Room 39's new dinner menu pays off.

Lucky Strike 

Room 39's new dinner menu pays off.

I once worked for a restaurant owner who was a gambler. He actually believed that dumping coins into a slot machine had better payoff odds than opening a new restaurant. Restaurants can be a bad gamble, he said, because so many variables can throw off your luck. "A bad location, a menu that never catches on or quickly goes out of fashion, a lazy manager — you name it," he said. "But the worst is bad mojo. You can never survive bad mojo."

A case in point on the local restaurant landscape: Last year, two restaurants opened at roughly the same time about five miles apart. They were both independently owned operations in midtown neighborhoods surrounded by other popular eating establishments. They both had intimate, attractive dining rooms and eclectic menus.

Unfortunately for the restaurant in the more visible, desirable location, Jenny's Place in Waldo was doomed by deadly mojo. The food was mediocre, the servers were untrained, and the place had an unmistakable aroma of impending disaster. You know what disaster smells like, don't you? The movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Paris Hilton's wedding plans. Cherubic Clay Aiken trolling the Internet for what he hoped would be anonymous sex. Blame it on the mojo.

The other restaurant got all the good luck. It helped, of course, that the owners of Room 39 were attractive and talented, served imaginative and consistently delicious food and hired — and trained — a professional wait staff. That's why Jenny's Place is now closed and the 17-month-old Room 39 has customers waiting in line and recently expanded its hours to serve dinner four nights a week.

It would be fair to say that Room 39 owners Andrew Sloan and Ted Habiger hit the jackpot by taking a gamble on an unlikely location (a grimy former coffeehouse on 39th Street) and turning it into a sunny and attractive 11-table bistro that, in its first year, served only breakfast and lunch.

"We always planned to serve dinner," Sloan says. "It just took a long time to get a liquor license."

There was also the little problem of their thriving catering business, which is the main reason that Sloan and Habiger are open for dinner only on weeknights. "Our kitchen is just too small to do weekend dinner business and prepare food for a wedding reception with 350 guests."

I've always maintained that the best night to go out for a nice, leisurely dinner is any night except Friday and Saturday. On traditionally slow "school nights," as they're called in the industry, most customers don't stay up late, and the let's-hire-a-baby-sitter set doesn't go out at all. So dining rooms are less frenetic, customers aren't expecting dinner to be a Big Fat Evening Out, and it's easier to find a place to park.

Reservations usually aren't mandatory on weeknights, either. But they are at Room 39, where there are fewer than a dozen tables and there's already a buzz about the joint. Seats are at a premium, especially the good ones — not too close to the entrance, just far enough away from the restroom and the kitchen. In fact, on the night I was dining with Bob and Connie, I got a front-row view of a squabble between two society matrons.

Our trio had requested a reservation several days earlier, but the dueling doyennes apparently had not, and they both wanted the same two-top. Sadly they didn't come to blows (Connie was hoping for some hair-pulling and spitting), but there was a fleeting moment of well-coifed tension before the less aggressive woman fled.

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