You Had Me at Fish and ChipsCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In the West Village, a buzzy English restaurant brings the community together with the “perfect food” — and plenty of purpose. Published: June 22, 2021
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When crafting this column, I usually leave about half of my live conversations on the cutting room floor. Not because they’re not packed with lovely moments — they almost always are — but for the sake of attention spans and time, the two banes of every writer’s existence.
However, this week's interview with Patricia Howard of Dame, a new English seafood restaurant in the West Village, warrants a (slightly) longer read. Along with Ed Szymanski, her partner in work and life and Dame’s head chef, Patricia is radically reimagining what a restaurant can be and do for its community, and I couldn’t stand to leave out any of the amazing things they’re up to. Also, I hear the food’s insanely good, which is no surprise: before opening Dame, Ed was the head chef at Cherry Point in Brooklyn, where he earned two stars from the notoriously ruthless critic Pete Wells. I will try his fare myself as soon as I can get a reservation (who wants to code a bot to crack Resy for me?), and until then, I’ll continue to drool over the stories on Instagram. Keep reading for my conversation with Patricia.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
How did the idea for Dame percolate?
When Ed was at Cherry Point, we started going out to dinner at all the best restaurants in the city on Mondays, Ed's day off. We talked about what we liked about them and what we didn't like about them; everything from the little sign in the bathroom that says “Employees Must Wash Hands” to a plate or a spoon and the music level and the lights. We were noticing every little thing and starting to form our ideal restaurant. In summer 2019, we started seriously writing a business plan and forming the idea for Dame. We'd meet after work and pass off my laptop, since Ed didn’t have a laptop then. He’d do the numbers, because he has a degree in economics, and I’d do the text, because I have a degree in creative writing. Back then we called it PESH, which is a combination of our initials [Patricia, Ed, Szymanski, Howard]. All our original business plans say PESH and our LLC is still PESH, LLC. The first step was looking for investment, so we sent the business plan out to everyone we knew who was a fan of ours or who had money. We didn’t have much luck ... People with money know that restaurants are not a great investment [laughs]. That's when we decided to open a pop-up to show people what we were envisioning; just writing it on paper wasn't enough. We hit up a bunch of small coffee shops with liquor licenses, because a big part of our plan for Dame was to have great wines, and asked if they’d be open to us doing a pop-up. Round K on the Lower East Side was really great; [the owner] said, "Sure, take over three nights a week." We started that in March, and we got six services in before COVID shut everything down. We had a bunch of investor dinners planned to show off our idea and they all got canceled.
Before we get into that shitstorm, what was the original idea for Dame?
It was going to be a wood-fired grill restaurant ... But then we started getting advice on installing a wood-fired grill, and it's very difficult in New York City. Dan Kluger, [chef and owner] of Loring Place, was very sweet to talk to me for an hour about how to go about installing a wood-fired grill and basically said, "Don't do it, it's way too expensive and requires way too much upkeep and permitting would cost $100,000," or something ridiculous like that. And you have to build a special room just to keep the wood ... That's why there are only three [wood-fired grills] in Manhattan and a handful in Brooklyn, and they're usually from huge restaurant groups that can afford all that hoopla. So we started reevaluating, and the pop-up in March was a test run for doing a smaller but still very meat-centric menu. And then what changed — our COVID pivot — was the move to seafood.
What did you do in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown?
Like everybody else, we didn't move immediately because nobody knew what was happening and how long we would be in quarantine. Our first step was to eat all of our ingredients. We had some amazing, ridiculously over-the-top meals for the first few weeks of quarantine, because we had excess uni and truffles. It was June when we were like, “Okay, we've watched all of The Sopranos, it's time to get a move on.” The weather was finally getting warmer and we saw other restaurants coming back to life. We walked a ton between March and June, and saw that the places that were doing well were [serving] very takeout-friendly comfort foods, like baked goods and pizza. One of our friends was like, "Why don't you do fish and chips?" It was on brand, since we knew we were going to be an English restaurant eventually, and also, none of the food Ed was making in March made any sense to sell in a cardboard box. We found a space on MacDougal Street [the storefront of Abigail’s Kitchen, a culinary school that closed temporarily during the pandemic]. We bought two little electric fryers online and plugged them into the kitchen. There was no outdoor dining allowed when we first opened, so we thought we'd just be a takeout counter. We expected to sell 20 fish and chips a day and that we might only be open for a few weeks. It was just something to get our name out there again, because we were so excited about all the press we were getting in March and then quickly that was over. This was our little experiment. And it went way better than expected — it really exploded. Fish and chips turned out to be the perfect food at that time.
Ed’s instantly famous fish and chips / Photography by Evan Sung
Was he just making fish and chips?
The first menu was fish and chips, a tomato sandwich, a fish sandwich, and two ice cream flavors. We wanted to be very small. It was just Ed cooking and me taking orders. American manufacturers don't sell a fry cutter for the size of fries he wanted, so he was cutting all of these fries by hand and going through cases and cases of potatoes. In the UK they do, but it was going to be hundreds of dollars to ship this fry cutter. So quickly we hit up one friend who was out of work — well, we had hundreds of friends out of work — but one go-to guy named Dago, and he came and joined us and it was that three-person team for the next year.
How did you expand the to-go counter for outdoor dining?
A few days in, they opened outdoor dining. There weren't many rules yet about the structure you had to have, so we literally just went into the back courtyard of the apartment building our pop-up was in, and they had a bunch of discarded furniture that we put out on the street for the first few days. We gradually upgraded via Facebook Marketplace. We bought some IKEA tables from a restaurant that was closing and borrowed outdoor furniture from our friends and put together a piecemeal structure. We bought fake flowers at a dollar store, and those have now become our signature; we have them at the new Dame, too. And Ed's idea was to put AstroTurf down and make it like an English garden. Quickly, it started looking pretty cute.
How did Sunday Series come about?
A few weeks in, Ed was telling a friend, "We're so tired. We don't want to cook. Tomorrow is Sunday, and we can't even get fresh fish delivered on Sunday." But the neighborhood was so busy on Sundays that by closing, we would be turning away money. And so our friend, Alex Piñeiro, was like, "Well, I'll come cook." He was trying to open a Spanish food restaurant in New Jersey, and then COVID shut that down [editorial note: his restaurant, Bodegón, is now open!]. So he was our first guest chef, and it was way more successful than we expected. He brought a bunch of his friends and it turned into a pretty wild party. There's so much foot traffic on our stretch of MacDougal Street that people would see music and fun times being had and just stop in. And then those people became our regulars every Sunday. They would be like, "What country are we going to today? What chef is here today?" The next week we did tamales and tacos. Rey, one of Ed's former dishwashers who is now our dishwasher at Dame, makes amazing tamales, so we had him and his wife come and sell their tamales and another cook came and made barbacoa tacos, and we looked up how to make the best margaritas you can. It was amazing.
From the get-go, you donated portions of profits to various philanthropic donations; what inspired that?
We had been out protesting after George Floyd's murder, and after a few weeks of walking the streets with signs, we got to the point where we were [asking], "How could we use our skills to make a bit more of an impact?” So the first month [of the pop-up], we donated proceeds to the NAACP. I think it was like $4,000. The second month, we did Harlem Grown, which is an organization that educates kids on the importance of eating vegetables by helping them grow them themselves. We also did Hot Bread Kitchen, which works to train immigrants in food businesses and also helps them launch their own businesses. And during the election, we did four different voter protection organizations in the battle states. It was cool to have such a tool to be able to help whoever needed it. When Lebanon had the terrible explosion, we were able to give all the profits from that weekend to Lebanon. Each guest chef also got to pick their own organization for the profits from their Sunday. We supported a bunch of great organizations, and it was really cool to learn about what's important to each chef.
That’s amazing. What did you do when it got cold?
We didn't want to build a $20,000 to $40,000 outdoor structure with heaters, because we didn't know how long we would be in the space … We were just on a week-to-week agreement with the owner, so there was always a chance that she would decide to come back. We weren't comfortable doing indoor dining before the vaccine was on the horizon, so we pivoted to a grocery and bottle shop.
All the restaurants were just trying to survive and help each other, rather than think of each other as competition.
What kinds of provisions did you sell?
Ed had added a bunch of small seafood specials throughout the summer, which became recipe testing for the eventual Dame, and he continued that in the winter, we just put them in little deli containers. We also used the shop as a way to showcase our friends’ ventures. We sold bread and pastries from Nora [who owns] Mel the Bakery; she did two pop-ups with us during the Sunday Series. Greg from Red Gate Bakery did a pop-up with us, and we sold his chocolate chip cookies every day. We had Yellow Rose tortillas for a while; they did a Sunday Series with us. One thing COVID taught us was we don't have to do it all. Our friends are out there making amazing tortillas, so why would we make our own? Nora’s bread is the best bread in the city, hands down, so Ed will never try to make his own baguettes, because she's already doing an amazing job. We've always had a collaborative spirit, but COVID really confirmed the sense of community. All the restaurants were just trying to survive and help each other, rather than think of each other as competition, which was a big shift. I don't think there were ever so many popups and collabs as we saw during COVID. That was really awesome, and we hope that continues. It was cool to become friends with the Yellow Rose people; now we order breakfast tacos [from them] twice a week. They come to our spot, we go to theirs. It was a great way to make friends ... friends for life, really. We survived COVID together, and we'll never lose that. Going forward, we want to continue the Sunday Series. Part of our original business plan was pop-ups with guest chefs from around the world. Ed’s cooked in Mexico city. He's cooked in London. We have friends in Paris. There are people all over who we want to come do pop-ups. We want to do that as soon as travel makes sense again.
When is Sunday Series returning?
We hope in July, but we are also very exhausted. The opening has taken a lot out of us. So soon, but it might not start [in July]. When we do start, a portion of the profits will still go to a charity of the chef's choice.
Tell me about the opening! What did it take to graduate into a permanent space?
So we ran the pop-up at 85 MacDougal Street, and at 87 MacDougal Street, there was a Japanese izakaya that was never very busy during COVID. Eventually, [the owners] told us they were moving back to Japan. We were bummed to see them go, but we moved quickly to take over their space. It's very small — 450 square feet — which we thought was a manageable size for our first restaurant. We have intentions of opening a bunch of restaurants in New York, so we wanted the first one to be a success and to be small. We signed the lease January 1st and it was a very quick build out. June 1st was always our opening date, and we opened right on time, which is rare, I hear. The space had great bones, so we decided not to make any structural changes so that we wouldn't have to go through a bunch of red tape. It all went according to plan. We worked with some of our friends who are amazing designers: Anna Polonsky, who has a [design consultancy] called polonsky & friends, and her husband, Fernando Aciar, who owns O Cafe and is an amazing ceramicist with his own studio, Fefo Studio. We had a vision of being classic and timeless, with white walls, a wood floor, and some navy accents, and they really pushed us to make it more lively with very thoughtful details. We had an amazing contractor named David Trujillo, who we've now recommended to so many people that he can't even respond to all the emails from people who want him. He's a unicorn contractor, which I also hear is rare.
It takes a village! In terms of staff, I know you’re rethinking the traditional back of house/front of house silo; can you elaborate?
For a long time, Ed’s had this vision of a restaurant with no traditional front of house. His dream is having everyone able to do all the roles, so the cooks are able to serve and the servers know how to make sauces and help prep during the day. We're on our way to that. I wouldn't say that our servers can jump on the line on a busy Friday night, but our cooks are serving so that they can be in the tip pool. New York has this silly rule that says you have to be customer-facing in order to get tips. A bunch of restaurants are trying to overturn it because it would help with the terrible state of restaurant wages for back of house people. So, we're trying to change that. All of our cooks run food, know how to make cocktails, interact with guests, and talk about wine. It's been amazing because our best friends are the cooks, and they'd never really made a living wage before. They used to make minimum wage 40 hours a week; that's like $600 a week, which you can't live on in New York City, if you want to live anywhere near your job. So now they're in the tip pool, and last week, tips were like $400 a person a shift — on top of their hourly wage. It's really changing their lives.
What kind of atmosphere does that model engender among the staff?
It’s really created a team atmosphere. Everybody gets $15 an hour plus tips. We've worked at places where the front of house staff is told not to open their paychecks around the back of house staff, because there's such a pay discrepancy. We've worked at places where they’ve given paychecks out at different times of day, so the back of house gets theirs at noon, and then the front of house gets theirs at 4:00 PM or something, which is just sick. We're only a few weeks in, and it's a bit of an experiment, but it’s been awesome.
Over the past year and a half, your industry has begun to reckon with many of its entrenched, and previously unspoken, inequities; how do you see Dame contributing to that process?
We're doing our best to create a place where our employees want to work and grow for a long time. We have a 10-year lease, and it would be a huge testament to the environment we've created if we have longevity in how long our employees stay with us. And paying them all fairly is a huge part of it. If we continue talking about how amazing it would be for back of house people to get tips, if we continue to rally other restaurants to join in, if we can get the legislation changed, that would have a really meaningful impact. We also plan to open more restaurants so that our core team has upward mobility. In such a small restaurant, there isn’t much promotion opportunity because Ed’s probably always going to be the head chef. It’s Ed plus one cook at a time. So we hope to open other restaurants so [staff members] can be financial partners in the business. When you're a partner in a place, it changes your whole mindset. I chase down every paper towel that somebody wastes, because I'm always thinking about the bottom line. If we can [support] our employees to become partners, grow with us, and take ownership of their own spot, that would be a very cool way to shake up the traditional model.
Until next time,