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Boxes of Boxes

My office is stacked with boxes of boxes. Cookie boxes. And menu covers. And check presenters. How did this happen? It’s because you can’t print one of anything. Or even 100. More like 5,000.


You think I’d know this. I grew up in the printing business. My grandfather owned a printing business on Callowhill Street. My father owned a printing business. I even worked there – answering phones, proof reading and taking the train to NY to make deliveries. (Funny, I’m still commuting between Philadelphia and NYC.) Anyway, when we were little kids, my father always brought home the greatest wrapping paper and giant sheets of baseball and football cards that we’d cut apart! Maybe that’s why my brother, Eric, and our neighbor Jim Pinheiro, both went into the printing business.




Eric, Jim and James Monroe, who works for my friend Ellen Diamant at Skip Hop, created the menu covers (no more using plastic sleeves!), check presenters, gift cards, comment cards and cookie boxes. They had great advice on paper and colors. We used the color palette from Alison at Blue Bell so that it’s all part of one “family” or “look.” Like a great basic wardrobe that keeps changing and evolving.






My inspiration for how to package everything for Alison two came from shopping overseas.  Everything always comes so beautifully wrapped that the packaging is almost as fun as what you buy – almost. Whether it is a pint of raspberries at Paris’ Bon Marché, or a single chocolate from Brussels, where chocolate is displayed like jewels. At Laduree, a bakery in Paris, I ate the macaroons but saved the wrapper. I wasn’t looking for fancy packaging – but simple and clean.


I discussed my ideas with James, Eric and the folks at Fox Group and Jim at Pearl Pressman Liberty Communications Group. They were great to work with and I was delighted with what they came up with. They really paid attention to detail and were extremely accommodating. What kind of paper should we use? What ink? What colors? What weight should the paper be? What is the memory of the folded cards? Should it be coated or film laminated? They even made dummies that I could see, feel and adjust, as necessary. I felt that I was in good hands.


The cookie boxes are especially a lot of fun. I think it will make an awesome gift. It’s just the type of hostess gift I’d like to get – more than another bottle of wine – it’s one of a kind.


Well, this week we start serving lunch at Alison two  – so that’s one more box of menu covers I’ll get to move out of my office and into the restaurant. Hope it’s not too long before I can actually move around the office without jumping over and around boxes of boxes.


First two photos taken by Alison on her iphone. Gift card and A Cookie Box photos ©2008 Courtney Grant Winston.


These days you can’t turn on the radio or TV without hearing someone talking about change. I love change – I find it exhilarating. But, the truth is, for most people, change is hard. I’m not talking about politics here – I’m talking about a change at the restaurant.



For the first four years, Alison at Blue Bell was a BYOB (bring your own bottle). Then, we got a liquor license and started to offer a small, food-friendly list of beers and wines. Even though we still allowed people to bring their own bottle, some people didn’t relish the change. Others loved it. They liked the freedom from lugging their own liquor and the lamented that fact that there was no “grown up bar” in the region.


With Alison two, we’re taking the next step in our evolution. You can’t bring your own bottle to Alison two. You don’t need to. We have a full bar with mixed drinks, wines, beers and its own menu of great bar food. We serve classic cocktails with a twist. To make the bar extra special, Beverage Director Tom Pittakas and his crew squeeze orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime juices daily. They make their own grenadine, muddle fresh mint, basil and lavender. Make hibiscus-infused rum for our Jamaica Daiquiri and brandied cherries for our French 75. Tom even makes his own ginger beer right here on the premises. It has a Caribbean taste that makes his Dark & Storm really gingery & bright!


Tom took one look at our basement and commandeered a closet that was supposed to be for dry storage. He declared it the wine cellar, ordered shelves and put them together himself. He built a 1,000-bottle wine cellar that includes a great list with a wide range of prices and selections. We have whites from $24 to $67 a bottle and reds from $21 to $206, including a beautiful $40 Pinot Noir. Over time, we’ll continue to expand the wine cellar. If you prefer to order wine by the glass, you’ll be happy to hear about our 16-bottle cruvinet. It allows us to serve 8 white and 8 red wines by the glass, half glass or taste. Having so many wines by the glass means that you can start with a white wine with your Ginger Fried Squid, Mango Slaw, Wasabi Drizzle then switch to red to go with your Painted Hills Ribeye and Maytag Blue Cheese Fritters. We’re happy to help you match just the right wine to your meal. And, we serve all our wines in oversized crystal glasses.


Beer drinkers are enjoying our beer list, which focuses on beers from small-batch breweries. Our Curieux from Allagash Brewery in Portland, Maine is a Belgian style brew triple barrel aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels. Our Pliny the Elder and Damnation beers from Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma County are also intriguing.


We have a terrific bar menu that will constantly evolve. The Tuna Slider, House Made Takewan Salad, Ginger Aioli is already a favorite. Other highlights include Charmoula Rubbed Lamb Loin Chop, Cucumber Mint Relish, Chick Pea Puree; and A2 Frites (hand-cut fries with bacon and onions and homemade ketchup). The bar menu is distinct from the restaurant menu and we offer it in the bar, lounge and living room. The bar is not just an “add on” but an integral part of the experience we offer. And, Tom is already working on bringing in vintners and brewers for wine and beer dinners and other special events in the restaurant.


No, we’re no longer a BYOB. But, I hope that’s a change you’ll grow to embrace. Tom is very passionate about what he does. He loves to talk with people about beer and wine, make pairing recommendations and encourage people to try new things. I’ll drink to that. Hope you will too.




After months of selecting sauté pans, coordinating colors and worrying about wiring, we are finally beginning pre-season.



The next baby step is inviting friends and family to try out the restaurant. These are people who have been with us throughout our journey and are willing to work with us as we break in our new staff, equipment and processes. People who have been really, really supportive over the years and feel comfortable giving us feedback and understand what we’re trying to accomplish.  



On our second night of serving friends and family, a guest asked me why I was so nervous. She said, “this ought to be a lay up for you.” I didn’t know exactly what to say. 12 hours later, I realized that she meant a “slam dunk.” I guess it was a compliment – but I’m in new surroundings, with a new menu, new staff and new equipment – I’m not even going to attempt a lay up, let alone a slam dunk. And even though I’ve been in the restaurant business for a very long time – or maybe because I’ve been in the business a very long time – I know that there is no such thing as a slam dunk. We work hard at it every day, nothing is a given.


During this pre-season period, I’ve spotted some things that need to change. Everything from how we set the tables to where blinds are needed to block headlights from cars. And then there’s the lighting system. We can’t program the system until all the lights are in. We can’t put all the lights in until we put in the banquettes. We can’t put in the banquettes because they were measured wrong and are too big. This is exactly why we need “friends and family.” They may be coming into a new situation but are not experiencing us for the first time. They know and understand where we came from and are supportive and encouraging of our journey. They are excited to be part of the process. And that’s the point  — it’s still a process, a vision – and not yet a total experience. There are lots of gaps that are slowly being filled in and adjusted. 




We’re thrilled that everyone loves Amelia’s homemade sorbets and ice creams but the pastry area is not meant to function like an ice cream parlor. We would need a special ice cream holding cabinet to scoop 4 different flavors for one order. We’d also have to hire one person just to scoop ice cream all night. So, Amelia and I are using a solution we came up with years ago- individual “dixie cups” of ice cream. (The kind you used to get with the cardboard pull up lids.) Now when Amelia runs a batch of ice cream, she will portion some into the dixie cups and pop them into the freezer for easy turnout later. Guess what? Now we need to source and order the dixie cups.


At Alison at Blue Bell, if I needed someone, I could find him or her at a glance. At Alison two, we have lots of different spaces. I might go through the kitchen to find Tom at the same time he’s going through the dining room to find me. Or, he might be downstairs stocking the wine cellar or in the walk-in making ginger beer. Our intercom system should solve the problem  – but we learned that the intercom doesn’t work if all the phone lines are busy. We set up our phone lines the way most restaurants do – but since we don’t want a machine answering calls, we found we’ll need more lines. In the meantime, we’re using our cell phones to find each other. These are some of the wrinkles we’re trying to iron out.



The bartenders are working on timing too. We don’t use mixes – we muddle fresh herbs and spices – which takes longer to make the drinks. Of course they taste better too. But they still have to arrive promptly.

Then there’s lots of silly behind-the-scenes nuances. One guest asked for a side order of Brussels sprouts and another ordered half a drink. It took some time to figure out how to enter those in the new POS (point of sale) system so that we could communicate the requests to the bar and kitchen staff. How do you write “happy birthday” on the dessert plate if there is no rim? And, if the plate isn’t flat, how do you balance the candle? And then there’s the new tandoor oven. How do we make sure the tandoor bread is ready at the same time as the monkfish?   

Nothing is easy but making it look easy is another story. We work hard at making it look easy. Our bar is now open. It’s really exciting. We’re serving classic cocktails with a twist, beer and wine, and snacks from our bar menu. We’ll open for dinner starting October 16 and lunch on October 27.  







You Light up My Life

Lighting is so important. It affects the whole vibe of a restaurant. I am lucky to have Courtney, a perfectionist by nature and photographer by profession, design the lighting at Alison two. He’s been shooting restaurants for a long time and lighting is key to photography. But, this is his first venture into lighting design.


At one point, we had lights in the ceiling soffits that bounced off recessed areas to provide an indirect glow throughout the restaurant. The current lights were chosen to be accent lights. But, due to a couple unexpected curve balls, the ceiling lights were nixed and the accent lights became the main source of light. So, that created some extra challenges.


Courtney’s new plan for creating the restaurant’s warm glow, included a lighting system with more than 30 different zones. This set the mood and helped focus attention in the right spots – whether illuminating the soft folds in the lush velvet curtains or highlighting the detail work in the meticulously refinished mirrors from the Plaza Hotel. Plus, it had the added benefit of keeping our electrician, Augie, busy.



Courtney really gave a lot of thought to every detail. He chose tiny iridescent blue tiles for the fireplace in the living room, the bathrooms and in front of the bar. In the bar, he lit them with tiny rope lights, making them glow. Then he turned his attention to the window between the bar and the pastry kitchen. The cutout allows all the great baking smells to drift through into the bar. But, he wanted to make sure the fluorescent kitchen lighting didn’t bleed into the bar area too. So, he ordered special incandescent lighting for the pastry kitchen and saved the traditional fluorescent lights for deeper areas of the kitchen. The light peeking out the kitchen entrance presented a similar challenge – even with the incandescent lighting. Courtney skirted this issue by using dark blue paint on as much of the inner pastry kitchen walls as the health department would allow, as well as darker gray flooring.



The next challenge was finding sconces and light fixtures that coordinated with the metalwork of our metal garden gates. We love the gates. We sourced them from an architectural salvage yard and will use them to separate the bar from the restaurant. Their distinct look really established the design motif for the fixtures.

Courtney envisioned metal light fixtures and sconces that mirrored the shapes in the metalwork in the gates. When he couldn’t find anything quite right, he designed them himself. You’d think custom-made fixtures would be pricey – but he even figured out how to save money. He worked with Welder Michael Sedlacek. They made some sketches and even made a sample or two before settling on the right design. And in a cost-saving measure, Courtney even cut some of the metal himself.

Next, Courtney worked with an Indiana-based company to make the intense blue stained glass – choosing a particular hue and texture. Then, he worked hand-in-hand with the Abington-based Glass Artist John Gartner  to create the sconces. John helped solve a lot of the technical and logistical issues so that the sconces and pendants could work as intended.


It took some experimentation to get everything just right. The first time we hung the sconces, the light bulbs were too high a wattage and the heat cracked the glass.


We noticed that the sconces looked great from the front but not as good from the side – where the new, weaker, light bulb glowed annoyingly. So, we added additional stained glass on the sides. Interestingly in some spots, where the sconces were very close to corners and won’t catch anyone’s eye, the light from the exposed bulb actually throws an intriguing shadow that mirrors the shape from the metal gates.

We’re making minor adjustments as we install each fixture. The lighting fixtures over the bar were just mounted, although we still don’t have the right bar stools, and we’re waiting for the banquettes to arrive so we can install the rest of the lighting. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.



One of the focal points of the private dining rooms will be a pair of mirrors that used to hang above a mantel in the Plaza Hotel. They’re each 5-1/2 feet tall by 5 feet wide. The style of the mirrors and the number of coats of paint and leafing leads us to believe they were probably part of the original décor of the grand dame hotel, which was built in 1907.

We stumbled across the mirrors in an architectural salvage shop on 24th Street in New York City. They were just leaning against a wall in between other mirrors and frames. Though the detail was clogged with nearly 100 years of paint and gold leaf. They were beautiful pieces that had been allowed to become junky – but they had such potential under the dozens of coats of paint.


We were lucky to find William Heller, a Horsham-based furniture restorer and refinisher. He had the special kind of architectural stripper needed and the skill to use it to strip away the layers of paint to reveal the original detail. 



The next stop on the journey was to Chuck O’Neill in Lafayette Hill for refinishing. First, he addressed the holes. At the Plaza, the mirrors were simply bolted to the wall above a mantel – leaving 6 or 7 holes in each frame. Chuck created molds of the frames and used them to create patches that replicated the detail. Then he painted the mirrors with homemade shellac, masked off the wood area, put primer on the detailed parts and applied sizing.


Next, the detailed parts are being covered in a thin gold leaf and the other parts are being painted with metallic gold paint. We found the ideal gold paint – called Aztec Gold. It has the right kind of glow. It has a real richness of color that works well against the bold blue of the walls and the lighting in the private dining rooms. Once the mirrors are finished we’ll post a photo. But you’ll really need to see them in person.



The meticulous restoration of these architectural gems is reflective of the care that has gone into every step of the process – from choosing plates to designing our own light fixtures. Guess that’s why it’s taking so long.






A lot of things that appear to be easy are really complex. Like the restaurant reservation system. We’ve been doing it manually at Alison at Blue Bell for the past 5+ years. Occasionally we have someone waiting for a table, but I think for the most part we have it down to a science.



Now that we’re trying to design the reservation system at Alison two, I realize how complex it is. I was apprehensive about using the Open Table  system for reservations because I didn’t want to lose control. But, after going through the training, we’re all really excited about it and looking forward to using it.


Before we even get to that point, a lot of work still needs to be done. The system requires exact floor plans with all of the tables and chairs. We have the architectural drawings showing the tables and chairs – but those have changed throughout the construction process. Everything gets adjusted as you go along.


In one area, we had to lower the ceiling, which lowered the vents, which shifted a light fixture, which shifted table placement since no one can sit with their back to a sconce. In another area, the feeling of the room changed once we added carpet and drywall. So, we decided that four deuces (tables for 2) would feel better than two four-tops (tables for 4).  We thought about how much personal space people would need and what the traffic patterns would be. Lots of things happen between putting the plan on paper and the final construction of the room when you’re actually standing in the space. Rooms shrink and grow.


Next, each table needs a number so we can identify it. And, each seat gets a position number. At Alison at Blue Bell , for example, the outside table numbers are in the 40s. So if the mussels are going to table 43 position 1. We immediately know we’re going to an outside table and who is getting the dish.

 At Alison two, each room will have a different set of numbers – so it is immediately recognizable – and each table configuration will have a different number too. The iron transom from the gates that formerly guarded 58 Park Avenue — the East German Consulate in New York City — will flank one table. Naturally, we’ll call that table 58.



Once we’ve figured out the number of tables and chairs and numbered them, we have to work on a reservation template. How many people can be seated on any given night? That depends upon how long the dining experience takes. And that depends upon so many factors — the time of day, is it lunch or dinner, are the guests celebrating a special event, how many courses will people typically order? Having a bar is another whole new experience. It changes everything. Will people want to linger over cocktails? Will they relax at the bar or in the living room before going to their table or hang out there afterwards? 


We’ve been doing that at Alison at Blue Bell for 5-1/2 yrs and have a handle on it – this all new. The concept is the same but we’re working with a whole different equation. We have to consider so many things. We need to work through it and be flexible. Fortunately, I have a resident expert to help me figure that out – Erica Cantley. I met Erica in NYC when she was head reservationist at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel and then the first female maitre d’ at his DB Bistro Moderne. I feel lucky to have her as a friend and consultant to make sure front of the house operations go as smoothly as possible.


We’re running as fast as we can. The china and glasses arrived. The wine lockers were just delivered. The bar top and hands-free kitchen sinks were all installed. Meanwhile, Alison at Blue Bell  is still open. Just like a basketball game, everything seems to be happening in the last two minutes. Stay in touch.