Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Diners find their way to the contemporary American cuisine of Rendezvous in Central Square on Nov. 18, 2005, its opening night, despite a lack of publicity. (Photo: Lawrence E. Miller)

Diners find their way to the contemporary American cuisine of Rendezvous in Central Square on Nov. 18, 2005, its opening night, despite a lack of publicity. (Photo: Lawrence E. Miller)

It was only hours before Steve Johnson opened the doors to his new restaurant, Rendezvous in Central Square, and he was playing it cool.

“I’m not intent on making a splash on day one,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — we want customers. But we’re more interested in building the business over time.”

At 5 p.m. Friday the doors opened. The customers came. The place was packed, some 100 customers over the night, all without benefit of advertising or a marketing campaign.

Afterward, Johnson was still playing it cool.

“Not bad for a first night,” he said.

Rendezvous in Central Square, at 502 Massachusetts Ave., benefited from high visibility and something of a curiosity factor. It replaced the Central Square Burger King, which went out of business several months ago, leaving its shell in the hands of a private owner — just as Johnson was driving to his nearby home after a two-year search for a restaurant space.

“After going through all the conventional pathways,” including looking from Rhode Island to Framingham and even consulting with a restaurant broker, he said, “I ended up finding this location driving through Central Square and seeing a hand-written sign in a window.”

He remembers the date: April 2. He’d been chef and co-owner of Kendall Square’s Blue Room from 1996 to 2003 and looking for his own space ever since. He moved on the location swiftly and gave the former Burger King a rapid makeover — from Formica and cold plastic seats to warm, burnished wood and a soft, buttermilk interior. The food has gone from bargain burgers to squab bisteeya with quince, golden raisins and toasted almonds, and grilled hanger steak with truffled parsnip puree. Diners can still get a soft drink, but they can also have a $66 bottle of François Cotat sancerre.

Rendezvous ingredients often come from local farmers and fishers, befitting Johnson’s history with the Chefs Collaborative 2000, a group addressing political issues related to food, and longtime support for buying locally.

The Rendezvous philosophy isn’t limited to food. In looking around for local involvement in creating the restaurant, Johnson said, “all you have to do is point. The list would be really long.”

The chairs came from the Door Store; the interior designer lives four blocks from the restaurant, and so does Johnson’s graphic designer; the carpet came from Inman Square’s Cambridge Rug; the tabletops were custom-made by a guy in Union Square, Somerville. The list goes on.

“We bought local as much as we could,” he said.

In creating his menus, as in other facets of Rendezvous, Johnson follows his instincts — and succeeds. “We describe the food as ‘We cook what we like and hope people enjoy it,’” he said. Although the inspiration is Mediterranean, which could mean France, Italy, Spain or North Africa, “it’s contemporary American food — a generic term that means we get to cook whatever we want.”

That ranges from cannelloni and chicken to a lobster-and-mussels dish, all accompanied by exotics from farro to flageolets. Expect to spend between $7 and $12 on an appetizer, and from $18 to $24 for an entrée. Rendezvous has vegetarian options and, “although we’re not vegetarians, we love vegetables. They feature prominently in the foods we do,” Johnson said.

While he couldn’t recommend a specific menu item, and the opening-night crowds chose from across the menu rather than targeting a particular dish, he notes that now would be the time to order the swordfish; its season will be over soon. He expects about a third of the menu will change every month.

“People showed up,” Johnson said, reflecting modestly on his successful and overall smooth opening night. “It seemed like they were happy, and no one got hurt.

“It was great,” he said.

Rendezvous in Central Square, 502 Massachusetts Ave., is open for dinner only, seven days a weeknightly. Call (617) 576-1900 or go to rendezvouscentralsquare.com.