It’s 11:30 a.m. at Meat & Potatoes
in the Cultural District and in the kitchen, the line is manned by nearly half a dozen cooks. While chef-owner Rick DeShantz’s presence is felt, he works to defer to his crew. Even so, he’s quick to suggest a better way of slicing smoked brisket, and reminds everyone that the meat on the sandwiches needs to reach the end of the bread. “I don’t want the cheese over-melted,” he whispers. “What Rick wants, Rick gets!” cracks Nick, who’s in the kitchen with another Rick and a Rich. Somehow, they keep it all straight and everyone laughs.
By noon, the orders are flooding in and it’s a veritable ballet. Among the frequently-requested dishes are a skirt steak Thai salad with vegetables including paper-thin cucumber slices that glisten in a soy-ginger vinaigrette, and ribbons of pappardelle napped in a bolognese plump with pancetta and succulent short ribs. Fried bologna sizzles in a skillet, soon to be topped with cheese and a fried egg in an homage to the food of the chef’s youth.
“This is a fast-paced restaurant; we can’t have five components on the plate,” offers DeShantz. “The place is too big--it's a beast. We’re focusing on the flavors.” A taste test delivers.
“People want casual these days,” says the chef of his 105-seat restaurant in the heart of the theater district where an expansive oval bar takes center stage. “They don’t want you crumbing the table. I think that’s why Meat & Potatoes is successful. It’s masses, it’s crowded...this is about having a drink, kicking back. You’re not at work.”
And yet, devotees of DeShantz’s inspired cooking style will feel right at home with a menu that’s more robust than refined and that does offer a plate of meat and potatoes, albeit one sporting a 34-oz. ribeye alongside confit steak fries and graced with homemade steak sauce and a bone marrow gratin. “There’s a lot of food [on the menu] that I’ve had over the years, plus street food and what I ate as a child. I know my customers and I know how the menu has to look, and [the Theater District crowd] want to get in and out fast. The thing about this place is that, even in the bar, everyone eats! The idea is to still do chef-driven food but on a budget and reach out to a wider audience. I want to do food that everyone can relate to and take it to another level.” True to his claim, the average price of an entree at Meat & Potatoes is $18.
The 40-year-old DeShantz is a known quantity on the downtown dining scene, having opened Nine on Nine, a temple of haute cuisine, eight years ago. “People said to me, ‘are you insane?’ There were nothing but prostitutes in the area. I give all the credit to the Cultural Trust – they’ve cleaned this city up.” A fan of the city’s urban core and its promise (he lives downtown at the Liberty Lofts), the chef has gone all in at Meat & Potatoes with 80 employees and lunch, dinner and late-night service, along with a successful weekend brunch.
The restaurant, which opened 18 months ago, is a seven-day-a-week, day-into-night exercise for DeShantz due to its immediate success. A gastropub marrying the convivial atmosphere of a bar with expertly-prepared food, it owes much to the blood, sweat and tears of its owner, who labored, literally, over every detail. The room is a show piece, a brown velvet banquette arcing gracefully around one side and snug against marble-topped bistro tables. The ample use of mirrors above the banquette serves to expand the space, and a wall of windows opposite looks onto bustling Penn Avenue and a courtyard that hums in warm weather. Sculpted animal heads watch from above and all eyes point to a perpetually-packed 25-seat bar. Understandably, DeShantz is relying heavily on his staff, a stretch for a perfectionist who used to pride himself on touching every plate that left his kitchen. “This food is more forgiving. I’m trying to learn to be more of an owner.”
Being the owner is satisfying for the kid from Sheraden, who grew up poor and started working in kitchens, including the one at his uncle’s restaurant, at the age of 15 and was soon up to 40 hours a week. “One of my favorite things to do as a teen was go to dinner. I’d go to the Top of the Triangle, the Grand Concourse, take a bus and go to LeMont. And I was 15 years old! I loved dining. It took me away from how poor I was. But I didn’t think it was what I’d do for a living. That was a different time.” Even so, he continued on to cooking school and went on to cook at the well-established Hyeholde. What followed was something of a grand tour that took DeShantz to Puerto Rico and Colorado wrapped around a summer of backpacking and cooking stints in Chicago and Martha’s Vineyard. He eventually came back to the Hyeholde and was sleeping in a tent behind the restaurant when owner Barbara McKenna game him a place to live. DeShantz then helped get the Mediterra Bakehouse off the ground (he still kicks himself for not insisting on an ownership interest in the successful enterprise) and opened an eponymous cafe in the Strip District prior to Nine on Nine, where he is no longer involved on a day-to-day basis.
Tolga Sevdik, the restaurant’s general manager, has been with DeShantz since Nine on Nine and is his partner at Meat & Potatoes. The duo will soon combine on the aptly-named Pork & Beans, a little brother to the gastropub slated for a fall 2013 opening in Lawrenceville. They had hoped to open another restaurant downtown but couldn’t come to terms with the building owner. DeShantz dashes off to a 2 p.m. meeting with his architect in a black Porsche Carrera that suits his bachelor lifestyle and he’s a full participant, sketching things out as they discuss the concept. “I’m thinking kinda funky-industrial, drink driven, 30 beers on tap...” He also imbues the conversation with impulses gleaned from recent trips to Paris (“they eat outdoors year round, this could work here”) and Rio de Janeiro (“the street food is amazing!”). The fact that he can hop a plane to San Francisco to see his beloved Steelers is a source of fun and satisfaction, as is fielding calls from the likes of Tom Cruise, who fell in love with the restaurant while in town filming “Jack Reacher.”
Back in the kitchen, cooks are busily prepping for dinner as the clock nears five. DeShantz happily joins in, forming golf-ball-sized salt cod fritters that will be offered as a “Snack” on the evening menu alongside a chorizo aioli. Sevdik calls out to his dining room staff: “One minute, everyone! Are we ready?” At precisely five o’clock, the lights go down and the doors open. Immediately, people pour in. By 5:15 p.m., a group of about eight youngish men is arrayed on a blue velvet couch and hi-backed wing chairs in DeShantz’s self-styled swank lobby. Two of them pull out laptops while several peruse the drink menu. “What’s good here?” asks one.
The answer comes as no surprise. “Everything.”
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen