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How Kate and Trevor Smith Optimized Their Restaurant for the Pandemic Before It Even Opened

The new Thistle & Leek owners discuss the pitfalls — and, somehow, the benefits — of opening a restaurant in this fraught moment

A portrait of chefs Kate and Trevor Smith dressed in chef’s gear
Kate and Trevor Smith are opening Thistle & Leek in Newton Centre
Thistle & Leek [Official Photo]

Restaurant openings hardly ever adhere to intended timelines. Wife-and-husband duo Kate and Trevor Smith knew this when they began looking for a space to open Thistle & Leek — their dream restaurant, which will open in Newton Centre next week — in August of last year. Neighborhood associations scrutinize and sometimes oppose the most minor details of the business plan, construction hits snags, permitting gets delayed, and lease negotiations drag on.

“By definition, restaurants are always delayed,” Kate Smith said. “The whole process always takes longer than you plan for.”

The Smiths — the chef-owners met years ago while working at the fabled Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge (the predecessor to Craigie on Main) — were realistic about the challenges involved with opening a restaurant, and they expected delays — but they didn’t expect those delays would be exacerbated by a global pandemic.

Still, the Smiths consider themselves among the lucky ones because the coronavirus pandemic struck before they opened their doors. They hadn’t started the hiring process, so they didn’t have to lay anyone off. They hadn’t begun cooking, so they didn’t have to negotiate with vendors. They didn’t have to figure out how to pivot to takeout; they could plan to offer it from the jump. They didn’t have to rethink the layout of their restaurant — they could plan with social distancing guidelines in mind — and they could prepare for the impact capacity caps would have on their bottom line.

“We feel very fortunate that the universe timed it the way it did for us,” said Trevor Smith. “We weren’t trying to fundraise during the pandemic, and we hadn’t opened at the front end of the pandemic. We were still building it and figuring it out in March when the pandemic hit.”

Relative good fortune aside, the challenges of opening a restaurant during a pandemic have been manifold. The Smiths expected their opening staff would consist of at least 15 workers, but so far they’ve hired fewer than 10. They told Eater they’ve gotten some “no” responses from friends they wanted to hire but who weren’t ready to return to work in a restaurant setting. And negotiating the sale of the restaurant — the Smiths bought the restaurant from the former owners of Comedor, which was previously housed in the location — and the terms of their lease with their landlord were both complicated by an inability to meet in person.

“Everything was done virtually, and it was a much different process, not being able to just sit in a room with everybody,” said Kate Smith.

The delays haven’t been all bad, however. Instead of rushing to open their doors, the Smiths were able to build precisely the restaurant they wanted. Trevor Smith said the space had “great bones in place,” which allowed them and their carpenter friend Dan Wallace to focus on cosmetic details.

“One of our ‘aha’ moments as a couple happened while sitting in J.J. Foley’s, and we said, ‘Why can’t we cook food in a setting that feels like this?’,” said Trevor Smith. “And that’s kind of where we decided we wanted to open a pub.” (J.J. Foley’s Cafe is a neighborhood pub that’s been open in the South End since 1909. No-frills, great food, with a beautiful wooden bar that predates prohibition. It’s an exemplary pub.)

The Smiths spent much of their honeymoon hanging out in gastropubs in London, eating what Trevor Smith describes as “not necessarily the American version of a gastropub — they’re more elevated, they’re neighborhood restaurants serving beautiful, elegant, locally sourced food” inspired by the cuisines of continental Europe, especially France, Italy, and Spain. So they set out to make the former Comedor space — bright and modern and clean — appear more like the gastropubs they love in London. They hired Wallace to handle the details, which include dark wood throughout, including dark wooden banquettes.

“He stuck to our vision and ran with it,” said Kate Smith. “He did a wonderful job.”

Having extra time also allowed the Smiths to figure out how to create a menu with takeout in mind. As such, they’re making food that is durable and that will travel well.

“How is this going to translate once it’s 40 minutes out of our kitchen, once it’s in your living room?” said Trevor Smith.

Diners can expect food inspired by those London gastropubs the Smiths love so much — and especially the cuisines of Spain and Italy. (Before embarking on Thistle & Leek, Kate worked at Toro and Trevor worked at Coppa, South End landmarks that serve, respectively, Spanish and Italian food.)

When Thistle & Leek opens, it will have 24 seats outside — the city of Newton has been amenable throughout the process, helping the Smiths maximize their outdoor space, which will include sidewalk seating and a parking space protected by barriers — and 16 seats inside. Service won’t be as they planned it to be — the Smiths each have fine-dining backgrounds, but social distancing guidelines dictate that servers can’t fold a patron’s napkin when they get up to use the restroom, for example, or get too close to a table at all. Thistle & Leek won’t operate exactly how the Smiths expected — at least not while the pandemic continues to rage — but they’re not complaining.

“Building this restaurant around the pandemic has been a lot easier than I think it would have been to adapt it to the pandemic,” said Trevor Smith. “We’re nothing but grateful right now. We’re opening our dream restaurant, through and through.”

Comedor, a Chilean-American Restaurant in Newton Centre, Has Closed [BOS]
Thistle & Leek [Official Website]