Hidden from bustle of Massachusetts Avenue is Craigie on Main, chef Tony Maws’ claim to fame. Fourteen years ago, he established the French-inspired rustic restaurant in an entirely different location, yet it remains one of the best dining experience in the city. Having outgrown their initial space in Harvard Square, Maws made the decision to move to 853 Main St. eight years ago. Apart from a small tweak to the name (from Craigie Street Bistro to Craigie on Main) the restaurant’s ethos has remained the same: strict dedication to the freshest New England ingredients with classic French technique. On the Winter Solstice, I sat down with Maws and three of his main players before that evening’s service. The usually atmospheric dining room bustled with staff and was bright with sunlight. It was a perfect opportunity to look into what goes into making Craigie on Main the transformative dining institution it is today.
It’s not easy to stay relevant in our fast-paced day and age, but Maws and his team manage to blend classic French technique with a fresh and accessible mentality. With fantastically creative menus like the Chef’s Whim Night, Maws leads his team to think outside the box, while still maintaining a keen eye for sophistication and elegance on every plate. In addition to having worked ceaselessly to create a brand synonymous with high standards and quality, Maws says his secret lies in placing trust in his team. Luckily for this top chef, he has managed to attract a very young and talented front- and back-of-house crew. Maws aims to provide each of them with an individualized framework, allowing for enough space to grow and explore. Mostly, he looks for employees with an individual sensibility about food and creation but also, and most importantly, an ability to learn, adapt, and accept feedback.
All of these qualities, and more, can be found in chef de cuisine Chris McMullan. McMullan has been in and out of the Craigie kitchen over the past few years, exploring and refining his chops and palate. After spending a couple of years as an extern, McMullan ventured on to flavorful stints at Bouley in New York City and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. Following a period in Seattle, Chris felt the draw to return to Craigie. McMullan is relentlessly obsessed with not only using the highest-quality ingredients possible but also using all parts of the animal or the plant to promote the highest degree of sustainability. The chefs complement each other: McMullan’s simple elegance balances Maws’ voracious appetite for invention on the plate.
During a meal at Craigie, diners are treated to a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The open kitchen shows off choreographic precision as the cooks and chefs maneuver around one another. If you are lucky enough to snag a couple of seats ringside, ingredients are prepared right before your eyes, artistic finishes are added with a subtle flourish, and dishes ranging from simple to out-of-this-world exotic are escorted to the tables in due course.
All seafood dishes are immediate knockouts. McMullan has a personal passion for seafood and this shows in his ability not only to get his hands on some rare and interesting catches but also the way he creates a symphony of taste in each of his dishes. In one sitting, I enjoyed pickled herring, kampachi sashimi, pastrami-cured sea trout, and lobster tail and octopus served a la plancha. It is rare to find a chef so daring while never losing the high standards of quality. This doesn’t just go for the seafood, either. Indeed, whether you are enjoying a chestnut purée with the roasted Rohan duck prepared two ways or squid ink carmenelli replete with peekytoe crab, lobster, caviar, and razor and manila clams, every element on your plate is deserving of your full attention.
Reigning over the front of the house, Olivia Moravec, formerly of the Legal Seafood enterprise, excels in all things hospitality. As general manager, she trains and provides feedback and opportunity for her team of servers and hosts. After her transition from a big corporation to a small but still high-volume restaurant, she quickly figured out that asking questions is not only the best way to become an expert in a role but also the most efficient way to promote autonomy and responsibility. In addition to her responsibilities as GM, Moravec is in charge of Craigie’s impressive wine selection. Her curious mind has enabled her to unlock the keys to some of the industry’s most complex strongholds.
Such a stellar team wouldn’t be complete without a perfect bar setup, and for this they look to lead bartender Rob Ficks. Having developed a keen cocktail sense in Connecticut, Ficks came to Craigie in 2012 as a busser and worked up to lead bartender in a few short, but strategic, strides. His cocktails mirror the seasons, building on the ingredients Maws brings into the kitchen and complementing the dishes McMullan and the kitchen come up with for their ever-evolving menus. Whether ordering a Ramos gin fizz, a classic daiquiri, or any of his quirks-on-classics craft cocktails, Ficks guarantees you receive exactly what your thirst desires.
People have come to expect new culinary feats of excitement every time they head in to enjoy dinner here. Each meal at this Boston stalwart is a knockout experience. The staff’s ability to cater to a diverse crowd and satisfy a high level of expectation is refreshing and largely unparalleled throughout the city. Whether saddling up to the bar for a couple of cocktails or sitting down to a six-course Chef’s Whim dinner — Craigie serves it all.
Between classic and inventive, the team at Craigie is well-knit and well-balanced. It could be one of the closer aspirations to what McMullan calls the “happy cook.” Exuding a calm ethos but quick-footed intensity, this culinary talent is a leader in the making. Ficks makes each bar patron feel like they are at home, and for Moravec, she strives for having “one team.” Of course, none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for Maws’ visionary leadership. He may say he feels lucky to work with them (and he does, often), but we’re all lucky that Maws decided to push through the countless barriers restaurateurs have to face so these individuals could have a Craigie to get behind.