An Uncommon Kitchen
Why Kitchen at Commonplace feels like home
Photos by Shannon Cornman
Walk into the Kitchen at Commonplace and ask an employee what her primary task is, and you’ll get the same answer you would next door at Commonplace Books: “I take care of people.” Ben Nockels and his team started the bookstore in 2017 with the idea that they would re-imagine a bookstore not just as a business venture, but as an extension of a family living room.
“We asked questions with the goal of re-imagining a customer experience in our store,” Nockels says, “and our lack of experience actually helped us do that, because we weren’t trapped in an idea of what a bookstore had to be. Our outsider status was our greatest strength.”
Operating the store like a living room helped the team avoid the transactional vibe that infects most retail establishments. The presence of shop dog Boz, usually napping on an area rug near comfortable furniture — but never on the furniture (he weighs 140 pounds) — contributes to the overall feel and function of a living room.
“When we talked about rounding out our experiences with people with hospitality at the center, food and beer were natural extensions of hospitality,” Nockels says. “Families spend time in a living room, but they also share meals around a table.”
The Kitchen at Commonplace emerged from this discussion of “What’s next?” — and like the bookstore, the restaurant is shaped by outsiders’ perspectives. For his part, Nockels is approaching this endeavor with a healthy balance of confidence and caution, deeply aware that being an outsider is fraught with obstacles unknown to the first-time restaurateur.
“We’re approaching this with a posture of humility,” he says. “We’d rather be humble and end up being underestimated than the alternative that comes from being too cocky.”
Chef Chris Castro is new to a professional kitchen, but an ideal choice for Commonplace’s ideals of care of people, hospitality and home-based ambience. Born in California to parents from Michoacan and Sinoloa, Mexico, Castro grew up with Mexican cuisine as the backdrop to his early years. Both parents cooked, and money was usually tight, but both loved hospitality.
“We didn’t have much to give other people,” Castro says, “but we had food, and my parents loved to have guests.”
That hospitable ethos still animates Castro’s food and cooking. When you are cooking for people, you are sharing life, love and family; you’re sharing yourself and your life in a tangible way, a means of bringing people together around a table.
The Kitchen at Commonplace is an open concept, and for guests at the bar, food preparation will be an arm’s length away, which means Castro is focused on staffing the restaurant with people who are comfortable with hospitality. They are not there just to fix and serve food; they are there “to take care of people,” just as they are next door.
The basic design themes of the bookstore — sea foam, Kilim rugs, light woods and minimalist milling — all have been extended into the kitchen, but with the help of beautiful dishes from Craig Proper on the south wall, and Impressionistic art from the 1930s to the 1980s on the north wall, the space has its own identity … a family resemblance to the bookstore, not a facsimile.
Central to the ethos of the restaurant, if not exactly geographically centered, is the massive quartz and granite common table. The stunning, 2,100-pound piece of furniture is what designer Sara Kate Little calls “the big splurge” for the space. Little selected the stone in Dallas after designing a table that embodied the ideal of a common meal.
“The table represents a melding together of different parts and types,” she says. “The quartz top and granite legs and support beam don’t look as if they go together, but they work together beautifully.”
That, essentially, has been Nockels’ telos from the very beginning: to create spaces in Midtown that bring a diverse community together over their love of the shared staples of books, ideas, wine, food and conversation. The goal, of course, is to create a shared space where ideas and people can be transformed by the interaction of disparate pieces. The meal metaphor blends seamlessly into this approach – because what is a meal, after all, but diverse ingredients blended to create a delicious whole?