Archive for February, 2008

I suppose it would be easy to walk into an interior design store and buy new things for Alison two –  just like it is easier to open a can, dump it into a bowl and microwave it. But, that’s just not the way we do things.

 Architectural Salvage Yard

The other day we went to an architectural salvage yard. The salvage yard was just overflowing in cool things – a real feast for the eyes. Chairs hanging from the ceiling, old bureaus, doorknobs, cigarette machines, European style coat racks, window frames, tin ceilings, tiles, light fixtures, antique tables and more. We spent hours sloshing through the mud, rooting around for hidden gems – like a pig searching for truffles.


My favorite find was a pair of mirrors that used to hang above the mantels in The Plaza Hotel. Imagine what they might have seen!




Then we stumbled across some cool iron garden doors from a big, old iron gate. We’ll need to strip and finish them, but they’ll be interesting for dividing the bar and private dining room from the main dining room. The iron gates will add lots of texture, interesting detail and, once we add curtains, sound absorbency. And we’re using a design element from the grates in the sconces and the foot rail around the bar that we’re having custom-made.

Custom Ironwork

Some things we find — or have custom made — for the restaurant. Other things find me and just end up in the restaurant. I collect things along the way. My friends know that when you open up the gate to my backyard, the theme song from Sanford and Son comes on. Long before I even thought of opening a second restaurant, I was walking through the Marais district in Paris enjoying all the great little shops. They’re filled with unique items that aren’t mass produced. I found these two scrolls with a really interesting print on them. I didn’t have anywhere to put them, at that time, so they’ve stayed rolled up in the corner of my apartment. I finally found a home for them — they will flank the fireplace in the living room at Alison two. It is the perfect place for them.

I’d much rather find things I love and then find a place for them than have an empty space and have to look for things to love. The space will be newly renovated but it will be filled with things I’ve collected over the years in different parts of the world – giving it flavor and personality. Just like our food and wine.

I’m off sample some of the Yards beers we’re pairing with foods for our Beer Dinner next week and then I have to play around with a marshmallow recipe to see how it works with kosher gelatin, for the cooking class coming up in New York. Until next week…



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I love to read cookbooks. I can read a recipe and taste it. I can put flavors, textures and tastes together in my head. I can taste things without actually tasting them.

I wish that ability translated into being able to visualize interior design. But, it doesn’t. I just can’t look at a 3” by 3” paint chip, square of carpeting and picture of a light and get a feel for how it will all come together.

Mock-Up of Chair 

Here’s the dilemma. At the hotel show in November, I found a chair that I love. It is awesome! I don’t feel that the chairs need to be unique – but they should be comfortable and have a sense of style. Plus, the fabric and stitching can be customized. So, we fell in love with a lush ultrasuede fabric. It is blue – not blueberry, not royal, not Duke blue (sorry, Blue Devil fans!), not too much red – a deep blue. We took it to the restaurant and looked at it in lunchtime light and dinnertime light. We spilled wine, chocolate and ketchup on it to make sure it was hearty. Perfect!


Then, we found out that this perfect fabric had to be custom made-great. In Japan-fine. Then shipped to China, where the chairs are made-okay. Then shipped to the U.S., which could take a while, even if things go well with customs – Ooops! That means there is a possibility they may not be here in time for the opening.

That was bad enough. Then we found out the price. It didn’t seem too bad by the square foot – until you multiplied it by 120 chairs. Whoa! The fabric for the chairs ends up costing more than the chairs. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.


Mock up of Chair Needed a moment to think about that. Are these chairs so important? Is this fabric the only option? How much would it cost to rent chairs while we wait for ours to arrive? To figure that out, I took that paint swatch to Loew’s and had them make a can of paint. I painted a wall in my apartment, laid down the carpet sample and the chair fabric and lived with it for a few days. Then, I tried a second, similar fabric that Lee McGillin found. That helped me decide whether to hold out for the chair fabric we originally chose OR to order something else.

I decided to go with the original fabric we chose. After badgering the companies, Lee found out that the lead-time is less than originally anticipated. It’s just a better fabric  – it has more give to it and is a better final product. I feel that I need to be as respectful of the design as I am to the food in the kitchen.

The fabric will be a world traveler – from Japan to China to Ft. Washington. A bit like me.


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My days are hectic. I spent the morning making bread pudding on NBC-10’s 10! Show  and the afternoon thinking about Point of Sale (POS) systems. That’s the computer system we’ll use for taking customers’ orders, tracking sales, inventory, etc. at the restaurant.


At Alison at Blue Bell everything is done by hand. We use a laptop at the restaurant for seating charts and printing menus. We have QuickBooks at the office. Everything else is manual. But, it’s easy since I can see the whole restaurant from the kitchen-another reason I love open kitchens. Alison two (A2) will be much bigger and have different rooms. We need a POS system. It will tell me how many people are in each section, what course each diner is on, if there are special orders, how many covers a server has, keep track of sales. It lets me stay on top of things. 


Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a MAC person. I have four macs and an iphone (that I love!). Most POS systems are windows-based but I’ve been looking for a MAC-based POS system. It’s been a long saga…and I’m about to give up.


First, I signed up to be a beta-tester (testing a product before it goes to market in a real life situation and giving feedback to the company) on a MAC-based system. I never heard back. 


There is a MAC-based system by Xsilva. But, it is designed for retail, not restaurants. My system has to have the capability to send one order to the salad station, bar, entrée station and dessert station – not to one guy in the back who stocks orders. Plus, I need tech support when the restaurant is open – even if it is a Saturday night at 8 p.m. Because you just know that’s when it’ll go down!


The next company I called didn’t answer their phone. I found and met with a New York-based company. They were sure they had the right system for me but I never heard back. I didn’t take it personally. Then I found a company in Doylestown, but I’ve left two messages and nothing. Another company’s website said they could design anything – but when I talked to them they said they’d never done this kind of system before. Then I re-connected with a guy in Australia who I knew had a mac-based POS system. I felt that I’d FINALLY found the answer. But when I asked where I could see one in action, he suddenly disappeared into the Outback. I think he’s on a POS walkabout .

I even emailed Walter Mossberg. Yes, the one who writes “Mossberg’s Mailbox” in the Wall Street Journal.  I actually got a response – I was psyched. Except that he wrote to tell me that he only addresses consumer issues – not commercial. Still, it was really nice of him to write.

Although I don’t like to admit…I give up. It’s not for lack of trying. People say, “it’s YOUR restaurant you can do what you want.” HA! It doesn’t quite work that way. Looks like the MAC based POS system is going the way of the open kitchen – I just can’t do it.

Well, it is Valentine’s Day so there’s a lot to be done. Then we’ll start thinking about our upcoming Beer Dinner and launching this great marshmallow cookbook . And wait until I tell you about the chairs. You better be sitting down for that one!



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Did you see Betsy’s comment about noise levels in restaurants? She says, in part, “…big groups go out for fun and laughter and it’s great – unless you and your friend or husband or date went out for a quiet evening and quiet talk. I want them to enjoy themselves – just not next to us when we are two!”  

Betsy, I agree. It is certainly something we’re trying to be sensitive to as we design Alison two. But, it can be a thin line. If a restaurant is too quiet, it feels a bit uncomfortable. We don’t want a library. We want to hear the sound of people enjoying the food and company. The sound of people enjoying themselves is a great sound! It creates a great vibe.

The fun way to measure for booths

It is very hard to anticipate how loud things are going to be. We’re not really going to know until the restaurant is full. The time of day and night of week make a difference too. On Valentine’s Day we’re full but – not surprisingly — it is a quiet night. Other nights we might not be full, but one loud person or table can change the whole atmosphere. It is particularly tough at Alison at Blue Bell, which is one big room. It’ll be easier at Alison two, because it is divided into several different spaces.

We evaluate each design element both by how it looks and by whether it will absorb sound. We’re considering the noise levels in each space and how it will flow into adjoining areas. The other day, we looked at a divider that would separate the bar from the dining room. It was really interesting – sleek. But, we nixed it because we felt that sound would bounce off of it instead of being absorbed. To further absorb noise, we’re looking for ways to use fabric – like carpeting the bar rather than putting down the typical hardwood floors. In the entrance area, I wanted to hang a framed photo across from the windows. That got nixed because we thought it would encourage sound to bounce between the windows and glass. And, on the enclosed porch, which has a wall of windows, we’re limiting the seating to 2-tops and 4-tops with just one 6-top. Next, we’re considering how to separate the private dining rooms. We want something that provides privacy and sound absorption.

In our weekly meetings, noise levels come up repeatedly. It is a balancing act – it starts now and will probably continue even after the doors open.

Well, I’m going to quietly sneak off to work on those copy changes for the Alison at Blue Bell website, create tips about cooking with chocolate for my appearance on NBC-10’s 10! Show next week and meet with Yard’s about our upcoming Philly Beer Week dinner…

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