Picture yourself in The Ritz on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter (January, to be exact). The place is packed — but not in the sweaty, the-sun-doesn’t-set-until-9p.m.-summer-night kind of way. It’s dinnertime, but it’s already been dark for hours. The Ritz feels familiar but also like someplace entirely different. Rosie and Jeremiah are there behind the bar, the music is loud, the chatter continuous. But also, there are tables set up for dinner — and people at all of them. There are dainty little vases with flowers and real candles. Giant paper doilies stand in for placemats. Bartenders have turned into waiters and are running food on mismatched vintage plates.

It’s a Ritz Kitchen Takeover — just one pop-up of several Wednesday-night events dreamed up by Ritz General Manager Kelly Feirtag.

Jeanna Shepard

Kelly introduced the kitchen takeovers last year when Johnny Hoy asked her if his tenant, Olivia Pattison, could cook a dinner at The Ritz. Olivia is the baker behind Cinnamon Starship bread and a popular cook popping up everywhere from the Farmers’ Market to Dock Street Coffee Shop. 

Kelly liked the idea and thought she could take it even further. With the help of some friends, the staff and Ritz regulars, she comprised a dream list of chefs to do a series of one-night pop-up dinners. She approached each chef and to her surprise, everyone agreed — enthusiastically.

Ritz Kitchen Takeovers are the brainchild of Ritz manager Kelly Feirtag.
Jeanna Shepard

“They were super-game,” she said. “Every single one of them.”

Kelly made it clear that the pop-ups weren’t meant to be a competition between Island chefs. They would, of course, be an opportunity to showcase talent, but they would also be a community activity — a delicious way to get people together for dinner in the dead of winter.

Once the chefs were onboard, Kelly gave them a tour of the small kitchen so they’d know what kind of space and with what kind of equipment they’d be working. From there, the chefs had carte blanche with their menus.

“It’s a hard kitchen to work in,” Kelly said. “We celebrate at the end of every dinner.”

The pop-ups went so well that Kelly had no problem deciding to run them again in 2020.

Seared sirloin with salt cod galette, broccoli raab and Bordelaise sauce was a hit on Hal and Everett's menu.
Jeanna Shepard

And once again, every chef on the wish list agreed to participate. Gavin Smith, the Food Minded Fellow, was up first on January 8 with braised local pork and shiitake-crusted monkfish. Gavin is already planning next year’s menu. “I like the challenge,” he said. “And I think I’ll offer more options next time.”

This year, the chefs didn’t just get creative with food — cocktails were in the mix too. On January 15, chef Austin Racine of Noman’s put together a menu that included kimchi sourdough pancakes, lamb neck ragu with turnips and parmesan, pan-fried winter flounder with braised celery, roasted vegetables in broth, and chocolate-avocado mousse pie, as well as two avant-garde cocktails: Celebrated bartender Joaquín Simó’s Naked & Famous and an Island original, the Noman’s Snowbird, made with Noman’s own white rum, pineapple, coconut water and clarified milk.

The next week, Olivia Pattison had the barkeeps pouring a rosé Pet-Nat from Maine and maybe for the first time ever, using Mermaid Farm yogurt in a cocktail called the Mexican Mermaid. To eat, Olivia kept it simple and incredibly delicious with a winter green salad, braised pork sandwich and a “famous” grilled cheese. Dessert was a luscious throwback to summer: A panna cotta made with Morning Glory Farm corn.

As the takeover schedule wound down (the Port Hunter would close out on February 12 after Tina Miller and Tara Reynolds’ “Roadhouse” throwback on February 5), chef pals Everett Whiting of The Fish House and Hal Ryerson of The Sweet Life teamed up for a tandem dinner featuring a beet and burrata salad, Allen Farm lamb crepinette, bay scallop crudo, homemade caramelle pasta stuffed with beef cheek, seared sirloin, and risotto. The drink options went two ways: classic — a dirty martini, or funky — a truffled negroni.

After dinner that cold night, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish took the stage. Johnny introduced the chefs, and for a moment the whole place erupted in a cheer. Then the more recognizable aspects of The Ritz — the Christmas lights and the disco balls — started to come back into focus. Most of the guests filtered into the main barroom to be closer to the music. They stood two deep at the bar, the least socially inhibited out on the dance floor. Goodbyes were long and drawn out as heavy coats were yanked on and tabs were paid. No one really seemed to want to leave. Outside the wind was sharp and chilling, but inside, the food and the company was some of the best the Island could offer that night. And everyone was happy to be out. 

Erin Ryerson is a freelance writer and restaurant owner. She lives in Oak Bluffs with her chef-husband and two kids.

Note: The Ritz will take a few weeks off in February. When they reopen in March, Adam Rebello will take over the kitchen, giving his popular taqueria, Dilly’s, a brand new home.