It took six years and a global pandemic, but now Clementina Senatore can finally walk into her restaurant and smile.
This is not to say that Meanwhile in Belfast, a Neapolitan restaurant that she manages and co-owns with chef Alessandro Scelsi, wasn’t doing well financially. On the contrary, for its first three years, Meanwhile in Belfast was thriving, performing far beyond the owners’ expectations.
“There was a lot of anticipation we underestimated, and we were so busy for the first few months. It was absolutely nuts. Then it just continued for years, and ‘Meanwhile’ was a circus,” Senatore said. “We opened as a little restaurant with a wood-fired experience, and then the pizza took off and we became famous for that. Somehow, we became a pizza place, and that’s not what we’re about. We didn’t want to do only pizza.”
Bloggers, social media influencers, even the press (including a pizza-centric, four-star rave in this paper) all contributed to people’s impression that Meanwhile in Belfast was a pizza joint. To be fair, the restaurant’s pizza was always presented as an implicit focal point – Meanwhile in Belfast remains the only restaurant in the entire state certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana as a maker of “true,” artisan Neapolitan pizza. And truthfully, Meanwhile’s pizza hogs attention because it is fantastic.
But to Scelsi and Senatore, pizza became an albatross. So they did the unthinkable: They killed their a la carte menu and replaced it with a tasting menu (pizza remains one of the courses), redecorated to emphasize the restaurant’s original upscale intentions, and made a feature of sommelier Senatore’s 200-bottle wine list. Six years on, Meanwhile in Belfast has quietly become the prix-fixe, date-night restaurant it was always intended to be.
If they are fortunate enough to survive long enough, all restaurants change as they age. Some even improve. Frequently though, those changes aren’t captured by food media. Magazines, newspapers and food websites share an unslakable thirst for novelty, for #CaeSals, cronuts and Dalgona coffee, not to mention “Best Restaurant” lists that are actually “Best New Restaurant” rundowns.
And that’s how we miss what’s happening at places like Meanwhile in Belfast.
One of the reasons I accepted this job was because I was told that re-reviewing older restaurants was not only encouraged, it was expected. To someone who once got into an argument with one of the founders of Eater about why “new” doesn’t mean “important,” that was music to my ears. Sometimes, what happens on the other side of opening-day hype is the most interesting part of a restaurant’s story.
When chef/owner Keiko Suzuki Steinberger opened Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in 2006, she received quite a bit of attention in the form of magazine features and reviews. “Like lots of new restaurants get … probably not more than most,” she said. Then, “around seven or eight years, it dropped.”
She spent the first half of her homey Rockland restaurant’s life learning the ropes as a novice owner, building and honing her considerable sushi-making skills, and learning to manage her small staff.
If you only read reviews from this early phase, you’ve missed an incremental shift that took place at Suzuki’s, a change not complete until around 2015, but one that transformed the restaurant into one of the best Japanese sushi bars in New England.
“At the beginning, I was still new. I wasn’t using a lot of local ingredients,” Steinberger said. “As time goes by, and as I have been learning more and more, asking myself ‘How can I do better every day?’ my thinking has changed. Now I think ‘better’ means supporting the local economy. It’s fresher and that makes customers happy. I also run specials according to the seasonal things that are available. It’s more interesting and the flavors are better.”
These days, Steinberger wagers that most people learn about Suzuki’s Sushi Bar through word of mouth. “People know me and that I have been here for a long time now. I’ve built a good reputation. It’s not easy. It’s slow,” she said.
A steady build
A dozen years after opening in Bangor as part of an early wave of farm-to-table restaurants, The Fiddlehead still relies mostly on its track record to attract new customers. “I’m a Mainer, and we’re good about sharing information with each other about if something is worth it or not,” co-owner and general manager Laura Peppard said. “You can build up to that kind of loyal following, that good word of mouth you get when people are digging you. It’s slow,but that has kept us viable.”
In the beginning, local press also played a big part in helping Peppard and chef/co-owner Melissa Chaiken build awareness – perhaps more than they anticipated. “We were new in Bangor in 2009, and with the financial crisis, it was the worst time to open. There was nothing going on here,” Peppard said. “Then we won Bangor Metro’s Best New Restaurant, and that was great for us. But we were the only new kids in town, so the next year when the awards came around, we won Best New Restaurant again. It was hilarious.”
Ask Peppard what’s changed at The Fiddlehead since the late-aughts, and she’s quick to point chef Chaiken’s policy of launching a new menu with every season. But an equally important, if subtler, development is hard-won familiarity – an ease that makes everyone on her team better at their job.
“Our bartender has been here 10 years, our dishwasher four years, and we have servers who’ve been here seven years. We know each other’s body language and we have a rule that there’s no passive-aggressive language allowed in the restaurant. Just say it and apologize if you offend somebody. It took a while, but now we all talk in an adult way, and that makes things so much easier,” she said. “It’s also a physical ease we all have now. I know where all the cracks in the floor are. It sounds weird, but that’s relaxing, even when you’re in the weeds or … you know, a pandemic.”
Where The Fiddlehead leaned on the comforts of its relationships and surroundings during COVID, Little Giant used the break as an opportunity to complete a reinvention that co-owner Ian Malin began before the pandemic.
At first glance, the Portland restaurant looks just as it did during its hotly publicized launch in the summer of 2017, back when everyone from GQ to Bon Appetit took notice. Apart from a few now-ubiquitous, always-occupied parklet tables out front, Little Giant still appears to be “a neighborhood restaurant that occasionally gets discovered by tourists when they come to town,” as Malin puts it. But inside (and out back), the changes afoot are no less dramatic than Meanwhile in Belfast’s complete conceptual makeover.
Since splitting with original business partners Andrew and Briana Volk (Portland’s Hunt + Alpine Club) in 2019, around the time that press and social media attention started to fade, Malin came to a tough realization: In order for Little Giant to survive, it had to be allowed to change. Moreover, he had to embrace the restaurant’s mutability.
“It was there, and we had some traction, a good social media following, some infrastructure that was working, but it wasn’t as new and as fresh anymore. People had their impression of Little Giant from whatever period they came in before,” he said. “But to make this work, rather than start again from scratch, we had to start thinking about Little Giant as constantly evolving, not stagnant. We just had to let it evolve.”
Changes began when Malin handed over complete control of the food to Little Giant’s then-new chef, Neil Ross. “With a chef-driven menu, he immediately became the creative force,” Malin said. “I’m not there to get in the way.”
Instead, he turned his attention to building. First virtually, by setting up a management system that he hopes will undergird a more supportive employee culture, then physically, by commissioning a huge backyard terrace with heating from above and below to keep an additional two dozen diners warm.
“COVID gave us the impetus to do outdoor dining, and I’m already hearing people say they’re coming back,” he said. “We’re not doing a reopening or anything, but it all feels new. It must show, because the other day, I had someone buy me a $100 gift card to my own restaurant. That’s never happened to me before, but it made me smile.”