A taste of things to come
Cheaper, simpler, homier, fresher. The new breed of Boston restaurant has nothing to do with status and everything to do with what’s growing in our backyard.
It could well be true what they say about the length of the line at the ladies’ room -- that it’s one of the most telling measures of a restaurant’s success. And if so, then the new Ten Tables in Cambridge is having an unquestionably good night. “I’m going back to get my champagne,” drawls one silver-tressed 40-something, who’s fifth in line, with two more behind her. “Will you hold my place?”
The economy remains in the doldrums, but you’d never know it from the jovial vibe spinning here tonight. By 7:15, the small, sparely decorated restaurant is packed with tweed and button-down shirts; there are spirited debates about the future of healthcare amid wafts of fennel and house-made sausage. A chalkboard menu lists simply worded entrees, each spotlighting at least one, sometimes several, local ingredients. Every seat is full.
Krista Kranyak scans the room and smiles. “Opening this place was basically possible because we’d maxed out our space in JP,” she says. By that she means her original postage stamp-sized Jamaica Plain location, which indeed lives up to its name with tables you can count on two hands. In this new location (she owns the original Ten Tables and co-owns the Cambridge spot), she has twice the number of tables. “In JP, my business has basically doubled since I opened” in 2002, says Kranyak, who at 36 is the proud owner of a motorcycle and several tattoos, works out religiously, and talks almost as fast as she moves between the host stand and kitchen. She rises to greet yet another couple that just walked in. “With the new opening, I’ve been sending the overflow from JP over here to the new location.” Then, across her shoulder, she adds, “I hesitate to say it, but so far since the recession hit, we’ve been doing better than ever.”
In the search for fiscal positives in the near-Armageddon we’ve found ourselves in, one of the most significant may turn out to be a culinary one. Restaurateurs have taken notice of Boston food lovers’ scaled-back eating. No more four-course, five-star dinners on the corporate account. Instead of the epic tasting menu, the budget prix fixe is the order of the day. It’s the regular ol’ burger ($8) instead of a
$21 kobe beef patty, thank you very much, and plain fries ($3) instead of the truffle-oil-doused variety ($8). But it turns out the downturn may have us not just ordering more frugally, but eating better.
The change in economy has coincided with the public’s growing interest in farm-to-table eating. As a result, smaller, homier restaurants making simpler dishes and favoring fresh, locally produced ingredients (such as Ten Tables, Hungry Mother, and Sportello) are thriving.
This confluence of forces is changing what local restaurants serve, look like, and feel like to customers. And so a new kind of neighborhood restaurant is emerging, a hybrid of high quality and low-key comfort that may well be the future of Boston dining.
It was more than a decade in the making.
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Some people will never forget Paris; I’ll never forget coming back from Paris. It was 1995, and I’d just graduated from culinary school there. I flew home to find that Boston’s restaurant scene had become a frenzy of newly opened, stylish, incredibly ambitious restaurants. I’d gone to culinary school because I wanted to write about food, not cook it in a restaurant, and I couldn’t wait to get my pen -- or my fork -- busy with this explosion of material. It seemed like nirvana.
It was also thoroughly unexpected. Growing up in Boston, I had the feeling that our restaurants were relatively unnoticed nationally -- we’d never had more than a small handful of serious eateries, and most of those appeared to be primarily concerned with imitating European cuisines rather than creating their own. But in 1995, adventurous fusion menus and vertical food presentations suddenly were the rage. Boston chefs were reveling in star power; they were dancing across the cover of Food & Wine. Dining out had become a new kind of theater here.
But as much as I thrilled to the idea that the city was finally taking its place among the world’s culinary destinations, it was disappointing that, amid the flashier high-concept restaurants, there seemed to be so few neighborhood places like the ones I had loved discovering in Paris, the kind that were tucked into the corners of every arrondissement: small farmer’s-market-driven jewels that had tons of regulars, superb food, and reasonable prices. Boston’s restaurant scene may have been coming into its own, but we still seemed to trail Europe in making great food a regular, no-special-occasion-necessary experience.
Trailing, yes. But oblivious, no. While droves of diners were reserving at the higher-profile restaurants, a movement was quietly underway to make delicious, fresh food an everyday expectation. Inspired by the visions of legends like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California and buoyed by the percolating global interest in the “slow food” movement (dedicated to supporting local, incredibly fresh cuisine), Boston chefs like Steve Johnson and Jasper White, Peter Davis, Chris Douglass, and Ana Sortun brought fellow kitchen wizards together to form the Chefs Collaborative. The nonprofit group (still based in Boston, but now national), launched in 1996, aims to get more local, sustainably grown foods on tables by bringing chefs, farmers, and producers together. I tasted some of the dishes these chefs were trying out back then, and today I can still remember the clean flavors.
Since then, the movement has spread far and wide -- even reaching the White House, where Michelle Obama has started a kitchen garden. Hard-core disciples of the movement (known as “locavores”) and dabblers alike flock to their neighborhood farmer’s markets, choose organic over conventional goods, and sign up for CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture -- paid memberships with local farms that provide food on a weekly or monthly basis). Skeptics still exist, and practical aspects of the movement continue to be debated: how to keep delivery costs down for small farms; how much of our diet can realistically be grown locally; and how supply from our region’s limited farmland can keep up with demand if it keeps rising. (For another viewpoint on this movement, read Tom Keane’s Perspective on Page 12.) But those questions notwithstanding, the ideas that the Chefs Collaborative have been championing are thriving. “Now sensitivity to locally grown products is everywhere,” says Johnson, chef and owner of Cambridge’s Rendezvous in Central Square. “Even local colleges are incorporating it into what they serve. It’s absolutely been taken to the general public.”
Meanwhile, the restaurants most known for their dedication to local products -- The Fireplace, Rendezvous, Henrietta’s Table, Oleana, Craigie on Main, the original Ten Tables, T.W. Food, and Ashmont Grill, alongside new ones like Hungry Mother and Sportello -- are reporting steady (and sometimes increased) traffic, even as the public has less disposable income than at any other time in the last decade. Conversely, many high-end places are seeing diminished reservations and returns. A few are even closing; Aujourd’hui, Excelsior, and Great Bay have recently turned out the lights, and Icarus will at week’s end.
To be sure, plenty of the more expensive restaurants (from
No. 9 Park to Radius) also do justice to New England foods. And Ten Tables and its kind are still pricier than Mr. Bartley’s. So, is there something more than ingredients and price points making these restaurants successful?
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Dante De Magistris is mulling over reclaimed woods from Vermont -- finishes that will add to the rustic feel of his recently opened 130-seat restaurant, il Casale, in Belmont. “It translates to ‘rural
home,’ ” he explains, “and we want this place to feel like everyone’s second living room, a neighborhood place with lots of regulars.” Regulars -- in an economy that’s seen expense accounts dry up and many family budgets shrink to the size of a currant -- have become critical to a restaurant’s survival. Running a casual community-oriented restaurant seems to be one surefire way of getting them.
De Magistris’s il Casale, for example, stands in stark contrast to his first restaurant, Dante, in Cambridge. As recently as seven or eight months ago, Dante’s kitchen was still selling plenty of $140 nine-course chef’s tastings (with wine pairings) in the sweeping dining room. Since then, the menu has been revised to include more daily specials and a three-course offering for $35. “We dropped our prices, once we saw how many people weren’t going out to fine-dining places,”
de Magistris says. “We found that by having a much smaller menu with fewer choices, we could control costs. Plus, because the dishes are always changing, more people want to come in and see what’s new every day.” In other words, Dante’s menu has taken on the characteristics of a neighborhood restaurant.
Chris Douglass, who made his name at the elegant, more expensive Icarus in the South End, has two casual neighborhood spots in Dorchester -- the thriving Ashmont Grill (home of Douglass’s addictive $12 New England pasture-raised burger) and Tavolo. (At both, entrees average about $16.) “Restaurants used to be a temple to the chef, and everyone would bow down,” he says. “That’s over. Now people want somewhere where they can go with friends and just relax over good food.”
Michela Larson -- one of the forces behind some of the city’s most successful restaurants, from Rialto and blu (though she’s no longer involved with them) to her former place, Michela’s -- sums it up succinctly: “Blue jeans, that’s what people want to be wearing. Meaning they want to be comfortable, but while they’re eating food. That’s still fantastic.” Her latest venture, Rocca in the South End, is a direct answer to that call. Gary Sullivan, her business partner along with Karen Haskell, says about the restaurant: “The world has changed so dramatically. Right now, we have to give [diners] an experience that feels very comfortable and personal and put out a menu that people can afford to come back to over and over again.”
In addition to greeting diners by name like never before and holding inexpensive wine dinners to bring people in consistently, Larson, Sullivan, and Haskell have taken to spotlighting less expensive ingredients that nonetheless make diners feel as if they’re eating something special. “In our Ligurian pesto, we use basil from Eva’s Garden” in Dartmouth, says Larson. “It has a really spectacular flavor. So people feel that they’re getting a distinctive experience, though it doesn’t cost them much.”
Michael Leviton, who last year opened Persephone in Fort Point ($23 average for dinner entrees and a $33 menu for three courses every night), agrees: “The Clios, the L’Espaliers, the Radiuses -- I love those experiences. But on a regular basis, people don’t want to put on a suit on a Saturday night. The food in a smaller place may not be as artfully presented; it will be simpler. But ultimately it’s about how you feel while eating there. And, of course, how it tastes.”
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But what about the cost of eating local foods during a recession? Isn’t it difficult to keep menus at neighborhood-restaurant prices if so many of the ingredients are small-batch, artisanal, organic, or sustainably raised? “It’s a very real issue,” admits Melissa Kogut, executive director of the Chefs Collaborative. “We want the restaurants that support sustainable foods to be able to offer affordable menus, but we do also realize their dedication can cost them and their customers more. And since so many other restaurants are using broad-line food distribution companies for their goods, it’s hard to compete with those cheap costs.”
Many small restaurants can’t. The entrees at Ten Tables (both locations) average $22, at T.W. Food, $23, and at The Fireplace, $27. A blue-plate-special price point, that’s not.
But the notion that eating local and/or organic always costs more isn’t true, say many chefs. “Local isn’t necessarily more expensive for vegetables, and usually not for fish,” says Steve Johnson. “It’s when you talk about meat that costs rise.” That’s primarily a shipping and distribution problem, because local farmers have to pay to transport animals to an out-of the-way slaughterhouse and then to the restaurant. One trial solution: A handful of Boston restaurants have started pooling their meat orders, bringing whole animals from Vermont and dividing them up, and using as many parts as possible, making it more economical for farmers to deliver them into the city and also giving kitchens the most bang for their buck.
When restaurants do spend more on local products of better quality, they look to cut costs elsewhere to minimize the impact on customers. The Fireplace, for example, has reduced the amount it spends on advertising. Another way chefs are trimming costs is by going green, from growing herbs on a restaurant patio or reusing cooking oil to making changes to their kitchens and dining rooms. Jim Solomon, owner and chef of The Fireplace and one of the original supporters of the Chefs Collaborative, recently tinted the restaurant’s windows to block out UV rays, which will help reduce cooling costs in the summer and trap heat inside in the winter.
Chefs admit that insisting on keeping a menu as local as possible can also create headaches. They must be willing to constantly find new ingredients when others unexpectedly disappear. “With such small supply companies, you have to be ready for that kind of sudden switch,” explains Solomon. “We had a great local pickle company, MoonBrine,” for example. But the restaurant had to make a change when the company scaled back and regrouped.
Moreover, many restaurants have to be willing to turn on a dime during the New England winter. Despite recent major storage changes by farmers that have prolonged the growing and selling season, there comes a time every year when little more than turnips and butternut squash are available locally. When that happens, restaurateurs often have to look outside the region for produce.
Even so, Michael Leviton argues that once diners have gone local, they don’t go back. And, he adds, even when meat -- or any product -- is slightly more expensive, customers are willing to pay a bit more for it. “If they’ve tasted it and loved it, they see it as an entirely different value proposition. We name all of our farmers, tell diners how that fish was caught, how that cow was raised, and so guests know why they’re experiencing the taste differences they are. The better ingredients I get, the better a chef I’m going to be.”
There’s also an economic upside to a future in which a critical mass of restaurants buys from local farms, according to those who’ve seen prices drop over the years. As more chefs purchase and cook local, it will become cheaper to grow and buy, because the supply will be greater.
Does that mean Boston may finally be close to embracing the kinds of casual restaurants that could put us closer to a European sense of simple, farm-fresh eating on a daily basis? “I hope so,” says Peter Davis, chef of Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, which was one of the first restaurants in the area to heavily incorporate ingredients from New England farms. (Disclosure: He and I collaborated on a cookbook last summer.) “When I was little, my mom went shopping every Thursday, and we ate that for an entire week. Elsewhere in the world, you buy it today, you cook it and eat it today. It’s been hard to change here, because recent generations never knew the benefits of freshness.”
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Back at Ten Tables, it’s nearly 9 p.m., and the crowd at the door hasn’t dwindled. “Ten years ago, when I was in Florence,” Krista Kranyak tells me later, “I was at this teeny tiny restaurant, and they would always run out of this or that, but nobody cared because the food was phenomenal. Everything was brought in fresh and made from scratch. And I thought to myself, ‘This is the kind of restaurant I want.’ ”
I have to admit, it’s pretty much exactly what I’ve wanted, too. Which isn’t to say I want our top-tier gastronomic temples to shutter. The new breed of neighborhood restaurants will never replace a special meal at L’Espalier, Radius, Clio, or Rialto; there will always be a place in our city for superlative dining, elegant settings, and great service. But I won’t be sad if eating for status -- whether that means gratuitously expensive wine lists, fancy ingredients, or scoring a table in a new spot-of-the-moment -- gets replaced by an awareness of freshness, sustainability, health, and community.
Paris may be the world capital of pretense in many ways, but if I learned one thing there, it’s this: When you truly love food, you want to keep it as pure as possible. Finally, Boston is catching on.
Alexandra Hall is the editor of Fashion Boston and the editorial director of Lola, both Boston Globe Media publications. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.