After sixteen years at his downtown Santa Fe location, Julian's Wayne Gustavson is still making changes. The sixty-four year old culinary veteran shows me the room he remodeled for the restaurant's new lunch service. "One reason we held off on lunch so long is that it was so dark, it didn't feel lunchy. I wanted to lighten it up." The dark-timbered spaces that have given Julian's its romantic quality are still there, but he brightened up the lunch room by adding windows and a new faux-paint finish. With the old brick floors, it's reminiscent of Tuscany. Two small terraces, one looking down on Shelby Street and the other an enclosed nook tucked away near the rear, add to the continental ambiance.
Wayne's north-European features-a long face, short-cropped gray hair along with mustache and well-trimmed beard-don't bring Italian to mind. But he learned from the ground up in the kitchens of several restaurants, most notably Cape Cod's Italian institution, Ciro and Sal's, where he became executive chef. "I was a history major in college. It started as a summer job I got caught up in. I realized I was having more fun as a chef than I ever could as a history teacher."
After working for a number of restaurants, "eventually you reach a point where you want to do it on your own." He and his wife at the time learned about a space in Telluride, where they opened a restaurant and stayed nine years. With the move to Santa Fe, he named his new restaurant Julian's after the family restaurant started by his grandfather and passed down to his father and uncle.
The restaurant first opened with both lunch and dinner service, but the new staff, not yet a cohesive team, found the schedule overwhelming. Wayne decided to cut back and resume lunch when the time was right.
Right? Sixteen years later? "I don't know why we decided to do it now." He pauses. "Well, I can tell you exactly why." He checked it out with the kitchen and the front of the house and found the staff "enthusiastically supportive. It just felt good."
Customers complain if he makes too many changes to the dinner menu, some of which he calls "third rail dishes. I touch them and I'm dead." He considers lunch "fun," coming in on days off to experiment with new ideas. "I'm not looking to hit a home run with lunch. I just want to get on base."
He may not do the hands-on cooking anymore, but Wayne still manages the kitchen, and developed the new lunch menu, choosing some items he's always wanted to do but thought wouldn't work for dinner. Other items come from the night menu, but are smaller and cost less.
On a warm day, the back patio feels cool and quiet when I arrive to eat with wine distributor Don Poston. With only four tables set in white linen, an attractive brick floor, and a set of stained glass windows, it's cozy yet airy. I select the zucchini soup, along with a special, soft shell crab sautéed with shallots, garlic, lemon, and white wine served over baby greens. Don has farfalle with tomatoes and arugula. Everything's very good, and in true Italian style: a few fresh ingredients carefully combined to make elegant dishes.
On this day, diners fill both terraces and take some inside tables. Wayne's pleased. Whether or not lunch will be a permanent fixture at Julian's remains to be seen. But he already appears to be rounding first base.
Julian's is located at 221 Shelby Street in Santa Fe. 505.988.2355. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday 11:30am to 2:30pm. Dinner is served daily from 5:30pm.