Chef/restaurateur Saul Bolton recently moved his acclaimed Brooklyn stalwart Saul from its 14-year home on Smith Street to a gleaming new space inside the Brooklyn Museum. As one of the earliest to appear in Boerum Hill, Saul has been a neighborhood standby and also a pioneer: alongside Peter Luger, it was one of the first Brooklyn restaurant to earn a Michelin star. Now, on the occasion of a big transition for both Saul and the museum, here's Bolton on the good parts, the scary parts, and the way Brooklyn used to be:
Why move to the museum?
The original plan was to re-do Saul, but in order to do so, we would have had to invest a lot of money into the space, which we were prepared to do, but we would have been in debt for the next 30 years. I mean, we were a mom and pop business. But that's not a reason why I moved here, that came totally out of the blue. Restaurant Associates approached us and it was serendipity in a sense. It seemed like a great opportunity to me because the Brooklyn Museum is an iconic place. The connection to Brooklyn is big. Big for me, wanting to have the idealistic thing of becoming the iconic "Saul,"—which is separate from the individual—an iconic Brooklyn institution. We have the opportunity to do that here, and that's fucking cool. We all dream about that kind of thing, when you're a little cook. I always dreamed of having a place that was like the classic French thing, where you live above it and the restaurant's below, and your kids filter through. My kids filtered through Saul, and we had a fairly dysfunctional, happily dysfunctional family situation—meaning, the restaurant as a whole, you know it wasn't perfect, but it was better than some situations you see.
How has your original neighborhood on Smith Street changed since you opened Saul 14 years ago?
When we opened there was one other dining spot, Patois. Where Battersby is now, and before Battersby there was something else there. Patois was Alan Harding's original place. He came from this place in the city, Nosmo King. Can you believe that? Like "no smoking" and Nosmo King...I have no idea where that came from. He started out there and then he opened Patois, and he was the first one to take that chance. So when we opened, everyone said "No, you should never open there." I helped renovate the entire place. Like doing the ceilings, and scrubbing the walls of their many layers of paint, and all that kind of stuff. People were stopping by and telling me how we'd fail. We had a car service on one side, and on the other side was an Egyptian dude who was doing fried chicken, and a very different demographic. There were a lot more Yemenis. Boerum Hill has the largest concentration of Yemeni people in the nation. There's still little pockets of it, but it was much more prevalent. Like across the street from Saul you have Ziad's, which is a bodega that's been there forever and ever and ever. The brothers, Roger and Tiger, they're Palestinian. Great guys, they've been there the entire time, before us and after us. Next door we had the Egyptian dudes, on the other side we had guys who disappeared during 9/11. They were taken away, and we never saw them again. It was a much more rough and ready neighborhood. And when we opened Vanderbilt it was kind of the same thing. There was frickin' nothing on Vanderbilt, and now there are like 50 places.
Did anything scare you about making the move?
Absolutely. It's a risk coming here in the first place. It's even more of a destination. We had a tiny little place, this is much bigger. We had 48 seats, this has 85 plus 40 outside. We're dealing with many more layers. Before it was me. Who did I answer to? I answered to my wife. I answered to myself. And to the staff, but ultimately, if I wanted to, I could lock the fuckin' door and say, "We're closed today." Which I never did. I mean it was really your own thing, and after 14 years there you feel that. And the staff: Lupe, for example, kitchen staff, he was there for 14 years. Truly like a family. He's here to make the transition, and it's not a case of good or bad at all, but the transition is huge.
You have a nonprofit institution—the museum—that we have to pass everything by. And then we have Restaurant Associates, which is a huge corporation. That's just the way it is. It's a bigger family, a much bigger family. A massive family with a lot of structure. Then there's the fact that all the hourly workers are union. Like in a private place, a freestanding restaurant, you can be yourself, and still it's kind of old school where you can flip out and that's okay. It's not okay, not here. It's not okay on the corporate level and it's not okay on the union level. There's protocol. Which is good, in some ways. It's very good. The great thing is the workers get benefits. They get cheap insurance, they get dental, it's huge. Most larger businesses in the restaurant industry don't offer insurance because the profit margin's so low. So there are many different layers of the day to day that we didn't have to deal with before.
What was in this new dining room before?
This was a shell, it was a complete shell. Terrazo floors, just like in the museum. Bare ceiling, it was a box. The only things that were in here were the Williamsburg Murals. There was nothing, and UHURU. Restaurant Associates, and the museum whipped this shit up. The museum's amazing, you go down the stairs in the basement, the bowels of this place, it's like a city! You have a wood shop the size of this entire dining room. You have printing shops. You have electrical shops. It's like the size of three football fields. You could get lost in there. I could disappear, no one would ever know.
What are the biggest changes that you've had to make?
Probably just the size, the scope of the entire ball of wax. The layers of communication. The fact that we're overseeing the cafe. Saul was so small. Now we have a kitchen up here, then we have an elevator that goes down into the basement and probably a 75 yard walk to the another kitchen that's the size of this dining room. It used to be everything was so self-contained. Physically it's drastically different. Then you have all the layers of management and oversight with the union and Restaurant Associates and the museum and all that. The learning curve is high, and when the learning curve is high things are pretty interesting, and you may lose a little sleep, and you always question yourself, like "Why the hell did I do this?" Whether it was Red Gravy, whether it was Vanderbilt, whether it was Brooklyn Bangers, all this stuff, and I just have to remind myself: I like the feeling of walking around with butterflies in your stomach 24 hours a day.
Is there anything you want to do differently at the new Saul?
As far as operating, I want it to stay as much the same as we've always been. That was an important part of coming here, making sure that we had the opportunity to offer the same kind of service we did before. Which is tight service, but where the individual is allowed to be who they are. There's not a tight protocol on how to talk to every table the same way. The ideal in the front of the house is that you find people who are able to switch gears between every single table, whether the table is a hipster 20-something, or an older person. [They should] really like people, and on top of that have been through some serious service training in other restaurants. Just about anybody, if they have a desire to do their job well, will fit into our system, if you want to call it that.
I want to be able to remain as much the same within a fresher venue. And I don't think that's stale. I think our style of service is fantastic. Food-wise we are able to do more now because we have a larger kitchen, fancier equipment that my wife would never let me buy before. Because you know, we have braces to take care of, college tuition, summer camp, and on and on and on. You can't justify that stuff, and I never tried to. So now we've got that. I've always wanted a pacojet, but it's $4,000 dollars. And we were able to get that, and not feel guilty. We've got a combi oven, which we never had, never could afford. I mean, the life of Saul, 14 years, we still had the same convection oven that was probably 25-years-old when we opened. We traded some refrigeration for it and got it. And it was great. It's like the old lawnmowers, no electronics, nothing, so easy to fix, very very good stuff. So we have better equipment, more elbow room, upstairs it's not so big that it's detrimental.
It's a sure shot to the dining room, so the food doesn't have to travel far. The boys are very happy, they have more wiggle room, they can jump around and play and such in the back. It's great also that where the pastries are being plated it's cool. We have air conditioning in the kitchen, and on and on and on. So a lot of things are better, but a lot of things we were happy with as far as the philosophy of what Saul was, where you have very well-prepared food with good ingredients, and great service, comfortable. Our own playlists, you know. I love classical music, but we can play what we want in the dining room. And that was a major thing: we can still act like we wanna act. Within reason. We can't throw things, or scream and yell, or all that kind of stuff, but we shouldn't be doing that anyway.