Sometimes, the more cooks in the kitchen, the better.
That seems to be the case at Rolo’s, a new restaurant slash grocery and café from four former Gramercy Tavern colleagues, which opened this week in Ridgewood, Queens. While many young chefs dream of opening their own restaurant, Rolo’s wasn’t designed to elevate the profile and empire of one particular chef. But that’s not to say that Rolo’s isn’t still chef-driven.
“We’d much rather have people say, ‘Oh, we love the food at Rolo’s,’ rather than ‘We love Howard’s food,'” says chef and co-owner Howard Kalachnikoff. He and Paul Wetzel met while cooking at Gramercy Tavern 12 years ago, and they met Rafiq Salim and Ben Howell at the restaurant around seven years ago. “Each of us has our strengths and our particular ares of expertise — many of which overlap — but we make the culinary decisions together.”
Their central vision was to create a neighborhood restaurant where the food is simple, affordable, seasonal and centered around a wood-burning grill, which was a prominent feature at Gramercy Tavern. “There’s a certain magic or alchemy that happens when you cook something over the wood-burning grill, that you just can’t get anywhere else,” Kalachnikoff says.
The original plan was to open for seated dinner service and build out a lively bar program. This past year, of course, put a wrench in those plans; instead, they’ve transformed the bar area into a mini café and bakery that will offer food for takeaway, and opened a grocery store that will offer items created by Rolo’s alongside traditional grocery items. They’re also opening with a rotating pre-set dinner menu for delivery and takeout.
“We realize that we have to respond to what is happening now. What are the laws now? What are people doing now? How are they eating right now?” says Howell, who oversees the beverage program. “We weren’t sure if we’d be opening in the middle of 20-degree weather,” he adds. “So we thought, what’s a way to be able to have people in this space and provide some sort of hospitality, as opposed to just being a website that people order from? And the grocery store was an opportunity to have people inside, to at least share the space, to share some sort of ambiance.”
They’ve stocked the grocery space with many of their favorite staples — kewpie mayo, chili crisp, pancake mix, Heinz ketchup — as well as housemade items including pasta and sauces, pastrami, cured ham, sausages, pickles and even ice cream. “Things that we’d have on our shelves and refrigerator at home,” Howell says. There is also a selection of bottled cocktails, beer and a mini wine store of 50 bottles. The café and bakery counter will offer items like focaccia, pastries and à la carte items such as sandwiches. As the weather begins to warm up, they plan to open up outdoor seating, with indoor dining plans dependent on city mandates.
They hope to create a space that will have longevity and become part of the neighborhood, which borders Bushwick and East Williamsburg. While they were originally looking for spaces in neighborhoods such as Gowanus and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, “so many places that looked good on paper, just didn’t feel right, felt like the existing neighborhood was being built on top of,” says Kalachnikoff, who like Howell grew up in the city.
“I think that this neighborhood just felt like home in a lot of ways,” adds Howell.
They wanted the name of their restaurant to reflect a familiarity. Their architect, a decades-long resident of the neighborhood, suggested naming it after a beloved character that can often be spotted walking around Ridgewood: his dog.
“It was silly and uncomplicated, and felt neighborhoody and casual,” Howell says. “And it kind of stuck.”
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