After 26 years — 21 under the current ownership — The Blue Room will close its doors after service on July 1. Its younger sibling and neighbor, Belly Wine Bar, will close as well. Owners Nick Zappia and Liz Vilardi reflect on the lives of the two Cambridge restaurants, including the 2015 fire that changed everything.
So, I imagine you guys had a lot of conversations before making this decision. How do you decide it’s time?
Nick Zappia: It’s not out of the blue. Coming back from the fire was daunting. Being closed for a year… Insurance pays for some things, but not a lot. It put us in a financial hole.
Liz Vilardi: It’s just a business decision. The restaurant industry is in flux. We could talk about what Boston is ready for and what it’s not ready for, but that’s another conversation. We have a labor problem. The sustainability of pay isn’t there. Cooks don’t make enough money. There’s no insurance; hours are long. We’re having more conversations about that. We lost West Bridge [a neighboring restaurant] while we were closed, and our little complex got dug up. Things are changing before your eyes, and it ended up being a business decision for us.
Everything ends, you know. Nothing lasts forever.
We’ve been talking about the Blue Room like she’s our 99-year-old grandmother. You know, like, she died, but she had a good life. Belly is harder. That was my playground.
Do you think you could have done anything differently?
NZ: I think if we’d reopened with a whole new concept we’d be having a different conversation right now. Something that was a whole lot younger. But we really believed in The Blue Room as an institution.
LV: Yeah, the neighborhood changed a lot in the year we were closed. Our GM, Melissa Chamness, mentioned something we hadn’t thought of the other day. That older demographic that used to come to The Blue Room for dinner and a movie… The Kendall Square Cinema [behind the restaurant] used have eight or nine screens all showing different films. Now they have, like, four movies going.
NZ: We used to get a lot of weekday business from MIT and surrounding biotech, and on the weekends we’d get the theater crew. Now there are lots of different places to try. There are more restaurants than ever. Maybe if we’d opened something fast-casual…
LV: We just read yesterday that En Boca — that place that opened in the old Sandrine’s space [in Harvard Square] — closed. They were barely open. It’s too bad, because they were really good people, and they went for it. But the construction… You can’t get down their street. People need to know you’re open so they can go in and have dinner.
NZ: Yeah, the construction, even behind us here [at One Kendall], makes a difference.
LV: Our story is this: We’re old. We had a fire. We bounced back. Twice.
You’ve obviously had help over the years from a ton of people, but is there anyone you really feel played a huge part in your success?
LV: Reggie St. Paul. He was a longtime Blue Room bartender, and he retired years ago. But even after he left, he’d show up on Sundays and bring doughnuts. And he showed up when we were closed [after the fire]. He checked in on us. This is actually a funny story. We had a photographer in here doing an art project and taking photos of the staff years ago, and they took one of Reggie. We put it up behind the bar, and there was a candle in front of it one night — the little tea lights we had around the dining room. A guest came in and saw it and was like, “Oh my god, is Reggie dead?” Reggie’s very much alive and well.
Then there’s Nelson. He’s been our dishwasher for 17 years. He was right there when we were ready to reopen.
I’ve always said that restaurants are like the Island of Misfit Toys. We’re all missing something, but together we have all our parts. Everyone has their Reggie; everyone has their Nelson. We leave no one behind. We all have a void somewhere inside us, but that’s what a restaurant does — it fills that space.
Any favorite memories?
LV: Nick has one, but he won’t be able to tell it, so I will. Back in 2000, when I had just arrived on the scene here, Julia Child was a regular. This was back before Belly, when the Blue Room still had a big, horseshoe-shaped bar. So, on this particular night, Conan O’Brien was at one corner of the bar, and Julia Child was at another. Julia couldn’t have cared less about Conan, and Conan was freaking out. So, Julia always thanked the kitchen on her way out, every time. This night she got up, and she walked over to the kitchen, and she said, “I love The Blue Room, because it smells like a restaurant.” That’s pretty special.
Do you have any plans for the rest of the month?
LV: We’re gonna hug a lot of people. We’re gonna hug as many people as we can.
NZ: Yeah. And on June 25 we’re doing a huge, urban version of the One Long Table dinner series we used to do [at Bay End Farm]. That farm-to-table thing The Blue Room was doing before anyone else was doing it.
LV: That really is something. Back in the day, like in the ‘90s, [former Blue Room chef and co-owner] Steve Johnson used to call all the farmers and find out what they had, and then he’d fax all the other chefs in Boston and tell them what was available. Nobody else was doing that. He was the OG farm-to-table chef.
NZ: And on July 1 we’re having a funeral for ourselves. A New Orleans-style funeral, with a dirge through the courtyard. That’s the last day we’ll be in service.
And what about Central Bottle [Vilardi and Zappia’s Cambridge wine shop]?
LV: Central Bottle will stay open. I’m looking forward to being the kooky retail lady.
NZ: We’ve been so tied up for so many years, we owe each other a rest and a regroup. Lucian [their son] will be off this summer, so we’re going to spend some time with him. My days of wanting to take over the restaurant world are over. That just doesn’t interest me at all anymore. There are other things we want to focus on.
• Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It Happened [Blue Room on FB]
• Blue Room Coverage on Eater [EBOS]
• Belly Wine Bar [EBOS]