30 Years at Strip T’s with Paul and Tim Maslow

No one could have predicted how the hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop would change in three decades. Next month, its founder is revisiting its roots.

Strip T's

Paul and Tim Maslow of Strip T’s. / Photograhp by Scott M. Lacey for “Hometown Hero

Paul Maslow was lounging poolside when his then-27-year-old son Tim called him up to suggest he leave Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York City to help out at Strip T’s, Paul’s decades-old sandwich shop in Watertown.

“I said, ‘Well, of course I want you to come and work with me,’ and that was pretty much the conversation,” Paul says. “‘I’m going to go back to reading my book or whatever. I’ll see you when you get to town.’”

That was in 2011. The story of what happened once Tim arrived is well-documented: David Chang’s former sous chef, formally trained at the French Culinary Institute, treated nothing at Strip T’s as precious, completely reinventing the School Street hole-in-the-wall as a suburban dining destination.

Well, almost nothing. It retained its questionable name, conceived after a former signature menu item; its corresponding anthropomorphized sirloin strip logo (“We call it the dancing bacon,” Paul says), and its interior design.

But Paul is so thrilled with the current concept—a rollicking izakaya dinner menu—that he recently made the most noticeable, aesthetic change in three decades: He installed a Japanese-inspired lantern.

These days, Tim’s lunch and dinner menus are overseen by chef Ray Williams, as Tim spends most of his time at his Brookline restaurant, Ribelle. As Paul looks ahead to Strip T’s 30th anniversary next month, he is taking back just a bit of control to commemorate the occasion. On January 13, he’ll offer his original recipes—at their original prices. He’ll also reinstate the longstanding policy of “customer abuse.”

“The first waitress we ever had, on the first day we were open, she threw the pad at people and told them to write down their own order,” Paul recalls. “But people liked this! People came back for more, so we formally made Fridays Customer Abuse Day.”

Between the ribbing and the name, “there were a lot of people that refused to eat here. So, I looked at it like everybody we get has a good sense of humor. It really was kind of true.”

Strip T’s had decades-long regulars who came in multiple times per week for its chicken Caesar salad pita pockets, roast turkey clubs, or one of Paul’s daily soups. Its main customer base during the first 25 years was Watertown’s pre-Athenahealth lunch crowd. Paul’s partner, George Soulitits, spearheaded office catering, which was a unique concept in the late 1980s, Paul says.

Now, every restaurant offers such services, and with the kitchen manpower from New York, Portland, Maine and elsewhere that Tim has attracted since he joined the family business, it made sense to stop.

Not that ceasing catering was the plan, really—there was no plan when Tim left New York.

“We didn’t really talk about it much, though. Five minutes,” Paul said, laughing. “But when he did call me the thought was going through my head, ‘how much longer can I work in the kitchen?’ I didn’t think he would ever come here. I didn’t think he was going to leave New York.”

Tim intended to improve Strip T’s standards—source better ingredients, develop better staff training, that kind of thing. But his high expectations and strong personality drove all but one employee away.

“At some point, I made the restaurant revolve around me,” Tim says.

While culinary-minded guests and the press have commended the changes Tim and his hires have made at Strip T’s—Food & Wine named him one of this year’s Best New Chefs—Paul lost many of his old-guard customers—the people whose trust he earned with “wild” menu items his landlord originally questioned, like a blackened bluefish po’boy, and the Steakhouse Pocket, his signature sirloin strip and Caesar salad together in a pita.

The transition was definitely not easy. “We didn’t usually fight face to face,” Paul recalls. “He’d be in the basement, on his cellphone, and I’d be in the back alley on my cellphone, and we’d be screaming at each other.”

But overall, Paul is happier now. “We’ve changed everything around so I am pretty much the front-of-house manager here, and I love this place more,” he says. “I work the floor every day, I love talking to customers. I plan on staying here until I retire.”

Next month, he’s hoping the return to its former self, however fleeting, will encourage some of his old customers to come back.

The throwback menu—and abuse—will happen on January 13 only, and Paul’s original partner, Soulitis, is also coming back for the day.

Through the winter, Paul will announce other specials from the menu archive on Strip T’s Facebook. On Monday and Tuesday nights from January 20-the end of February, anyone who comes in for the izakaya fare (5-9 p.m.) dressed in their 80’s best will get 30 percent off their dine-in bill.

And what about Strip T’s next 30 years? Is the Japanese-inspired menu here to stay, or will Strip T’s reinvent itself again?

“Do we seem like the type of people that would sit down and figure that out?” Paul asks. “What we’re doing now really does fit the place at night,” he continues.

Plus, there’s the new lantern. Paul hasn’t even replaced the furniture since he opened in 1986.

“It’s staying. 30 years, minimum,” Tim says.

Available Wednesday, January 13, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

  • Roast N.Y. Sirloin Strip Sandwich with bearnaise sauce or sesame ginger sauce—$5.95
  • Caesar Salad or Caesar Pita Pocket—$2.95
  • Steakhouse Pocket (Caesar Salad and Roast Sirloin)—$4.95
  • Caesar Salad or Pocket with Tuna Salad—$4.95
  • Thai Chicken Salad—$5.25
  • Blackened Bluefish Po’boy with garlic butter—$3.95
  • Chicken Cutlet Sandwich with fresh mozzarella, marinated tomatoes, fresh basil, and dried chili peppers—$6.50
  • Wicked Small Caesar—$.99
  • Paper Thin Onion Rings—$1.50
  • Chicken Pot Pie Soup with puff pastry top—$5

All drinks will be regularly priced – No phone orders – Cash only! (Just like the old days)

Strip T’s, 93 School St., Watertown; 617-923-4330 or stripts.com.