Steve Cook and Mike Solomonov, the owners of Xochitl, the upscale Mexican restaurant on Headhouse Square, announced earlier this week that they are closing the restaurant on February 7 for two weeks to re-jigger the concept and revamp the interior, which will include pulling down a wall between the bar and the dining area. If all goes according to plan, Xochitl will re-open February 22-ish with a new less expensive and more casual menu, which you can check out here. A new chef, Lucio Palazzo, who has worked with the crew at their other restaurants Zahav and Percy Street Barbecue, will be in charge of the kitchen now that chef-partner Dionicio Jimenez is departing to head up the kitchen at Stephen Starr’s mystery Mexican spot. We spoke with Steve Cook to find out more about what brought on the desire to change a three-year-old restaurant, how things stay the same and how they’ll change.
Was this re-concepting something you were planning to do before the chef announced he was leaving?
We’ve actually been talking about doing these types of changes for a while. The timing got accelerated by Dionicio’s announcement, but it’s something we wanted to do for the last year. Xochitl is three years old now, we’ve opened two other restaurants in that time and I think that a lot has changed in the dining scene since we’ve opened.
What made you want to re-concept?
The bar has always been really successful and the dining room has been hit or miss. It’s white tablecloth, $25-an-entrée kind of dining and we wanted to create a more lively, casual atmosphere. We want to unite the concepts and unite the two spaces physically to carry over the bar vibe into the dining room.
Why didn’t you do it sooner?
We were trying to collaborate on a concept with Dionicio and that involves compromise like any collaboration. He’s a great chef and this was his food and this was the kind of setting that we all decided on: with the tablecloths and keeping it a bit separate. I wouldn’t have done tablecloths originally, but that’s something that we compromised on. You can do fine dining with consistent, inventive food and excellent service without a tablecloth. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s what we want to achieve. It’s what we see our customers wanting in all of our restaurants.
For our many customers who are big fans of Xochitl now, it’s still a Mexican restaurant serving modern, inventive takes on traditional Mexican cuisine. We don’t have the $25 entrees anymore, but the people who want to can put a meal together that has a lot of flavors in it and the person who wants to just sit at the bar and have a taco can do that. People in the neighborhood want a place to eat on a regular basis and this is kind of meant for them as well.
Is Dionicio still a partner?
He’s going to be completely out of [the business] and we’re working through the mechanics of that. I have a lot of respect for him, we didn’t see eye to eye on the direction the restaurant should go. He made a decision to leave and I respect that.
It’s not that often that restaurateurs change their concepts like this. Is it difficult to let go of your baby?
[Laughs] Not really, no. It’s a bit of a scary decision from an economic standpoint. You’ve got rent to pay and a staff to keep employed - your decisions directly affect their employment. They need to work and my good name is sort of on the line. I told them we’d be back open in two weeks and that needs to happen.
I had the moment a few nights ago when I couldn’t sleep, it’s like the few weeks leading up to a restaurant opening when you can’t sleep? We’re treating it like a new restaurant, but things aren’t changing as far as the bar [drinks] and the happy hour and the staff meal Thursdays are all going to stay the same. The downstairs is going to stay the same, but the dining room is going to look really different. I hope it’s going to appeal to a lot more people, who may have been a bit hesitant to step into the dining room and do the whole “experience.”
You don’t always have to be reinventing yourself, but you always think about how you could do better and adjust. The quantity and the quality of restaurants in Philadelphia has risen since I’ve been doing this. It’s a competitive industry to begin with and it’s getting even more competitive. It’s nerve-wracking - I know what our check average is now and now it’s not going to be that. But we’re hoping more people might want to come to the new Xochitl. I have no doubt this is the right move for us.
Xochitl, 408 South Second Street; (215) 238-7280