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Unconventional dining

Veteran restaurateurs will soon serve up a fresh attraction at the Hynes

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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When there isn’t a conference going on at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, there isn’t much of anything happening in front of the granite behemoth that takes up an entire block of Boylston Street.

But local restaurant and night-life magnate Patrick Lyons is hoping that will change in June when he opens his biggest venture yet inside the convention center. Towne Stove and Spirits, which will have 300 seats inside and 80 on the patio, will be the first restaurant at the Hynes.

“I am very much looking forward to increased activity in front of the Hynes,’’ said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, which represents area businesses. “It won’t be convention dependent, it will be how-good-the-food-is dependent.’’

With big-name Boston chefs Lydia Shire and Jasper White overseeing the Towne menu, locals are bound to be curious. Shire, the fiery-haired culinary queen of Locke-Ober in Downtown Crossing, and White, the seafood guru behind the Summer Shack chain, are teaming up for the first time since working together at several area hotel restaurants in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The pair, who will serve as culinary directors over chefs Mario Capone and Oscar Figeuroa of Shire’s Scampo in the Liberty Hotel, call themselves best friends.

“Make no mistake though,’’ White said. “She’s in charge.’’

The menu, with most entrees in the $26 to $28 range and topping out around $40, will feature dishes from all over the world: steaks, dumplings, pasta, tandoori meats, six types of rice, a 15-course lobster tasting menu, and specialties like Peking chicken, which cooks hanging up in a special oven. The cuisine is indicative of the city’s melting pot of cultures, Shire said, as well as of the restaurant’s grand design, with soaring windows and high ceilings.

“I feel that the food should reflect the space,’’ she said.

The $9 million, 14,000-square-foot restaurant — with two floors, three bar areas, three dining rooms, and outdoor seating on the Prudential Center plaza — will be the 27th venue for Lyons and his partner Ed Sparks. They have teamed up with 20 investors, including Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, to open Towne. Given the location, near the Prudential and Copley Place malls, several hotels, and Newbury Street shopping, not to mention the 350,000 people who attend conferences at the Hynes every year, Lyons is confident the investment will pay off.

“This is where the penny drops,’’ said Lyons, who along with Sparks is also opening a New York-style bistro called the Back Bay Social Club in the former Vinny T’s of Boston space, across the street from the Hynes, at the end of May.

The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, which works to preserve the historic district, had initial reservations about noise on the Towne patio, but when Lyons agreed to close the outdoor seating area at 11 p.m., the time most other patios in the area shut down, the association was satisfied.

“It raises the bar,’’ said James Hill, chairman of the association’s licensing and building use committee, referring to the string of pubs opposite Towne, including the Pour House, Lir, McGreevy’s, and Whiskey’s. “They’re appealing to a different crowd.’’

Most convention centers don’t have stand-alone restaurants, said James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which runs the Hynes. But the Boylston Street location makes the center prime real estate, Rooney said, and he wanted to know: “How can we maximize the value of this asset to the benefit of the taxpayers?’’

The convention center authority spent $3 million to get the space ready for a tenant and has a 15-year lease with the ownership group of Towne, with rent topping off at $1 million a year. Hynes management is also laying the groundwork to open a second restaurant on the other side of the convention center.

The plummeting economy made Towne “something of a risk’’ in the beginning, Rooney said, but he doesn’t see it that way now. “We think the numbers pencil out very well,’’ he said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.

Clarification: The story originally stated that the Hynes Convention Center was 22 years old. The original building, the War Memorial Auditorium, opened in 1965 and was renamed the John B. Hynes Civic Auditorium in 1970. The auditorium doubled in size and became the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in 1988.