After you read this, walk into Central Bottle and ask Liz Vilardi to help you find a bottle of wine. Be honest: You can’t really spend more than $20, you don’t really know what you like, but you’re really past the age at which it’s okay to admit that too loudly. Liz is humble, good-humored, and knows how to create spaces everybody feels comfortable in––it’s the case in her wine shop, and was so at Belly Wine Bar and The Blue Room. It goes without saying that her Five-Year Plan is meant to be enjoyed over whatever pour you like best.
I grew up in Texas, so at age 20, I’d been in Boston for about a year and a half. I was at Boston College and I’d just switched my major from accounting to finance because I had an awesome professor who figured out what makes me tick––at 20, I thought finance was what made me tick. I now know that what makes me tick is really risk-taking and betting. Aside from school, I met my three closest friends in the world that summer: Emily, Laura, and Matty. Laura and Matty are now married to each other and have three kids. We were all freshman orientation leaders at BC, you know, telling freshman how to survive their first year.
20 was also a noteworthy year because it was the first time I ever worked at a restaurant. I was working at Stephanie’s on Newbury Street. I convinced a man named Chuck to let me wait tables, which I’d never done before. I had to figure out how to pay for things, you know? I needed a job.
By 25, I’d already entered and left the world of banking. I was working at my first restaurant management job at The Blue Room. At the time, my husband owned the restaurant, and I’d eventually come to own it too once we got married. At 25, I’d been managing that restaurant for roughly 6 months.
Then, September 11th happened, and that was a really pivotal moment for me. My mom lived in New York and worked on Wall Street. I just sat and watched and couldn’t believe what was happening on television. I came into the restaurant, and we didn’t know what to do—people certainly didn’t want to go out to dinner, so we weren’t going to open. We had no idea how we were going to respond to any of this.
As I turned 25, I became friends with an older woman who told me, “Oh, 25 is the best. It’s a quarter century of yourself.” I remember being like “Yeah? Yeah! A quarter century of me!” and man, it was the worst year ever. I remember saying so to my brother who is five-and-a-half years younger than me. I read an article in the Times or someplace about how the adolescent brain doesn’t really mature until 26 or 27, and you know what, I completely get that. You think 25 is when you have it all together, but 25 is the worst. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be very accomplished by that point, and you know, I just wasn’t. So it was a rough year historically and personally.
I got married! I remember people asking me, “Well, now you’re 30, how’s it feel?” And I was like, “No different than 29 but definitely better than 25”. Like I mentioned, I technically came to own The Blue Room by marriage, but I was running it really fully since about 2006 when my husband bought out his other partner.
Also: this doesn’t fall on a convenient five-year mark, but I opened Central Bottle between 30 and 35. It came into the world in 2009.
In December of 2010, my mother died. We had a long and tumultuous relationship. When I was 18, my father had passed away. So, here I am, 35 years old and I’m losing another parent and it’s been a much more intimate and longer relationship.
My husband turned 48 at the end of 2011––he’s twelve years older than me. That’s the age my father was when he died. During my whole youth, everyone kept saying (about my father) “Oh, he was so young, he was just 48.” But when I was 18, I was like, “Was he really that young?” I guessed that he had to have been, because everyone certainly said so. But I realized, at 35, I was married to a man who was the age my father was when he died, and yeah––he was still really, really young.
We were discussing toward the end of this year: Belly. Belly is starting to come into play. It was a lot of big thoughts, and revisiting a lot of stuff. Not long after, Belly popped up out of all of that. We named her Belly because it was based out of creation: when a woman is pregnant, she has a belly. The Blue Room to me was always female, and she was a beast, as well. So, it was the Belly of the beast, the belly of the restaurant.
At the end of 2016 we had the fire at Belly. It was one of the greatest fights of my life, that year. I just watched Wonder Woman with my son and between James Bond, Wonder Woman, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, all those fight scenes combined, that’s where I was. I left 2016 with a bloody lip and a black eye. We fought with insurance companies. We fought with our landlord. We fought with construction workers. We fought and we fought. There was absolutely nothing easy about that entire process, not a single thing. The silver lining was that we had kept our management team in place, and those guys were my crew, my people. We were like warriors at the end of the day, working with what was leftover, and looking at each other like, “What the hell just happened? When are we going to get ambushed again, are you guys ready?” 40 was intense.
I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 24. Since I was 26, I’ve basically been top gun, I’ve been the manager. I would say that I had the revelation at 40 that it wasn’t because I was young that people didn’t take me seriously, it's because I’m a woman. It really took me until I turned 40 to realize that that was actually the problem. I was like, “You know, I’m not young anymore. So I think I get it now.”
But things are changing, I know they are. I like to think that my son, who’s nine, is going to help girls who are also nine right now live a different kind of life, live in a different kind of world.
––As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent