Melissa Romanos, 36, grew up in El Salvador and came to the United States for culinary school in Miami. Her first local restaurant job was at Houston’s in Faneuil Hall. She later managed Post 390, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and worked in the bar at No. 9 Park before becoming general manager at Atlántico in the South End under chef-owner Michael Serpa. When she’s not working, she’s dining out in and around Stoneham with her toddler.
How has COVID affected business this winter?
Especially right now, with the vaccine mandate, I feel like we’re starting to see more people come out. Certainly, our weekends are looking a little busier than they had been. But the earlier part of the winter was just as hard as it’s been throughout the last few years of COVID.
With vaccines being rolled out, we’re starting to go in the other direction, which is certainly a good thing. This past weekend, it almost felt like going back to what it was before, which is exciting. We’re ready to see the restaurant just do what it’s meant to do: a place where people come in, have a good time, have a great meal, and everyone is there to have fun.
Let’s talk about you. You’ve worked with some high-profile places, but I want to go back further, to the very beginning. Where are you from, and what was your earliest inkling that you wanted to work in the food business?
I’m from San Salvador, El Salvador. I was born there. I spent a good amount of my youth there, but also a good amount of time here in the United States. I’ve always loved eating food, and I literally eat everything. I think I always gravitated toward the kitchen, cooking and learning. You know, even just from my parents, my grandparents.
After I graduated high school, I started to think about food and restaurants and that kind of thing as a career. And so I finally did decide that I wanted to go to culinary school. My dad was hesitant about that; he had a fear that there aren’t that many women who have become chefs and all these things.
We settled into me going into food-service management. I ended up going to Johnson & Wales University in Miami and got my bachelor’s in food-service management with an associate’s in food and beverage management. That’s when it all started. I actually had never really worked in restaurants until my last year of college. I worked at Houston’s in Miami, and I started as a host. It was a pretty natural evolution. I kind of hit every single position in the restaurant.
I ended up moving to Boston after I graduated. I transferred within the company and worked at the one that used to be in Faneuil Hall. … When I started working at Houston’s, I really fell in love with the pace of restaurants and just getting to know people on a different level.
How was the food scene different in Miami versus Boston? How would you describe the two cities?
There’s certainly more diversity in Miami than there is in Boston — although, you know, having spent so many years now in Boston (and I actually lived in Chicago, too), coming back, I’m now seeing more of that diversity. And I think that, you know, East Boston becoming more developed part of Boston itself, with so many Latin restaurants, and so many more people wanting to move into East Boston, there’s a little bit more diversity.
In Miami, there’s just so much Latin fusion, and there’s the Haitian community that also has a big influence on the cuisine. It is a melting pot, Miami. … It is also very transient. … I loved every minute of it, but I wanted to sort of settle somewhere. I moved to Boston because the person I was dating at the time, his family was from Western Massachusetts. And so that’s how I ended up here.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned from people like Garrett Harker and Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli at Island Creek?
Creating a culture. I also learned how that actually ends up coming into fruition. … It’s the personal connection that really drives restaurants. And that’s not just the connection that you have or the interactions that you have with the guests who come in and the relationships that you’ve formed, but really the relationships that you build with the people who you work with. That’s what creates culture, and that’s what really is at the center of every restaurant. If you don’t have that, then your staff doesn’t buy into what you’re doing.
What did you learn from Barbara Lynch?
After I left Island Creek, I went to No. 9 Park. So I was more focused on the beverage side of things. … But I did get to work with some great people like Colin Lynch, who was at the time the executive chef there. From that side of things, just attention to detail. That’s what’s No. 9 Park is, for service. Everything has to be in a certain way, but what was really a big takeaway for me from that place is … you would think that it’s robotic in the sense of service has to be so exact, you know? Everything you do has to be a certain way. But it wasn’t. Especially the bar, it was filled with so much personality. At the time, the barroom at No. 9 Park was just constantly full of regulars and people who came in, you know, just to have a cocktail to talk to the staff. You think of fine-dining restaurants as being — I don’t want to say stuffy — but, you know, they just tend to not be warm. Everything has to be done so perfectly.
At that time, Deirdre Auld, the director of operations at the Coda Group, was the general manager there. Honestly, she made a big impact on where I was going to go in my career in learning how she managed people, in a very kind and warm way. It was a waterfall, right, having that kindness. Mistakes may happen, but we fix them, and that’s the way to go about it, really.
Which restaurateurs do you really admire in Boston? Who do you think is really operating at the top of their game right now?
I have to say, Tom [Schlesinger-Guidelli, now at Alcove] I think is always going to be someone who I look up to. I think he’s doing a really wonderful job. Beyond that, honestly, I have to say [Michael] Serpa. I have always admired everything that he’s done. When I had the opportunity to work for him, I didn’t even think twice.
He’s a chef, and a lot of people sort of don’t see the two sides of him. He is someone who, if I wanted my next step to be a restaurant, he would be one person who I would absolutely model the way that I run my business after. He’s incredible at what he does, and he does so much more than what people see.
What makes him so incredible?
I mean, definitely passionate — and not just passionate about the food, or one certain area, but just passionate about your staff. About actually getting to know who the people are who you work with. Having the ability to lead; people just respect you and do things out of respect. Any person who works for him, whether in the kitchen or on the floor, would bend over backward to do whatever it is to make sure that the restaurant is moving and succeeding and going in the right direction. He has the ability to really care for the staff in so many ways, and everyone just wants to work for him. So I think that very unique.
How do you feel about the future of restaurants? What has COVID permanently altered? What’s different now?
I think the biggest thing that we’ve all … taken away from this is that, you know, we do want to take care of our guests, and we want them to have a good time. But we also now feel like we can have boundaries when people aren’t being kind to the staff. I think that’s our biggest one for me. I think that in the past, this industry has been really good at catering to guests, and that’s always a good thing.
At the end of the day, we do need people to come in and enjoy their time. It’s how the majority of the staff actually makes a living. We absolutely love that; we absolutely want to make sure that people are taken care of — but there is also a boundary there if the guests aren’t being kind. You can be a little more forward about that.
I think most guests also feel that way. Maybe they do sense that things aren’t going as well as they were before, and maybe they’re just a little bit more aware of how the people who are taking care of them are also people. It’s all about being kind and respectful. Sometimes people are upset; it’s never personal. You never know what people have gone through. As managers, we want to make sure that our staff is not disrespected, and we can have the harder conversations with guests and not allow for disrespect to take place.
I have a 2-year-old. We definitely do more takeout and don’t often go out as much. We live in Stoneham, close to Burlington, and so Row 34 is definitely a good go-to. It also feels like a 2-year-old can go on the earlier side and not be too intrusive. We like the Stones here in Stoneham. Patrick Campbell is the chef-owner there, and he was at Café ArtScience for a while, so that’s always a good go-to. If we’re headed down to Boston, places like The Butcher Shop, Sportello, and Bar Mezzana, which we’ve been to several times.
What restaurant do you miss the most?
Eastern Standard. A lot of us miss that place.
Favorite snack food or vice while watching Netflix on the couch?
Mi Niña Pico de Gallo chips! I’m obsessed. They’re in a red bag. You should definitely try them.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.