5 Courses with Matt Curtis and Chris Lutes of Tory Row

The year is 1991. Two unemployed young guys have good degrees but, thanks to an economic slump, no immediate prospects. One is a mathematician, the other an economist with design skills. Both avid bar customers, they figured that with all the time they spent in various watering holes, why not build one of their own? And so they did. It was called Miracle of Science. Now Matt Curtis and Chris Lutes have just opened their sixth bar/restaurant — Tory Row — in the heart of Harvard Square, next to the newsstand and ’round the bend from the Coop, joining Miracle of Science, Middlesex Lounge, Audubon Circle, and the two Cambridge 1 locations. Since the notion of two good friends deciding, “What the hell, let’s go into business together,” isn’t exactly a novel three-beer fantasy, we wanted to know what made this duo successful when most buddy-turned-business-partner ventures flop.

Matt Curtis: None. Only as customers.

Chris Lutes: The economy was horrible, we were both out of work, and we were spending all of our time doing crosswords and going out. We were very good customers of a few select bars. But there was always something wrong. Fun bar, but the food stinks. Good food, lousy atmosphere. Overly bright, with fluorescent lights, but good food value. We thought we could do better. We thought we’d do this for five years. We’d tell our families, “We’re just doing this until the economy turns around.” My mother still asks me if I like being a barkeep.

Wasn’t being clueless about the business a handicap?

MC: I think that coming from a non-foodservice background actually helped us. We approach everything from the point of view of the customer. Our objective was simple: a place with good design [and] good value that serves good beverage and good food.

How do you divide the responsibilities?

MC: I have a design background, so I take responsibility for that. I like unselfconscious design, comfortable enough for a couple of contractors to come in and see it as a cool place for a pizza and a beer, but interesting enough so that an architect can come in and decode the design.

CL: I make sure that the food and drink is what we promise.

How do you maintain a friendship and the business?

MC: It takes energy to manage the relationship. Some years are better than others. Sometimes I’ll have his mood call my mood. I like text messages and e-mails. He likes the phone. For a year or so, I wouldn’t answer his calls. For work, you only have three options: you can work alone, you can work with one other person, or you can work with many. Working with one other person works for us.

CL: Our values worked. We are both very opinionated and have a strong sense of right and wrong.

MC: From the beginning, we were very disciplined and had the same sense of obligation to friends and family. We’d have a drink or two, but we charged ourselves for every bottle of beer. We paid ourselves, but just enough to manage. We trusted each other, and we trusted the people who worked for us. We had to. They knew more than we did.

Nice Shepherd Fairey posters. Whose idea was that?

MC: When we were under construction and Shepherd was in town, he threw up the posters on the plywood outside of the restaurant. Then we cut them out of the wood and had them framed. He came to our opening with the curator of the ICA — and his defense attorney.

READ:Tory Row, The Miracle of Science guys do it again. By Robert Nadeau