Before Greg Baxtrom opened Olmsted in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn in 2016, the local joke was that the neighborhood was a really nice place to live, but you were better off going into Manhattan if you wanted a quality dining experience. Your choices were the really under-appreciated fried chicken spot, a beloved Neapolitan pizza place that eventually closed (and turned into a beloved Italian spot) and a great ramen place. That was really it. It sounds like enough, but by New York City standards, it wasn’t.
Three years, a James Beard nomination and lots of long lines later, Olmsted is one of the most beloved restaurants in the borough, and possibly the entire city. With its forward-thinking take on American cuisine that incorporates influences from all over and freshly grown ingredients from the backyard garden, a great cocktail and wine program, and also one of the best desserts in all of the NYC (the lavender soft serve), Baxtrom and his team have made Prospect Heights a place people will trek to.
“I tried so long to open a restaurant, like five years,” Baxtrom, who spent his pre-ownership days working in fine dining for vaunted culinary icons like Thomas Keller, tells InsideHook. “Once we narrowed it down to some kind of garden seating, or just something that had an outside, it could be a small dining room, but one that could still turn a profit.” That and having a bar he could eat at (he really loves eating at the bar) was what really preoccupied Baxtrom.
Of course, he says that, but any visit to Olmsted and you quickly notice that every single little detail is of the utmost important to Baxtrom. The ingredients, the way the menus look, the glassware — every little thing. No cutting corners. And somehow, with so much attention to detail, Olmsted remains not only a great restaurant, but a fun place to eat. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off.
So when I mention that I love the charcoal soap they have at Olmsted and his new restaurant, Maison Yaki, located right across the street from his first, Baxtrom gets quiet for a second.
“Oh, you noticed that?”
It was one of the things he had hoped customers might not catch, that here was one similarity between his first place and the new spot that focused on a fusion of French and Japanese cuisine. “We very on purpose tried to not repeat anything. I don’t want you to think it’s the same owner when you walk across the street.”
That was sort of the reason I called up Baxtrom after checking out his new place. That obsession with detail, I thought, is a fascinating thing. How does a chef who obsessives over every little detail know when it’s time to expand? We live in a culture preoccupied with learning how to make better decisions. Speakers and writers make fortunes telling huge groups of people how to do it — but here is an example in the real world.
For Baxtrom, it was just a matter of seeing the right opportunity open up and taking it.
“We really did not plan on opening up another restaurant that quickly,” he admits. “We weren’t looking to move that fast, but then there was that dive bar and it closed and the space opened up so fast and it was cheap [enough] that we decided we needed to get it.”
The former dive in question, known as Plan B before it finally shuttered, was more like the local plan C or D — a gross little spot where you could tell they never cleaned the beer taps and the whiskey tasted suspiciously more like water than a spirit. Baxtrom and his team moved in and totally revamped the place into something cozy and inviting, where small plates with skewered chicken parts or beef tongue sandwiches are served alongside pre-batched cocktails.
Baxtrom’s initial goal was to give Olmsted diners — who tend to face long wait times — another option, or at least somewhere to kill some time before their name was called. He looked to one of his favorite places, Balthazar, for influence. The Keith McNally Soho spot is a more informal affair, but a place you don’t just settle on. It’s a quality spot, but as Baxtrom puts it, “Balthazar is not a place you plan in advance to go to. You’re walking around and you say, ‘Let’s just go.’ And yes, there might be a 30-minute wait, but you wait at the bar or walk around the neighborhood or whatever.”
While you can try to score a walk-in table or spot at the bar at Olmsted, you’re likely going to have to make a reservation, and you’re going to have to do that a few weeks out. Maison Yaki can be a second option, but it’s good enough to be a first as well.
“We’re busy and it’s hard to get into Olmsted because we work our asses off to have something nice to give our guests. But also we’re small. We can only do 100 people a day. When we turned guests away we thought ‘Maybe we can open up a bar across the street,” but we didn’t want to just open up a holding pen.”
So what they did was something a little more low-key, a bit more intimate and accessible, but still as obsessed with the details the same way they are across the street. Smaller plates mean faster turnaround, faster turnaround means more people get to eat. It’s the perfect destination for Olmsted seekers who can’t score a table, or locals who just want to stop in and don’t want the hassle. And the end result is proof that trusting your gut when it’s time to make a big leap is something we can all learn from.
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