There’s no soft-pedaling it. After more than 30 years, Strip-T’s is closing. The Watertown hole-in-the-wall first made its name with a steak sandwich and evolved into an unlikely culinary destination. When it closes, it will take a little piece of the restaurant scene’s soul with it.
Paul Maslow opened the place in 1986. He had worked all over town. At Brigham’s in high school. At the Ritz-Carlton, across from his father’s advertising agency, where he went in with a fresh haircut, wearing a tie and jacket, and asked to become an apprentice. At Lechner’s Gourmet Restaurant, where the kitchen was on the third floor and orders were sent down on dumbwaiters. At Cafe Budapest; at Turner Fisheries. But he didn’t want to work fine-dining hours. Plus, the people at those fancy Ritz banquets didn’t look like they were having a very good time.
And so: Strip-T’s, which in addition to strip-steak sandwiches specialized in saucy banter. Every Friday was “customer abuse” day: Servers would tell you to get your own cup of coffee, to write down your own order. Customers loved being insulted. The menu grew. The soups were a draw; so were the onion rings. The restaurant was only open for lunch, then for dinner. Then came the most substantial change, in 2011. Maslow’s son Tim — a chef trained at the French Culinary Institute who had been working at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in New York — came home to reinvent the place. Strip-T’s went from a mainstay of local office workers to a sudden hotspot.
“People were getting in limos in downtown Boston and driving to Strip-T’s,” Paul Maslow says. “Tim would look at me and say, ‘You know this isn’t going to last. Enjoy it.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe it will last.’”
It didn’t. “I’ll miss Strip-T’s,” says Tim Maslow, “but in terms of it being time to move on, I think there is a lifespan of a business and Strip-T’s has kind of hit that point.”
When we talk about restaurants and longevity, we tend to dwell on the high-end and highly visible: Locke-Ober, Hamersley’s Bistro, L’Espalier. Strip-T’s is something different entirely — a place to eat at on a Wednesday, not on a wedding anniversary. It is the opposite of an occasion restaurant. It has been an intimate part of people’s daily lives. And people don’t open restaurants like it — unstudied, from the heart — much anymore.
“Business is just not consistent,” says Paul Maslow, silver-haired, bespectacled, so attentive he silently mouths the words you are saying as you say them. “It’s kind of impossible to know why. Everybody has theories.”
Maybe it’s the new restaurants that are constantly opening, jeopardizing the concept of “regulars” that is Strip-T’s very foundation. Maybe it’s the lack of a full liquor license. Maybe customers are staying in more; maybe it’s meal kits; maybe it was all the nor’easters this year. In February, Maslow brought in a new husband-and-wife chef team, Peter and Mareena McKenzie. In the past, Strip-T’s was always able to bring its customers around to change — sometimes grudgingly, as when the lunch menu went more avant-garde in 2012 — but maybe this was just one change too many.
Most likely it was the cumulative effect of 1,000 small cuts. “You have one or two really slow days every week and that ruins the whole week,” Maslow says.
The space is on the market; Maslow told his staff after making the decision so they could start looking for jobs. His biggest concern is that they find positions that really suit them, he says. Some have already moved on. Others will stay until the lights go out, like faithful audience members hoping that wasn’t really the last encore.
“I told Paul I’d stick with him,” says server Laurie Greenberg, who has worked at the restaurant for nearly a decade. “I don’t want to leave him hanging.”
She’s not alone. All of the servers said they’d stay as long as they could. This kind of loyalty and longevity, rare in the restaurant business, is not at all unusual at Strip-T’s. One of the dishwashers has worked here for 18 years; last year a cook left after 17. Ginny Roberts, a beloved manager who passed away from cancer several years ago, was an employee of two decades.
There’s just something about the place.
“I liken it to nothing I’ve ever done before,” says Ellen Benson, who was the general manager for several years. “I don’t think a single one of us cared about the dollars in our paycheck. It was not about money for anyone. We were fueled by passion. We’d spend our days off there to see what other people were doing.”
Much of that has to do with Maslow himself. “He buys into your excitement as much as you do, and you buy into him as much because he just cares,” Benson says. “The amount of respect that everyone got from him was just this cool thing.”
The connections remain, in full force. Tim Maslow went on to open Ribelle in Brookline. (It closed in 2016 and he is working on a new project, a Japanese restaurant in the South End.) Jared Forman, who worked with Maslow at Momofuku and left New York to help remake Strip-T’s, took the helm in Watertown; he eventually opened his own restaurants in Worcester, Deadhorse Hill and Simjang, with business partner Sean Woods — who also worked at Strip-T’s and went on to become bar manager at Ribelle.
Julia Auger, general manager and wine director at Deadhorse Hill, was a server at Ribelle and Strip-T’s, where she met Forman. The two are now a couple: “It was one of those love story things,” he says.
Benson is general manager at Simjang, where Mike Wenc, who got his first cooking job at Strip-T’s, has worked his way up to chef de cuisine. Wenc also worked at Ribelle, Shepard, and Cafe du Pays, where another Strip-T’s alum, Dan Amighi, is chef. Peter and Mareena McKenzie worked at Ribelle and Shepard. And on it goes. This is how one small restaurant in Watertown shapes the lives of many.
“The continuing family of Strip-T’s is still going strong,” says Forman. “When I think about that place, it’s such an emotional impact on anybody who walks through that door, be they employees, friends, diners. It’s kind of a magical place inside. It’s half a dump, it’s so beat up, and at the same time it’s very nostalgic. I even got that feeling of nostalgia when I first walked in the door.”
If the food changed a lot over the years, the spirit of the place never did. There’s a counter with stools you want to sit at forever, bantering with Maslow, Greenberg, and server Nicholas Pentabona, a short-timer at two years. (“Are you here for the free bananas?” he asks when you enter, waving a yellow fruit in your direction.) The adjacent dining room is small and free of frills; the whole place seats maybe three dozen. If you need to use the bathroom, you clamber downstairs and follow the signs past the kitchen; once inside, you have to ascend several stairs to reach the raised throne. It’s the opposite of today’s new restaurants, designed within an inch of their lives.
“When you open a restaurant, it’s your personality,” says Paul Maslow. “Strip-T’s is my personality. It’s who I am. I am a little fearful of how I’m going to feel when who I am for the past 32 years is no longer.”
He’s 62 now. He wants to try something new while he still can, he says. He’d like to teach, probably at the high school level. He has a 16-year-old son and he’s a grandfather; leaving the restaurant business means he’ll get to spend more time with Tim’s kid, who just turned 1.
And what of us? Can the Boston area even support a restaurant like Strip-T’s anymore?
Forman isn’t so sure. “Money gets out of control,” he says. “The rents, the cost of doing business; the media is driving this thing of newness and I hate it. I just want to cook great food. Those things make it really hard to do in big cities.” Thus the move to Worcester.
But back in Watertown, the lunch crew is arriving. Maslow welcomes them. “What’s up, Dave? Buddy! What’s up, Dmitri?” Customer Jason Marshall bites into a bluefish melt and smiles. “This sandwich is awesome,” he says. “I never want to not be eating this sandwich.”
“You know,” says Maslow, “even after this many years, the one thing I’ve never gotten tired of is waiting on people. There are a lot of things you can do to make more money, but the gratification of making people happy, it really does mean something.”
He laughs. “That might sound a little corny,” he says. Then he goes back to greeting his regulars by name.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.