There are a number of unique things about Bistro on Main, Ben Dubow’s new venture on Main Street in Manchester. The first is that the word “venture” is something of an imprecise term for the restaurant: It is not, strictly speaking, a business venture. It is a social enterprise, owned and operated as a nonprofit by the charity arm of the Manchester Area Conference of Churches. Another departure point for Bistro on Main is that it has its roots in a soup kitchen and job-training program. A third, and perhaps most significant, departure from trend: Bistro on Main bucks the notion those dealing with food insecurity should be consigned to the canned, the processed, the frozen. The restaurant likewise challenges the notion that those very secure in their food should eat amid white tablecloths and stilted atmosphere.
Bistro on Main is high-end French cooking, served in an unfussy atmosphere, with a restaurant culture that turns industry convention on its head. Dubow, who previously ran the kitchen at West Hartford’s Blue Plate Kitchen, says that Bistro on Main must have a foot in two worlds to be successful. “We wanted to create a restaurant that could stand on its own as a really great restaurant which would also be good for the community,” Dubow says. “If it was just a charity thing, people might come once or twice out of curiosity or to support it, but at the end of the day that wasn’t going to be a good business model.”
Bistro on Main entirely succeeds in the goal. It is a great restaurant, with offerings that would impress, served as part of any kind of business model. As the bistro in the name suggests, the menu is certainly French cuisine, though it expands to include a number of variations on the notion of what is French. We’ll start, as I started, with the moules frites appetizer. While mussels are found on many French bistro menus, Dubow’s come steeped not in the typical butter or cream sauce, but in a gorgeously sweet red coconut curry sauce. The fries are thin and crispy, as they should be. The curry flavors in the mussel dish, Dubow explains, are a tribute to the cuisine of the Indian city of Pondicherry, which was initially a French colony. That basic idea, of incorporating the mix of flavors across the world, continues throughout the menu. The appetizers (hors d’oeuvres, if we’re staying consistent) also feature a duck poutine, a nod to the gloriously rich foods of our Quebecois neighbors to the north.
The highlight of the appetizers, however, was the calamari. It is a common enough dish, and usually satisfying. It’s rare, however, to get a truly great offering, which is what Bistro on Main delivers. Lightly battered and fried, the calamari is perfectly delicate.
The wine list is particularly well crafted. Your best bet is to go with a dry French red, built to pair with the buttery richness of the various offerings. The centerpiece of the plats principal, or main courses, is undoubtedly the bouillabaisse provençale. It would almost be suitable for two people, such is the size of it. The English translation on the menu offers “fisherman’s stew” as an alternative name for the dish, which sells it a bit short. It comes stuffed with all types of seafood, in a flavorful, translucent broth, reminiscent of Rhode Island clam chowder. The stew comes with a veritable cornucopia of seafood: salmon, monkfish, mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, all stocked from Red’s Best Seafood, out of Boston. The stew is served with a piece of lightly grilled baguette, so you don’t have to leave any of the broth behind.
Duck makes another appearance in the hearty canard aux lentilles main course, a stick-to-your-ribs offering which, like the poutine, would do the trick for a Canadian lumberjack or fur trapper heading into the northern snows. In keeping with the mixture of French food with the local cuisines of the places France colonized, the poulet zhatar is a roast half-chicken, smothered with a rub known as zhatar, a blend of savory spices typical of Lebanese cooking. Desserts are tasty, if fairly standard, with a bread pudding and a lovely peppermint mousse that worked as a subtle palate cleanser.
All of this adds up to a wonderful experience, in which your palate might be stretched and surprised by tastes and combinations not often available in Manchester and environs. The real surprise, though, and the most thought-provoking thing about the whole experience, is the bill.
In George Orwell’s account of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, when anarchism was the prime political philosophy of the region, he describes encountering a society without tipping. “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. … Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy,” he writes.
There is a smaller but altogether sincere revolution going on at Bistro on Main. A small blurb in the margins of the menu, which you could miss if you weren’t looking for it, explains the basic reasoning behind the no-tipping policy. “All staff are paid a fair wage for their work. Our prices reflect this investment in our staff,” it reads.
Indeed, the prices are steep enough. But Dubow says the lack of tipping changes the attitude of the entire restaurant. Because the kitchen staff and the wait staff all make the same amount of money, there is not the kind of resentment that can occasionally creep into restaurants’ working environments. The waiter serving us said as much while graciously enduring a brief interrogation from myself and my two dining companions, who had both worked in food service for tips. Our server said that he and his fellow front-of-house coworkers didn’t feel the need to compete for the busier shifts, because they knew precisely what they were going to make.
Don’t servers make less money than they would from tips on $25 and $30 entrées, defeating the anti-poverty mission of the restaurant? Dubow says that the reliability of the paycheck is what his Bistro on Main’s no-tipping policy is trying to prioritize. Servers are “probably doing worse on a Saturday night, and probably doing better on a slow Wednesday lunch,” Dubow says. Referencing New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer’s experiments with removing tipping from his restaurants, Dubow says he believes it’s the way the industry is going.
Many restaurants hire people from marginalized and disenfranchised backgrounds, but Bistro on Main — with its explicit anti-poverty mission — makes a point of it. “There are a lot of people in this industry who have been through the school of hard knocks, who kind of get it,” Dubow says. “It’s a place where your ability to do the job wins.”
Bistro on Main wins, the food wins, the social mission wins. The dishes are perhaps on the expensive end of things, but the people who make it and bring it to you are paid enough to live decent lives, and to train for the next job. Call it wealth redistribution. It tastes good.
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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