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Interesting Strategy for Local Resto to Drum Up Covers

April 21st, 2008 · No Comments

When I am not in France, which is seldom enough these days (through no fault but reality and bad luck) I live in Cambridge, which is next door to Somerville (quite next door for us, about four blocks–a difference measured in house market values, going down as we head east).

There’s a restaurant practically on the border, indeed there are three or four worth mentioning, and quite popular (not surprisingly, as they are all quite good and very well reviewed). It’s called EVOO, in a branding strategy probably more applicable in the West Village than in western Somerville on the Cambridge-Somerville cusp. But it’s a good place for this restaurant, which offers Chef Peter McCarthy’s version of  what the Zagat mentality would call fusion or American eclectic (whatever that means).

They have always been innovative, McCarthy and his wife, since the days they were the first tenants of a refurbished, renovated, enlarged, and modernized 19th century-style five story brick office building, which takes up about 1/4 of a city block. They have seen their neighbor to one side, a huge retail storefront repeatedly go into business and out, a fate that was predictable as each time the business was renting videos. So, pace Netflix and big chains, like Blockbuster, (and a much more savvy local competitor that caters to local tastes in art films, independent features, classics, and the usual bag of blockbusters), that huge storefront stands empty.

This is good news and bad news for EVOO. Who wants to run a business in a neighborhood with few commercial establishments (their neighbor on the other side is a walk-in ATM for Bank of America, which does brisk business), a few places to eat — a very popular moderately priced Indian resto called Kebab Factory (much more sophisticated, and much higher quality than the name suggests), a spectacularly popular tapas place called Dali, which has been there longest and is on the very short list of date places that are a must (good food, controllable expense because it’s almost all small plates, and a beer and wine license; and it’s ultra funky, being accoutered and decorated as only Hispanic immigrants who work hard, and cook extremely well, but could never afford an architect, would do it), plus The Biscuit, also popular — essentially a bakery that started only incidentally as a café, but now does a brisk business through lunch (they make their own sandwiches and soups, using their own breads) for locals and the huge student population? Well, as compensation, that huge office semi-block that EVOO and the Factory are in has an underground garage for tenants, and a small, but adequate parking lot, with about 25 spaces for customers only of the retail establishments. With the video rental places now defunct, the lot is never full. And further, in that neighborhood you’re never more than a block or so from a parking space, surrounded by lower-middle income houses of good solid working class Somerville residents and graduate students from Harvard, plus the odd condo development as Somerville slowly and not so painfully (except to see it happen) gentrifies, with dreams of rivaling its now rich and in many ways unaffordable sister city, Cambridge.

EVOO, I would suspect, has never suffered from lack of parking for customers. And their innovation, to which I alluded, has been there from the start, in the form of interesting menus, and inventive ways with old favorites, like backdoor smoked salmon (so-called because they operated their own smoker, which was located, as you can guess, in the back doorway of the restaurant). Currently the menu features such delicacies as a paté of red deer, as well as a red deer sausage. An entree called “Duck, Duck, Goose” has never not appeared on the menu (with varieties of combinations of preparations of the two fowl named in this eponymous dish; currently, duck confit, duck foie gras, and sliced goose breast). Just as there has always been a “Chinese Box” — a sort of Asian oriented box-lunch for dinner (it’s served in a variant of a bento box) — with a slowly changing mix of constituents.

However good, and well-reviewed, the restaurant, now ten years old, has lived (certainly lived, I don’t know if survival was ever in question; I’m not reporting for a daily newspaper or the trade press… I happen to be a neighbor who’s observant, a patron of the place from time to time, and interested in food and the prosperity of my neighborhood) through good economic times and bad. This will be its second recession to try to weather.

Late last fall, or perhaps early winter, some strategies emerged — signage on the restaurant, and email newsletter to subscribers who must opt-in; they may advertise, but I wouldn’t know — that augur the need to further not only the mission of the restaurant, but to ensure its continued operation in the black.

They instituted the $35 prix fixe dinner, more or less “permanently.” This allows a patron to choose from among perhaps 2/3 to 3/4 of the appetizers and entrees, and several of the desserts, to concoct their own meal at a savings. Currently only the aforementioned Duck, Duck, Goose, the Chinese Box, and, understandably, the beef tenderloin are excluded from the entree choices, which leaves five other dishes of a wide range of tastes.

Just the other day, I got an email that said that they were now adding wine pairings, suggested by their wine steward, to accompany the prix fixe meal, for only $15 (I didn’t pay too much attention; this probably means the first two courses, but I wouldn’t swear by it).

I have also been receiving the odd email since last fall of “student guest chefs” from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (of which I am assuming McCarthy is a faculty member; he is himself an alumnus of CIA). The Cambridge SCA is an ambitious program, with the usual courses for amateur chefs to hone skills, but with a professional career program whose total half-year tuition and fees hover at 25 thousand dollars.

The Student Guest Chef creates a three-course dinner, which costs a patron $35, exclusive of beverages, tax and gratuity.

I see all these as positive implementations of a praise-worthy strategy of upholding a well-regarded brand, of cultivating serious food appreciation, of providing good value, and of getting all important asses in the chairs as paying covers.

I very much hope they are succeeding. Peter and Colleen, his wife (who is in charge of the front of the house, though this is in plain view of Peter from the open kitchen, and they can be seen to confer frequently in the course of an evening), are hard-working, talented, and charming. I can’t say any more, as there is no relationship between them and me except of the eating and paying kind. I am recognizable, vaguely, and I get a requisite head nod on any encounter. But I wouldn’t ask them for my name, because that good they aren’t.

EVOO Website: http://www.evoorestaurant.com/index.html
Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Website: http://www.cambridgeculinary.com/

Tags: Food · Not News

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