Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow of Diner and Marlow & Sons opened Roman’s in Fort Greene last November, in a space that used to house their restaurant Bonita. In a short time, this new concept, serving a seasonal Italian-inspired menu, has not only reclaimed many of the customers from their previous project, but also attracted new crowds drawn in by the ever changing, solid menu and intimate but lively bar and dining room. The front of the house team at Roman’s is also a large part of why the transition has worked so well. Managers Sarah Gaskins, formerly of Franny’s, and Justine Wenger, who worked at Bonita before, know the neighborhood and all the different reasons why people come to the restaurant. We recently sat down with them to find out what it’s like getting at table at Roman's on a busy night.
8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? Sarah Gaskins, General Manager: I’d say the wait ranges from 15 minutes to an hour, but 30 minutes is the average — we try and make it happen in 30 minutes. I feel like the bar is really the place to dine here. If anything, this is where we get our first rush — the bar fills up sometimes at 5PM, sometimes at 6PM. A lot of people, I’ll take them to the bar to have a drink, and then they’ll end up staying and eating there. There’s tons of room, so you’re not, like, totally packed.
What can I do to make my wait shorter? Justine Wegner, Manager: Be in a complete party. SW: It’s kind of hard at the beginning of the night, we’ll usually bend the rules when we’re not full, but once we’re on a wait, we don’t do that. What about gifts or cash to speed things along? SG: I only worked in Manhattan at one restaurant and that did happen, but not in Brooklyn, no. JW: You just have to be nice to us. If you walk in and you have this air about you that you’re willing to wait or that you don’t mind a wait, the host is really going to try and get you in — but that waiting period can also be fun, too.
SG: At the bar we do a daily bitters and a daily sour, and that’s really the perfect way to start a meal. Usually one drink is like an Italian Amaro, on the more bitter side, which makes you hungry before you have a meal. And then there's the sour — that’s just another great thing –right now, they’re making that with melons. The bartender comes in and sees what the kitchen has, sometimes it's melons, or raspberries — whatever’s fresh. JW: We don’t have a cocktail list, those are sort of the cocktails that we are featuring, but there’s also a full bar as well.
Tell us about your favorite customers. SG: Honestly, it’s just our regulars who are here two or three times a week. We have a lot of people who live in the neighborhood who go to Diner and Marlow & Sons as well, and now they’re just excited that there’s something new and different in the neighborhood. And obviously a lot of our regulars went to Bonita. But the ones that are here two or three times a week really love Roman’s, they love what we’re doing. Any Celebrities? SG: We have some celebrities, yeah, I’ve seen celebrities, but a lot of those people happen to be regulars just like everyone else.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give? SG: I encourage them to have a glass of wine. JW: If they’re coming into the restaurant, they’re going to be excited to be here, and we’re going to treat everyone with that care when they walk in. SG: We think that most of our customers, even the VIPs, when they walk in and see that it’s packed, they would be happy to see that we’re busy.
What’s the most outrageous request from a customer that you’ve accommodated? JW: I feel like as far as our customers go, we don’t really get any demanding people. SG: And the kitchen’s really accommodating, they’re willing to make changes. Any requests that you couldn't accommodate? SG: We don’t do takeout, but we don’t get very many requests for takeout either. People want to come in and dine here. JW: I’ve had a woman bring her dog in her bag and put it under the table, and when the dog starts barking in the dining room? SG: You see a lot of that, but we can’t accommodate it.
How did customers that frequented Bonita handle the transition to Roman’s? JW: I worked at Bonita and I did see so many of the same faces, and it’s funny because it was a transition, and everyone that’s coming here is excited about Roman’s – we all loved Bonita. But it’s a very different conversation with the tables, because we’re talking about working to support local farmers, and cooking seasonally, and changing things on a daily basis, which is really the philosophy of the restaurant group. With Bonita we had to order avocados year round, and tomatoes and corn, things like that. So, it wasn’t the right fit for the Marlow Group — it’s a much different pace here than at Bonita. SG: I feel like the people who used to come in while it was Bonita, now they sort of get it. It makes more sense.
You used to handwrite the menus everyday, but now you print them out. Why did you make the switch? SG: It came from Diner, where they write the menus on the tables, and then at Marlow, they write the specials on the chalkboard. It was nice, but when you’re changing the menu every single day, anyway, you might as well print them out. JW: It actually took out so much of our time setting up the restaurant. We’d come in each day and hand write like 25 menus.
So from day to day, is the menu entirely different? JW: It’s really dependent on what we’re getting from the farmers and the butcher shop. SG: And how busy we were the night before. If we were super busy, we’ve cleared out our inventory, we’re going to start from scratch, from a different set of recipes, as opposed to remaking what we did the night before. Do the cooks like that challenge? SG: Yeah, it draws people with a lot more experience, who want to come work in a small little restaurant that just opened, because they know that they’re involved, that they're going to be working on so many different things.
Do people ever try and order things they’ve had before that aren’t on the menu anymore? JW: No. I mean, sometimes there are some dishes that customers will ask about. But for example, if they really loved the burrata, we’ll just say, that instead “we have house made ricotta with crostini.” There’s always something that we can lure them to on the menu that they’ll be equally as excited about.
Something that a few critics initially took issue with was the way the menu was laid out, in three coursed sections. SG: I think we’ve gotten more fluid with that too. Before, the middle course, the pastas, were very small and could just be a middle course. But that’s changed a bit — we’ve made them bigger. You can still course out your meal, but you can have pasta as an entrée.
What your most important gatekeeper tool? JW: Just being friendly. When you walk into a restaurant, you just really want to feel like they want you there. SG: I also think that the support from your staff is really important. We have such a small, tight staff, the owner is here all the time with his family. If you really feel supported by the people that you’re working with and working for, and it’s easy to be happy in your job, that’s going to show and communicate to the guests. JW: It’s a small staff, and a small room, so everyone wants to be here. So, if we’re not there to greet you, someone else is going to greet you. It doesn’t feel like it’s our job. And also, everyone likes coming into a crowded restaurant. So, if you’re waiting and you have a drink and you're with friends, and you’re in a room that’s full, I think there’s something special about starting your dinner that way.
When you are not at Roman’s, where are you eating? SG: Diner & Marlow and Sons. JW: Yup, Diner and Marlow & Sons. But I also like Vinegar Hill House, the menu’s always changing there, I’m excited to go there and not know what I’m going to get. I also really like Saraghina in Bed Stuy? Their back yard is really nice. I went there the other night after a bike ride and had pizza and octopus, and an array of seafood, vegetables and pizza.
Sarah, we interviewed you for The Gatekeepers at Franny’s a few years ago. How is Roman's different from Franny’s? SG: I think it’s really different — there are obviously a lot of similarities — similar neighborhood, similar clientele, and both restaurants use a lot of local, fresh ingredients. Do you ever recognize the same customers here? SG: Yes, I see at least three or four customers a night that I recognize from Franny’s. We always have the moment of like “How do we know each other – did we go to school together?” And I’m like "No, I saw you at Franny’s once a week." Franny’s was a loud bustling room, lots of families, and Roman’s is a little more romantic — even if it's really busy, it’s candle lit, intimate. And ultimately, being able to have that elongated three-course experience is really what sets it apart. We’re really trying to create that Italian experience of sitting down to dinner, of being relaxed and enjoying your night out.