Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
A secret handshake?
No, just a Wink & Nod gets you into this South End speakeasy
While we all know that the restaurant business is tough and taking risks are generally avoided, occasionally you’ll find a place that mixes together different ideas to create an entirely new “cocktail.” Wink & Nod transforms a windowless, subterranean space (once Chris Douglass’s Icarus) into a 1920s-style speakeasy featuring a rotating kitchen, where up-and-coming chefs take control during six-month engagements. Would this new concoction go down easy?
Let’s start with the name Wink & Nod: it’s clever and memorable (even if it does follow the hipster ampersand naming trend). The website provides a nice introduction to the brand while taking a departure from the norm—no photographs of the interiors nor food porn shots are shown on the site. This responsive site is evocative without revealing too much, just like you’d expect from a speakeasy. The logo is particularly well done with a monoline monogram incorporating the letters W and N, and symbols that reference the name. It feels somewhat mysterious and cryptic, branding the property in a “secret society” kind of way.
As we arrived on a cold January evening, a discreet brass plaque and a dapper doorman are the only clues that we’ve come to the right spot. Our friendly greeter gives a warm first impression—the opposite of a gruff, heat-packing doorman at an actual speakeasy.
As we entered, we were a bit wary of two challenges facing Wink & Nod. For starters, the whole speakeasy trend has been around for a while and it’s easy to fall into the cliché trap. Secondly, we had concerns about the viability of Wink & Nod’s rotating kitchen concept. Will ever-changing culinary groups be able to work out operational kinks and hit the ground running right out of the gate? Needless to say, we descended down the stairs with cautious optimism.
The restaurant is split into two levels: the bar is the focus in the lower level surrounded by high-top banquettes for dining, with a luxe lounge and more seating in the upper area. Raising the lounge floor effectively differentiates the spaces and creates a higher ceiling in the bar area which gives a more expansive, less “basement” feel.
The interior is thoughtfully designed and complements the overall concept. Varied textures and patterns, gilded wallpaper, tin ceilings, comfortable seating, and a rich color palette make for a sophisticated atmosphere. Era-relevant music and soft lighting subtly help set the scene. The designers were careful to subtly carry the speakeasy concept through the space without going overboard or verging on cliché.
Since the words “Good Spirits” are part of the Wink & Nod logo—and let’s face it, speakeasies are all about boozing—we were happy to see so much attention and care paid to the drink menu. The Indian Summer, made with Nolet’s Silver, St. Germain, and ginger beer, was spot on—not too tart and not too sweet. While drinks maybe the primary focus and source of continuity, what about the food at W&N?
Well, as we mentioned the pop-up food program is intriguing but also a potential pitfall. They call their rotating kitchen a “culinary incubator program,” and for this 6-month stint it’s run by Bread & Salt, Wink & Nod’s second incarnation of chefs (the first was Whisk). Executive Chef Joshua Lewin has created a well-rounded menu at a decent price point. We started with the monkfish and potato croquettes which were delicious. Next, we selected an intermezzo from a list of four pastas options and entrées (choices include chicken, pork, seafood, and steak—something for everyone). The food was quite tasty and nicely plated but there was one hiccup, a plate of undercooked risotto. While our server was apologetic and immediately offered a properly prepared replacement, we can’t help but wonder if this was a rookie mistake that revealed the kitchen team’s relative inexperience working together at Wink & Nod.
To top it all off, we ordered desserts from pastry chef Kate Holowick, who we discovered studied illustration before turning to the culinary arts. She certainly uses her artistic talents to craft creative desserts that include the Deconstructed Candy Bar, inspired by polling her friends on their favorite candy bar flavors and incorporating them into this explosion of different flavors and textures.
Overall, we had a very good experience at Wink & Nod—one that shattered our initial doubts about its hitching a ride on the speakeasy bandwagon with a temp kitchen. They took a potential negative—an underground space without any windows—and made it into a positive by creating a sophisticated overall feel that works with the concept.
And we were delighted that the rotating kitchen concept actually works. Not only did we have a good experience with the current group, we think the regular introduction of fresh talent will generate buzz and constant opportunities for Wink & Nod to reinvent itself. With new chefs, new ideas, and new reasons to visit all the time, we doubt this place will become stale any time soon.
Despite, and perhaps because of, the high degree of difficulty in pulling this all off, Wink and Nod gets a nod from us—and a tip of the hat.