For classically trained actress Pam Willis, diners who fill up the massive communal table and cozy banquettes at Pammy’s are the audience and the restaurant itself is her stage. Although the restaurant is a fairly recent addition to Cambridge, something about the space—maybe it’s the fireplace, or maybe it’s the homemade bread—immediately triggers feelings of nostalgia and comfort. Here’s how Pam teamed up with her husband, Chef Chris Willis, to build one of the city’s most beloved spaces to eat, drink, and feel right at home.
At 20, my father had just died. That was the biggest thing that happened at that point in my life.
I was at the Tisch School of Arts at NYU as an acting major. When you’re that age and living in New York City while exploring the theater, it’s probably the most exciting place you can be. I think it allowed me to kind of escape losing a parent, which is such a tough thing to do. I just threw myself into the theater.
When I got into NYU and started studying something that I’d cared about, it was amazing. I got straight A’s all of a sudden, even though I’d always struggled in school. I graduated when I was 22, and I was so excited. I was like “I’m so good, I am going to rock this theater world. Watch out, Broadway, here I come!”
It was honestly the hardest, most depressing time.
I couldn’t get a theater job to save my life. I went and lived in the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Madison Square Garden, which my mom actually owned. It was my saving grace. I had no money and no prospects. I even had a running joke with a friend that we should write a play about the number of rejections we got. Sometimes I’d get really far and get a third callback and just...not get it.
Around 25, I kind of had this come to Jesus moment where I was like, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t I booking these jobs? I guess I must not be very good?” I think I hit my quarter-life crisis, almost.
It’s also worth noting that my roommate at NYU who is now one of my best friends is a French foodie. Her parents lived in New York, and they pretty much took us on a tour of New York’s food scene. I went to all of the fancy restaurants while I was in my early 20s. I became enamored by fine dining. That was a real eye-opener for me.
Around that age, I started working at a restaurant in Nantucket while doing some community theater to get my acting fix. I decided to apply to grad schools and hone my craft. I didn’t want to give up. That’s the theme of me. I don’t give up. When someone slams a door in my face, I keep saying, “No, hello. Hello.” For what it’s worth, in the theater world, that doesn’t work. They just get really annoyed with you and blacklist you, like, “That one’s crazy. Moving on.”
I applied to a couple of grad schools, including the American Repertory Theater—as a program, it’s actually called the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. You pay Harvard but you actually attend school at the ART. You also get to go to Moscow for six months, which was super cool.
The audition I did for that program is one that I’ll never forget. I did a Shakespeare monologue, and I decided I was going to take a huge risk and do the monologue in a completely different way than I’d ever done before. Clearly, I thought, what I had been doing hadn’t been working for me. It was time to switch it up. That was a really big lesson for me, because I rocked that thing. I totally let my guard down and became extremely vulnerable. I remember finishing it, and one of the auditioners had a tear in her eye. I was like, “Oh dear god, this is finally it.” I had to tap into all of the horrible pain and suffering of my early twenties.
During those rough early and even mid-twenties, it was really important that my mom encouraged me to always keep going. She’s a very accomplished woman, she was the first woman to win entrepreneur of the year in 1997 for bringing the Hotel Pennsylvania out of bankruptcy and selling it to Planet Hollywood in just four years. She’s always been a gift to me. She used to say, “He who hesitates is lost”, and then she’d say, to me, “You just gotta do it, Pam. You just gotta do it.”
While I was in grad school, I started making beaded jewelry—necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. I was selling it on the side. A friend and I did these little trunk shows.
Around the time I graduated, I met my husband Chris. We met at the Chicken Box on Nantucket—it’s such a dive, but that’s how we met. I also had gone to high school with his brother, so that’s how we knew each other. Chris has always been in food, he’s always been cooking. When Chris and I met, we shared this underdog spirit. He’s very similar to me in that when someone tells him no, he keeps banging on that door. Once school was done, we moved to New York together and I started a theater company with my friends from grad school. We struggled a lot, but it was so empowering. The thing is, even when you make your own theater, you keep meeting financial challenges. It was about six of us, and it broke up quickly. But! We ended up doing one play off Broadway, which was very, very exciting for us.
After the theater group broke up, I focused more and more on the jewelry I’d started to make while I was in grad school. I ended up naming my business Little Miss Drama; I used to name every piece of jewelry after a female playwright, a female character, or a female actress. I really dorked out on it. Chris worked such late nights at Cafe Gray, and I needed something fulfilling to do.
Soon after, Chris got a job working at Sfoglia on Nantucket. It was a very beloved, rustic Italian restaurant. I decided to try and sell my jewelry up there, so we left New York and moved to Nantucket for a brief time—we were there for about two and a half years. I opened up a store, and it was just truly this incredible experience for me. My carpenter friend built all of the jewelry cases, and the overhead was all minimal. It really took off! I found myself having trouble keeping up with the demand.
While we were living on Nantucket, I met these other women through this gym membership I had. We started a women-in-business group, and we’d meet once a week and talk to each other about what we were working on. We’d sometimes ask a restaurant to let us take over a portion of the space and have an event where we’d bring in a speaker. I really felt like it was such a great service in a small place like that. Everybody was interested. I kind of got the business bug from those women. Those conversations led to so much and it became an unstoppable force.
At 30, I was pregnant and still running the jewelry store. Chris tried to open up his own place there, a super cool clam shack on old South Wharf, but the lease didn’t work out. Afterwards, we decided it was time to go back to New York, because the house we’d bought and had been renovating in Brooklyn was finally ready for us to live in.
My two daughters, Roxanne (Roxy) and Augusta (Gussie) were born. I remember having this epiphany after Gussie’s birth. I wanted to make sure I was always fighting for both myself and for her. I wanted to be sure I was doing what made me happy and always taking a risk. To not try is so much worse than to fail. Trying and failing is fine.
When I was 33 or 34, I finally closed Little Miss Drama. Chris had gotten an amazing job working at Jean Georges with a great salary and great benefits and my focus then was really on taking care of the kids.
Not long after Roxanne was born, we decided we were going to try and open a restaurant in New York. Chris was working full-time, so it was my job to bang on doors and meet with real estate agents. We wanted to open something small in Brooklyn, maybe 45 seats.
We couldn’t find anything, literally anything at all.
At the same time, I was pretty much running my daughters’ school. I loved it, but I was also growing really antsy. Let me say: being a mom is the hardest job of all, and the time you have with your children when they’re young, you never get back. It’s also the hardest time—they scream in places you don’t want them to, and they don’t do what you want them to.
We came to terms with the fact that we just weren’t finding space in Brooklyn to open our restaurant, and we knew: it was time to move.
At first, we basically had the same issue in Boston that we had in Brooklyn—we couldn’t find space that worked for us. The thing was, we were trying to find a house and restaurant within a five-block radius. Growing up in the hospitality business, I know firsthand that it’s so hard to see your parents. I wanted the kids to feel like a part of what we’re doing here: they know the servers and they’re here a lot. It’s important to me that everybody cares about each other, and I want the girls to see that I can be a successful business owner and a mom who’s there for them. I drive them to school and pack their lunches. I didn’t want to stuff them away, I wanted the experience to be together.
We actually rented an apartment in the South End and set up a little design studio in our apartment, because we wanted to design Pammy’s ourselves. Creating Pammy’s took us roughly three years. Neither of us had ever done this before: Chris has always been a chef, but starting a restaurant was all new for us both. We also renovated our house in Cambridge while we were designing the restaurant and doing both at the same time was just bananas.
Opening a restaurant is such a slow process. It’s hard to tell your family and your friends that you’re going to open this thing for years and years and five years later still be working on it. People were asking so many questions, like, “What do you mean you’re going to open a restaurant? What’s the concept?” I felt like Jerry Seinfeld, saying, “There is no concept. It’s just good food. It’s kind of Italian. It kind of looks like a brasserie but also like a trattoria.” You should have seen some people’s faces when we told them we’d have a modern fireplace and antique brownstone lights. And an outdoor statue. And a mural. And a large communal table—a really, really big one.
Thankfully, the people invested in us who cared and believed. I’ve learned that confidence is a huge part of running a business, especially as a woman. When someone tells you no, you have to make them say yes. You have to say, “Look at me.”
—As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent