In two decades of welcoming guests to Restaurant Nicholas—a beacon of fine dining on Route 35 in Red Bank—Nicholas Harary never raised an eyebrow at how his customers dressed, until he did.
“For the first 15 years,” he says, “I never had to tell someone they couldn’t wear shorts, because no one ever tried. By 2017, a few times a summer guys would come in shorts, and we’d ask them to sit in the bar. By 2019, we were sending like 50 guys in shorts a week to the bar. I felt like we were fighting society, but we just wanted people to enjoy our food.”
Meanwhile, Harary himself was changing. “I started out,” he says, “in double-breasted suits with wide lapels, then went to three-button, then two-button, and now I’m in jeans.”
Lo and behold, jeans and shorts are welcome at Nicholas Barrel & Roost, which Harary and his wife and partner, Melissa, opened in late August after a transformative redesign of the existing building and the menu. Among the innovations: a childrens’ menu. The $12–$13 price includes ice cream from Nicholas Creamery, which Nicholas—in a harbinger of “the trajectory I was planning”—launched in Atlantic Highlands in 2018.
“For the first time,” says Melissa, “my kids can come and eat here.” Young Nicholas, 13, and Juliana, 11, are not just eating, but, says their mom, helping out, washing dishes and carrying plates. “Having them be a part of it, in a more relaxed atmosphere, is wonderful.”
Last Christmas, the Hararys sent out a greeting card that might have made all but their closest friends scratch their heads. It showed the couple and their kids in hard hats and coveralls. It read: “Here’s to 20 years. Now for the next chapter.”
The Hararys had come to the end of the 20-year business plan that launched Restaurant Nicholas in 2000. “People asked us, ‘What are you doing?’ says Melissa. “We said, ‘We’re not telling you. It’s a surprise.’”
The couple had forged the 20-year plan in the late ’90s, when Nicholas had risen to sommelier of the soon-to-be-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan. Raised by his mom in East Brunswick, he had once dreamed of owning a pizza place like the one he had worked at in his teens—until the owner told him, “Go to culinary school, or you’ll be like me, making ziti in the back of a pizzeria.”
Earning a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Nicholas went to California to learn wine, and eventually arrived at Jean-Georges. Conceiving Restaurant Nicholas, Melissa and he decided, “every place opening in New York is high-end fine dining. People work in the city, but live out here, so let’s bring it to the suburbs,” he says.
With little to their name but a 1989 Ford Probe with a blown clutch, they took over a rundown Mexican restaurant, maxed out a slew of new credit cards, and created Restaurant Nicholas.
“It took a couple years to develop our audience,” he recalls. “I always felt Restaurant Nicholas was an art form first and a business second. For the first couple years, I was trying to explain to customers what the art form was. Then for the next 16, 17 years, people understood and came for what we were creating.”
Under a series of executive chefs, the food drew from French, Italian and American sources to combine finesse and forwardness. In 2009 came a richly photographed cookbook of dishes ranging from salmon with beet jus and horseradish cream to pumpkin agnolotti in brown butter to coconut tapioca pudding with passion fruit sauce.
Initially, roasts were carved tableside and plates arrived at the table under silver cloches. The Hararys redecorated or renovated roughly every five years, and over time, service became less formal.
As the 20-year clock wound down and the couple contemplated the future, “I always thought we would do something else,” Nicholas says. “I didn’t want to be that place that people say, ‘Yeah, it used to be great.’”
As it turned out, “2019 was our best year,” Nicholas says. “The rate of growth was slowing, but we were still growing. We talked about shutting down, and our accountant said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” On the contrary, they were newly focused. In January, both came down with Covid-19, probably among the earliest cases in the state. When they recovered, they realized, “We were still young and vibrant,” says Melissa, 49. “I feel less formal now than I did in my 20s.”
Nicholas, too, wanted change. “I didn’t love anymore that the only reason people would come was for a special occasion,” he says. “I realized I didn’t want to stop running a restaurant. I wanted to stop Restaurant Nicholas. I wanted to see kids in the dining room. I had been developing my pizza dough at my house for like 15 years. I wanted it on the menu. I also wanted a burger. We went through I don’t know how many versions before we were pleased with the outcome.”
The Hararys thought they’d stay open and renovate piecemeal, as they’d done in 2005. “It would have taken much longer,” Melissa says. “But once the pandemic hit, we decided to look at it as a blessing in disguise and do it in one shot.”
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When outdoor dining was approved in June, they decided to go ahead and build the stone patio that had been planned for later. Large folding doors connect it to what used to be the main dining room, but is now the capacious bar, over which hangs a fanciful light fixture of filaments inside green-tinted gallon jugs.
The Barrel part of the name refers to Nicholas’s barrel-aged bourbons and subscription wine sales. “Roost” fits the menu—hello, fried chicken!—and also the overall informality. At Restaurant Nicholas, valets would take your car when you pulled into the lot. Now you park your own, which feels just right.
“Barrel & Roost,” says the man whose name is still in the title, “is the anti-Nicholas.” His restaurant has changed; his attire has changed. His megawatt smile? That hasn’t changed at all.Click here to leave a comment