Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Jim Chu and Johnny Santiago opened their Nolita restaurant Jo’s with a simple concept: a relaxed barroom up front, a casual forty seat dining room in the back, and an affordable menu of the dishes that New Yorkers like to eat. Over the last year the duo have continued to refine their work with Jo’s kitchen to include a full chalkboard menu of daily seasonal specials, in addition to their printed menu of standbys. They've also hosted large format suckling pig and tasting menu dinners in a tented PDR hidden behind their main dining room wall, and started a series of classes for their front of the house staff to learn the technique and preparations behind chef Colin Kruzic’s American, French and Asian-influenced cuisine. Jo’s, located in the old Tasting Room space, is Santiago & Chu’s first restaurant project since the much beloved, ill-fated Torch closed on the LES in 2002.
Johnny Santiago: We opened up Torch in ’99, we had the fire, Jim and I always wanted to open up another spot, we were looking all over town. So, we wanted to do something again, and Jim called me one day, and he said “Hey the old M & R space is for sale.” I thought he was joking.
What was the M & R? Jim Chu: It was a bar and a restaurant owned by the same people as Marion’s Continental. It was just a really fun?I don’t remember eating there that often — they had burgers— but it was really more just about the scene. It was a fun, downtown thing, just really fun and very neighborhood. So, this was a place you had fond memories of? JC: Totally. It was on a block that was always a great New York block. We know it from back in the day, when Rialto opened and Café Habana was just this little greasy spoon, and the butcher shop was still a butcher shop – it was just a great block. JS: With beautiful women. JC: There is like an international wormhole of beautiful women — that of course, doesn’t hurt the ambiance of the block. So, it came up, and I looked into it, and I said “let’s see what’s wrong with this deal.” We found a lot of things that we liked, and we got so excited about it. We still had our backers from the previous restaurants, so they just said, “find a place that you like, and we’ll do it.”
Spring 2009 was not a great time for a lot of restaurants. Were you concerned about the economy at all? JC: Well, we really started looking at this space seriously in October the year before, when it just hit. Right, and nobody really knew what was going to happen. JC: And when we opened, it had already been coming around a little bit, and we had the benefit of certain concessions, and I think?it’s just, you know — we’re very tenacious people, so we just knew that when it comes down to it, we’ll just do whatever needs to be done, and we’ll do it in that traditional way. Just customer by customer. JS: Yes, it had to be a sort of hand-sell kind of space, because the economy was worse than we anticipated.
JC: We’re not a hotspot. We’re not bold faced names around here, what we do we have to earn it on the basis of quality. What we talked about were places like Raoul’s, and think about what these guys did. For years just these two guys standing there in Soho, when nobody wanted to eat French food there, saying, “try my restaurant.”
So how did the opening go? JS: We got the door open, we opened to not a lot of fanfare. We spent a lot of time on construction and not a lot of time getting the word out. JC: And letting people know about what we’re doing. We didn’t start out with a chef that was the right fit for what we wanted to do and with the resources that we had. JS: Once we got the door open, we realized from the feedback that we weren’t on target for where we wanted to be. So that was a challenge, we realized that we were moving in this direction.
What was it that you changed after assessing the first few months of business? JC: The biggest thing we changed around was bringing [Chef Colin Kruzic] on. Colin was there and subject to this chaos of opening the restaurant. But, I think that what we were able to do was to be a little bolder about what we really wanted. JS: We joke with Colin, “Whenever we hit nine months, we just gave birth to a restaurant,” because at the point when we brought him on, that’s when we finally felt — JC: Everything we do now is from a place of understanding. Colin ends up telling us things that we didn’t know about our own idea. We have this great relationship.
Has the menu changed very much since opening day? JC: Oh tremendously. Colin do you want to talk about that? Colin Kruzic: I think that the concept has stayed pretty steady, in keeping with our idea of what a New York bistro truly is, and that is all encompassing. You will find French cuisine, Asian cuisine, or American cuisine. What I’ve done, is I’ve taken something very organic, or very, very simple, and put a twist on it to make it not more refined, per se, but more interesting. It’s not what you’re going to see at Blue Ribbon. It might read the same way, it might present itself that way, but it’s going to be more intricate, it’s going to be more reflective of what we do here. JC: He is the only chef that has this diversity of skill set, and his personal worldview which actually matches how we as New Yorkers eat.
When I first read about this restaurant, I think the cuisine was described as “upscale comfort food.” JC: We don’t want to make things overly complicated. CK: What I aim to do through their vision, which I’ve taken on, is, that if you come from Oklahoma, you’re going to understand everything that’s on that printed menu. It’s very straightforward. But, with the chalkboards, and with the specials, that’s more reflective of things that I’ve done at different restaurants. There are definitely dishes that are 80% related to the things that I learned from Bouley, 10% of the things I learned from Nobu, and the other 10% is what I want to do now.
And the menu tweaks went over well with your customers? JC: I don’t know if what we do here is cool, except that our customers love it. And our customers are cooler than anyone’s customers. JS: They’ll kick your customers asses. JC: First off, they are vicious, vicious, customers. Oh, anyone from DBGB is going to get stomped. They’ll have their Channel purses wrung around their necks, round one.
So, you’ve developed a pretty core group of regulars? JC: I’d say rabid.
The menu seems really focused around value, what with the old school/a la carte entrée concept, and the Sunday supper prix fixe. Is this something you've kept in mind even as the menu has changed? JC: Dude, we’re restaurateurs, we’re broke. If I’m looking at a menu, the first thing I’m looking for is “what am I never going to make?” But the next thing I look for is value. If you’re going to offer us something that is simple, I’m going to go for the most expensive ingredient I can, but otherwise, I’m going to go for what’s the best value. The value thing, we talk about a lot of stuff to our costs down, to get people in, to keep the staff lean, but we don’t talk about raising prices until we absolutely, absolutely, have to.
It sounds like there was a turning point when you brought Colin on. But was there a challenge at all with the space? JC: The thing is this: because people hear about us in drips and drabs, there are a thousand of people that have been here that don’t even know we have a dining room back here.
The dining room is a sizable space. I mean, it could easily be its own restaurant. JS: We’re the hidden, non-hidden dining room. The non-speakeasy, speakeasy dining room.
So, you didn’t really get a lot of review attention when you opened. JS: We didn’t get any. JC: Yes, we got an angry, hateful, anonymous review from Time Out New York, that was it.
How did you guys feel about that? JS: Well, it was anonymous. It was like, whatever. You can’t even put your name on it. Really? It really wasn’t a proper review, it was more a personal thing. In the end, we haven’t had any reviews, and it would be nice to have them. But, Adam Platt comes in here, he sends people here. Kate Krader comes in here, she sends people here. We’re getting acknowledged in some way, and that’s cool, but it’s like “are you keeping us a secret for a reason?” JC: That has actually come up, and I have caught customers, actively saying, "I’m not telling anyone about this place." And I’m like, “Are you crazy.” They say, “Because in two months, I won’t be able to get a seat.” And I say, “I will build you a seat. I will feed you in the office.” JS: But, it’s cool.
Surely, some review coverage might be nice, though, right? JC: When we have recognition with people within the industry, that’s the thing that matters the most. In the end, if we don’t get a review, but we get someone who lives in restaurants, who never gets a day off, and spend their one day off having dinner with us? What more can you ask for.
· All Jo's Coverage on Eater [~ENY~]
· All Previous editions of One Year In [~ENY~]
· Jo's [Official Site]