When he first started to think about opening his own restaurant, chef Greg Baxtrom received a piece of advice from a trusted mentor: Make sure it’s a place where his mother would be comfortable. “My gut reaction was, You don’t get me — I’m trying to open up a fine-dining thing, and my mom doesn’t know what fine dining is.” Baxtrom had come up through the kitchens of Alinea, Atera, Per Se, and Lysverket in Norway. These are not just “fancy” restaurants. They are, in Baxtrom’s words, “obnoxiously fine dining,” and he was not opening a restaurant for his mother, a midwestern elementary-school teacher from Frankfort, Illinois. But then he opened the very approachable Olmsted — where, for the record, his mom feels very comfortable — followed by Maison Yaki. “And now, six years later,” Baxtrom says, “I’m opening up a restaurant that my mom will just cry in the entire time she’s in here.”
Those will be tears of joy, in case you’re keeping track. He has even named the new restaurant for her: Patti Ann’s, which opens Wednesday, is a tribute to the Midwest of Baxtrom’s childhood — a family restaurant in all senses of the word. It is a restaurant for families, with bike locks for stroller parking outside, and a restaurant about them, the chef explains, sitting in a bright red chair at a sturdy wooden table in front of floor-to-ceiling cubbies, holding an artful arrangement of elementary-school ephemera: children’s books, assorted games, a crank pencil sharpener, a globe. His dad built the cubbies along with the bar top and the bread shelves the retail bakery, once known as Evi’s, now part of Patti Ann’s.
This was not the original idea. When Baxtrom first secured the space on Vanderbilt Avenue, he was thinking of crowd-pleasing seafood. “I was literally going to rip off Joe’s Stone Crab,” he says, before deciding that wasn’t quite right. He wanted that spirit of simplicity, a true neighborhood restaurant, “not too chef-y” but more personal. He landed on haute Midwest, Bob Evans by way of Thomas Keller.
It is easy to write off this latest comfort-food revolution as a kind of giving up: After everything, who has the energy or ambition to do weird stuff to fluke? Who wants to eat it? Many New Yorkers are still remembering how pants work, and restaurants are just aiming to give us what we want, which is a fancy Bloomin’ Onion and a hug. What this reading misses, however, is just how much room there is to play and how much thought can be given to every last detail.
Everything on the Patti Ann’s menu, even the seemingly “basic” stuff, is the result of 10,000 tiny decisions, and Baxtrom will tell you about all of them. There will be chips and dip — French onion, his mom’s special-occasion version, the one she’d make for company, which is “basically the same thing” as Lipton’s, Baxtrom explains gleefully, “but instead of the packet, you make it from scratch.” To go with it: Jays chips, a midwestern potato-chip staple imported from Chicago (“It’s ruining my food costs!”) and decanted table-side into fake-crystal bowls.
The bread service will be a take on the traditional midwestern family-restaurant spread: a basket of shrink-wrapped crackers and preportioned breadsticks. But at Patti Ann’s, the bread is baked on the premises, and it arrives with a miniature dish of cultured butter. “It’s meant to look a little chintzy, you know?” Baxtrom grins. “But there are all these details — I think there are maybe more details in this one than there were at Olmsted when we first opened. The bread alone is three service pieces.”
All of Baxtrom’s restaurants are personal, but Patti Ann’s is autobiographical, which presents new challenges. “I’m really trying to juggle what is kitschy and fun for customers and what is just too specific to my upbringing,” he reflects. Take the meat loaf, for example. “You know, you gotta have a meat loaf,” Baxtrom tells me gravely. “But I didn’t want to just do regular meat loaf.” Instead, he’s landed on duck meat loaf with cherry ketchup, “so you have that classic pairing but in the form of meat loaf.” The royal roasted chicken will feature four chicken preparations: roasted chicken breast; confit drumsticks, “pressed to get them nice and crispy”; fried chicken wings; and a piece of grilled baguette brushed with chicken fat and smeared with Olmsted’s chicken-liver mousse. Technically, it will be roasted chicken five ways if you count the sauce, which is “basically chicken gravy.”
And then there is the macaroni and cheese, which is, in Baxtrom’s estimation, “a sleeper hit.” The problem with mac ’n’ cheese in general is people expect the stuff from the box (which, if you haven’t had it in a while, tastes like nothing) or some over-the-top béchamel-drenched version laced with truffles. Baxtrom’s version hits a middle ground: He is using béchamel and cave-aged cheddar from Jasper Hill Farm then cutting it with rutabaga purée, so it’s “a cheese sauce, but way lighter. You can kind of eat a lot of it and not feel gross.”
It wouldn’t quite be fair to call Patti Ann’s a theme restaurant, but Baxtrom isn’t missing any details: The checks will be modeled after report cards, every cocktail has a school-related name (“Spirit Week,” “Ditch Day”), and what would here on the East Coast be called soda is, adhering to his midwestern values, proudly labeled “pop.” Patti Ann’s may be the only restaurant in New York where they hand you both a serious wine list assembled by drinks expert Andrew Zerrip and an activity book illustrated by designer Elise Porter.
Like many members of its target audience, Patti Ann’s is not done growing. “Should I have a gumball machine up front?” Baxtrom wonders. “Do I buy one of those claw vending machines? It’s in my cart right now on the computer, and I keep going back and forth. No, Greg, that’s stupid. No, Greg, that’s the best idea you’ve ever had!” One element he will definitely expand are the hours — not just dinner Wednesday through Sunday but eventually breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. “I want to do my own version of Grand Slam,” he says, with real hash browns, not home fries. “Everybody craps out and does home fries.”
There is not, he points out, another place quite like this in the neighborhood, a high-quality restaurant that is expressly designed for family life. “I want it specifically so someone with a double-wide stroller feels like they can walk in on a Wednesday,” Baxtrom declares. “I want someone to be able to comfortably say, ‘I’m hungry, we’re in the neighborhood, let’s roll up and have dinner.’”
Patti Ann’s, 570 Vanderbilt Ave., at Bergen St., Prospect Heights; no phone
This post has been updated to reflect the adjoining bakery’s new name, and to correct the description of the gravy that comes with the pork chop.