(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on April 26, 2012)
Jeff and Matt Nichols aren’t totally surprised that a hardware supplier recently called seeking their business. Consider, after all, their new restaurant’s name: Sides Hardware and Shoes. “Definitely a little quirky,” admits the younger brother, Matt, with a big smile. “But when you look at that old picture, it just makes sense.”
|Jeff and Matt Nichols|
He’s referring to an oversize photograph that hangs on the dining room wall, a black-and-white image that depicts their eatery’s building at the turn of the 20th century. A simple structure along a dirt road in downtown Los Olivos, with the words “M Sides Hardware and Shoes” painted on the façade in large black letters. “We were struggling from the beginning with the name,” adds Matt, “and when we saw the photo, we said, ‘That’s the name!’”
Quirky or not, the appellation is a tip of the hat to Santa Barbara County history, and to the community their business calls home. And it’s something the Nichols brothers find familiar. For 10 years, after all, and just through last month, they hosted diners right around the corner, at the celebrated Brothers Restaurants inside the landmark Mattei’s Tavern. That property, now reportedly earmarked for a new hotel project, served as a rest stop for weary stagecoach travelers as far back as 1886. For years, the Nichols knew their lease there would end in March of 2012. But it wasn’t until just last October that they secured their new locale along Alamo Pintado Avenue. “There was plenty of competition,” says brother Jeff of the spot that most recently was home to Patrick’s Side Street Café. “We’re just grateful our landlord went with us.”
The Nichols completely revamped their new space, and much of it under the radar of curious residents. “Everywhere you went in town, if they found out you worked for the Brothers, people would want to know where they were moving,” admits general manager Brianna Crommer. But mum was the word, at least until just about two weeks ago, when Sides Hardware and Shoes opened for business.
The restaurant has a relaxed bistro feel by design. Wood tabletops – mainly two- and four-seaters – are comfortably distributed throughout the dining room; the setup allows for privacy, though the proximity of many tables is aimed at sparking conversation. Handmade wood paneling on the wall – painted in a blend of maroon and dark yellow colors – lead to cork-colored concrete flooring. The lighting is soft, though enhanced by the generous natural sunshine that pours in through the large windows. The hammered tin that lines the ceiling is beautifully embellished, “and it does wonders for the acoustics in here,” asserts Crommer.
A gorgeous wooden bar separates the dining room from a buzzing, part-exhibition kitchen; the restaurant is serving wine and beer now and expects full transfer of the liquor license from the former eatery to become final in about two months. A lovely outdoor patio seats 12 along bustling Alamo Pintado.
And more of those blown-up, black-and-white photographs deck the walls. One of them is an homage to their former home, depicting the original Mattei’s Tavern flanked by several of the town’s founders and ranchers, including hotelier Felix Mattei; images of Jeff and Matt Nichols have been creatively edited in. “It’s a way to pay respect and appreciate our 10 years there,” says Jeff. Another prominent image depicts an old surveyor’s map that illustrates roads and buildings in a much older (yet refreshingly similar) downtown Los Olivos.
In some ways, a new restaurant is allowing the Nichols brothers to reinvent what they do. They now serve three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner – after a lengthy past in a dinner-only venue. They’re working inside a much smaller setting – seating for about half of Mattei’s 150-person capacity and a kitchen that requires a much more meticulous use of space. And the Nichols have recreated their menu entirely; not a single item from their former (and very popular) menu made the cut.
But in many other ways, the new restaurant is allowing for business as usual. Most importantly, the simple Nichols philosophy – “You get the best ingredients and share them with your guests,” as Jeff puts it – prevails. The brothers’ success has hinged on the farm-to-table concept long before it became a catchy phrase. “It’s just the way you do things,” says Matt, an overt reference to the way he and his brother grew up in his family’s Iowa farm, where seasonality alone dictated what was for dinner. Each chef has developed and championed this culinary attitude through their respective careers – Matt in upscale kitchens like Wolfgang Puck’s Spago and Jeff in restaurants from Paris to L.A., before the two went into business together in 1996.
Their modern-staff embraces it, too. Sourcing local ingredients almost exclusively “is built-in here,” says chef de cuisine Seth Nelson, who worked in the kitchen of a 4-Star L.A. hotel before joining the Nichols a year ago. “We don’t say that all over the menu because it should be that way anyway.” In other larger markets, he suggests, it’s often “a marketing term, something you advertise.”
The proprietary Brothers’ Bacon is made onsite during a labor-intensive four-day process that involves curing, cooking and smoking; it’s hand sliced, “and it’s a thick cut,” says Jeff, holding up his hand and separating his thumb and forefinger about a ¼-inch. It makes an appearance on several breakfast and lunch items, including the roasted turkey breast sandwich, served on herb-crusted garlic focaccia with guacamole and butter lettuce.
Pancakes are made from scratch daily. “We experimented with several pancake recipes until we went with Mom’s” admits Jeff. He says they use a secret pastry chef’s trick to keep them light, and Matt reveals they add a touch of cornmeal, “so they’re texturally different.”
Doing lunch for the first time has opened up new culinary avenues, naturally. Lunch items are among the brothers’ own favorite dishes, Jeff pointing to the grilled cheese – goat, cheddar and parmesan cheeses melted between brioche bread – and Matt giving a nod to his own creation, The Hammered Pig. “A version of a childhood memory,” he calls it, recounting fishing trips as a boy that always included a stop at a roadside stand selling a particular overstuffed sandwich. At Sides, it feature pork tenderloin that is pounded out, breaded and fried, then served with red cabbage, apple and a homemade mustard seed slaw.
The concise dinner menu features fresh starters, like beef carpaccio, marinated olives and fried brussel sprouts. Mains feature a bevy of protein options, like chicken, steak, pork and fish. The lamb sirloin entrée includes herbed gnocchi, fava beans and peas.
And then there’s dessert. Pastry star Stephanie Jackson, an eight-year Brothers’ Restaurant mainstay, pays homage to a Mattei’s favorite, the mud pie, with Sides’ Mud Sundae, a coffee-caramel ice cream treat, with cookie crumbs folded in and hot fudge, caramel and pecans tumbled on top. She likens her dairy- and gluten-free Macaroon Sandwiches – a trio of macaroon cookies stuffed with dark chocolate-coconut swirl sorbet and almonds – to an Almond Joy (or a Mounds if you request no-nuts). And her day starts early; Jackson also makes the golden raisin beignets from scratch – pillowy pastries rolled in cinnamon sugar that, alongside a mug of just-brewed coffee, make a delightful breakfast treat.
Sides features an approachable, varied and all-local selection of wines. Eight wines are featured on tap and will be rotated periodically. The tap’s keg system effectively preserves the wine, extending its shelf life, and allows for temperature control. Crommer likes its environmental friendliness, since “it eliminates the need for bottles, corks and labels,” she says. The wines on tap are available by the glass, as well as in ¼-, ½- and one-liter carafes. A couple dozen wines are featured by the bottle, including chardonnays by Arcadian and Alma Rosa, pinot noirs by Clos Pepe and Longoria and unique reds by Kaena, Tercero and Cimarone.
Indeed, the wine list, just like the bevy of gourmet ingredients in the kitchen, is a snapshot of the sense of place the Nichols are aiming to create with Sides Hardware and Shoes. In fact, what seems to be most exciting to the Brothers and their staff – 40 in all, and almost all Mattei’s alumni – is the fact they’re staying put in Los Olivos, where 38 wine tasting rooms are currently balanced by fewer than a half-dozen restaurants. They admit that a repeat local clientele has always been key to business. “I know people by name, by drink and by what they order,” announces Crommer. And they recognize that maintaining relationships will be key to success. “This is not just a restaurant in a community,” says Nelson, “it’s part of the community.”