Making the most of multiple dayparts and coming up with something new and buzz-worthy are two essential elements of restaurant success.
In Philadelphia, Michael Schulson is succeeding on both fronts with his new restaurant Double Knot, positioned as a café by day and cocktail lounge/sushi bar/izakaya by night.
Schulson (his MJS Restaurants group includes Sampan, Graffiti Bar and Independence Beer Garden) says, “I’ve traveled a lot through Japan and I’ve always been drawn to the izakaya. I found they were almost always located in the basement of a building,” he says. “The [idea for the] concept was first. I’ve been thinking about it for years. Then about a year ago this space became available and we knew it was fitting for what we’d had in mind.”
The space he’s talking about is a narrow street level spot in the city’s Midtown Village neighborhood. The upstairs cafe space transitions to a cocktail bar in the evening, and a floor below—near the rear exit and down a narrow, dim staircase—a subterranean sushi bar and robatayaki restaurant opens for dinner at 5 p.m.
The inviting main floor space seats 35 and features exposed brick, reclaimed woods, antiqued mirrors, a long, tufted banquette and relaxing leather armchairs. The day-to-night transformation starts with aesthetics including lighting and music as well as seating: the counter that’s lined with pastry stands before 5 o’clock is cleared, and bar stools are pulled up. Schulson says the concept is inherently compelling to guests. “Marketing the day-to-night change has been a smooth process. We’ve had lots of interest in both concepts and one breeds interest in the other,” he says. "There’s really nothing like this in Philadelphia so I think it’s just been really well-received overall because it’s so different."
Logistics posed the biggest challenge in the planning and opening of Double Knot. Many of the usual difficulties associated with launching a new restaurant were doubled in this case. “This was sort of like opening two restaurants at once, so those challenges—expected and unexpected—doubled," according to Schulson. “We also played around with the menu quite a bit—for instance, what would be offered upstairs versus downstairs and how much crossover would there be, and how much logistically made sense for our kitchen and servers. In the end, we found a really nice balance and have seen a great reaction from our guests.”
Double Knot opens at 7 a.m. daily. It serves a proprietary Elixr brand coffee blend, as well as hand pours, teas and coffee cocktails. Food choices include house-made pastries and a create-your-own lunch bowl or banh mi ($7) with a base of rice, banh mi, noodles or salad and add-on ingredients including pork, shrimp, tofu, chicken, meatballs, steak, cabbage, pickled carrots, daikon, mint and cilantro.
At the 4:00 “cocktail lounge” switch, food choices include selected dishes from the underground sushi bar and robatayaki. Drinks include daily punch, wine, beer on draft and specialty cocktails, such as the Espresso Diablo with tequila, chilies and Double Knot’s proprietary espresso; and the namesake Double Knot, a riff on the Manhattan, served in a snifter that has been scented with smoke from fired whiskey barrel stave.
Downstairs, executive chef Kevin Yanaga (formerly of Schulson’s Izakaya at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City) offers a broad sushi menu and robatayaki-prepared meats, seafood and vegetables. Yanaga has also created full menu of meat and fish entrees, small plates and sides, including roasted whole fish with ponzu and scallion; beef short ribs for two; crispy tofu with miso caramel and brussels sprouts with shishito peppers and fish sauce.
In the basement, intimate dining nooks and the sushi bar seat a total of 80. Torched woods, velvet booths and dramatic murals accent the dark, moody spaces.
Next up for Schulson, who was trained at the CIA and worked his way through some of New York and Philadelphia’s highest profile kitchens, is Harp & Crown in Philadelphia’s Center City, which will focus on global cuisines.