If there’s anyplace where it takes a village to open a restaurant, it has to be Cambridge, where a cadre of true believers is busily restoring the city’s once-bustling downtown business district—often, it seems, one brick at a time.
This close-knit community of earnest “come-heres” and determined natives has stepped up big for the latest entrepreneur, Amanda Bramble, a hometown 20-something former bartender and restaurant manager who wouldn’t quit when the bankers scoffed at her plans for opening her own place in the dead of winter and in the depths of a recession.
Bramble got more help than she’d ever imagined from folks who wished her well, then pitched in with a paintbrush or hammer. The big ticket came from nearly a dozen barstool investors who put up most of the $30,000 Bramble figures it cost to open the doors on her Race Street eatery, Jimmie & Sook’s Raw Bar and Grill, nearly a year ago. (Bramble and her partner, Keith Graffius, chose the moniker in homage to watermen’s slang for male and female blue crabs.)
“Our whole concept was to put on the table a lot of what we always had for Sunday dinner,” Bramble says. “We had nine investors who put up what they could. One couple had to back out at the last minute, but then came over and helped us paint. There were people I’ve known all my life, or friends I know from tending bar in town.”
Bramble has merged the menu and the décor in a purely Eastern Shore stew where crab cakes are king and comfort food like Loretta’s Chicken and Dumplings and Momma’s Meatloaf comes straight from the cookbooks of Bramble’s grandmothers—with a few contemporary twists.
To wit, the meatloaf is stuffed with goat cheese and spinach and glazed with a smoked honey-barbecue sauce. Wontons are filled with crabmeat and cream cheese and then deep-fried. Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie, topped with whipped cream, has quickly become a favorite.
“The first two weeks we opened, it was pretty rough,” Bramble recalls. “We just had to fly by the seat of our pants, and people were very understanding.”
Volunteers helped paint the place while Bramble scanned eBay for gently used restaurant equipment and furniture.
“It cost me maybe $1,000 out of pocket,” says Chuck Campbell, who describes—and often hangs out at—the bar he built for the restaurant. “Amanda’s a good Cambridge girl from a good family, and [she has] plenty of experience in this kind of business. They’ll make this work.”
Financing the remaining renovation went pretty much the same way. In early January 2009, just 48 hours before a deadline to lease the building, Bramble came up short. That’s when Eric Axilbund, a Virginia-based investor who got to know Bramble while staying at his family’s summer cottage near Cambridge, secured the deal with a $10,000 loan.
“Her business plan looked solid to me,” says Axilbund. “But it’s the strength of her personality, just the energy and vibrancy that rubs off on other people. It was a no-brainer.”
By the time Bramble, 29, graduated from St. Mary’s College with a biology degree, she’d already ruled out medical school, her original goal. Instead, she knocked around the country a bit before heading back to Cambridge.
“Eventually, I knew it was time for me to come home,” she says. “I saw all the renovation, the bigger stores starting to look like they did when everybody shopped along Race Street. I just fell in love with my hometown all over again.
“I knew what I wanted to do, and it had to be here.”
From the beginning, Jimmie & Sook’s took on a museum quality, as old friends from southern Dorchester County—where hunting, fishing, crabbing, and oystering still hold sway—began filling it with the artifacts of a vanishing lifestyle, including a duck-hunting skiff fastened above the fireplace mantel, 20-foot oyster tongs, and black-and-white prints by famed photographer Aubrey Bodine.