LENOX — The name of one of the town’s most prominent restaurants has evolved to Nudel Bar: Comfort & Craft. But the mission developed by founder and owner Bjorn Somlo in 2009, when he was 29, remains consistent.
“The food is humble and approachable, but also worth the trip,” he said. “I think comfort food is a great term. At its best, it tastes really good and makes you feel good, but it doesn’t mean ‘heavy.’”
Within a year of opening, Somlo’s venture at an intimate, 30-seat space won raves in the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Yankee Magazine and Food & Wine magazine, among others. Somlo was nominated as a rising star chef and best chef in the Northeast by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, named for the late “Dean of American Cookery.” There was plenty of buzz among visitors from New York and Boston, as well as local “foodies” and area chefs.
After the pandemic forced a shutdown on March 17, 2020, Nudel resurfaced periodically as a “pop up, to-go” venture with names like Cap ’N Mac’s and Lucky Duck, with limited outdoor seating in the summer.
Nudel, at 37 Church St., reopened on Nov. 5, serving from 5 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and noon to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The days and hours are subject to change, “based on where the clientele takes us and where the staff’s sweet spot is,” Somlo said.
He acknowledged that “staffing in this industry is incredibly difficult right now. Because the jobs are not good! It’s incredibly tough to be in service, it’s a double-edged sword of managing people’s expectations with a lot of emotions behind that, and a feeling [by some diners] of ‘owed-ness’ and retribution.”
In Somlo’s view, “we in the industry have always been put in a tough spot, that we have to use this smiling customer-always-right language because that’s how we get you, and we’ve done a very poor job of saying, ‘We all have a responsibility.’ The staff has a responsibility to set a clean room that is welcoming and that they’re performing well in the space. But the customer has a responsibility to act with manners and kindness, and to understand that gratuities are not a negotiable punishment system.”
At Nudel, everyone is paid “a high minimum wage,” Somlo explained, and pooled gratuities are shared by the entire staff “so no one gets treated poorly for whatever reason.”
The no-reservation policy will continue. The menu changes frequently and is posted online at nudelrestaurant.com. Somlo has applied for an all-alcohol license, which is awaiting approval from the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. Currently, Nudel offers beer and wine.
The seasonally-inspired “New American” menu prepared by head chef Ryan McIntyre ranges widely, based on what’s available and appropriate seasonally, with heartier offerings in winter. Somlo hopes to expand the current staff of three.
Citing his relighting of The Lantern Bar & Grill in Pittsfield in 2019, Somlo likens Nudel to “Lantern South — the food is great, the service is chill. It’s not a precious experience, it’s tasty.”
Somlo grew up in the nearby Austerlitz, N.Y., attended Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, and learned the culinary trade at restaurants in New Orleans, New York City and at the Stagecoach Tavern in Sheffield.
The following excerpts from a recent conversation with The Eagle are lightly edited for length:
Q: Is this all about getting back to the roots of your creation here?
A: We want to get back to the basics. We want to make good food. That should cover it, and everything else is extra. We’re trying to make the best of the situation we’re in, trying to make something we think people will enjoy, but also expect them to bring joy into the restaurant. We want a space where we maintain the passion of the people making and serving the food, so we’re going to nurture them, and in exchange, we believe your experience is going to be better because of it.
Q: Given the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and staffing, how did you decide on the best course forward?
A: This small restaurant just got smaller. It wasn’t obvious what was the best thing to do. Our priority during COVID has been to keep our staff employed, and add something back to the community that was fun because life’s tough, so we did “pop-ups” and “to-go’s” during the summer. This fall has been a bit more stressful, because we’re in this “hybrid” COVID. As it’s progressively gone longer, my natural thought would be that there would be more opportunities. Who would have thought that we now have more restaurants and other new businesses in Lenox than we’ve had in 15 years? That puts us in a really interesting position, trying to figure out what the clientele wants. Is it going to certain places that are packed? Or is there also a clientele that wants to be dining out in a place where they feel safe. This year, it seems really hard to figure out what that is.
Q: So, amid all this uncertainty, how did you come to a decision?
A: We worked hard to figure out a space that we think acknowledges how small we are — 20 seats — and gives people the sense that they have their own space to enjoy. We’re in a particularly difficult situation, because our product has always been really great food in an intimate space. The nature of the pandemic just hit us exceptionally hard in our options on how to continue. … The biggest thing is, we’re going back to our roots. When we opened 12 years ago, I was just a 29-year-old passionate chef who wanted to find a space to cook. We focused on putting great food on the table while giving the people working with us a great environment not only to be creative as cooks but also have good jobs while creating something the clientele enjoyed.
Q: Many restaurants are predictable and some diners prefer that, but you’re catering to people who like exploration and adventure.
A: For a lot of people, consistency is king, and we were consistent. We consistently changed. To be able to bring in cooks with the talent we were able to find meant that their job had to be interesting, to make food that they cared about. That meant working with the seasons, working with a dish to its evolution and then retiring it until maybe it comes out again. That was about putting food on the table that everyone was excited about, and how do we run a business to pay our bills. Nudel’s about good food, super dialed-back casual service, and the idea is if you’re hungry and you want something good, you come here.
Q: What is the new configuration of the space here?
A: We have four tables that seat four people comfortably, we have four seats at the bar and we’re offering takeout as long as we’re not too busy in the dining room. Actual occupancy will probably be 55 percent, because most tables are two, or three, or maybe one person sitting to eat lunch here. We used to have 30 seats here at two-top tables with the ability to flow into whatever group size customers had.
Q: How do you preserve the original concept?
A: There’s something in the spirit of when we opened that’s true to the core for the people who come here. If we honor that spirit, we’ll still be able to offer something people will be excited about. The idea is to be a good small restaurant. I’d rather do less better than more poorly. I’d rather focus on the food again, especially with staffing, there’s an exceptional amount of competition right now.