From the get-go—when it opened in late 2018—Baltimoreans have known that the tiny Le Comptoir du Vin in Station North, with its homey French classics and some 34 seats, was something special. But last year, when Bon Appetit named the boîte one of the Best New Restaurants in America (followed by a shout-out in Esquire as the “sexiest third-date spot in America”), co-owner couple Rosemary Liss and Will Mester found themselves in the center of a feeding frenzy, and scoring a table became something of a sport.
Now, with their normal operations shut down, the pandemic has given the duo a chance to regroup, reflect, and even open an online bottle shop featuring their natural wines. Plus, they’re offering a rotating menu of items including their signature lentils and silken pâté for carryout.
“What’s happening now is terrible,” says Mester, “and we want to get back to real life, but this feels like a sabbatical.” Adds Liss: “It has been wild for sure. We are feeling lucky because we had that year—it gives us support now. It has also given us a chance to catch our breath, so there is a silver lining.”
How did you come up with your new business model of running an online bottle shop?
Rosemary Liss: Waking up every morning in panic mode, you have to try to utilize that energy into something. We were starting to see restaurants, especially in New York, doing carryout models specifically with wine, so setting up a bottle shop online was our first step. We weren’t sure we were comfortable selling food at the time.
What did it take to set up the site?
RL: I spent the first three days learning how to use the Squarespace e-commerce platform, cataloging and photographing all of our wine, and putting our inventory online—that saved us. It gave us a chance to take a second and step back to reflect, but also keep paying our bills. Because we’d been so busy, we ordered a ton of wine. We were were sitting on 1,000 bottles at one point, so I was like, ‘Let’s just keep it moving,’ and people were excited to stock up for the impending quarantine and also support us.
I spent the first three days learning how to use the Squarespace e-commerce platform, cataloging and photographing all of our wine, and putting our inventory online—that saved us. —Rosemary Liss
What about menu items?
RL: We have added food, but we’re keeping it really minimal for safety. Our menu is so small based on our space, so we rotate through things.
Will Mester: We make a stew every week that tends to revolve around what heirloom beans I can get, which are really hard to come by right now. Basically, I go to various groceries, raid their shelves, and then use a seasonal ingredient or two. On a whim, I put pozole on the menu, which is completely uncharacteristic of something that would be on our menu food-wise, but it's a time to just experiment a little bit and not be so on brand. I really do cook with what I want to cook. The restaurant is just a reflection of our personalities and we are not trying to be so rigid. In this context, it comes naturally to just do things that we don’t typically do.
RL: We also have to think about what we can package that will be enjoyable for people to eat in their own home and reheat so it feels fresh and delicious when they sit down to eat it. Originally, we were trying to work with what we had in stock and trying not to spend anything, if possible.
How are things working for you revenue-wise?
RL: In April, we had a little bit of a loss because we were paying off vendors from more robust times, but it was very minimal. Luckily, we had a little bit of support savings. I’m hoping now, because we’ve been really steady, that we can stay even. I feel like the fear of waking up every morning and being like, ‘Are we going to survive this?’ has passed. I try to channel it into these projects. But then there’s always the fear that people are going to stop spending money. Things are going well, and we have consistent business, but will that last?
There’s always the fear that people are going to stop spending money. Things are going well, and we have consistent business, but will that last? —Rosemary Liss
I know you were booked for months prior to the pandemic and heard through the grapevine that you wrote a personal note to patrons whose reservations had to be canceled.
RL: Resy has been phenomenal through all of this and they waived all fees through next December. They cancelled everything for us, but I wanted to send a personal note, so I was able to pull that entire list of people who had reservations through the following month and email everyone to say they will be the first to know when we reopen. When we reopen the books, they get first dibs. It was 300 people. It was for 30 days of reservations starting March 16, which is when we had to close.
That’s such a lovely gesture.
RL: I think its really important right now. We are all struggling. I want people to know that we are still thinking about everyone we care about. From the start, something that was important to us was creating a space that was really convivial and we were there all the time interacting with customers. For those of us in the restaurant world, that’s the most important thing—making it feel like home.
WM: It’s important to have some kind of connection with your guests.
Have you thought about what it might look like when you reopen? Le Comptoir is tiny...how will social distancing work in such a small space?
RL: They were saying that restaurants might open at 25 percent capacity. If we open at 25 percent, there would be like five people in there—it’s not worth it for us to run a restaurant. We can do more carryout than have people dine with us. We’ve played around with some ideas and have to see how things have unfolded in other states. We’re starting to pay attention to see what works and what doesn’t. We are taking it slowly, day by day, re-evaluating things constantly, and not making any rash decisions right now.
Food on some level can only be so interesting, but when you put it in the context of sitting in the restaurant and having that experience, it’s special. —Will Mester
What’s it like to be in the space without the hustle and bustle of the dining room?
WM: In many ways, it’s not all that different from just a typical prep day. For me, it feels just like you’re preparing for a private event.
RL: I have been enjoying the aspect of it feeling like you’re running a little shop, photographing everything, setting everything up, getting the orders together. In some ways, there’s less stress not preparing for a really busy dinner.
Will you have carryout when you reopen?
WM: Carryout is not really our M.O.
RL: It’s just a necessity right now, but it doesn’t ever fully replicate the experience of sitting down in the restaurant and enjoying the food Will makes.
WM: Food on some level can only be so interesting, but when you put it in the context of sitting in the restaurant and having that experience, it’s special.
From the start, something that was important to us was creating a space that was really convivial and we were there all the time interacting with customers. For those of us in the restaurant world, that’s the most important thing—making it feel like home. —Rosemary Liss
What are doing with your free time?
RL: For the first time since we opened the restaurant, we are sitting down to dinner.
WM: The first week was almost surreal to have the kind of energy to really cook well at home. We do a lot of cooking at home, but our free time is so limited, we don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen at home. The first week or two that we were here, we were just making good food and sitting down at the dining room table. It was really weird—now it feels normal. I’ve been really getting into baking, making pizza, and food projects that would be daunting or just seem like I wouldn't have the time for otherwise—that has been incredible.
What kinds of things have you made?
WM: I got this really nice steak from John Brown—a strip steak with some really garlicky rosemary potatoes and some speck at the very end to season the steak with. It was one of the less complicated meals to put together. We also took the legs and thighs off a chicken carcass and rubbed the chicken down with an herb marinade. Then we put the speck underneath the chicken skin to make a sauce. There’s been a lot of really good cooking at the house.
RL: Sometimes we just eat chips and guac, though.
I’ve been doing more yoga, reading for pleasure, going to the shop. I’m getting into art projects that fell by the wayside and doing some kitchen stuff with Will like learning how to de-bone a chicken.
WM: We are just lucky with how small the restaurant is and how manageable it has been. Rosemary is working really hard right now getting the website together and dealing with daily operation there. But there has been of lot of new energy being developed. When we get back, all of this is going to work its way into how the restaurant operates. It will be a little bit of a new Comptoir, maybe only noticeable to us.
There’s going to be a lot of restaurants that close and a lot of restaurants that we love to go to that are really underrepresented, and that's really sad. But restaurants are too old, they are too important, they will survive and things will get back. —Will Mester
Why do restaurants matter?
WM: At the end of the day, I’m extremely optimistic about restaurants. There’s going to be a lot of restaurants that close and a lot of restaurants that we love to go to that are really underrepresented, and that's really sad. But restaurants are too old, they are too important, they will survive and things will get back.
A lot of people in this country are talking about what’s going to happen to restaurants. David Chang thinks that food is going to revert back to the ’80s or ’90s when there weren’t as many options and big chains running things, but I can’t imagine that people in Paris are wondering about the fate of their restaurant culture. It's so tied into everyday life. It’s the fabric of those cities and they are just as important here. People have to go to restaurants. People have to go out, they have to socialize. Restaurants provide that space. This is what cities are all about. Without them you’re just a prisoner of your own life.
What about in Baltimore?
WM: It’s going to be stronger—absolutely going to be stronger—that often happens in times of adversity. Restaurants will survive.
What are you looking forward to when Le Comptoir reopens?
WM: I’m looking forward to having everyone back in the restaurant, from working to get ready for service and seeing the space come to life to cleaning down the kitchen at 10 o’ clock and going over to Pen & Quill to have a beer.
RL: I have a hard time not working. I do a bad job at self-care, but I’ve been implementing new systems in my life since we’ve been closed. I hope to create better boundaries so I can be a better boss and more sustainable in my job when we reopen. But I also look forward to seeing the whole dining room filled with candles, especially in the fall when it gets a little bit darker and when everyone walks in. It’s so cozy and beautiful when the space is all lit up.