Allston is losing a beloved bar next week: Deep Ellum will officially close at the end of business on June 7 after 13 years. Owners Max Toste and Aaron Sanders announced the closure in an Instagram post, along with their intention to expand sibling restaurant Lone Star Taco Bar — which is situated next door — into the Deep Ellum space.
“The pandemic and the resulting closures have caught us all off guard,” wrote Toste and Sanders in the Instagram post. “We and the rest of our restaurant family are moving forward in a completely unfamiliar landscape with more questions than answers. Given these unknowns, we are forced to think hard about our business and how to adapt to not only the turbulent present, but an uncertain future.”
Toste told Eater that there were pandemic and non-pandemic-related reasons that led to the decision to close Deep Ellum and focus instead on Lone Star. For starters, both restaurants rely on volume, and volume will be difficult to predict when restaurants are allowed to reopen their dining rooms to the public in the coming weeks and months. Lone Star has performed better than Deep Ellum for a number of years, according to Toste, so it made sense to focus on the more profitable business. A more profitable business also means the ability to save jobs.
“By far the hardest part of this whole thing was March 17” — which is when restaurants had to shut down dine-in service to slow the spread of COVID-19 — said Toste. Between Deep Ellum and Lone Star, which has a second location in Cambridge, he and Sanders had to lay off 95 employees. “It was so fucking terrible. So the fact that Deep will retire and we can go, ‘Yay!’ and have a laugh is so great and cool compared to Aaron and I having to tell our employees that we were closing and they didn’t have a job anymore.”
Kitchen restraints also contributed to the decision. Deep Ellum and Lone Star share a (very small) kitchen and prep area, making it difficult for cooks to distance during the best of times, let alone amid COVID-19 protocols.
“We have a four-man line in ten square feet,” said Toste. “It’s like working in a submarine.”
In their Instagram announcement, Toste and Sanders also noted that they were proud of what they did creatively at Deep Ellum but that it had “run its course and is ready to retire.” Toste told Eater that he and Sanders had joked a few years ago about closing Deep Ellum on its 15th or 20th birthday and opening the whole space as Lone Star. Business imperatives precipitated by the pandemic forced their collective hand a bit sooner than they anticipated.
“We said if there was ever a time to go out on top, and, ‘Hey, you know what, that was great, but for this business to move forward and survive, we have to get over our egos,’ it was now,” said Toste. “But it’s still heartbreaking from a personal perspective — it’s our baby, and we’re very proud of it.”
When Deep Ellum opened on Cambridge Street in Allston 13 years ago, it was at the vanguard of bars offering exhaustive beer and cocktail lists, along with house-made charcuterie and a dedicated brunch menu. But Toste recognizes that restaurants and bars with similar missions exist in nearly every neighborhood in Boston now.
“There was some novelty of opening the dream bar doing everything as awesome as it could, but we stopped thinking about it that way,” said Toste. “Now I like the idea of a place that does one thing really well.” (He cites Porter Square ramen shop Yume Wo Katare, calling it “fucking awesome.”)
Toste and Sanders want to rein in their focus, and closing Deep Ellum to expand Lone Star will help them do just that.
“We’re so interested in what that restaurant [Lone Star] does, with street food, agave spirits, and craft lagers,” said Toste. “It’s so easy to get staff and customers excited about it.”
At the end of the day, Toste says he and Sanders are happy they were established enough to stay afloat during the pandemic and are able to make any kind of decision about their business that doesn’t include closing entirely.
“If this happened five years again when we opened Lone Star Cambridge, we’d have been screwed,” said Toste.