The OGs of the Nantucket restaurant industry are still at it, even after all these years.
The Languedoc Bistro - now the longest running owner-operated restaurant on the island - is entering its 47th season in business on Broad Street. Owners Al Cunha, along with brothers Neil and Ed Grennan, have been at the helm since they purchased the bistro in 1976. Dozens of downtown restaurants have come and gone in the ensuing decades, but the Languedoc has been a constant. It has survived trends and fads and economic recessions that put others out of business.
The improbability of their long run is not lost on the ownership trio that has managed to bridge generations of customers while navigating a restaurant scene that has changed significantly since the time they took over the Languedoc in the late 1970s.
“A Portagee and two Irishmen running a French restaurant? Everyone said we would fail,” Cunha said last week with a laugh.
And they almost did fail, he recalled. In those early days, Cunha said “we’d check with each about the 20th of each month to see if we could cover the mortgage. It was really that tight.”
Slowly but surely, however, they found the right formula to keep the Languedoc Bistro a mainstay of the island dining scene. It involved striking a balance between serving the summer clientele while staying connected to the year-round community.
And most of all, the partners said, it was finding and retaining a cast of all-star staff members who keep the Languedoc vibrant, and return to the restaurant year after year. Some of them are institutions unto themselves and have become synonymous with the Languedoc: Jimmy Jaksic, Cygie Arnold Tran, and chef de cuisine Anthony Nastus, among others.
“Most of our employees have been with us for a minimum of 15 years up to 30 years,” Cunha said. “We have a long lineage here. We understood the summer community but to be successful you have to be part of the year-round community.”
Relationships are difficult, whether it's in marriage, business or in sports. Usually friendship and business don’t mix well. And yet the partnership among Cunha and the Grennan brothers has endured through nearly five decades in a competitive and challenging industry.
“We trust and are completely honest with each other,” Cunha said as the Grennan brothers nodded in agreement. “We fight a lot. I think all three of us, we’re blessed with our success, but we were more interested in the quality of our life than a career. We have a great affinity for Nantucket, we like the lifestyle. It’s who we are. And we wanted to be our own bosses.”
They each have their own roles within the business: Ed Grennan manages the guest rooms and their maintenance; Neil Grennan serves as the restaurant’s executive chef; and Cunha manages the finances and tries to work the front door of the Languedoc each night.
“The idea of the restaurant is we’re part of the community and we still try to maintain that,” Cunha said. “This is a tough industry to survive in, and our basic philosophy is to see value in consistency.”
The three partners came to Nantucket looking for an opportunity after running the Warren Tavern in Charlestown, Mass. in the early 1970s. When they purchased the Languedoc in 1976, they saw the potential of the partially-subterranean first floor, and decided to have a bar installed in the space. But the problem, as Cunha said, was that money was tight.
“We couldn’t afford a contractor, so we had a very good friend - a finish carpenter - he had all these doors stripped, so the bar is all old church doors,” Cunha said. “Each day we would put a little piece of the bar together. There were no architectural plans. And the top of the bar is zinc. The man who made it was a friend, the head installer for the MFA (Museum of Fine Art) in Boston. He took the measurements, prefabbed it in Boston, and loaded it into a 240 Volvo and brought it to the island.”
The seats at bar and the downstairs dining room have been some of the most sought after on Nantucket for decades now.
“The whole development of the downstairs was a coordination of dealing with our finances, but creating an atmosphere that would grow old gracefully that we wouldn’t have to change all the time,” Cunha said. “We started down here, and at this age, it’s where we’re going to end up. It’s our 47th year. If we change even a painting, there’s an outrage.”
Cunha and the Grennans have watched the changes and the turnover in the island’s restaurant industry over the decades - particularly over the past two years - and noted the departure of friends, colleagues, and fellow owner/operators like Angela and Seth Raynor, who sold the The Boarding House and The Pearl in the fall of 2021.
“We’re sad to see Seth and Angela go, but they had their dream and they took care of it,” Cunha said, also noting friends and other owner/operators still running restaurants on the island like the LaScolas at The Proprietors, and David Silva at The Galley, as well as their close friend, the late Michael Shannon, who ran The Club Car.
No longer running a restaurant after 30 years, Angela Raynor remarked recently on the run her friends have had at the Languedoc.
“The Languedoc is much more than a restaurant, it is a testament to the core edicts of hospitality,” Raynor said. “We have gathered at the Duc to celebrate more milestones than I can count. The place where the food, atmosphere and quickest wit is served as a reminder of what is the best of Nantucket. From the legendary cheeseburger, lobster, chopped salad to the sundae- the food retains its magic each year. The truly priceless piece for us is three decades of friendship, wise counsel and leadership from Alan - ‘uncle Al’ - Neil and Eddie. They are living legends and we are honored to gather at their tables.”
Some of Nantucket’s long-running restaurants have sold in recent years, and the partners at the Languedoc said they have been approached on numerous occasions by people seeking to buy the restaurant property on Broad Street. But they’ve turned them all down.
“We’ve been offered numerous times - crazy money - to sell, but what’s the point?” Cunha said. “It’s not going to change our lives or who we are. All three of us, our intention is that anytime the sale does come, our children and grandchildren will benefit, but our lives will not change. We feel blessed. Selling is not going to make any difference. So we prefer to keep the business. There’s no point in selling.”
Nantucket’s real estate market, however, has made it difficult for people to own and operate a restaurant as was relatively common in the past, they said.
“The difficulty today for any young person coming in is they can’t own their property,” Cunha said. “So they’re as good as the last cup of coffee. They earn the opportunity to have a great season. But unless they’re really clever people and invested and do other things, their future is limited. And they have to really crank it out. Our mantra was always: you own the property, you own your destiny.”
The French cuisine on the menu at the Languedoc has also evolved, Neil Grennan said, but not too much. It may be fluke on the menu now instead of cod, but Grennan said he’s mindful of what his customers want.
“It’s a fine balance,” Grennan said. “You keep the old traditions, which you have to. Some of those old standbys you keep. People come in and say ‘where is it?’ It used to be that you would get two deliveries per week. It was hard to maintain what you could get. Now you can get anything seven days per week. That’s made it easier.”
During the season, in the hours before the Languedoc opens its doors to the public, you can usually find the three partners having coffee at the Broad Street property with their good friend, Nantucket County Sheriff Jim Perelman, the former owner of The Boarding House before the Raynors. They’ve done it for years.
That tradition - along with the Languedoc itself - endures even as so much around the island has changed since the three men took it over back in 1976.
“Now it’s become very corporate - you went to a restaurant, you used to know who was at the front door,” Cunha said. “It’s changed. Not bad or good, but it’s evolved to a different place. You have to accept that change. We’re lucky because we’re aware of that old school that existed. And we’re lucky because younger people still want to come here and feel it’s a fun place. And for us, we believe that if you’re working, your ability to survive will be longer. You’ll have a longer life. And it’s purposeful. For me, it’s really the people. They keep you alive. They give you a purpose.”