If Dame, the seafood newcomer in Greenwich Village, allowed New Yorkers to line up in person for tables days ahead of its opening, co-owners Patricia Howard and Ed Szymanski would likely have some takers.
When the duo quietly opened reservations on Resy this week to manage tables for trial friends-and-family dinners, dozens of strangers saw the dates appear on the app and signed up to be notified if tables freed up. When reservations for the public were released on Tuesday night, nearly 500 people and counting booked seats. On a recent weeknight evening on Dame’s outdoor patio, Howard and Szymanski took multiple turns pausing their conversation to gently turn away a steady stream of would-be customers who were poking their heads inside the empty restaurant and sliding into seats on the outdoor dining patio. “June 1!” Howard says, over and over and over. “We’re opening on June 1!”
Unperturbed, some still reach for paper menus on their way out the door. It’s hard to blame them: Dame is a highly anticipated English-rooted seafood restaurant — opening next Tuesday at 87 MacDougal Street, near Bleecker Street — but it’s already got the following of a year-old, favorite hangout thanks to a successful run as a pop-up next door. It’s where Szymanski’s crispy, craggy fish and chips were the undisputed star of the summer last year. The pair already has New York magazine, Gothamist, and New Yorker reviews under their belt, and they were named to the Eater 2021 New Guard cohort in May.
As a full restaurant, Dame is the couple’s take on an unstuffy, downtown seafood restaurant. It’s ambitious and still somewhat upscale, but Szymanski will be cooking in shorts. And Howard and Szymanski are now using the praise for their fish and chips as the yardstick by which to measure the success of everything else about the restaurant. “We got a lot of credit for being the best fish and chips in New York,” Szymanski says. “Now, we’ve got to do that with the whole menu, the wine list, and the service.”
There are 15 items on Dame’s seafood-centric menu, and most are served as small plates, the way that Howard and Szymanski prefer to dine out. However, they are quick to specify that the small plates here will be working hard to dismantle high-priced and tiny-portioned small plate stereotypes. Blistered shishito peppers are skewered with ribbons of inky squid ($12); the humble cucumber is matched with whole applewood-smoked mussels and tossed over a puree of garlic and more mussels — no mussel goes unused here — then topped with dill oil and shaved horseradish ($17).
The grilled oysters ($5 each) — a nod to Szymanski’s time spent as the chef at Cherry Point in Greenpoint when it nabbed a two-star review in the New York Times — are lit on fire tableside with a green chartreuse liqueur in a wink to another past employer for both Szymanski and Howard, the showy Beatrice Inn. The famed fish and chips, made with hake, headline a smaller section of main dishes.
The pair proudly curated their own 100-bottle wine list, divided into two sections: A funky, wilder lineup under the label “What Austin Powers is drinking” and a more classic, straightforward list labeled under “What James Bond is drinking.” Austin Powers gets the orange wines; James Bond gets the champagne. (They’re still debating whether the joke will land.)
The restaurant’s light and airy 450-square-foot dining room — filled with cozy booths and high-backed bar stools — will largely remain closed to diners for now. The shoebox-sized kitchen, which only fits Szymanski and one other cook at a time, wasn’t built to handle both indoor and outdoor dining at full capacity (about 60 seats total). For now, they’ll only open for outside seating and add on from there as they settle into a rhythm.
While the duo is hoping for public success — and, just maybe, a New Yorker double-review — behind the scenes, Szymanski and Howard are setting other systems in place that they hope will eventually attract more of a following than Dame’s fish and chips.
That starts with staff wages, a long-problematic facet of the industry. Dame doesn’t have a dedicated full-time front-of-house staff. Everyone working at the restaurant starts at a base wage of $15 an hour, participates in service, and pools tips, which are divided equally. Wages will shake out to approximately $30 to $40 an hour across six to seven employees, they estimate. For an NYC cook who would typically make minimum wage ($15 per hour) or a couple dollars above, that money is life-changing, Szymanski says. As Dame gets underway, he and Howard are eager to help lobby the state through organizations like One Fair Wage to make tip-pooling more feasible for restaurants in NYC.
“Part of our whole reason for doing this at such a young age is because there were a lot of not so great restaurant systems out there,” Szymanski says. “And we think we have a way of doing a better one.”
They aren’t stopping there. At 27- and 30-years-old, respectively, Szymanski and Howard are both young restaurant workers who are still a little shocked to be opening a restaurant in Greenwich Village, one door down from a historic bar that the World’s 50 Best dubbed the top in the world in 2019. In an attempt to pull the curtain back on the process, they will openly share how they did it, with anyone who wants to know — including a curious Eater reporter with a recorder. All-in (with a pandemic-driven rent deal), it cost $230,000 to open Dame, with a $310,000 budget factored in. Nineteen investors, largely friends, pop-up regulars, and family members, chipped in amounts starting at $6,200 apiece. Crack open a bottle of wine, and they’ll lay out a line-by-line budget breakdown, too.
They also have plenty of tips to share for other young, aspiring owners: Do start a pop-up to work out menu kinks beforehand. Do move into a former restaurant space that already has gas hooked up. Do start the liquor license application before the lease is finalized. Don’t hire PR.
The motivation behind the transparency is simple. The steps to opening a restaurant in NYC are so hushed and convoluted, and the failure rate is so high, that it’s no wonder many people think that they can’t open a restaurant in the city. “We’re trying to say that it’s not impossible,” Howard says.
But before they publish a how-to-open-a-restaurant toolkit, they’ve got to get through their opening. The expectations are high for Dame — and they are undoubtedly bound to hit a few potholes as the full-service restaurant gets underway — but the anticipation is not so much crippling them as it is fueling them. They’ve been doling out thousands of orders of fish and chips over the past year while privately plotting every detail of the day that they can publicly debut mussels, oysters, and squid.
“The food is definitely more refined, more elegant, more seasonal, so it will take a little bit of getting used to the flow of the restaurant...,” says Szymanski, who pauses halfway through a modest attempt at dialing down expectations. Passersby were stepping right into the unopened restaurant’s empty dining room and appeared to be staking out seats at the bar.
Dame is open for outdoor dining from 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are available here. A takeout and delivery option for the fish and chips to follow. Dame’s guest pop-up program Sunday Series will resume in July.
Cocktail and dinner menu: