Sonsie

Even as Sonsie owner Patrick Lyons launches a spinoff of his iconic restaurant, those of us who’ve seen the craziness that still goes on at the original know there’ll never be another place like it.


Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows there comes a day when you just really, really want to slug a customer.

The story has it that for Danielle, who’s been tending bar at Newbury Street landmark Sonsie for a year and a half, that moment came this summer, when a longtime regular who as a house rule is not to be served hard liquor (for propriety’s sake, we’ll call him Fernando) got a little out of hand and grabbed her butt.

“Usually we just ignore that kind of thing, like, ‘Oh, it’s just Fernando,’” explains Lilly, a pretty blond bartender who says she witnessed the incident. But on that night, Lilly surmises, Danielle had had enough. “She just turned around and laid into him” with a stern tongue-lashing. The following day, general manager Thomas Holland had to sit Fernando down and mete out his sentence: He was not to come into Sonsie for two weeks. “He gets banned at least once a year,” Thomas says. A former playwright, Thomas knows the importance of characters and considers Fernando to be part of the Sonsie “community”; he even invited Fernando to his wedding. “It takes a lot of personalities to create this place,” he says. “It’s like a collage.”

Anyway, that’s why Fernando is not at Sonsie tonight. (The staff have closed ranks and refuse to confirm the story, as if to ensure that what happens at Sonsie stays at Sonsie.) And though I certainly can’t blame Danielle—having worked at the restaurant about a decade ago, when Fernando was a nascent regular, I’ve experienced his less charming qualities—I’m a little disappointed, because his constant (if slightly grating) presence, the way he sits there rattling the ice in his glass of Heineken, is one of the many things that are essential to the Sonsie experience. Fernando is like Eric, the buff blond who when the restaurant opened was hired to paint Sonsie’s windows but now paints on an easel out front because that’s just what he does, and James, the one-handed homeless guy who works the area in front of J.P. Licks across the street and comes in every day to exchange his coins for easier-to-carry bills (and I’ll tell you, he sometimes makes a lot, which is probably what sparked the rumor that he owns a house in Winchester), and bartenders like Lilly who, in her spare time, goes to “Harvard, actually?” He can’t be replicated.

Not that that’s stopping owner Patrick Lyons from trying: This month the Lyons Group will open a Sonsie in, of all places, Atlantic City, New Jersey—more specifically, in the Pier, a $170 million entertainment megacomplex adjacent to the Caesars casino that might be described as an eyesore if most of the buildings in Atlantic City were not even uglier—and he’s also in talks with developers in Vegas about procuring some property out there. Which could mean, all things considered, that we might eventually regard the little bistro on Newbury Street as the Original Sonsie—in much the same way that Manhattan residents perhaps regard theirs as the Original T.G.I. Friday’s, a restaurant that, when it launched in the 1960s, was considered wildly cool and innovative.
Maybe you aren’t surprised, or horrified, by this. It’s really sort of what restaurant owners are doing these days, isn’t it? You come up with a good formula and then capitalize on it. You extend the brand. And then before you know it, you’ve got what Lyons himself, while sitting recently in celebrity chef Michael Mina’s new Atlantic City restaurant, Seablue, referred to as Todd English Disease—even though it could be argued that Lyons, whose Lyons Group has built up a roster of 25 themed nightlife establishments in the Boston area over the course of 20 years, had Todd English Disease even before Todd English himself did.

Incidentally, there will also be versions of the Lyons Group’s sports bars Game On and Irish pub the Dubliner—in this case called the Trinity—in Atlantic City. But we (because I’m assuming you are secretly as much of a snob as I am) don’t really care if those bars become chainlike, because, well, they felt like chains from the first day.

But Sonsie? Back in 1993, when Sonsie first opened, with its look-at-me-looking-at-you glass doors (those doors that are everywhere now, but, you must remember, were very original in 1993—as were the leather club chairs in the foyer that Lyons brought back from a Paris flea market because, he points out, “they didn’t have them at Restoration Hardware back then”), it didn’t resemble anything else. With its loud music and hot hostesses and client base of Brahmins—not just Back Bay Brahmins but actual Brahmins, from Bangalore by way of BU—plus the proximity via those doors to a loud, somewhat raggedy end of Newbury Street populated by punks and panhandlers, Sonsie was both extremely Boston and not very Boston at all.

These days, due in no small part to Sonsie, that end of Newbury Street has fewer punks and more shoe stores. Leather club chairs and comfortably loud soundtracks have become de rigueur (like, say, at the Starbucks across the street). And Sonsie no longer looks bracingly original but merely obvious. From a business perspective, it makes sense to take the formula on the road. But you have to wonder what aspects of the place that Lyons calls “as comfortable as an old shoe” will get lost in translation.

According to him, nothing. “There are a thousand and one little things that made Sonsie work, and we’re going to duplicate them all here,” Lyons says on a recent evening in Atlantic City, where, high above the Boardwalk, Sonsie II is still a mess of raw concrete, beams, and blueprints. I ask him to list a few. “How the servers engage a guest on the floor,” he says. “How a hostess is dressed. How a manager walks through a dining room. The music, and the programming of the music, the proper volume. The deliberate tone of advertising…”

Then, bless him, he forgets what he’s talking about.

“…And those little details, like on a raging Thursday night, when Harleys go blasting by and the noise goes in and reverberates around, or a fire engine gets stuck in front of the restaurant and it’s just sitting there going off because people are double-parked in front of Capital Grille,” he says, “you know you are interacting with the street. What you are really getting is a taste of the city.”

But in Atlantic City there is no city—or, at least, what there is of it is separated from those marble-topped café tables by escalators and giant walls of thick plate glass. There are no weird afterwork regulars whose names everyone will know, the punks and lunatics get weeded out by security, and there’s certainly no way to get pretty bartenders who go to “Harvard, actually?” This is the problem with chains: Even when you try to follow the recipe, you always end up compromising some of the details.

Of course, this is all somewhat personal for me.

The first time I walked into Sonsie—and I’m pretty sure I walked in not through the front door but through one of the open bistro doors, startling some diners—I was a freshman in art school looking for a part-time job, and Sonsie seemed like the perfect fit. It felt like a place where things happened, and this was exactly what I wanted since I was from a North Shore suburb where absolutely nothing happened.

The whole interview took about five minutes. Even back then, before image-conscious companies like American Apparel had written their business plans, the Lyons Group’s hiring process was more like casting, and whatever the qualifications were for someone with very little experience, I had them. I was told to report to work the next day at 6:30 a.m. They needed a body to man the coffee bar, bad. Someone had just walked out in the middle of a shift.

When I arrived, my coworker Leigh, a shaggy-haired 19-year-old who played in a grungy sort of rock band, was already behind the bar, pouring a healthy swig of something into a paper cup. “Espresso, Ghirardelli chocolate, and hard liquor,” he explained laconically. (It was 1995. We all spoke laconically.) “The first two help keep you on your feet. The last keeps you from killing the regulars.”

And that was pretty much my training.

Sonsie had been open for three years, and Fernando was already coming in every morning at the crack of dawn for coffee, even when he had been at the bar until 1 the night before. He was harmless but mildly irritating, prone to making baroque promises of Rolexes and designer clothing to the waitresses (none of which, to my knowledge, ever came through). He liked to sit near my station and utter proclamations about my interior life, as though the way I steamed milk somehow gave him insight into my soul.

“Bah! You don’t know who you are,” he told me one night, after someone had mistakenly allowed him hard alcohol.

“Okay, Fernando,” I said, swiping a rag across the bar and accidentally on purpose dumping out his half-full glass. In retrospect, he was right: I was only 17. (I’d lied on my application.)

But I was learning a lot at Sonsie. For example, it was Mahla, an older bartender, who first educated me about bikini waxing.

“You don’t wax?!?!” she exclaimed, her meticulously shaped eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “What if you have sex with someone?”

What if I what? I had no idea. Mahla went off to make six cosmos (then just becoming popular), and we never got back to the topic. We were too busy. It was always busy.

“It always felt festive, like a party,” says Rachel Padula, who worked the coat check at the time. “And there were glamorous people.” Or, she says, if they weren’t actually glamorous, the warm and forgiving light of Sonsie made them look as if they were—the rich college kids in their Dior sunglasses, the meatheads from the North Shore, Fernando, even the woman we called Crazy Makeup Lady, who would sit every afternoon in one of the leather club chairs up front, smearing on blush, eyeliner, and eye shadow, layer after layer, for hours upon hours, pausing only to stare crazily at a person of her choosing. One morning that person was Fred Schneider of the B-52s, who had played a show in town the night before and stopped in for a relaxing cappuccino, only to find himself the object of Crazy Makeup Lady’s wobbly yet unrelenting gaze. I gave him a to-go cup.

Sonsie might have had a reputation for snootiness, but as far as I’m aware no one on staff would ever have considered asking Crazy Makeup Lady or any of the other regulars like her to leave, not even for Fred Schneider. Sonsie’s crazy people—“good crazy people,” says Patrick Lyons, “very respectful”—were as much a part of the fabric of the place as the velvet curtains that hang from its ceiling.

Celebrities, like lunatics, seemed to have sensors that led them straight into Sonsie. They still do: Despite Sonsie’s being declared “over” by people who make such declarations, this past summer the gossip columns chronicled visits from David Schwimmer, Larry David, and Sheryl Crow (who, in case you, Us Weekly reader, are wondering, didn’t eat—“everyone else at the table ate,” says a bartender, “but she didn’t”) and innumerable local sports stars like David Ortiz and Tom Brady, who lives in the neighborhood and is a regular, if not quite on a Fernando level. (“It’s like that old Yogi Berra saying,” says George Meszoly, a regular of the nonirritating kind. “Nobody goes there. It’s too crowded.”) Brady kept Anna Kournikova company when she was in town; they sat in the back, and she smoked cigarettes. “But don’t write that,” Lyons says. “I don’t want the board of health people after me.” To which we say: Please. Everyone knows that Anna Kournikova can do whatever she wants.

Back when I worked there, sundry Hollywood types came by, usually of the quasi-recognizable That Guy From That Show variety. But when Joey McIntyre passed out face-first on a table, for us former New Kids on the Block fans on the staff it was a major event. Older members of the clientele were more impressed by Peter Wolf, who was, and is, a regular. He’d sit at the bar and seem very friendly, though rumor was that if anyone asked him about “Angel Is the Centerfold,” he’d freak. Dan Aykroyd came in often, drank the finest Bordeaux, and tipped big. Still does. “It’s Danny’s kitchen,” Lyons says. “He gets into Boston and he goes straight there. They cook him whatever he wants, no matter what time it is.”

One night Aykroyd left his salad untouched. “I ate it,” says Michael Brodeur, then an Emerson sophomore in charge of clearing plates, now an editor at the Weekly Dig (which shares owners with Boston magazine). “I was hungry. A growing boy! And these beautiful women would come in and they’d just leave their food untouched. I always felt like I was doing them a favor,” he adds, beatifically, “like I was absolving them of some kind of sin.”

Meanwhile, in the coatroom, Rachel Padula was absolving people of the sin of, um, outerwear. “Once Phylicia Rashad came in, and she had this beautiful orange coat that I tried on and wore for part of the night,” she remembers. “Ahmad (her former husband, the famous sportscaster) gave me a $10 tip when he came down to pick it up.” Located directly at the bottom of a two-level flight of stairs that customers frequently tumbled down, the coatroom was a surprisingly exciting post. “People would always get caught having sex in the downstairs dining room,” says Rachel, “and I would always get offered coke for some reason. Some people got it as tips. I guess because it was so near the bathroom.”

These were the early dot-com years, and everyone had Internet money and was happy to throw it around. “Once this gorgeous woman fell down the stairs holding a $100 bill,” says Rachel. “It was right when they had come out with the new ones, and she showed it to me, like, ‘Have you seen these?’ I said, ‘No, you know, it’s really cool.’ And then the woman was like, ‘You just hold on to that, honey.’ I always imagined someone gave it to her to go to the bathroom, like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I made, like, $300 that night. I took it home and threw it on my bed and just rolled around in it.”

One night after Dan Aykroyd was in, Kate, who worked at J.P. Licks across the street and hung out with all of us, spotted him in the hallway of her dorm. “I was like, this is crazy. Dan Aykroyd signed into Emerson’s Little Building! He must have left his license at the door and everything.”
Mandy, a Michigan State University student who hostessed at Sonsie this past summer, had her own unexpected celebrity encounter. “Mike Tyson came in the other night,” she says. “He was with this other guy and they called the next day and wanted us to go out with them after work. We didn’t go, though. I was like, I can’t go out with Mike Tyson. My mom would kill me.”

“What would it take to get Mark Wahlberg and the kids from Entourage down here for the opening?” Ensconced in a giant orange booth at Michael Mina’s Atlantic City restaurant, Patrick Lyons is on the phone, celebrity wrangling.

Whoever’s on the other end says it won’t be a problem. These days anyone with money and connections—and Lyons has plenty of both—can get stars to show up for their events. Even T.G.I. Friday’s. And with Atlantic City’s new rep as a hot spot, there will be plenty of glamorous young things to make the new Sonsie, à la the Boston one, look like a party.

More difficult might be finding good help. The Lyons Group’s ventures are among almost a dozen restaurants opening in the Pier, and competition for staff is fierce. Which is why, for the second time in as many hours, Lyons is now grilling our waitress.

“You know that’s not Kobe, right?” he says, pointing to the menu. “It’s wagyu. They don’t have Kobe in America.”

“Wull,” she says, her French manicured fingers fluttering nervously, “I guess we say Kobe because most people don’t know what wagyu is.”

“Well, I know what it is,” Lyons says, peering at her over the menu. “It seems you have a little truth-in-advertising problem.”
“Wull…”

The thing is, you have to have a certain kind of personality to work at Sonsie. Some people are able to accept with Nietzschean stoicism not only Lyons’s persnicketiness but also the demands of the Newbury Street customer, the never-ending shifts, the punishing volume of orders. For many of them—alumni like Richard Hare, who left not long ago to manage Stella in the South End—the place is like waiter boot camp, and they eventually take their hard-earned skills to less draining, higher priced spots around Boston, making Sonsie sort of the ur-restaurant of the city’s dining scene.

But others find they just can’t, or won’t, put up with it all. “Eventually I hated working there so much that I had dreams about holding customers’ hands under the hot-water valve on the espresso machine,” says Leigh, my former partner behind the coffee counter, who is thankfully no longer working behind anyone’s counter and is now, of all things, a lawyer. Often when I worked there, a new hire would show up, work for the day, and never return. That problem hasn’t gone away. “It happens here all the time,” says Arianna, a waitress at Original Sonsie. “I think it happened yesterday.”

“It’s weird,” adds Jesse, another waitress.

But maybe the turnover is actually a good thing, since it helps keep the restaurant feeling fresh. In any case, it’s not hard for the management to find replacements. In Boston there’s always a new crop of starry-eyed college students from small suburban towns, postgraduate drifters, and artists who need to pay the bills until the big break comes. I know that when I finally quit for good—I was always quitting, then getting lured back again, then quitting again—it couldn’t have taken them long to find someone new. What’s less clear, though, is how you can have a Sonsie without having a ready supply of quirky Bostonians to stock its payroll.

Apparently, Lyons is prepared to make the most of what’s at his disposal.

Back at Seablue, the sommelier walks up to our table bearing a bottle of riesling, which he presents with an extravagant flourish. He’s very tall, with an insane-looking cowlick and an earnest demeanor. He blusters knowingly about the art on the label, makes a comment about vineyards in Germany. Lyons is pleased; wine is a personal interest of his. “You,” he says, “are very good.” The sommelier beams. Then he unloads the wine into our glasses like diesel into a Mack truck.

“Okay, so he can’t pour,” Lyons says as the sommelier walks away. “We can work on that.” David Brilliant, a member of Lyons’s entourage and a wine aficionado, winces.

I’m inclined to take it as a positive sign. Because it appears, at least for now, that Lyons is still paying attention to the details. That, at least for now, maybe he’s not necessarily making a cookie-cutter chain. That he’s still casting for the right mix of personalities. That he’s looking not only for the sort of staffers who will remember that Fernando should never be served hard alcohol, but also, just to keep things interesting, the sort who might accidentally give it to him anyway.

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