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Chef Rob Marzinsky on Fitler Dining Room's First Year

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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.

A little over a year ago, chef Rob Marzinsky opened the kitchen at Fitler Dining Room with owners Ed Hackett and Dan Clark (Pub & Kitchen, The Diving Horse). Expectations for the bistro ran high, as it replaced critical darling Mémé, which had itself replaced three-bell Melograno (which moved a few blocks away).

In its first year, FDR managed to clear the three-bell bar and was considered a stand-out newcomer in plenty of year-end wrap-ups. The team has faced dog theft and personal injury, been overlooked for a James Beard nomination, and learned a lot about managing expectations and letting a restaurant become what it wants to be. Eater sat down with Marzinsky to dig back through all of it.
[Photo: Michael Persico]

Eater Philly: Before we really get into it, who's currently on your kitchen crew?
Rob Marzinsky: We opened here just with myself and two other cooks, Casey Watson and Max Botwick. Max is right there [gestures toward kitchen]. Casey would be here, too, but we dropped a refrigerator on his hand.

Oh, shit.
Yeah, it's been an interesting year. It was crazy. So, something's always breaking when you work in kitchens, and one of the refrigerators on the line broke one week, and it was going to cost more to repair it than to replace it. The new fridge was supposed to show up on Friday, which would've been perfect, just in time for the weekend – but it didn't show up. So they decided to bring it on Monday, on our day off. Long story short, the delivery guys weren't the brightest. We all had to bring the old unit up over the bar, because we basically built that around everything that was in the kitchen. So, old unit out, new unit up over the bar, and the wheels slipped and it just fell right on his hand. Broke his finger and severed a tendon in his hand, so he's down for a while. But he's doing good, he's taking some vacation time, but hopefully he'll be back soon.

Do you have anyone else filling in?
Palmer Marinelli, who ran Diving Horse last summer, who's been in the company for a while. He was out in San Francisco for a little bit, and now he's kinda filling in here. He's going to be going back down to the Diving Horse this summer. I need to staff up before the springtime, obviously.

OK, so yikes, other than fridges falling on people's hands… Let's go back to the beginning. Do you remember your first service?
Yes. Well actually, our first service was kind of a guerilla service. Our timeline for opening included two friends and family nights – so Monday and Tuesday, and then press night Wednesday, and then Thursday we opened for business. Friends and family – I don't know if people know this – it's one of those things where you can have "reservations" spaced out between like 5:30, 6, 7:30 – and inevitably everyone comes at the same time, has cocktail hour and then sits down at the same time. So it's not really much of a service, because you're just figuring out where things go in the kitchen and then all the tickets come in at exactly the same time and you're like, "Oh ok… [sighs] good?"

So we also did a little guerilla, under-the-radar service for some friends. We just brought like fifteen people in here on Saturday night, which was good, just for little things like: I thought I knew in advance how I wanted us on the line. And I thought Casey was going to be on proteins, until we got started and he was like, "I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing right now." So, we switched that around and then I ended up working that station for a while.

After opening, it was all kind of a blur. We woke up one day and it was August.


As far as the design and concept go, it sounded as if the second that you heard that Meme was closing, this just happened really quickly. So were there things that you all had in mind, that you knew and the whole team knew you wanted to do in a new place?
Oh, absolutely. I had already been thinking about what the next step would be, should an opportunity present itself. I didn't have any plans after the Diving Horse, though there were a few possibilities. But this popped up, and… After working at the Diving Horse, with 90 seats and 270 covers on a Friday night, you know, there are certain constraints there. Here, Ed and Dan wanted to do a lot to the interior of the space, and the way it worked out, we actually lost seats. I liked the whole idea of having 30 seats, 2 cooks, open for 5 days. So we'll all be here for five days, we'll all come in at 11 am, we'll all do our own prep – that appealed to me more than going into a larger project or just going into a larger kitchen, where there's varying levels of responsibility. You know, where someone might come in and not have any ownership over their mise en place and what's on their station, they're just coming in to pull their shift. There's none of that here.

So that was part of it. And then along with that was the bistro concept, in both the design and the food – it's something casual and approachable, but I'm trying to do nice things, you know? So I think that that was already in our minds – in my mind, definitely. I can look back at some scribblings on notepads about, like, a menu, which is pretty funny because none of that made it onto the menu. I'm sure it's the same for Ed and Dan: the feeling was there, but not the nuts and bolts, not until we came in here and started taking measurements. For example, we decided to put a cheese case where the old opening was, and made a mismeasurement so that the bar ended up a foot and a half farther into the dining room than planned.

Were there any major things that you had to drop that you wanted to do, any big plans that you had that just didn't work out?
Not really, if anything it actually went the opposite way, which was good. I think the only major change was that we were a little ambitious in terms of what we thought the place would be. Like, oh, it's going to be a new destination for sort of the old school, refined, fine-dining aspect, you know. In terms of where we were in the kitchen, the menu was six apps and six entrees in a leather-bound menu. Now there's like 20 items and we went to a different menu format, just because we wanted to do more, and were capable of doing more. But I think the biggest change is that the place has definitely loosened up a lot. Because it is very much a neighborhood restaurant.

But I think that's just something you go through in opening up a new place. I noticed this from working at P&K, too, and it's really interesting. Maybe it's my former background as an artist but, I used to do installations, and I think at some point you just realize that a space sort of decides what it wants to be. At P&K, we used to try and do different things, but it wasn't until like 3 years into it that it was like: OK, this place is figuring out what it wants to be. It's a function of space, what's possible in the space, what type of people come to the space, where you are in the city – you know, hopefully you stick around long enough until the space figures that out for itself.

So was brunch something that you always had planned, or was that something that you added so you could do more?
I think so. I think everyone always has certain things in their head, but when you open up and you're just trying to get through five dinner services every week, and that seems overwhelming, it's pretty hard to bring up brunch, you know what I mean? But by the time it was, like, April, you think, hmm, Mother's Day, Father's Day is coming up… Although really, by the time we got to it I think we sort of missed the boat with those busy springtime brunches. Y'know, with outdoor seating you might be able to do 100 people at brunch, so it really helps out if your place is able to do that, but we sort of missed the boat on that. We started doing brunch in June and I think at that first brunch we got like… 5 people? Maybe 7 people?

And it was a weird changeover too, because it's added prep just for one day, just for one service. We were used to coming in on Sunday and in the beginning, Sunday was our last day. So it's not like you're trying to get a ton of prep done, because you're not going to be open the next day. But brunches really help, in a lot of ways, and we don't wear our jackets, we play different music – brunch is just totally different. I mean, it's busy, but it's definitely more casual. And people don't have the same investment – you're not coming in and spending $150 or even $80. You can spend twenty bucks if you want.

You only do brunch on Sunday. Have you considered adding Saturday brunch too?
Well, I think some people might want that – we have people wandering in here sometimes, actually. I don't see quite as many people out around the neighborhood as on Sundays, but I think that it's something we've considered. In terms of a logistical standpoint for the kitchen, Saturday tends to be a really big day, and as much as you'd like to be ahead and not have so much to do on Saturday, it never really works out. But we'll see, I think we need to see how things work out in the kitchen, see how spring plays out.

So you already talked a little about menu changes as far as changing the format, but how many times have you changed the menu so far?
Well, we print our menus in-house, which is super helpful, being 28 seats. We don't really say, "this is our late spring or early fall menu" – I just don't necessarily want to be committed to that. But definitely it is seasonal. I don't know, I think we change it as much is allowed, in terms of, how much energy and ideas are there. With the first menu, we went through the whole thing like, "oh, you don't want to change the menu until everyone comes in," which is sort of silly, but I think it just kind of is what it is. And then after that, it's a little manic, just changing things to change them, and then we had to slow it down. Like OK, we're not going to run specials that weren't going to go on the menu. But then all of a sudden it's spring, then all of a sudden it's summer, then all of a sudden it's fall, and those are always considerations for us.

But besides that, what seems to be happening – and this sort of goes back to what I was saying with the space – the food has sort of been figuring itself out. I think that, y'know, you get excited about something and put it on the menu and you love it, and then it sticks around and eventually you hit that day when it's like, "OK, I can't make this French onion soup one more time." We've just changed a bunch of stuff, and we're looking forward to spring at this point. But part of my New Year's resolution was to get better at sourcing. When I was at P&K, we always used to go to the Thursday market in Fairmount, and sometimes just seeing something or even seeing a product list is going to stimulate things that sitting there with a notepad or looking at a book is not going to do.

Your pastry chef, Davina Soondrum, works both here and for P&K, right?
Davina actually doesn't work with us anymore. We parted ways with her earlier this year. I don't want to speak for her at all, but I think it was kind of a mutual thing. She has a confectionery company she's working on now. I think that's where her strength and her heart really is. I had a great time working with her. She was working out of the basement here, doing stuff for both places. This place became kind of a commissary for P&K and even Diving Horse, shipping stuff down to the shore. She had a lot on her plate in terms of that. I think she did a great job while she was here. That being said, being a pastry chef at a small restaurant isn't that comparable to being a confectioner. And it's just part of growing as a restaurant, like realizing, I don't know, do we need a pastry chef? Ultimately, I would love to have one, but I mean, when you have enough space for three people, it's about what you can do.We're constantly trying to figure that out. I know everyone else in the city is as well. We want to do everything. We just need to make sure we're doing everything properly.

So how has not having a pastry chef changed what you offer?
We definitely don't do a ton of stuff like baked goods for brunch anymore. I just can't handle it. Bread service is the same as it was; we've taken that on. And we just do the desserts ourselves now, so we've absorbed that. I think if anything, like – the desserts are different because there's a different perspective. We put camembert ice cream on the menu, you know? Something I wanted to do.

Did you guys have experience doing pastry already?
Yeah, Palmer's really good with it. I have experience with it – I mean, I was never a pastry chef, but some. I like doing it, but it's just one of those things, like, if you don't have a ton of time to devote to it every day, it might not be as good as if someone did. That's the thing we're getting better at, at least myself – wanting to do so much, and then just being able to balance everything. A lot of that just goes to delegation and having the guys get better too. And yeah, I think ultimately Davina's candy bar company will be pretty awesome.

fitlerint1.jpgSo let's talk about reviews. The whole narrative about this place is that it's "charmed," that it had a tremendous run with its previous restaurants – two critically lauded restaurants in a row – so did you feel any pressure as far as the review coming out from the Inquirer, about whether you'd keep up the three-bell run?
Yeah. You know, seeing other people go through the review process, I never really took it that seriously. But then, when it's your own name, it's definitely different. So yeah, there was a lot of anxiety attached to that, but for the most part, everything worked out pretty well.

Well, the Inquirer loved you. And then Philly Mag came after, and they weren't quite so kind.
Yes! It came a little late. And we were really excited. It's sort of like the hat trick that everyone hopes they're going to hit, but um… That was actually a pretty big blow. But you know, it's one of those things. Whether or not you know someone's a reviewer, anyone could be, and I think there were things that were unfair about that review, but maybe there were things that were fair about it as well. And all we could do is hope that he comes back in. And it's funny, with all reviews, whether it's paper or a Yelp review - you can go look at the best restaurant and there's going to be a one-star out there because there was something that affected that person's experience in a certain way. But you know, then it was summer and we just got through that, and we got really busy.

I think at that point we just felt like, it's over, we just need to relax, and the servers need to relax. I think that after having a busy fall and not really worrying about that stuff anymore, just focusing on things like taking care of guests and making good food, I think we're at a pretty good point. We had a really busy January and February.

OK, so, switching gears to another major first-year event: your dog got stolen.
Dog did get stolen.

It didn't come back, right? Like, you just had to get another one.
Yeah, no, he got out. [laughs] We got a replacement. It's weird. I don't know what's going on with this neighborhood, like with Honey's, and a place up around the corner from P&K had a break-in. Seems like there's a group of restaurant thieves targeting restaurants. But I was pretty sad about the dog.

How heavy are those dogs?
Pretty heavy! We went up to New Hope to get them; the mayor of New Hope actually has an antiques shop. We went up there to see him with the guys from Groundswell, who did the exterior. He has a whole yard of planters and street signs and stuff from old British estates. I'd imagine they're… I don't know, I didn't weigh them. 80 pounds? More? Who knows. It was tough to figure out if it was just a random act of vandalism or, like… would someone try to make money off of that? I mean, sure, they cost some money, but like… if I were to steal cash from somebody I could go put it in the bank. I'm not sure what the going rate for stone dogs is at the local pawn shop.

Did you have to secure them in any new way after that?
No, that's the thing! They were epoxied, like marine-grade, to the sidewalk. Short of chaining them to the building I don't think there's anything more we could've done. It was just weird. I think Michael and I noticed… Sunday night? Or whenever it was, it was that night, after leaving – basically, everyone had come to work that day and no one realized that the other dog was missing. And we're walking, and I turn back like, holy shit. The dog's missing.

So your wine selection is well-regarded, but you're still not doing liquor right? That's a permanent thing?
No, we have a conditional license. I think technically we can, but it's a neighborhood association thing, so wanting to be part of the neighborhood, of course we wanted to honor that. And we knew about that restriction going in.

Do you allow BYOB here?
We do. We have a corkage fee but yeah, we can do BYOB. We don't actually get a whole lot of people doing it. But we do have a lot of people in the neighborhood who have pretty extensive collections that might want to bring, like, an '89 Bordeaux. Yeah, that's not on the list. So if you feel like you need to bring that… One of our regulars, Walter Rich – him and his wife Ellen Stein live right up the street – he's 86 years old and he's the president of the Bordeaux Society. So they come in once or twice a week and bring some ridiculous stuff. And they'll have us taste it and I'm like… I don't know. Tastes like old Bordeaux. It's good, I think?

I've heard wildly positive things about the collaborative dinners you've done – cidermaker dinner, winemaker dinners… Do you plan to do a lot more of that?
I think so. You just want to get it right when you do it, and those extracurricular things have sort of taken a back seat for the moment, but I think going forward to the spring and summer, we want to do some more. Cider dinner was really fun because I don't really know a whole lot about cider; it was good to have Sam [Brouwer, of Frecon Farms] here.

Those events are always interesting because, for instance, we did the Parés Baltà dinner, and I don't really know a lot about Catalonian food. In discussions with the wine reps, it was like, "Don't try and make Spanish food if you don't make Spanish food." But then you start getting into it and you're like, well… maybe the whole 'grows together, goes together' might be a little played out, but maybe there's some real substance to that, so. Then we sort of made Spanish food, but not really.

Well, you do a lot of different things here…
Yeah, well we try to. And the thing about those events is, there's an aspect of it where you're like… we used to do them on our days off, when we were closed a couple days a week. And you think, man, this is supposed to be my Monday off, and this is a pain in the ass, it's a whole entire menu. Well, with anything, there's just going to be a small amount you want to complain about. But when you go through and do it and it's really positive. I mean, we never made Barcelona-style canelón – it's basically like cannelloni – but that was the last course of the Parés Baltà dinner, and we were sitting there eating it in the back like, "This is like the best thing we've made so far." So, it's one of those things you just have to be positive about, and commit to doing it. It's going to be extra work, but for the most part they always turn out really well.

Is there anything you can point to that you're most proud of here, so far?
I think just that it seems, after going through everything we have so far, that what I always thought was important – to just be here six days, seven days a week and cook with these guys, and have the servers come in and be happy about what they do – to see that that's paying off. We have a lot of regulars, and we have a lot of new first-time diners all the time. To go through January and February and be busy, and to have people come in and be excited about a few little changes to the menu, to have people continually come in and to know that that's like an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth thing? That makes me really happy. Because that's why we're doing what we do, it's not… I mean, I can't speak for anybody else, but personally I'm not looking for awards or accolades. We didn't get a James Beard nom – that's fine. We're a neighborhood restaurant. You just hope that people come in and have a good time and want to come back. I mean, it's 28 seats, I hope we could fill that every night.

Well I know it's not exactly James Beard, but when we did our year-end wrap-ups, and polled all the local food writers, a lot of people were enthusiastic, some even singled you out as their best dining experience of the year. Eating here was something that stood out in their minds.
Yeah, that was actually very cool; it was very nice to have that nod. I think that was sort of a turning point, too – the end of the year. When you don't have those nods at first, you kind of wonder, ok… bigger picture, is anyone paying attention? If a tree falls in the forest, you know. Not that we're like out here on the outskirts but, you know, it is a neighborhood towards the river… I was talking to Jon [Adams, former P&K chef and co-owner of Rival Bros. coffee] about it, who's opening up a coffee place – well, you see coffee shops popping up all the time. No one's going to go across the city for their favorite coffee shop. Like, Ultimo's a couple blocks from my house. So. I don't know that we're necessarily a destination restaurant but I'm OK with that, as long as people come in every day and enjoy themselves.

Obviously it hasn't been like, say, Cheu Noodle Bar as far as "buzz" goes. It seems like you've been very steadily building up a positive reputation, though.
Well, that's what we hope. I stress this in the kitchen: it's trite to say "You always have to be better today than you were yesterday." That's not actually always possible. Sometimes you're just sick or in a bad mood. But I try to keep things in perspective, to look at things like the menu and be 90% happy with everything that's on there in any given day. I feel like if you asked anyone whether or not they were 100% happy about it, and they said yes, I'd think "Really? I don't know if I believe you." And to look back at like, last March – feeling like, ugh, I don't know, is this really working out the way that we thought? And I think at that time, we were struggling too. And now I'm thinking, how were we struggling? How were we here until 2:30 in the morning? Now it's like, we can be out by 11:30, and still be ready for the next morning. It's easy sometimes, when you're here in it every day, to focus on the negative. But when you get a chance to look back, there's a lot of positive.

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Fitler Dining Room

2201 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103 215-732-3331