The dining room is small, and in the pre-dinner light of a Wednesday afternoon, it’s quiet. “Food and Drink” blares out in neon over the kitchen, and yellow light streams in from the shaded storefront looking out on First Street. Joe and Jill Dobias — the husband-and-wife/chef-and-front-of-house-manager team behind Joe & MissesDoe (45 East 1st Street; 212-780-0262) — speak over each other in quips, jokes, and jibes, the cheer in their voices pinging off the walls.
Seated together at a table flanked by the church pews they drove in from out of state, they immediately start talking. Though he holds his own against his friendly, chatty partner, Joe confesses he’s rather shy: “This is my element, where I have my chef coat on and can talk about my passion,” he explains, “but when we go out to eat, she orders.” They launch into how they love their restaurant, and how their struggles make them love the industry even more so today than when they first opened, as JoeDoe, in 2008.
Joe had graduated from Cornell, worked his way around New York kitchens, and landed under Peter Hoffman at Savoy; Jill was a professional ballet dancer. Dating at the time, the two opened JoeDoe on the sleepy south side of First Street between First Avenue and Bowery as a rather traditional fine-dining space. A month after they opened, without an investor and with eighty thousand dollars on credits cards, the market crashed. But with no financial partners requiring them to make “grandma’s meatballs,” they handled the space themselves and kept expenses down.
“We’re so hands-on, and we want to be,” says Joe of their six-day-a-week schedule. “I went into cooking to cook.” He’s always at the (electric) stove in the tiny open kitchen, and Jill handles everything from the cocktail menu to staff training to greeting guests by name.
In the beginning, the menu was a conglomeration of popular dishes others were cooking at the time and Jill’s solid takes on classic cocktails. “We didn’t know what we were doing when we opened,” she says. “We got all positive reviews and everything, but it took us a while to get where we are. To where we have finesse, where we understand our style and our strengths.” In 2014, they gave the restaurant space a more casual makeover and rechristened as Joe and Misses Doe, serving a bar menu and a chef’s tasting menu… that they don’t like to call a tasting menu.
“It’s more about our style in general,” Jill says of the four-course (with two options on three of the courses), $48 meal that changes every two weeks or so. “Joe’s style has always been approachable. He’s not plating with tweezers. So it’s a cross between a chef’s tasting menu and, well, something that feels very familiar.”
“It’s not dainty, and there’s no ‘tiny thing’ on the plate,” Joe explains. “The menu is fully flushed out with my style, versus the conglomerate rock-style stuff I got recognized for in the beginning. But we haven’t intensified the service so that it’s stuffy — Jill’s not gonna come over and not hug you because we’re doing a ‘tasting menu’ now.”
When the Voice visited, that menu included seared golden tilefish on a bed of basmati rice (seasoned with beet juice to a dashing, bright red). The current menu offers sausage dumplings with broccoli rabe sauce and pecorino, soft-shell crab with dirty rice and Old Bay seasoning, and a wildflower honey custard with “Turkish crisp.” On the bar menu are a brisket sandwich with cheddar, onions, and pepper mayo as well as fried matzo, and deviled eggs. Pretzel challah with honey butter is always on offer — another nod to Jill’s Jewish heritage and New York City’s panache.
“Less is more, in general,” says Joe of his plates now. “I’ve learned how hard simplicity is; what needs to be on the plate versus what I want to be on the plate. Before, a lot of the motivation was looking at a high design element and working my way back, whereas now I can purely put something together and make it look effortless and not so worked.”
And then there’s Jill’s cocktail menu.
“When you start to create your own things, it takes time to figure out what works for you,” she says. “I don’t like sweet cocktails and I don’t like juices, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t like the speakeasy style of Aperol and Campari and cinnamon and nutmeg rinse on everything — I use chili and sambal and smoked salt. Right now, I’m into hot garnishes on cold cocktails, so during service, I’m running into the kitchen to burn shit on the flattop. I griddle lemon so it melts the ice, which becomes the water element in an old-fashioned.”
Joe says that Jill was one of the first in the city to feature beer cocktails, too. The “Muddy Puddle” combines sweet bourbon, stout, iced espresso, and peanut dust; the “Honey Beer” gin, ale, and a salted-honey rim. Every cocktail has its designated glass, just as Jill sources handmade, elegant plateware for Joe’s food. “I’m obsessed with plates,” she says. “When we use a plate for too long we put it into the vault and switch it out. People expect dumpy, short-stemmed wine glasses. No. I’ve developed a style with the glassware that’s important to me.”
“It goes back to how we stay casual but formal,” Joe says. “The table doesn’t have a white cloth on it, but your food will be served on an eighty-dollar plate.”
In two years, the Dobiases’ lease will expire, a fact that both excites and brings them comfort more than anything. As a team, they’ve built their neighborhood joint on customer service and friendly, approachable food more than anything, and they’ve watched the neighborhood change from hardcore locals to young, moneyed transients. They started the business while dating and are now happily married and equal partners in their restaurant. (Well, almost. Jill actually owns 52 percent, though she often gets a condescending ‘head pat’ from those who assume she’s just the chef’s wife.)
“I think we’re even closer now,” says Joe of their partnership. “In the beginning, this restaurant was my thing. Then there was a shift when it became our thing. My needing to teach her things (or just thinking I needed to teach her things) shifted to trusting that she knows what she needs to do, and she trusts that I know what I need to do. We can turn to each other and tell each other to give it a rest; to point out when something’s not important.”
That trust has taken them far — as has the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. There was a rocky period when Joe was getting slammed for some off-color remarks he’d made on social media, and he recognizes that had he worked for someone else he could have been “canned the same day.” But together, they can move throughout the restaurateur world of New York learning as they go, and relying on each other and their capabilities when things get tight (which is part of the reason they have a side catering business to counter slow nights at the restaurant, and vice versa).
They’re only now dipping their toes into television and cookbookery, confident in themselves as fully formed hospitality personalities rather than kids trying to get into a spotlight. And while they used to actively try to get on the “lists” most restaurants aspire to, now they’re content to fall into their press naturally and let their business continue to “grow with integrity.”
“I’m idealistic about the restaurant business,” says Joe. “Part of the reason I hate Manhattan sometimes is because I know this restaurant won’t be here in fifty years and so I can’t give it to my son or daughter; that won’t happen. But our lease ending is an exciting thing for us because it’s a sense of accomplishment. We opened a month before the economic downtown in 2008; timing has never been my forte! So to be able to go bare bones and slide through the lowest of the low, to figure out how to keep the lights on and the landlord off your back…we’re workers. We’re in it.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 3, 2016