Paul and Elizabeth’s in Northampton: 38 Years and Still Going Strong
Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 7, 2016, by James Heflin.
Speak to Paul and Elizabeth Sustick, both 67, owners of Paul and Elizabeth’s restaurant in Northampton, and you quickly get a sense that they’re key emissaries of the town’s cultural renaissance, long in full swing.
They founded their restaurant 38 years ago, in 1978. A lot of business endeavors have risen and fallen around them, but the Susticks’ corner of Thornes Market on Main Street has remained much the same, from the room itself to the family running the kitchen. The restaurant offers vegetarian and seafood options and is a perennial favorite, often in more than one category, in Valley “best of” polls.
When Paul and Elizabeth first came to town, they say, there were a lot of empty storefronts. There was no downtown revival just yet. From their nook, they witnessed Northampton’s transformation.
“Somehow, Northampton became a place to go,” said Paul. “We kept marching on and watching it all change.”
Vegetarianism was a bit more of a niche in 1978, though, Paul explains, it was popular among hippies.
“We had to evolve our menu to meet the public here who were not quite there yet,” Elizabeth said. “We started simple, maybe even a little austere. Our menu was just one little panel. Now it’s four pages.”
A lot more has changed in town. Paul says in the late ’70s, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than nine or 10 restaurants in the Northampton area. “Now, between here and Amherst, there’s probably 100 restaurants.” When it comes to vegetarian restaurants, these pioneers now face competition from totally vegetarian spots like Bela, Haymarket Cafe, Vegan Palate and Cafe Evolution, and many other restaurants that offer plenty of vegetarian options.
That’s meant ever-increasing competition, but if you visit Paul and Elizabeth’s, you can expect the large room to be well-populated most any time of day.
It’s a spectacular spot, accessed via Thornes Market on one side, and via a winding staircase on the other. The stars of the show are the enormous windows, which offer views of Northampton’s Old South Street and, at certain tables, distant hills. In a few, stained glass hangs.
The walls are orange-red below an off-white that extends to the tin ceiling, and the whole interior is full of plants.
Their business has thrived for so long, says Elizabeth, in part because their approach prefigured the current drive for local, sustainably produced food. “The ‘farm to table concept’ is what we were taught under — get the ingredients as close to the location as possible, and keep it simple. That was really basic to our business plan.”
Also basic to the restaurant is a menu of only vegetarian dishes and seafood, never meat.
Both Susticks studied under the tutelage of Japanese chef Hiroshi Hayashi for several years in the early ’70s. Hayashi ran the Seventh Inn restaurant in Boston, as well as a cooking school focusing on simple methods and straight-from-nature ingredients.
The Seventh Inn menu, like the current Paul and Elizabeth’s menu, featured vegetarian and seafood dishes, but no meat. Hayashi eventually moved his cooking school to New Hampshire. He died in 2012.
Paul, originally from New Jersey, ended up taking a restaurant job thanks to his sister, who had worked with Hayashi. Paul had been a social worker for several years, but says he was burned out. His sister asked him to come wash dishes at the restaurant where everyone, Paul says, started as a dishwasher. He was already a vegetarian, he says. His interest in cooking “happened naturally.”
That was largely because of Hayashi. “Hiroshi was a master,” Paul said. “When you run into a certain person like that, it kind of clicks. He could have been a carpenter, and maybe I would have been a carpenter.”
About a year later, Paul was cooking, no longer washing dishes, and the restaurant had another newcomer. “I came out of the open heart unit, where I was a nurse,” said Elizabeth. “I’d been doing that for many years. I saw that food was such a factor in health, and I was interested in exploring that.”
She too had already adopted eating vegetarian.
In the ’70s, terms like “health food” or “natural food” signified what we might now call organic or “whole foods.” The phrase “natural food” soon came into use by even the likes of Quaker oats, say the Susticks, so in order to distinguish his efforts, Hayashi opted for his own term to describe his style: “epicurean cuisine.”
The Susticks’ teachers at Hayashi’s restaurant and school didn’t necessarily espouse strict vegetarianism. “Their approach was eat everything, but in moderation,” Elizabeth said.
Though their restaurant emphasizes vegetarian food, the Susticks say they do sometimes eat meat now, at least when it’s local and they know where it came from.
What they learned about cooking from Hayashi, they say, is one of the keys to their restaurant’s remarkable longevity. His approach, they say, didn’t plant them firmly in any one cuisine. Paul says there are clear Asian influences, things like tamari and udon noodles. “But being a vegetarian restaurant, we don’t have to identify with any particular ethnic tradition,” Paul said. “We also have a fish chowder that’s very New England. We have a diversity of flavors.”
And indeed, a recent visit turned up just that. There are reliable vegetarian choices with a nod to Japan, like a tempura vegetable platter and a fish lunch with tamari. They nestle against New England-style fish and chips.
Somewhere between such influences lie dishes like Parmesan-encrusted broiled flounder.
Paul and Elizabeth may have trained with a chef who strove for simplicity, but the restaurant’s fish preparation is hardly the stuff of boiled scrod. The flounder arrived sizzling with butter and Parmesan, its edges crispy and its center cooked just past translucency. It was a happy marriage of flavors, not overwhelmed with spice, but well-seasoned.
Its accompaniment, baked brown rice, on the other hand, echoed Hayashi’s call for simplicity. It provided a base for other flavors, but possessed little on its own. When served with the fish, however, it borrows some of that dish’s butter for a bit of dressing up.
That day’s soup, an onion bisque, offered a straightforward blast of taste, with onion and salt leading the way. It got a boost from a large handful of cheese. With that came one of Paul and Elizabeth’s whole wheat rolls.
Paul says that the restaurant is one of the few local eateries still doing its own baking every day, and that the rolls and other baked goods are something of a P and E signature.
Next generation steps up
It bears noting, too, that the current incarnation of the menu isn’t as it’s always been. That’s in large part thanks to the kitchen staff, now run by Nate Sustick, 37, Paul and Elizabeth’s eldest of three children.
The couple say Nate, who was 3 months old when they opened, is a big reason the restaurant has kept going while other establishments have closed. “Around eight or 10 years ago, we made a decision about keeping going.”
It was agreed that Nate would take the lead in the kitchen, and they forged ahead. His brother and sister have gone in different directions — Michael Sustick is a preschool teacher in Greenfield, and Emily Sustick directs the nonprofit Full Circle Education in Idaho.
These days, Nate heads up a busy operation with around 30 employees.
Before Nate’s tenure began, Paul was a chief presence in the kitchen, and can still regularly be seen behind the window where finished dishes await servers.
Elizabeth took on a different role. “I started out being manager of the floor. My husband had back of house.”
With the arrival of children, she says, her involvement with the public decreased, and a floor manager was added to the lineup. Even then, explains Paul, Elizabeth worked behind the scenes. These days, she says, she still takes care of how the restaurant looks. She’s also returned to her nursing roots — she teaches and has a private practice as a certified Anthroposophic Nurse Specialist. It is a discipline developed by Rudolf Steiner which aims to augment physical healing with spiritual concerns.
The human touch
In part, says Elizabeth, the restaurant continues to do well because of the availability of good ingredients, something which hasn’t always been the case. It’s simply easier now to get the kind of locally grown produce they’ve considered a vital part of their cooking.
“The markets are incredible now,” Elizabeth said. “People are very interested in quality and ecology now, and the farms that supply us with our produce are keenly interested in good produce.”
She says a major part of the restaurant’s longevity is something more esoteric. “There’s real human involvement in what we feed people. It’s not mechanized or industrial in any way.”
That may sound like a broad contention, but in their case, it’s a central philosophy that Paul and Elizabeth believe shows up on the plate, too.
That human touch comes through in the restaurant’s name. The thing is, it hadn’t occurred to them at first to call it that. They were weighing their options when they came to Thornes to visit their new space. There someone had posted a sign that said, “Paul and Elizabeth coming soon.”
Thirty-eight years on, the moniker still works.