A family business: General Manager Nate Sustick (center)
and his parents, Paul and Elizabeth Sustick
If you’re at all familiar with Northampton, chances are you know Paul and Elizabeth’s, a vegetarian and seafood mainstay in its thirty-first year named for owners and founders Paul and Elizabeth Sustick.
The eatery is located in Thornes Market, an indie-style shopping mall in an old department store in the heart of Northampton’s Main Street shopping district. The mall has creaky floors and relatively narrow hallways (there are no engineer-designed paths of least resistance conceived to herd shoppers along the most lucrative route).
Paul and Elizabeth’s isn’t exactly small, but it feels intimate despite lofty ceilings. Floor-to-top windows let in sunlight and a panoramic view of Old South Street broken here and there with panels of stained glass. Quilts and tapestries hang from the walls, along with nineteenth-century photographs of Native Americans. Almost every surface—floor, woodwork, walls, tabletops—is tinted a diffusely reflective honey. Waitstaff dress in casual gray aprons and black Oxford shirts.
It just feels good to sit down for a meal at Paul and Elizabeth’s. This satisfaction has much to do with the comfortable, effortless décor, but more to do with the guilt-free menu. Have you ever craved steamed broccoli and brown rice? I hadn’t either until I ate lunch once at Paul and Elizabeth’s and decided to supplement my fish with some green. I doused the broccoli (which was still sufficiently crunchy) with tamari and a sesame seed and salt concoction the servers will present upon request. With the chewy, skillfully cooked brown rice, it was good. Biblical, Genesis good: simple, clean and as it should be.
“Clean” is a good word to describe the flavors at the Susticks’ natural foods bastion. They have a way with white fish—cod, scrod, trout—that adds taste but never covers the pure, subtle flavors of lean, ocean-steeped flesh.
There’s always been a fish on the menu at P and E’s. But the menu has gone through a gradual transformation— evolving from a raw, simple combination of ingredients to a more layered and nuanced incorporation of flavors—since Paul and Elizabeth moved to Northampton from Boston in 1978 with their one-month-old son, Nate. In the last decade, Nate has become head chef at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a place he’s known since its infancy and his own.
His parents met when they were both in a natural foods apprenticeship with Master Japanese Chef Hiroshi Hayashi at The Seventh Inn (the Susticks maintain that the natural foods move-ment, whose inception was widely attributed to cooks and food philosophers in California, actually started in Boston in the early ‘seventies). I asked Paul if the apprenticeship had a special term in Japanese, one equivalent to the French culinary tradition of stage. “Slavery,” Paul joked.
Students were required to start as dishwashers, then move up to prep cook, baker, sous chef, chef, and finally man-ager of the entire operation. Hiroshi, though he taught his students the Japanese tradition of approaching cook-ing and eating as a sensory experience, encouraged them to cook American-style food inflected with Japanese philosophy and flavors. (Nate studied briefly with Hiroshi as well.)
In late September of 1978, Paul and Elizabeth moved to Northampton after Brinkley Thorne, founder of Thornes Marketplace, came to The Seventh Inn and recruited them to start a natural foods restaurant in his new mall. At that time, says Elizabeth, the “down-town shopping center of Main Street” was non-existent. And they were one of perhaps three restaurants in town at the time.
“I think we’re the oldest restaurant in town with the same original owners,” says Paul, “except maybe for [Joe’s Café, a popular pizza joint and townie hang-out on Market Street].”
Paul and Elizabeth’s vegan chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce and almond praline
They signed a lease on October first and opened, remarkably, just weeks later in December. The space was empty, so the next weeks were packed with design and renovation of the blank canvas. “Everything here is alive or was living,” said Elizabeth, rubbing a hand across the wood tabletop, “or was created by hand,” she says, referring to the tapestries on the walls.
The Susticks pay very close attention to detail, another trait they picked up while studying with the Japanese master. “One of our assignments was a ‘dining out’ experience,” explains Elizabeth. They were required to go to another restaurant and “look at the carpet, look at the table, look at the silverware, at the waitress. And then we could start to think about the fact that we were there to have an eating experience.” As a result, the Susticks are careful not to let things slip through the cracks. “If this picture was dusty,” says Paul, gesturing toward a framed photo hung on the wall, “no matter how good the food was, you might take [that memory] with you.”
Nate, who never thought he’d end up running the business his parents created when he was just a baby, says he enjoys the creative way he’s able to operate. “I think featuring regional flavors and styles and ingredients (baked scrod, scallops, and a variety of local vegetables—roasted, fried, raw or sautéed—herbs and fruit) and an international style and flavors give us a certain balance and options for me as a chef to explore,” he said. Nate mentions Thai, Japanese and Middle Eastern influences in many of the dishes on the menu, but also points out a more classically Continental dish: filet of sole in a caper, lemon and butter sauce.
“Even though we’ve been here for thirty-one years, we’re still kind of underground,” says Paul. “People forget we’re here.” But maybe it’s not that they forget; maybe it’s just that they’re surprised each time they rediscover P and E’s. It’s such a warm, unassuming place, simple, clean and well balanced, that it might go unnoticed; boastful and flashy are not words that seem to fit into the natural foods aesthetic. But customers keep finding this restaurant, and the fresh, tasty, healthy, affordable food that is always waiting for them.
- Courtesy Preview Massachusetts
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