Restaurateurs Carla and Christine Pallotta gazed at the window opening being cut out of a brick wall at 520 Atlantic Ave. on a recent afternoon. It’s an expensive feature, the sisters said, but an important one — they want the new location of their Nebo restaurant to have plenty of natural light.
And when it opens in May, Nebo will become the latest bright spot in Boston’s increasingly vibrant Fort Point Channel area, also known by its newer name — the Innovation District.
There’s a building boom going on in the district, much of it driven by restaurants and food-related businesses. A few weeks ago. Tavern Road on Congress Street, owned by Louis and Michael diBiccari, opened. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon on the corner of A and Melcher streets is less than two months old, and Bee’s Knees Supply Co., a gourmet grocery on Farnsworth, is also a newcomer.
More restaurants are on the way. In addition to Nebo, Pastoral is under construction on Congress and should open in June or July. Row 34, also on Congress and a sibling of the Island Creek Oyster restaurant, is expected to start serving customers in September. Restaurateur Seth Greenberg’s Bastille on Melcher is also scheduled for an early fall debut. And super chef Mario Batali’s office says a lease is currently being worked out for a restaurant somewhere in the Fort Point section.
Less than two years ago, when the economy was still faltering, this growth surge would have seemed unlikely. Tsai joked that when he first came down to look at Fort Point about a year and a half ago, “tumbleweeds were blowing down the street.” Six months later, he returned and saw a lot more action.
During that visit, Tsai remembered thinking, “You know what? The area is coming up.”
Ed McCabe, president of Cafco, a Boston company that specializes in restaurant construction, said places to eat “have become the new anchor tenants of developments.” They act as meeting places, foster a sense of community, spark street life, and provide entertainment, he said.
Well-known chef Barbara Lynch was a dining-out pioneer in the neighborhood, opening the casual Sportello and Drink in 2008, and haute cuisine Menton in 2010 in the FP3 residential building, at a time when the streets were empty at night, and the recession was stalling most development plans.
Joanne Chang opened another key spot, Flour Bakery, on Farnsworth Street in 2007
Fort Point’s mix is notable because most of the restaurants are independents. McCabe’s company is building out Nebo, and built Tavern Road and the 2-year-old Trade on Atlantic Wharf, among others. He credited Young Park, president of Berkley Investments, for taking the initiative to go after independently owned businesses. Berkley has developed many of Fort Point’s residential and office buildings.
Unlike the nearby Seaport district, where chains such as Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Legal Sea Foods and Rosa Mexicano occupy spaces in modern buildings, Fort Point’s weathered-brick wharf structures, most only about six stories high, have an intimate feel.
“Fort Point neighborhood is so unique for the fabric of those buildings,” McCabe said, which give it “so much soul.”
That doesn’t mean success is a sure thing, especially when independent restaurants are involved. Investing in such operations can be risky, Park said. Large chains can put more money upfront and withstand bad times, while independents often have less capital, leaving them less room for missteps. Restaurant trends “are fickle,” Park noted, “and things might not work out.”
Also, the area’s older buildings were not designed for restaurant use, he said, so they have to be outfitted for ventilation and other modern utilities. That’s an expensive proposition.
Others point to the district’s parking shortage and the fact that the nearest MBTA stop, South Station, is several blocks away.
Brothers Louis and Michael diBiccari say Fort Point’s home-grown element is part of its appeal. The 120-seat Tavern Road, which opened in late February, is their first restaurant.
“We made our bones in Boston,” said Louis, who was previously chef at Storyville and cooked at L’Espalier. Michael was manager at such restaurants as Sel de la Terre and Eastern Standard.
Although many more people work in the area than live there, several large residential and rental projects are under construction along Congress, A, and Melcher, which will help fill the area at night, the diBiccaris said.
The Fort Point Channel area was developed in the 1830s by Boston Wharf Co., which built and owned the industrial loft buildings until the early 2000s. The buildings were used for manufacturing and warehousing goods moved along the channel to Boston Harbor. As those uses declined in the 20th century, artists moved into the abandoned lofts, creating an eclectic scene.
The Pallotta sisters grew up in the North End near their current restaurant, which will close Saturday. The new Nebo will be at Atlantic Wharf, a mixed residential and office building along Fort Point Channel.
The sisters considered the location at the suggestion of their brother, hedge fund manager James Pallotta, whose office is in the building. They fell in love with the space, which features details such as exposed steel pillars and big windows to the street. The restaurant, with about 150 seats inside and 65 on the patio, will have a view of the Greenway.
“The rapidly growing restaurant scene is a huge factor in the incredible vitality of Fort Point, a neighborhood with lots of cultural history and a vibrant arts community,” said Nicole Fichera, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s innovation manager.
Restaurants by themselves obviously aren’t enough to grow the neighborhood’s business.
Grocery stores, dry cleaners, even shops selling tchotchkes are needed, said Park. A new store, Bee’s Knees, will fill the gourmet grocery slot. Owner Jason Owens said he was approached by Berkley a year and a half ago, liked the area, and sold his two restaurants to concentrate on Bee’s Knees. The 5,500-square-foot space, scheduled to open this week, will feature a charcuterie station, hundreds of cheeses, a butcher shop, raw bar, chocolate-making on site, an in-house florist, and an open kitchen to make prepared foods.
Owens said he wants his European-style market to contribute to Fort Point’s unique flavor. Being creative in business, he said, is part of “feeling good that you live here.”