Imagine trying to share your favorite toy with all of your siblings. Actually, try to imagine sharing that particularly popular toy with not only your brothers and sisters but their friends as well. Let's take it a bit further, shall we? Not only do your brothers, sisters and their friends want in on the toy action but the kids across the street and that weirdo Carl who is always eating paste wants to play too. A bit tight, isn't it?
Well, that was sort of the situation between HUB and The Playground. The two concepts share ownership, a good chunk of a block on Congress Street and, for quite some time, a single kitchen. The kitchen in question? Yeah, not the biggest on the block. Executive chef Ben Caballero only hints at the way his back of house staff had to maneuver in such cramped quarters.
"When HUB opened we really had no idea how busy we were going to be," Caballero says. "But then Playground started serving food and we would have to bust out as much prep as possible, as early as possible, before they would open up. Tiny kitchen, like a six burner stove. So I can't tell you how relived I was when the order came in to not only expand our kitchen but get Playground their own as well."
Shutting down a popular restaurant to install new equipment, such as a bigger stove, hoods, warmers and a full prep area, isn't as easy or as cheap as you would think. On top of the extraneous cost to get a confined kitchen up to par with the business it gets handed, the staff has to be kept happy and paid, even during a time when no money is coming in.
"Hiring and training a whole new staff is not how we work when we need to halt business for a while," says Sandy Ford, director of operations for HUB, Playground and the relatively new Martin Drug Company, a pop-up restaurant that has opened in the old Proper space in the Rialto Building. "Plus it is so much easier to open a restaurant with an experienced staff. When HUB is back in business it'll feature all of the familiar aspects and staff but with the new cooking and storage space we so desperately needed."
On Friday, Aug. 25, HUB reopened to much applause from those needing their ice cream and mac-n-cheese fix (even though the ice cream shop was still open across the street). After a brief respite and finding some much-needed elbow room, the kitchen staff headed by Caballero is able to deliver the well-known and well-loved comfort fare to their fans. Brunch was back in action on Saturday, Aug. 26, and all was right with the downtown dining scene.
For the (unfortunate) uninitiated, HUB serves what I like to refer to as "happy food." This is the kind of elevated everyday fare that you want to eat and the drinks they proffer are the sort of crafty cocktails you want to linger over. The atmosphere has always been fresh yet comfortably cool and pleasantly candle-driven after the sun has finished with its shift. Speaking of the mac-n-cheese, Caballero and his crew concoct unctuous bowls heavy with tangy, tart and melty cheese blends that are as addicting as they are slightly sinister. Toss in some smoky cured bacon ($9) or meaty rich lobster ($16) and you'll be going through cheesy carb pre-withdrawals if they have to shut down briefly again. As a pastrami fanatic, I've found the house-cured meat to be as good if not better than sandwiches I have had in the depths of New York or the outskirts of Los Angeles. Not to forget the daily soups, farm-fresh salads and different varieties of down-home pot pies HUB prides itself upon.
"Even with the expanded kitchen we are still keeping the original menu as it is....for now," smiles Caballero. "We really just want to focus on what is working rather than haphazardly throwing together a bunch of new menu items because that is what is expected of us. Although with the bigger space, we do have a dry erase board back there that is full of new ideas coming in. So, you never know."
The Playground should be serving food again this November. In the meantime, you can come in and enjoy the happiness that HUB regularly provides. Especially the Mexican Wedding Cookie ice cream. Like I said, it was always available from the creamery, but after dealing with their Cubano sandwich ($12) with tater tots, as one should, it's good to be back home again.