For the time being, however, downtown diners may be most likely to see Asian flavors appearing on late-night menus, at pop-restaurants and food trucks, or at venues that split the difference between restaurant and nightclub, such as Big Night Entertainment’s Empire and Red Lantern.
Competition among restaurants has become intense, says Charlie Perkins of the Boston Restaurant Group, a real estate company that brokers restaurant deals. It’s increasingly difficult for smaller, riskier concepts to take off in Boston’s prime neighborhoods.
“The city is getting maxed out. To be successful downtown, you have to be a celebrity chef, have a killer concept, or be a recognized brand like a chain,” he says.
Boston has added more than 4,000 new restaurant seats in the past two years. Where rents were $30 or $40 per square foot not long ago, $50 or $60 has become the new baseline. A full liquor license can cost between $275,000 and $325,000.
Traditionally, Asian restaurants sell less liquor than other establishments, about 10 to 15 percent of total sales as compared with anywhere from 20 to 25 percent for a high-end, full-service restaurant to 70 to 80 percent for a bar. And then there is the expectation of a lower price point — so appealing to diners, who are accustomed to viewing Asian food as a budget option. “It’s not location, location, location anymore,” Perkins says. “It’s location, the right concept at that location, and the right sales-to-investment ratio.”
Still, it does appear tastes are changing, and restaurants are sure to follow. Chef Ming Tsai, of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, has faith that Asian small plates are poised for a starring role. He is exploring opening such a place in the city, to be called Blue Dragon.
“This late-night Asian-type eating is here to stay in this country and growing, which is why I’m considering this project,” he says. “I would love to do it in Boston, because I think people are ready for it.”