Katie James and Marta Kusel know that sometimes, combining work and play can be dicey. They both shared a dream, however, to own the kind of restaurant where they’d like to eat, and so in 2011 they opened Cardinal Rule. They quickly built a loyal following due to their innovative-yet-homey menu and friendly demeanor. So much so, that when the couple found their new restaurant mired in a flood just a month before their wedding they were blown away by the community support they received . Marta suggests that perhaps there was another silver lining to this ordeal. “I was so busy I didn’t have time to freak out about getting married.”
Of course, working together has its rewards, such as building a shared dream. Katie and Marta both pictured a cozy, modern diner, much like the mom & pop shops of the past. The pair makes everyone feels at home, including the servers. “We sometimes refer to the staff as ‘the kids’,” Katie laughs, “but only in a loving way of course.”
Love does keep the business flowing smoothly. “We respect each others zones,” Katie states, “she’s the chef, I work the bar and manage the staff, so we have very distinct roles.” Marta agrees. “And if I was married to anybody else, it wouldn’t work.”
Marta definitely had a cardinal rule of her own when she set about designing her menu: the food had to be fresh and made from scratch. She wanted to avoid the pretensions of fine dining, preferring instead to feed her family and friends with professionally made comfort food. “I like feeding people that I enjoy being around. And I like that I know my customers,” she says. “When they come in I tell them I made a special and I know they’re gonna love it.”
And love it they do. Hard not to, when the offerings include her famed ‘maki n cheese’ rolls: macaroni and cheese is rolled around a filling — sometimes a hotdog, other days bacon, possibly broccoli and ricotta — then breaded in panko crumbs and deep-fried into submission. Sliced like a sushi roll and pan-fried for a crispy finish, it is the one thing Marta and Katie promise will always be on the menu.
Other unique delights are the flippantly named Meat Muffins: little phyllo pastry cups cradle meatballs that are finished with barbeque sauce. Brunches feature an entire menu devoted to caesars and mix’n’match eggs Benny options that offer a choice of peameal bacon, smoked salmon, veggie bacon or spinach stacked on a traditional English muffin and sometimes an oversized latke. And their desserts carry the name Cardinal Rule far and wide as well: patrons swear Katie’s coconut cream pie is the best they’ve ever had, and the key lime pie must always be available, at the fierce insistence of their clientele. “We call it angry pie,” Marta explains, “because it’s so good, it makes you angry.”
It is not hard to see why Cardinal Rule was labeled Now Magazine’s Best New Restaurant in 2011, as well as runner-up for Best Breakfast and new restaurant in 2012, and runner-up for Best Diner in 2013. Only five months after they opened, they were featured on the Food Network’s, You Gotta Eat Here.
Katie and Marta are expanding from Sunday brunch and weekday dinners into DJ-hosted weekend nights and private parties booking out the room. The cozy size and reasonable prices mean birthday parties at Cardinal Rule don’t need to break the bank. Service remains personal and attentive. “You’re not just here for the food or the atmosphere. The whole thing is an experience,” Katie declares. One you’re unlikely to forget soon.