Food, Journalism

The Craftsman of Yore is No More

When you write about food, people like to ask you for a favorite restaurant. For me, favorite means different things, and so there has never been just one. I have a favorite for out-of-town guests and fancy occasions, for breakfast, for pizza, and for Korean food. But the most important favorite is the neighborhood restaurant I go to at least once a week because the wait staff is lovely, the atmosphere is charming, and the food is, without fail, great. For a long time, for years, that was the Craftsman Restaurant & Bar.

A dear friend and I used to meet there once a week to hash out our life and work conundrums over the Craftsman’s fantastic Manhattans (a toothpick stacked with house-macerated sour cherries before they were a thing), or for the brief time they were available, the wonderfully tanniny Emily’s Sumac. We liked the hummus, smoky and garlicky and surrounded by simple but pleasing vegetables — bright pink watermelon radishes, pickled cauliflower, parboiled green beans, and such.

Another good memory: Early one summer evening, some friends and I gathered in the big, black leather booth at the front of the restaurant for a birthday, I don’t recall whose. Someone had brought along a newish baby boy, the first in that group, and we passed him between us so the exhausted parents could eat. The sun was streaming in the front windows, I had a trout on my plate — butter, salt and pepper, and a pile of sweet corn succotash — and it felt like everything was right in the world.

There’ve been some hard moments, too. I’m only a little ashamed to say I’ve quietly wept at nearly every table in the place for various and sundry reasons.

Yet for a couple of years now, the Craftsman has been drifting downhill. Mike Phillips, who created the restaurant’s quiet New American aesthetic, left in 2010, eventually to create Red Table Meat Co. This was not terrible; his protégée Ben Jacoby took over the place and did a great job. But then Jacoby left in what felt like a dust-up, because a large portion of the wait staff followed him out — and then continued to leave until the old crew dwindled down to one. Along the way, we lost Steve Filla, Michelle Derer, and Jeff Mitchell, the restaurant’s adventurous mixologists. The menus stayed essentially the same, and the food was fine, but the restaurant had lost so much of its institutional knowledge that it couldn’t quite hit the stellar quality of food or service it had once offered. It didn’t seem to be trying.

So when I heard that Mike Dooley and Susan Kennedy-Dooley had sold the restaurant to Dale Wicks — a regional maintenance manager from Home Depot with a “passion for food and beverage” — I thought it might be a good thing.

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[Appeared in Heavy Table. Image credit: Becca Dilley]