An old college buddy of owners Greg and Julie Vernick, Ryan Mulholland racked up over a decade of front-of-house experience in Boston's fine-dining scene before making the move to Philadelphia to open Vernick Food + Drink as general manager. Since the restaurant's opening in May of 2012, the restaurant has gathered accolades for its food, service, and bar program, with Inky critic Craig LaBan awarding it three bells and declaring it one of that year's "most exciting new restaurants." Two years in, it's a tougher table than ever.
Here, Eater Philly sits down with Mulholland to chat about the restaurant's growth, the differences and similarities between the Boston and Philly dining scenes, his passion for pink drinks, and how having no clue at 20 what you want to do for the rest of your life can work out just fine.
Eater Philly: So, you moved here from Boston to open Vernick. I'd love to hear a little bit about where you've worked before and how you ended up here.
Ryan Mulholland: Yeah, I cut my teeth in the restaurant world in Boston. I spent five years at Clio, which is a Ken Oringer restaurant. I was in between colleges when I was hired there, and I remember my manager telling me, in his thick Provencal accent, "There is no room for upward mobility. You will just be a back server." And that was fine with me; I just needed a job. Nine months later I was serving—and being 21 years old and serving at Clio was very intimidating. You know: you have no idea about that kind of wine, you're selling $125 tasting menus… I really had to push myself to catch up. There's nothing worse than being asked a question and not knowing the answer when you're supposed to be giving such high-level service. So I climbed through the ranks there, and then I was offered a job managing at Eastern Standard with the former assistant general manager of Clio, where I spent five and a half years
But before that, Greg and I met in college. We met freshman year, he convinced me to join a fraternity with him, and engineering kind of took a back burner in favor of… enjoying college.
But you still graduated?
No, I never finished school. I left engineering, studied psychology for a year, and then I went to study architecture for a year, and was about to go back to school for fine arts when the management job opened up. So I said to myself, "OK, you have an opportunity to pursue this thing that you're kind of OK at and maybe could be a career, or you could go and pursue art…" And, well, my mother's an artist, so I know it's a hard road and takes a lot of luck to break through. So I pursued the restaurant side, and I wouldn't change anything. I don't have an engineering degree, but I'm OK with that. I don't want to be an engineer.
Well, it sounds like you didn't really know what you wanted to do.
Exactly. And I kind of faulted the university I went to for a long time, instead of owning that myself. But it's funny, because after I left Boston University and started managing at Eastern Standard, where we had a beautiful relationship with BU, I became friendly with some of those higher-ups at the University—people that, you know, as a student, they were just the evil ones putting restrictions on you. But I got to see them from a more human side, and got to know them as very intelligent and hardworking people. So it was through the restaurant path that I ended up gaining a much higher regard for the university than I had when I was there.
Anyway, Greg and I were working in restaurants in different cities by this point, so we weren't seeing a lot of each other, but we had always said in jest that someday we'd open a restaurant together. And then—this was, I guess, three or four years ago now—Greg called me and said, "I think it's time. I think I finally found the space." And luckily, the timing was right for me and the restaurant I was working at. I mean, I care about the wellbeing of every place that I've worked for—if you really think about it, if they continue to do well after you're gone, that says something about you, too. And at Eastern Standard, there were all these young servers or junior managers that were really just ready for an opportunity. My stepping out opened that door up for them, and it didn't leave the restaurant any worse for the wear. It gave them these great kids, and like four of them are now managing, which is amazing.
That restaurant was right in Kenmore Square, so everything kind of ebbed and flowed with the Red Sox season. Honestly, if Greg had told me that he was opening in July, I might not be here. I could not have left them in the middle of a baseball season, it would just be mean. But he called and said, "Hey, I have it all ready, do you want to move to Philadelphia?" And in my mind, I was like "…no?" I didn't know anything about Philadelphia. I grew up in New England, and stereotypes are all you really get. Outside of the greater Philadelphia metro area, I don't think a lot of people know what a great city it is, though that's probably changing.
But I decided to take a visit, out of respect for my friend and to take a little vacation, and I was blown away. I got a great room at the Morris House Hotel, which was very charming, and I was with my girlfriend (who's now my fiancée), and everyone was so friendly—everything just lined up to have me thinking that this would be great. And we checked out the restaurant space, and I could see Greg's vision, and I checked out some of the restaurants here that he really respects. We were both so excited to think that we could be part of it.
So at what point in the process did you actually get here?
I moved on February 14, which was… a really interesting U-Haul trip with my girlfriend. (I did realize I was messing up, and while she was carrying boxes I ran down to the florist and got her some flowers.) But we started work pretty much as soon as I settled. They were doing construction in the restaurant, and Greg was living upstairs at the time, but Julie was still in New York and commuting down a couple of days a week, so we spent a lot of time at Saxby's for their free wifi. It was a funny thing, being on a 7 am schedule, because that's so foreign to all of us. Up at 7, at Saxby's by 8, doing office work, sourcing coffee roasters, service contracts… But it was kind of fun, not being in service six or seven nights a week, and putting our little Lego pieces together to get the restaurant to where we wanted it to be—it was just a different pace and a different focus.
And a first for you, right? I mean, you hadn't actually opened a restaurant before.
Right. I mean, I helped open Uni, but I was just the head server. At that point I was 22. Ken Oringer certainly wasn't taking my input, like, "Ohh, great idea, Ryan, let's do that." [laughs]
Believe it or not!
I know, right? But it's funny, what you think you know when you're young. Like, he opened up Toro while I was there and I remember thinking to myself, "I should've been the manager there!" No, I really shouldn't have. I had no idea! I learned a ton about food at Clio, but Eastern Standard was where I really learned to push service.
Since you did work in Boston for so long, I'm curious to know, are there any differences you've noticed, as far as operations go, or as far as the diners?
I am actually constantly amazed at how similar the cities are. I've never seen two cities that feel more similar than Boston and Philadelphia. The attitude of the people, the pride they take in their dining scene (and their sports)—they really are very close. There are a couple of things I've seen in Philly that are really exciting—the cocktail scene is growing, and I don't think it had quite as strong of a foothold when I first visited. I remember going to Franklin Mortgage and being very impressed by what they were doing and by the service. That is something that maybe started a little bit sooner in Boston. But in both cities, the diners really appreciate their great restaurants, and they will definitely let you know when you're right and they'll let you know when you're wrong.
What about wine, just out of curiosity? Because a lot of people are working to build that up now, but Philly has not exactly been known as a huge wine town.
Well, obviously there are some special restrictions in Pennsylvania. You do have access to a ton, though. In reality, from what I can tell, you can get almost anything you want—you just have to find someone who's willing to bring it in for you. I did it: there's a winemaker by the name of Tony Coturri out of Mendocino, California, and I've enjoyed his wines and I enjoy him as a person. (This is a guy who literally prints his cellphone number on the back of every bottle, if someone wants to call and ask a question about his wine. And he answers! I don't know how.) Anyway, I told the people at Artisan's Cellar that I would like to serve his wines, and it took about nine months, but they just got them in last month. So, there is the benefit of the purchasing power of the state of Pennsylvania, which brings in a lot of good product. And I think it's getting better and better, even in just the two years I've been here dealing with wine.
That being said, the pricing is challenging. We pay retail price—which you don't pay in Boston. So the main difference is the range of your list and the things you can serve at what price points. But I do think the Philadelphia diner is aware that that's just what it is. I haven't received any pushback on pricing, really. When I got down here, I was somewhat surprised, pleasantly, by the level of knowledge the Philadelphia wine drinker has, and the adventurousness! Our list has a ton of things that are really unfamiliar to people, and people come in who say, "I don't know what's on your list, can you help me find something?" And I'm psyched on that. It's fun for the staff, because they've taken the time to learn about it, and it's fun for the guests when we get it right. I picked that kind of list for a couple of reasons: first, because I like the wines—you get good value in wines that are lesser-known, because you can't charge premium prices for grapes like pineau d'aunis, because who knows what pineau d'aunis is?—and then also because you're able to offer something new and exciting to your guests.
So you've got a couple of years under your belt here now. How have things evolved over that time, on your end?
Well, the service has improved. And Greg's food, of course, constantly evolves. And well, we're a little busier. But on my side of this thing, I'd say, we started with a very young service staff. We managed to open somewhat softly, which had a lot of benefits as far as ironing out systems. We still have about five or six of our original eight or nine servers, and I couldn't be prouder of how much they've grown and how much they take ownership of the restaurant on their shoulders. For me, the main thing is that the level of service has improved greatly, even as we've picked up extra volume over the past year.
Given your location near Rittenhouse, and the fact that you've gotten a decent amount of out-of-town press and made it onto a number of best-of sorts of lists, what's the balance here as far as regulars vs. first-timers? Is this a neighborhood restaurant?
Rittenhouse—if we can even call ourselves Rittenhouse, we're a little bit off of it—has such an energy that a lot of the restaurants here are able to share. We have regulars that come in here that are also regulars at Fitler Dining Room, or Twenty Manning, or any of the restaurants on the Square. I like to think that we're a neighborhood restaurant. That's what we set out to do, to make it a place that people could come on a weekly basis, not just for a special occasion—but I like the fact that people still come for an occasion, as well. We've had anniversaries, a couple of engagements; we've had a rehearsal dinner here, and we had a wedding reception dinner. And I always like to remind my servers about how special it is to be part of those moments for people—because that means that your restaurant, the memory of it, is eternal in those people's minds.
We tried to set the restaurant up so that we could welcome people who just walk in. I think that was part of what really worked for us in creating that feel of a neighborhood restaurant: that people feel like they can come in spontaneously. On any given night, probably about a third of the people eating here have walked in off the street.
So if someone walks in at prime time on a Saturday, they'll get a table? How long are they typically going to have to wait?
It's so situational. If there's been a cancellation or they've timed it very fortunately and two people stand up at the bar just as they get there, they could sit immediately. It could be anywhere from 15 minutes to, I think the longest we've had anyone wait is maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. But they were still able to get some toasts and a couple cocktails at the bar, and they were in the right mood. There's not a ton of room to wait downstairs in the bar area, but there is full service down there, so hopefully everyone's comfortable if there is a wait.
Do you have a favorite occasion or holiday each year? I mean, everyone always jokes about certain least-favorite nights, like Valentine's Day or…
I love Valentine's Day! Well... [pauses] it's been a very smooth night here, anyway. I have worked Valentine's services in the past where like… "Really? You decided to break up with her today? Here? Before entrees?" But we've been lucky at Vernick. At the restaurant I used to work for in Boston, we were so geared toward large parties that we would actually close the restaurant and throw a big party, because two-tops just didn't work in the restaurant. So we would close, and only invite restaurant employees to blow off some steam after their Valentine's Day Service. And it was so huge by the fifth year that we had to stop—it got pretty out of control. That was actually my least favorite night.
Personally, I've always liked New Year's Eve. I know that at bars, New Year's is considered "amateur night," when people who don't normally go out and drink, go out and drink way more than they should. But I've always found New Year's to be one of those nights when the room is filled with people that are really excited to be out—and here, it was a lot of people that we know, too. Maybe 75% of the room was people that had already spent the year with us, and they came to ring in the new year with us. It can feel like a real family celebration, as opposed to this hard night of service. I've always felt good about New Year's. I would never want to be off on New Year's—I haven't had that night off since I was 19. For me, this is my party. I have a lot of fond memories of New Year's, even though none of them are of me out drinking.
Is there an occasion or specific night that's proven particularly tough?
Not really, but one particular service stands out: our first soft-opening night, when I realized that nothing was printing to the kitchen. I just heard, "Greg needs you in the kitchen," and I knew it wasn't good. [laughs] I made a mistake. I didn't test to make sure Aloha [the restaurant management/POS system] was set up correctly. You know, it was a brand new system and it just wasn't organized the right way—so luckily I just had to go down and change where everything was printing to. I've worked with Aloha for a long time, and honestly, I could've avoided it.
How many orders did you actually take before you discovered that the kitchen wasn't getting them?
I don't even know. Enough that there was a daunting stack of handwritten tickets. We did 70-odd covers that night total. But that's why you do a soft opening—generally, you've got people there that know what's up and are expecting you to mess up that night.
How many covers do you do now on a Saturday?
Around 200. I think the most we've ever done was about 220. Those are busy nights, but they're not necessarily the hardest nights, because things are spread out over the evening. That's actually easier than if everything comes in between 7 and 9 p.m., and maybe only 150 people dine with you, but it feels harder than some of those nights where you do 200-plus. Then again, it's always a push. If you're feeling like things are really easy, you probably either have too much staff, or you're missing something.
What's the most unusual special request that you've gotten from a guest?
There was one just the other day that we were perfectly happy to accommodate, but I had definitely not heard before: A guest needed all of his food pureed. It turned out, he had just had surgery and could only eat soft or pureed foods. So I was glad to be able to do it for him, and I know he was very appreciative. There were a couple of things already on the menu that that were ok, like crushed avocado, and we made some sautéed greens that we pureed in the blender as well. I don't know if that's really that unusual—but when I first heard it, and I hadn't heard the full explanation yet, I was thinking, "A guy wants all his food pureed? Is he going to get, like, a roast chicken?" But he had a very realistic idea of what could work. Although, I do hope a hundred people don't come in asking to have their whole dinner pureed now.
Since you do make a special effort to be walk-in friendly, does that help mitigate crazy requests at the door or people's attempts to bribe you for tables, or do you still get that kind of stuff?
We still get some attempts at bribes, on occasion.
What's the most you've been offered for a table?
Well, it wasn't here, but I was offered $300 for a table one time in Boston. I turned it down, but the person that was in front of that guy in line said to me, "Uh, you totally could've taken that and let him in, we would've understood." Personally, I don't like to accept bribes because you very well may not even be able to accommodate what they want. If someone else is going to be left waiting for their table that they reserved 14 months ago, or last week, or this morning—either way, it's not fair to them just for a little bit of cash.
So what's really good on the menu right now, food-wise and at the bar? You guys are pretty well known for your cocktails…
Vincent [Stipo, who won the 2013 Eater award for Philly's Bartender of the Year] is one of my very good friends; we're really lucky to have been able to come together as friends and do what we're doing. Vincent worked for me in Boston and then went off to do his own thing, but I got him to come down here and operate the cocktail program. On the cocktail list right now—I hate to say something that's been on the list since the beginning—but I am a sucker for the Jack Rose. It's been one of my favorite cocktails since I first tried it, and I think it transcends gender—even though it's a pink drink, guys like it, too.
From the kitchen, the mackerel is one of my favorites—Spanish mackerel with a Peruvian pepper called aji amarillo made into a vinaigrette, and pistachio and avocado. The pistachio is candied with just a little bit of fennel seed, so you get the little bit of spice and the floral notes, and a little sweetness from the fish. You don't even really pick up the anise flavor from the fennel seed until after you finish the bite, but then it opens up so you're left with that refreshing flavor after all the other complexities. I've loved that dish ever since he put it on about two months ago.
Looking forward, are there any big changes or plans in the works?
One thing I'm excited about is rosé season. I love it. I like to have a range available, to help people break out of thinking that all pink wine is the same. I'm just about to turn over the by-the-glass list to have three or four rosés available. I have an orange wine section on the menu now, and that'll slowly drop down a little bit as the rosé section grows. That's what I've been working on, and one of my servers helps me with that, he's gotten very excited about wine. Who knows what Greg will come up with—he'll tell me he's putting something on the menu one day and it's like, "That looks delicious, but when on earth have you been working on that?" He's butchering fish all day and running service all night and has a newborn at home!
Any big-picture stuff on the horizon? Plans for an empire?
Well… I'm getting married next May, that's pretty big-picture! But as far as the restaurant, we're still trying to fine-tune what we have in front of us. But no, no plans for that empire yet. We're barely two years in. I'm trying to find a new apron for the servers for the summer. [laughs]
And yet, while it does sometimes seem a little frenetic to me, we have seen a number of places opening recently whose owners start talking about wanting to add another place by their first anniversary.
Well, if you look at Greg's interview from Trey Popp's review, he used the analogy with the tattoo—you know, once you get one, you're itching to get another? But even with that, people get tattoos that make sense to them, that are right at the moment when they get them. I don't think we're looking at anything else, unless something happens that we couldn't say no to.
Well, restaurants also require a little more upkeep than a tattoo. You can't really just slap some sunblock on it every now and then.
If that were the case, I'd run out and get some SPF50 right now. But no, we're just lucky that we have a staff that really takes this all to heart—every little tweak that we make, they throw their all into it, even though it can be hard to retrain your muscle memory. We're always looking at what we're doing, at what other people are doing, and how we can make it better. Because it can always be better.