restaurant opened last September, it offered three fixed-price menus of ten to 20-odd courses, served at communal tables. Chef Iliana Regan had done something similar at an underground restaurant she'd run in her apartment for two years, except that instead of three tables of eight people she'd had one table that seated up to 12 (she served up to 25 courses there).
I interviewed Regan several times before Elizabeth opened for a feature story I was writing about her, and she told me then that some people had expressed concern that she was taking on too much by offering three menus with very little overlap between them. Her response was, "Believe me, I'm not. I think a lot of people think it's too ambitious, but a lot of people in the industry couldn't comprehend that I was doing what I was doing in my house."
Over the past nine months, Regan has made the three menus work, and says that business has been good and that except for a slow period in the middle of winter, they've mostly been full. A few weeks ago, though, she announced that starting on July 11 (this Thursday), they'll be switching to one fixed-price menu of about 20 courses, and the restaurant will no longer have communal dining; instead, the tables will be two-tops and four-tops. Prices will still vary—from $65 to $165—depending on the day of the week and how desirable the seating is (eating at 6 PM on a Wednesday, for example, is cheaper than going at 7:30 PM on a Saturday).
Regan recently showed me some dishes from the new menu and talked about why she decided to make the changes she did. An edited version of the interview is below.
"Here's the issue: dinner to serve eight people, 20-some courses, no matter what, it's going to take four hours, five hours sometimes, to get through the Diamond [the longest menu]. It gave me a lot of panic because you could tell on people's faces that they're ready to go home. So I'm constantly struggling to get people out, but no matter what we did, we couldn't make it go any faster.
"I kept saying, we've got to do something about this. We have to go to one menu—that's the only way I could see it happening. And if we go to one menu, why would we have three communal tables anymore?
"At my house, 90 percent of the time people really enjoyed it, but they also knew that was what they were coming into. Most people here don't know they're going to walk into a communal environment, and they come for the longest menu and have no idea how long it's going to be. When you put people together—and this is a much wider audience—they don't like each other. People don't. I think for the most part, they don't want to sit together.
"To give people a better dining experience, we have to shorten the length of time they're in the restaurant. Sometimes during the week, it's hard for us to get the people who do want to come, but know that it's going to be a four-hour meal, because they can't do that on a weeknight.
The new menu is from $65 to $165. On LTHForum, somebody was like, oh, that's quite a price difference. Alinea only has 25 percent price difference from their cheapest to their most expensive. I was like, well, we're not Alinea. We don't have that demand. And to get people here on the weeknights, at those less desirable times, we have to make it less.
Even $165, and I'll firmly stand behind that, I don't care if we're in Lincoln Square in this tiny little hole in the wall, $165 is a really good deal for what we are going to be offering.
- Julia Thiel
- Beef tartare with sea beans, French beans, pole beans, cranberry beans, fried zucchini ribbons, pattypan squash, horseradish custard, and fermented black garlic
"It will still be local, it'll still have the focus on farms. It'll still have all the stuff that's wild. Nothing's really changing except that those three menus are coming together into one.
"I'm getting more time now to be present and create, and my team is stronger, so we're now where I wanted to be when we opened. It's more elaborate, which was my intention in having a restaurant and having a team. But when we opened, I went like a full year backward in time. Now we're at where I want to be, so that requires a little more focus on the plates, and the different way that things work in the kitchen.
- Julia Thiel
- Chilled corn soup with goat cheese, fried corn hairs, shiso and sorrel garnish with corn sprouts
"The whole time I had been thinking, how do we get a more clear focus on the food, how do I rein it in? Because three menus, in my mind I can think of how I want it all prepared and executed, but to hand that over to other people and then have them do it and execute it—it's too much for people who don't have your vision. Even though they want to.
"But now I'm like, how am I going to make all these dishes I want to make with only 20 courses?"
- Julia Thiel
- Dandelion custard with pistachio crumble, pickled minimushrooms, pistachio sponge, poached oyster, sea grapes, and olive oil