A conversation with Tony Maws of Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Restaurateur Tony Maws is a busy man. He runs Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Soon, he’ll open a burger joint inside the upcoming Time Out Market Boston in the Fenway, capitalizing on the popularity of the ultra-rich, much-ballyhooed burger at Craigie.
In the meantime, he hosts a fund-raiser on Sunday, May 5, at Craigie on Main Bar (now called “COMB.”) Visit from 3 until 5 p.m. for all-you-can-eat, buffalo-themed bites, from pork belly to cauliflower to sweetbreads, plus craft beer. Tickets ($50) support childhood hunger charity Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry; Maws will ride 300 miles in California in mid-May along with hundreds of other chefs to raise $2.4 million.
Get tickets at www.eventbrite.com.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I was born in the South End. It looked nothing like it does now. My parents rebuilt a brownstone. We used to go to Chinatown because we didn’t have a kitchen. It was close by, cheap, easy, and good. We were eating real Chinese food, not beef and broccoli. I had familiarity with seeing head and feet. The one I remember was Bo Shek; I remember the dumplings were very different than the Peking-style ravioli I had when I would visit my grandparents. It wasn’t suburban Chinese food.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? The short answer is the formula doesn’t work, and I mean it literally doesn’t work, for a bunch of reasons that have come together at a similar time. You can’t pinpoint one thing. The labor market, millennials not wanting to work the same way — it’s not a bad thing, just a fact. People don’t want to spend 10 years working 12 hours to learn a craft. Cooking is a craft. It’s boat-building. You don’t just watch a YouTube video. You have to learn it, and I wish there were faster ways. I would have done the faster way. It takes a really long time to understand food and cooking, and most people don’t want to do that anymore.
I’m a pretty liberal-leaning person; [I believe in] a higher minimum wage and paid time off as a person. . . . As an operator, the cost of doing business — I’m a small independent business, I’m not a hotel or chain or country club. I’m an indie restaurant owner. But people don’t want me to raise my prices on my menu. They’ll go berserk: ‘Why is your chicken expensive?’ They don’t want to hear about it. They don’t think it should be their problem. Also, we can’t raise our prices because there are too many restaurants, and competition is out of whack. I spend more time operating than cooking, and that’s not what I want.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? There are just so many of them. I’m not trying to dis my hometown; I’d say this about other cities as well. We have access to more cool ingredients and creativity has increased, but I think the quality has decreased.
What other restaurants do you visit? I’m never going to answer that question! When I go out to dinner with my wife and my son, a parade of people wants to say hi. We have our places because they’re friends or treat us in a way we want, which is to be completely normalized. And I still go to Chinatown all the time.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, ‘I want to work in restaurants?’ When I grew up, being a chef was not cool. It wasn’t part of the conversation. I went to Belmont Hill! I’d always been madly in love with food. There are ‘my grandmother in her kitchen stories’ that are very real, but I wasn’t thinking I’d love to cook. But I loved being at my grandparents’ house, watching baseball with my grandfather, and being in my grandmother’s kitchen. It smelled great and it was fun, but I didn’t have the association of why it was fun, but it was. I liked being with her. She was hysterical. She was a character.
My first job was washing dishes, 15 years old, on Martha’s Vineyard. I’m in this world that has been described in all the stories, [Anthony] Bourdain stories, with unbelievable stuff going on. The camaraderie — every day there was a mission of what we had to do, and it was very focused, and I responded positively to that. I was a hockey player, and I was playing this game every night. It was very similar: the intensity, yelling, craziness, feedback, a team coming together. We had to win every night. I thought it was amazing, eating half-eaten lamb chops and dregs of wine. It was the best job ever. I’d come home and tell my friends, and I was 15 years old! I was hooked.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? There’s one experience I tell my staff about annually, because it’s a helpful reminder about why we do what we do. Back in the early days of Craigie Street Bistrot, we were closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I was working around the clock; I did all the prep. [My wife] was in grad school, and she’d be doing her work at one of the tables and I’d be in the kitchen. By Monday at 8 p.m., I’d be seeing stars, and we’d have our little version of a date night. That’s what we could afford and make time for. At one restaurant I will not name — but people you’d know were behind it — the bar was pumping.
We got two seats. Everyone else around me was looking way too cool for school, and I was wearing my T-shirt, jeans, hat backward. We could not get a bartender to give us a menu. We sat there and sat there. I didn’t have a lot of money, but that was our one time to see each other, so we’d buy a nice bottle of wine. We’d tip well. It was the only meal I’d have for five days, and I was going to eat. What’s the problem here? We got up after 20 minutes, and we walked out. And I think we went to Chinatown! They missed out on a big check and a big tip.
Never be presumptuous about whom you’re serving. I have Google offices two blocks away, and half of them are in Birkenstocks, the funkiest clothing you could imagine, and they’re worth a couple million. Don’t assume anything about anything.
How could Boston become a better food city? I don’t think this is going to happen, but anything economically that would promote mom-and-pop and independent restaurants and enable them to stay afloat when everything is becoming more corporate and less personal and less individual. So many young people are just looking to what other food looks like and copying it. Food should be an expression.
Name three adjectives for your guests. Quirky, cultured, value-oriented. They want to make sure they get their money’s worth.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I don’t even know. I got myself off Instagram a year ago, and I hope never to look back. I feel so much freer. My brain is better for it, so much better for it. I haven’t paid attention to trends. I feel sorry for people who feel they have to do what someone else is doing.
What are you reading? Depends on the time of day. When I get home, I might fall asleep to “Beastie Boys Book” on my Kindle. It’s fantastic. They grew up listening to all the same music. That was my time. And “The Power of Moments.” I’m literally starting it tonight and reading it for my manager meeting tomorrow.
How’s your commute? I live a half a mile from one [restaurant] and a mile from another, and my son goes to school in between. I go in a circle every day.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? There’s no ingredient I’d shy away from, but I get sad eating poorly loved, poorly seasoned food that was put on a plate that someone thought was cool . . . and it’s so obvious that it’s too hip, too cool, with not enough technique and not enough focus on the ingredient itself.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? We don’t have any real Mexican food.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Oh, man — that is a terrific question. I think that there are two that were special to me. Jasper’s, which dates me. I have a couple of culinary idols in this town, Lydia [Shire], and Jasper [White]. Chris Schlesinger. Lydia thankfully still gets to play in this playground. I have cooks who don’t know who they are, and it’s a travesty. The other one is what ended up being a neighborhood restaurant for me, where I had good friends: the Blue Room. It was a humble, no pretense, tasty restaurant.
Who was your most memorable customer? I don’t know their names. The other night, a little boy out with his mom, maybe 8 years old, was ordering food off the menu. Nothing was specially prepared, and his eyes lit up. It’s happened more [times] than I can count. A couple of those types of kids have sent me resumes a couple years later to work here. . . . To think I have any part in that at all is incredibly humbling, exhilarating. I’m so honored to do that.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? My buddy Pedja is a principal operator at Iggy’s Bread and has a house with a big, family-style table. My most favorite food memories are sitting at his table, opening up all sorts of fun, non-pretentious bottles, cooking different things, rolling up our sleeves. We start early afternoon and go late. Kids are running around, dogs, everybody is dining for the right reason. It’s about laughing and about friendship and camaraderie.