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.
[Andy Curtin and Aaron Lefkove by Krieger]
Littleneck has developed a cult following over the last year. It's an unpretentious restaurant with a menu that mixes New England-style seafood classics with more elevated plates, and the space has a great, laid-back vibe. Eater recently chatted with proprietors Aaron Lefkove and Andy Curtin about the first year, their recent next-door expansion, and what they've got planned next.
Has this been a fun year overall, or has it been stressful? Aaron: Both. At the beginning, it was insanely stressful. It was 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. days. But we surrounded ourselves with the right people, which, I think, was the key to how well we've been able to get this place to run. We've surrounded ourselves with enough talented people who have helped carry it.
And at this point, everything runs like clockwork, but there were those 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. days and nights where we were sitting here pulling our hair out like, "What the fuck." They're still here, but they're fewer and farther between. But at this point, Andy and I both really love what we're doing, and we both love this place and really enjoy it to the point that we don't mind putting in that type of work. It's been, overall, a very enjoyable year. And the stress? We've learned how to deal with it. Andy Curtin, owner: I love coming in here and seeing our regulars who have been coming in for a year. It's great.
What are your regulars like now after a year? Is it all people from the neighborhood? Andy: We still get people from as far as Manhattan, Westchester, and Long Island. But most of our core audience is definitely within this side of Brooklyn. Aaron: I bartend here a couple of nights a week, and I try and ask everybody that sits down where they are coming from. We get a lot from South Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill. So, I think the benefit of this neighborhood is that it's sort of a strip where three or four different neighborhoods converge, so you have the benefit of having all those other places. And there's not really any other place like what we're doing right now, so we have the benefit of being at the nexus of three or four different neighborhoods.
What was the hardest thing about running this restaurant in the first year? Aaron: For us, learning how to be bosses was hard. Being dropped into a situation where one day we're doing construction, and then two days later we have to be bosses to people that we'd otherwise be hanging out with or going out drinking with. There was a big learning curve for that, for instance. Andy: I would say learning about how we work with each other, too. It's a lot easier now. Aaron: I think entering into a partnership is a lot like entering into a marriage, and at the beginning, we were trying to do everything all at once. And Andy and I both have a high standard for how we want things done, and we both like being in control. But at a certain point, we both looked at each other and we realized what our limitations were, and we said, "This is what I'm good at, and this is what you're good at." We've known each other for so many years. We have an established level of trust in terms of taste and quality. Andy: Yeah, the trust is key. Learning to trust is the hardest thing to do in any situation.
Aaron: I think it got incredibly easier once we developed trust. First, with each other, but then with Pascal, who is our manager, who is somebody that we knew for years before and had done this. Once we learned to let go a little bit, and let other people drive the ship, and learned how to give some of that control and some of that trust to people who are infinitely more talented and capable than we are? That's when things really started getting easy for us, and we were able to actually sit back and enjoy ourselves.
When did you get to that point where you felt like you could let go a little bit? Andy: I don't think we ever felt like we could let go at all. Our roles have just changed a little bit. We're still hands-on, we're still here every day and night. But I think it probably took us close to a year. Close to a dead-on year to actually feel like, "Oh hey, I can't come in tonight. No problem. We have staff who can completely handle everything in our best interest." Aaron: Around the middle of June is when we actually hired a "manager" manager. He's actually somebody who had been with us since the second week we were open, but that's when he actually took over the role as manager, and we definitely turned a corner at that point. When we had a surrogate for us, somebody who could be a layer between us and everybody else and who could see it from both sides.
Do you guys feel comfortable being the bosses now? Andy: Yeah. I'd like to work for us. I think we're pretty cool bosses. Aaron: I think one thing that speaks volumes is that we've retained the same staff for a year. We have pretty much everybody we hired on day one. We've picked up people along the way, but we haven't had much turnover in terms of losing people, which I think is really good. I guess it's a testament to how much people enjoy working here. Hopefully, they think we're good bosses. I think holding onto the same people for a year is key.
[Andy Curtin and Aaron Lefkove by Krieger]
How, if at all, has the food program here changed after a year? Aaron: I think it definitely gets better every single day. We started out with our basic vision, and every day the food gets better. We have our core menu that we just added a few dishes to, but every day, we give the chef a specials board that is his. He has no parameters, he can do whatever he wants. Whatever is fresh, whatever is local. You'll have your lobster and your clam rolls and your fries, but you also have cod and uni and baby octopus with Narragansett ricotta. I think a lot of people really enjoy the specials.
Alan Harding left in the middle of the year. Was he only supposed to be here for a certain period of time? Andy: I think we grew into what we are now. He helped us. Aaron: He was here as a mentor, a father figure for a while. It was never supposed to be a job for life, but he definitely helped us get to the point where the training wheels were able to come off, so to speak. Alan is a good guy. If a restaurant is in some state of semi-completion, he can come in and say "This needs to get done." He can come in and identify all 7,000 things that you need to do, and he can get it done. He can get you open. He can get you up and running, and at a certain point, we had to leave the nest.
How did you guys pick chef Angelo Romano for The Pines? Andy: We knew about his food, and we know the same people — not really in the chef world, but just in the social world. And we were offered another deal for Littleneck, and it fell through. But, because of that falling through, we made a connection with him, and Aaron gave him a call one day and asked if he would be into it, and he said "Sure." And it went down pretty smoothly. Aaron: It was definitely a very natural thing. I think it's fortunate that the other deal fell through. We got a really talented guy that we're working with over there who we really believe in. Andy: I believe that his food is some of the best in the city. It's some of the best I've had ever. I've had tons of tasting menus, and his dishes just blow them out of the water. I'm not just saying that because he works for me — I believe that. It's nice to have two separate places that have the same atmosphere and vibe, but two different cuisines. Aaron: We have amazing crews and amazing kitchens. The crews are night and day in the way they operate, but at the other restaurant, we have incredibly talented people.
[Chef Joe telling a dirty joke]
Andy: Our chef Joe here, he does wonders. He's more to us than just a chef, he's like family. He'll take a bullet for us, and he believes in it. Aaron: Joe is a guy who Alan brought in because he was grilling hot dogs for him at the Gowanus Yacht Club and he needed a job, and no one really expected that he would be able to rise to the occasion that he has. I never thought a year ago that he and I would be going to the Beard House, because he would be cooking at the Beard House. We thought, "Hey, you're a guy who was making hamburgers a year ago and now you have this job here." But he's really risen to the occasion, and I think retaining this crew and having this warmth and family has given everybody a little sense and a little piece of ownership. And when people start taking ownership of it, they really start taking a lot of pride in what they do. Andy and I are not absentee owners, but we're also not micromanagers. We're happy to just give people the autonomy and say, "You're here because you're the most talented and capable person we could possibly have in this role."
Do you want to open more restaurants or are you good with two right now? Andy: Our plates are pretty full, but we're always looking for something. Aaron: There are always opportunities coming. We want to be able to give attention to the two places we have, and we want to see them succeed before we bite off more than we can chew. We have a full plate right now, but we're always talking about expansion and ways we can expand this business, and we've got a couple of ideas we've been throwing around of how we can expand Littleneck, and we're slowly starting to get our feet wet with that. We've been doing pop-ups. At the Bait and Tackle in Red Hook, we've been doing food on the nights that they have shows. We've been experimenting and seeing what works and what we can do to bring Littleneck further than the 50 seats that we have in here.
Does it feel like it's been a year for you guys? Aaron: It feels like it's been five. Andy: I've definitely aged five years. It's funny, looking back, it's hard to even remember that we were here from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. It was all a natural process to where we are now. Nothing major happened along the way. Aaron: I was thinking driving on my way here...it's funny to think where we were a year ago. We had a lot of worries, we were coming up on the end of October and we weren't open. We had rent to pay, we had no money, and all of the sudden we threw a dart at the calendar and said, "We're opening this day." We had to pay rent five days from then, so we had to open on that day or sooner. Now, nothing is flying off the rails, everything is working and everybody is happy, and we have a crew here that's very dedicated and really carries us through. It's crazy to think how far we've come in a year. I'd like to see where we are in five years.
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