Moving at a pace between running and sprinting, Bill Collins strides twenty feet across one of Center Square Grill’s many dining rooms and abruptly comes to a stop.
I guess I’m following too closely, because I have to pull an evasive maneuver to avoid plowing into him. When I collect myself enough to peer around his broad fame, I see two women putting on coats, getting ready to head for the door. They look happy, satisfied.
“Two days in a row, ladies!” Collins says. He beams, big eyes and toothy smile competing for center stage on a broad face. “Thank you so much,” he says, casually reaching out to help one of the women with her coat.
“Actually, this is three days in a row,” she says, looking up at Collins the way a grandmother might gaze at her favorite grandchild.
It’s after two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, but the place is still hopping. Located in a plaza in Center Square in East Longmeadow, the building housed until recently one of Claudio Guerra’s Spoleto restaurants. Collins, who lives in Northampton, and his business partner Michael Sakey, a Westfield resident, bought the restaurant from Guerra, closed briefly to redecorate and reorganize, and opened the doors with a new concept in April.
Both Collins and Sakey were longtime managers for Guerra, one of the Valley’s best-known restaurateurs and a man Collins refers to as his “mentor and close personal friend.” When Guerra determined that the restaurant was too big for his purposes, Collins and Sakey jumped at the chance to buy it. What Guerra saw as a disadvantage—the place is enormous—inspires the new owners, who see opportunities to expand well into the future.
Thanking the two patrons again, Collins turns to make sure I’m still in tow and heads deeper into the restaurant. He leads the way past the bar—all but a few stools are filled; talk, laughter and music create an ambient sense of conviviality—and on to the visual centerpiece of the restaurant: a long counter and warming table in front of an open grill.
There we meet J.D. Fairman, the chef Collins and Sakey have recruited from New Jersey. While Collins rushes off to exchange a few words with one of his patrons—the guest is instantly recognizable from his TV commercials as Manny Rovithis, owner of Manny’s TV and Appliances—Fairman fills me in on his resume and his philosophy of cooking.
“It can’t be all about the chef’s ego,” Fairman says. “It has to be about delighting people with really tasty, well-prepared food.” He says he’s excited by his collaboration with Collins and Sakey because they share his passion for great food. While the menu may feature steaks dry-aged on premises—later, Collins will take me down into the restaurant’s cavernous cellar to proudly show off the large glass case where slabs of beef hang to dry-age for twenty-eight days before they’re ready to be butchered, prepared and served—the owners and their chef have put together an expansive menu that allows, Fairman says, “for the opportunity to explore all sorts of interesting cuisine.”
Fairman tells me he wants the food at Center Square Grill to be “extremely approachable,” but nuanced. “Frankly, I really don’t care if everyone comes away recognizing all the subtleties, the nuanced complexity of flavors, as long as they leave really happy and eager to come back,” Fairman says.
The lunch and dinner menus—or the menus and accompanying photos at Center Square Grill’s website (www.centersquaregrill.com)—reinforce a point Fairman makes with audible emphasis: “We want to give our customers as much choice as we can, not to make all the decisions for them and ask them to take it or leave it.”
Under the heading “Simply Grilled,” for example, the menu asks patrons to “choose a protein” from a list that includes Atlantic salmon, chicken and, of course, dry-aged steak, to “choose a sauce”—from Chimichurri (parsley, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, and flakes of chili pepper) to Gorgonzola cream (Gor-gonzola cheese, house-made garlic butter, cream and shallots), Port Demi ( a classic brown sauce blended with port wine) to Au Poivré (cognac, cream, garlic butter, black peppercorns). The meals come with a choice of two sides from a list that includes garlic mashed potatoes, steak house mushrooms, local seasonal vegetables and roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon. If that doesn’t seem like enough to fill you up, you can add a “topper” of shrimp scampi or pan seared scallops—items available as entrees in another section of the menu.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a chef since I was twelve,” Fairman tells me. “I’ve been cooking professionally since I was eighteen. I’ve worked in some great restaurants, rubbed shoulders with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. I can honestly say that this is the best management team I’ve ever worked with. It’s reflected in the menu, in the quality of ingredients we’re working with, in the service, in the decor. This is something special.”
Fairman heads back to the kitchen as Collins returns to continue the tour. He leads the way to the cellar, pausing on the stairs to point to a sign overhead: “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t serve it.” Collins turns his hands palms up and shrugs. “A simple idea, but one we can never forget,” he says.
As I begin to take full measure of the facility, I have to ask two obvious business questions: how many meals is such a vast operation capable of turning out every day, and how many employees will it take to keep the party rolling? Collins’ eyes light up as if Alex Trebek has just announced a Final Jeopardy! question that he knows will win him the game.
“We did 550 [meals] last Saturday,” he says, adding that, although Center Square Grill is still new enough to be generating bigger numbers than it will likely see after the initial curiosity wears off, “business is much better than even my most optimistic projections.” Even his worse-case projection of the possible percentage dropoff as the business matures and sales settle to a lower average level, he says, will still allow the restaurant to be an unqualified success.
“And that’s good,” he says, “because we have a big staff and a big payroll to meet.” The restaurant employs about 75 people, he says.
It’s a big place, Collins acknowledges. But he’s sure he and his team have the passion to maintain the quality, not just of the food, but of the “total experience.” He tells me a story that shows his sense of devotion, his belief that there’s no substitute for hands-on management in a successful restaurant.
“I make every ravioli we serve by hand. I don’t trust anyone else with that job,” he says, describing his process step by step, from rolling and cutting the dough to filling each one with just the right amount of ricotta and other ingredients. “People have told me that I can buy really great ravioli already made, but I wouldn’t think of it.”
Later, as we stand with Chef Fairman at the long counter in front of the open grill, sampling a perfectly prepared steak, Collins gives me another clue to his motivations as a restaurateur. Growing up in Long Island, he worked in his family’s hotel and restaurant. “It’s in my blood. I love everything about the business,” he says. When he came to Northampton as a young man, he was swept up in the city’s burgeoning dining scene: “When I wasn’t working, I was out trying as much great food as I could afford.”
Collins says that the New York strip on Center Square Grill’s menu could easily sell for $32, but—against the advice of his chef—he set the price at $27.
“I remember being bummed out as a young guy when some of the food I wanted to try was just beyond what I could afford,” he says. “I don’t want this restaurant to be inaccessible in any way, even if I can’t hold the right margins on some items. I want this to be a place everyone can enjoy.” •