Chatting with Anne Burrell About Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge, Her Feel-Good Smith Street Roadhouse
By Sarah Zorn
Smith Street may have been in a bit of a slump the past few years, but a certain Food Network Star is aiming to inject her personal brand of high octane energy to the distinguished strip.
Enter Anne Burrell (along with partner and Daddy-O owner, Phil Casaceli) whose ritzy roadhouse, Phil’s & Anne’s Good Time Lounge, has officially launched in the Char No. 4 space.
And while television viewers are already intimately familiar with her style of cooking, it’s actually Burrell’s first restaurant venture since 2008 (when she was given her own show after a career-making turn as Mario Batali’s sous on Iron Chef).
“When I decided to become a cook there was no Food Network even to aspire to! So every little bit that comes from this is exciting,” Burrell said of her unexpected career trajectory. “I’m from a little teeny town in upstate New York, and I was always the one who was a little nutty and edgy—that bad Anne Burrell. Of course now that things have gone well, people are like “we always knew you’d be a success, you’re so bright and so colorful!” It’s certainly been a wild and delightful ride.”
We spoke to the certified celebrity about why she’s excited to finally be back in the restaurant saddle, what drew her across the bridge to Brooklyn, and how her establishment reflects the irreverent, elaborately-coiffed spitfire that America has come to know.
Obviously, it’s been a long time since you’ve run a restaurant in NYC. What kept you out of the game so long, and what drew you back in?
I have to say, I kind of was a little burnt out from restaurants, and the T.V. thing really kept me busy. But I always knew I wanted to go back, and trusted that the universe would make it apparent when it was time. It was actually a lot longer than I imagined it would be, but a year and a half ago my great friend (and now business partner) came to me with this real estate deal. We looked at it and we talked about it and I decided ok, this is the universe telling you it’s time, let’s go. It’s been really nice because we’ve been on the same page about the mission and what we wanted to establish. Which is, basically, a neighborhood kind of spot. Phil makes amazing cocktails, whether they’re classic or creative, but he’s like “I’m a bartender, not a mixologist.” Which is sort of how my food is…yes, I’m a chef, but it’s just food in a really comfortable, casual, whimsical setting. We’re serious about what we do, but we also like to have fun.
Celebrity chefs tend to become known for their personalities at least as much as their food. So how would you say your forward-facing persona is reflected in your new restaurant?
Well, I’m known for being a little quirky and odd and definitely a tough love teacher from my show “Worst Cooks,” so I feel like if I can’t inspire my staff, how does that reflect on me as a teacher? Also, the food I make here is the food I want to eat. So if you want to break it down as a foodie, you can figure out why everything works; that it’s creative yet thoughtful and maybe a hair cheeky. I just try to be approachable and accessible and with a touch of fun and thoughtfulness and creativity.
You definitely seem to go out of your way to inject a bit of levity into the proceedings, with dishes like “Hogs and Hoodies” and “Big Fat Chicken Soup…”
Right! When it came to naming the restaurant itself, we went through lots of ideas. Phil came up with the idea for Good Time Lounge, and I wanted to put our names on it because it’s a little retro and throwback, giving off a comfortable but refreshed vibe that I thought would fit into the neighborhood really well. Whoever comes in here, we want them to have a good time, and to come in again in again. So I designed a menu that could be different every single time you dine, or, you can simply return for your favorites all the time too.
Would you say that “something for everyone” diner vibe is the unifying force behind your menu, which runs the gamut from focaccia to burgers to Korean short ribs?
That’s it exactly. And this is basically the food I want to eat, my favorite dishes, the things that when I go out, I wish I could have. We wanted to create a sort of grazing culture, a place where people could come together and have a good time and a few drinks—make this a relaxing, fun spot.
You’ve gone out of your way to sidestep the term “small plates.” I know what bugs me about small plates, but why do they seemingly bother you?
Small plates don’t bother me, but everything here is on a one-size plate; an appetizer size. It’s a decent sized portion but not huge. Even the heavier, entrée-type things are just a little bit smaller…we have a smaller ribeye, a smaller pork chop, so you can try a few things if it’s just you or a couple of people. It’s how I like to eat when I go out with my friends. I always go heavy with the appetizers and we have one or two entrees. So I just kind of wanted to even the playing field.
I’m the ultimate Brooklyn booster, and yet, it still comes as a surprise when chefs with your level of name recognition choose to set down roots here, instead of Manhattan. What was behind your decision to cross the bridge?
These days more than ever, the margins needed to be able to be successful with a restaurant are so narrow. You just sort of get eaten from the bottom up. You have to be really careful with your cost controls, and even then it’s impossible to make a living and have it be worthwhile. We just wanted a place where we could do precisely what we love to do, feel passionate about it, have people appreciate it, AND have a nice time doing it.
I’d be interested to know, as a tenant, what your take is on the current state of Smith Street—which started out as one of our formative restaurant rows, but has experienced some growing pains as of late.
Years and years ago I worked at Savoy in SoHo, and couple of alumni opened Grocery on Smith Street, which was one of the first breakout restaurants here. And then another chef at Savoy opened Chestnut. I was still in the thick of things with restaurants in Manhattan, and I was like no, I’ll never get out to Brooklyn. So years later, it’s crazy to think that here I am, in my own home on Smith Street! I have to say, I love being out here. Neighborhood people regularly come in to welcome us. And there are a lot of interesting, kooky people out here, so I feel like I fit right in! Everyone’s been so kind, which has only strengthened our resolve to be a friend to the neighborhood. We want to do whatever we can do to be the neighborhood’s local spot.
Do you intend to maintain a frequent, physical presence at the restaurant?
Absolutely. Phil and I have no investors; we invested in ourselves. I went back to restaurants because I missed cooking, I missed being in a restaurant, I missed my hands in food. So absolutely I plan to be here as much as a possibly can. Restaurants need constant care and attention. I also do plan to shoot a couple of seasons of “Worst Cooks” in a couple of weeks, and I plan to keep up with my appearances because that’s also a part of my career that I love. But luckily, I get to say that I have a number of jobs and hats that I wear, that are all under the umbrella of chef.
While most food television shows are at least partly educational, your shows, especially, tend to have a real mentorship element. What energizes you about, not just feeding people well, but teaching them to feed themselves well?
I’ve always been about teaching my staff and empowering them. When you tell people they’re doing a great job, they get happy about and invested in every single part of what they do. So if I can help people, both in my restaurants and at home, experience the joy I get from providing for others? Well, that’s one of the most amazing feelings there is.