the chef, Joe Guarino (an alum of Pastoral in Boston's Fort Point and Red Rock Bistro on the North Shore) and sous chef, Ryan Poutre (Julian's in Providence).
The menu, too, has both familiarity and newness. "Conceptually, the restaurant has always been built around the live fire," said Zappia, "and it's always been my favorite thing about the restaurant — to be able to burn wood, cook over fire, and go home smelling like a campfire a little bit every night. During this period while we've been down, we've fallen in love with [Argentine chef] Mallmann." The staff has been obsessively watching Mallmann on Chef's Table. "He's a really exotic, free spirit of a fire master," said Zappia. "He's really about refocusing on how simple and timeless live-fire cooking is, so our menu is going to reflect a little bit more emphasis on the live fire."
While still rooted in fire, the menu will look different than it has in The Blue Room's recent years. Around when Zappia and Vilardi opened Belly, "we went through a period of The Blue Room becoming three or four notches fancier than either myself or Liz were comfortable with," said Zappia. "I'm happy to say that we're returning to a more casual, vibrant, straight-forward but really good menu — a little less Thomas Keller and a little more Francis Mallmann. I think that's more who we are. We've gone through all of the sous vide things, all that stuff, and really what it just comes down to is that a really good whole fish is hard to beat. We're going back in that direction a little more, and I think our longtime regulars are going to see that that's something they'll be happy about. And we're definitely happy about it."
The Blue Room is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.