“Novel” describes The Novel Kitchen in multiple ways: its location, its menu, and especially its birth amid a pandemic.
The no-cook eatery — it will only serve prepared, rather than cooked, food — is set to open this month in the Brookline Booksmith, a bookstore expanding into a neighboring storefront. Restaurant owner Jenn Mason hopes to allow diners to enjoy their food regardless of the restrictions posed by COVID-19.
When Brookline Booksmith began its plans for a restaurant in their expanded space, many members of the local food scene pointed them to Mason. The bookstore reached out to her with an offer to spearhead the project.
Mason said yes on two conditions. Already the owner of two cheese shops in the Boston area and an online cheese delivery service, she wanted to “use [her] wheelhouse.” First, it would have to be a no-cook restaurant. Mason’s experience in the industry involves sourcing rather than cooking food, so the new eatery would prepare foods that didn’t require ovens or grills, like cheese plates. Second, it would have to be “experiential.”
“We want you to feel the comfort and the love that you feel and have been feeling for 57 years here at [Brookline] Booksmith,” Mason says, describing the experience she hopes diners will have. “It’s another place where you can come in safely — and after this [pandemic], just happily come in — and feel like the eating experience is as special as the shopping experience and the discovery that happens in Booksmith.”
Bookstore owner Lisa Gozashti also sees The Novel Kitchen as an extension of theBrookline Booksmith’s community feel. “We love that [The Novel Kitchen] provid[es] another form of home for all of our patrons,” she says. “We always think of ourselves as providing refuge — a literary refuge — and they’re supplementing that with food and drink.”
Although the pandemic has hurt the food industry, Mason is not worried about The Novel Kitchen’s ability to open and be successful. “It’s not retrofitted [for the pandemic] — it was built for this,” Mason says. “We jokingly call it the COVID Cafe.” Barriers between tables — bookshelves, of course — were installed with plexiglass dividers, and the register was built with a plexiglass shield. For now, the restaurant’s 45-person capacity has been reduced to 16 to maintain social distancing.
The Novel Kitchen also hopes to elevate takeout-style food and make it an experience diners look forward to rather than tolerate.
Regardless of whether diners eat in the restaurant or at home, all food will be served in to-go containers to keep the experience consistent. Instead of dignified goblets as wine glasses, Mason chose casual cups called Spanish bodega glasses to complement the relaxed feel of eating from a take-out container in a restaurant.
She designed a rotating menu to keep customers intrigued. “It should feel similar every time you come in, but also part of the similarity should be that something new has changed,” Mason says.
As a no-cook restaurant, that menu is divided into snacks and small plates. The small plates currently include a salmon plate, cheese plate, and mezze plate, and the snacks include treats like chocolates, marinated feta, and the Brookline Booksmith cookie, a cardamom and vanilla cookie designed specifically for the bookstore. Some menu items are customer favorites from Mason’s cheese shops, while others are entirely new.
Locally sourcing menu items is important to Mason, a small business owner heavily connected to local vendors. The mezze plate features hummus from Boston-based brand Just Hummus, and its snacks include chocolates from another local brand, Chocolate Therapy. “These are really fantastic people, and I like what they do,” she says. “The customer wins because there’'s something fun that’'s going to come out of it for them.”
Mason imagines joint events with Brookline Booksmith in the future. The bookstore often hosts authors at the nearby Coolidge Corner Theatre. The Novel Kitchen hopes to offer smaller, more intimate gatherings with those authors before or after their larger presentations. Mason says that the combination of books with food and drink will hopefully add something to the audience experience. For the near future, The Novel Kitchen is considering virtual events instead.
The Novel Kitchen will continue to evolve once it opens. “We’re giving our staff a lot of leeway to experiment and try things and get back to us,” Mason says. Based on what customers respond to, both menu items and the frequency of their rotation are subject to change.
The Novel Kitchen strives to be true to its name: a place where customers can come for an ever-changing selection of food presented in an unconventional format. “If you [are] the kind of person who’s like, ‘What's new today?’ […] There’ll be something new for you to try every week,” Mason says. “It’s like a great big experiment.”