When the team behind Boulevard opened Prospect last year, the local food community stood up on its tiptoes to see what chef Ravi Kapur would do with his first executive chef role. After surviving pivotal test dinners, a flood and the scrutiny of our local critics, the restaurant went on to field some nice words from the people at Bon Appétit and even Gwyneth Paltrow. Let's sit down for a moment with chef-partner Ravi and partners Pam Mazzola and Kathy King to reflect on their first year in business and the road ahead.
How did the idea for Prospect come about?
Pam: Many years ago and it started because we'd worked together for a really long time. Boulevard had a certain growth opp, but we were bursting at the seams. And Ravi was really reaching a point where he was ready to run his own kitchen. We all wanted a fresh plane to work on.
Ravi: You guys have been talking about it for many years. Halfway through my time at Boulevard, it felt like they were looking at spaces for almost two years. They looked at where the Ritz residences are. They were almost at the point of like screw it, and then [Infinity's developer] Tishman [Speyer] approached you guys. We brought him down here to look at the space.
Kathy: And then they put their wallet on the table.
Ravi: That was probably like three years ago, though, or more. We had intention on the lease for at least a year, then negotiations for another year. So while the restaurant's only been open for a year, we've been working on specifically this for over three years.
Kathy: We were looking for a specific kind of space. We liked the location. It's close to Boulevard so we can run back and forth.
And comparisons were made to Boulevard from the start. Writers—Eater included— inferred it would be "the more casual Boulevard." What's your take on that?
Ravi: People want to use words or examples to help them relate to or identify with what you're trying to do. The first question we always get is "What kind of food is it?" And what it is and what people want to hear is usually very different. Our language is very limited.
Kathy: But don't you think we felt it had to be different from Boulevard?
Ravi: I think the core philosophies are very similar. Hospitality driven, the size is very similar, same commitment to service.
Do you think the restaurant is "casual" per se?
Pam: We always go back and forth on this. It depends on your definition of causal. I really believe someone can come in here and feel comfortable in jeans before they go to the ball game. They can have a couple of apps and a dessert and make it a quicker meal, or have a more special occasion tasting type experience. It's conveying that message that I think has been the most difficult thing. The food's clean and sleek and tailored to the space. I hate to use those clinical words, but I'd say that differentiates us from Boulevard.
So, how did the opening go?
Kathy: We changed so many things in the first three days.
I would love to hear more about that.
Ravi: Ugh, no. [laughing]
Kathy: The menu was different. Can we say that out loud?
Ravi: It never hit the public.
Kathy: It was our test dinners. We learned so much. It was the menu. It was everything. It was the way we ran the firing, the expediting of the food in the kitchen.
Pam: We didn't stick with our original concept.
Ravi: We're honest with ourselves. So while we had a concept we felt committed to before we opened, we realized it had the potential to jeopardize our ultimate goals. We pulled back, we reformatted things. And I think nobody knew the difference.
Pam: I'm trying to introduce a bit of a different eating concept and, what we realized is, you can't change the way people want to eat. The front of the house couldn't really explain what we were doing. It was having shared dishes in addition to your regular appetizer, entree. Inviting people to start their meal sharing. Getting a couple things with your cocktail and having a snack before they have their traditional appetizer.
I guess that has to happen organically.
Pam: It was not an organic process. It was a shit show.
Ravi: There were only like six or so small items that took us down those few days.
Pam: But now we have a bar menu!
Ravi: It's a good example of starting smartly.
Pam: And being honest with ourselves and not trying to push something that wasn't working.
How does the creative process work with so many owners having chef backgrounds?
Ravi: I was at Boulevard for a long time and obviously Nancy [Oakes] has been there for...forever. [Everyone, laughing] You've got to be careful that you craft a new message. It's been a journey, and it's still going.
Kathy: Sometimes Nancy just gives you an ingredient and you're inspired by it.
Pam: It could be a couple of texts: like "oh try that," or "oh I saw this at the market," or "oh that sounds great, go for it."
Kathy: It's not formal.
I'm curious about the build-out. It's such a beautiful interior. How did the process go?
Kathy: It was pretty smooth.
Ravi: [Laughing] Changes cost a lot of money.
Pam: It's amazing how much actually goes into the bones of the place, the flues, air conditioning. Especially in a multi-use building. It's a real challenge to build a commercial space in a multi-use building. And the city is trying to head in that direciton because it's more efficient, but there are many constraints.
Kathy: Like the sound-proofing was crazy. We had decibel testing.
Pam: The signage, you know, none of us are really happy with it, but it was constricted by where we are. We have to be really hyper-considerate of our neighbors.
Pam: We felt like this part of the city was kind of starting to develop and we wanted to be a part of it. I mean when we opened Boulevard we were the maybe the second restaurant down there. Trust me, the freeway was falling down when you looked out on that beautiful Bay view. Us and One Market were really the first, I mean there was nothing, nothing there. When there was a similar opportunity to be part of a new urban development that the city was trying to promote down here, we liked that idea. It still might be five years or ten years away. But that's kind of how it was at Boulevard too. I mean, how many years were there? Remember how mad we were when they started to build the Vitale?
Kathy: Oh my god.
Pam: And it was probably one of the better developments that happened.
Kathy: The Ferry Building's been wonderful.
Pam: And now we've gone a few blocks down and we're going to see more development and offer a service to that residential community.
So you've also gotten a good amount attention for the cocktail program. I'm curious how creating this program was different from creating the one at Boulevard.
Pam: We designed the restaurant to have different areas where you could have different experiences. We decided to have a larger bar. I think part of it was to appeal to a younger demo. I think cocktails have become a driving force in the culinary world and the drinking world. We felt like we needed to give as much commitment to the food as to the cocktails.
Ravi: The layout has a lot of space. Dining is changing. It's more free form. Lots of people don't make reservations a week out. Having a place for people to just show up is important.
Pam: People want the option to have a seasonal cocktail, or a specific spirit or apertif.
Kathy: Boulevard is more of a classic program.
Ravi: That's what the customers want there. The wine list is also a little more extensive there.
What kind of tweaks did you make three weeks in, or a month in?
Ravi: We never stop tweaking. We have less people in the kitchen working stations now. The menu's gotten larger.
Pam: We've changed the way our desserts work. They're more composed, plated desserts now. We hung on to our shared concept, but when we got our new pastry chef Sarah Wade, who's fabulous, we felt like that was a good time to make a change back to a more traditional dessert service. And I think that's been better. She's really creative. She came on about four months ago.
Kathy: Brunch. We got 78 orders for our Prospecter plate on Sunday after that brunch feature in 7x7.
Pam: The kitchen is stoked. The energy's been great.
What's been the secret to keeping you successful?
Ravi: We're definitely not satisfied. We're not just gonna cruise. We're still pushing.
Kathy: We're actually doing a little remodel.
Kathy: The privite room will change. It won't look quite so hotelly.
Pam: It'll be warmed up quite a bit. New wall treatment. Not wallpaper, wall covering.
What about the main dining room?
Kathy: We're looking at putting another banquette in the back area. We're putting curtains in the entire restaurant. So that way you don't have the homeless looking right at you as you're eating and you don't have to watch the dogs do their thing...as much.
Pam: The back room we're putting a floor treatment. We're changing the art work. It should be significant.
Kathy: Yes but you're not going to walk in and go "oh!" It'll be subtle.
So what's been the key to your success so far?
Pam: All you have to do is read Yelp and then you get grounded.
Kathy: No sleep, valium [laughing].
Pam: You can't read Yelp before you go to bed.
Is there a value in reading Yelp?
Ravi: You have to do it.
Pam: I want everyone to have a good experience, and I wish some people were able to articulate their problems while they're here, so we can fix them while they're here. We're here because we want people to be happy.
Ravi: People can look from the outside and say we're successful and for us we're just at the beginning of the journey.
Kathy: I think the harder work has started a year in.
Ravi: Everyone's super committed to this, to each other and to the guests. There's no question as to why we're here.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Ravi: sometimes it feels like it's been more than a year, other times it feels like it just started. I guess that's what's good.
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