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Watching the waves roll in

The new restaurant row on Liberty Wharf is pulling in droves

The bar at Temazcal Tequila Cantina, a gourmet Mexican bistro, was packed on Friday night. The bar at Temazcal Tequila Cantina, a gourmet Mexican bistro, was packed on Friday night. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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Keith Watson’s public relations firm moved last February from Kendall Square in Cambridge to Boston’s Liberty Wharf, near the Seaport World Trade Center. His new offices boasted panoramic views of Boston Harbor yet little in the way of after-hours buzz.

“It was a ghost town,’’ Watson said one evening last week, sipping a drink at Legal Harborside, a new three-story restaurant next door to his offices. “What’s happened since is pretty unbelievable. I never came down to this area at night, other than for concerts. But look at it now.’’

Look indeed. Lines out the door at four crowd-pleasing eateries that have opened on Liberty Wharf since March. Pedestrian traffic that often rivals Newbury Street’s, stretching from Fan Pier to the Institute of Contemporary Arts to the Bank of America Pavilion. City-goers and suburbanites flocking to an area - by foot, car, public transportation, even boat - that few had on their radar screens last summer.

The backdrop to this cocktail-sipping, fork-twirling, ballgame-watching, cool-to-be-on-the-waterfront vibe? A visual sense of Boston as port city, with sailboats and pleasure craft cruising by offshore, seagulls cawing overhead, and, come nightfall, neon signage lighting up one side of Northern Avenue and, on the other, starlight dancing off the water.

No wonder those drinking and dining here nightly rave about the ambience.

“I brought friends from California here recently, and they thought it felt like San Francisco,’’ said New Boston Fund regional director Gary Hofstetter, enjoying an evening beverage on Legal’s rooftop deck, overlooking the site where Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant once stood. “The renaissance is amazing. And it’s attracting people of all ages.’’

Thirty years ago, “this area was Old Boston, dirty and nasty and industrial,’’ said attorney Edward Gelles, a South Boston resident, who had joined Hofstetter for a drink “I loved that part of it. But this is New Boston.’’

Up and down the Hub’s latest version of restaurant row - a block comprising Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grille; Del Frisco’s, an upscale steak house; Temazcal Tequila Cantina, a gourmet Mexican bistro; and Legal Harborside, the seafood restaurant chain’s latest and largest addition - one hears similar comments.

This area was an untapped resource for bar-hopping and dining, people say, but that’s all changed now. Easily accessible from the suburbs? Check. Parking that doesn’t cost a small fortune (some street spaces, even)? Check. Plenty of fine dining options? Check. Places to tie up your boat? Check (if you don’t mind paying $20 an hour, that is). The one thing there isn’t is easy public transit access. (Silver Line buses are the best bet).

Dining at Temazcal, Laurie Videtta, 47, of Swampscott, who works for a Boston private investment firm, said a vibrant scene like this one “pulls you out of downtown’’ and makes an evening out seem more special.

“Downtown, you walk into a little bar that’s crowded and enclosed in four walls,’’ she said, a vintage schooner sailing by in the distance. “Here, there’s a lot of outdoors, upscale stuff.’’

Sean Melnick, 31, a medical supplies salesman from Boston, has already dined on Liberty Wharf four or five times this summer, having heard about it from a buddy. “For a long time, Boston has been starved for good waterfront restaurants,’’ he said, relaxing on the patio at Temazcal. “This makes it fun now, seeing so many people out at night.’’

Scott Haavisto, 32, an information technology worker who moved into the neighborhood just a few days ago, was waiting at Remy’s for a Red Sox-Yankees game to start, while other patrons stood three-deep at the bar. What’s happened here over the past few months amounts to “a domino effect,’’ he said, with each new opening boosting the fortunes of all others.

“People forgot about this area, frankly,’’ Haavisto said. “Opening one new place would have made it a destination-only place, but each one brings more and more people down here.’’

Edward Nardi of the Cresset Group, which owns and manages Liberty Wharf, concurred. “Between the restaurants down here, you easily have 2,000 seats,’’ he noted, standing on the sidewalk outside Temazcal on a busy weeknight. “So you know you won’t get shut out, even on a busy night.’’ The foot traffic “is amazing,’’ he added, the lines outside Temazcal and Legal’s already beginning to form at 6 o’clock.

Legal chief executive Roger Berkowitz credits the development of HarborWalk, a series of walkways and promenades that swings by Liberty Wharf, with helping spark the rebirth of a district where other bars and restaurants have flourished, from Jimmy’s and Anthony’s Pier 4, a pair of once-iconic waterfront destinations, to Morton’s, Legal Test Kitchen, Atlantic Beer Garden, and The Whiskey Priest, all located nearby or just down the road.

“You can spend more than a couple of hours down here now,’’ Berkowitz said, “walk around, visit the ICA. There’s enough critical mass so people who haven’t been here for years are coming down.’’

By and large, it is local residents and not tourists who are drawn to the waterfront scene, he added. “And that’s fine by me.’’

Even Berkowitz concedes that the multimillion-dollar question is whether a chilly Boston winter will rob the area of its seasonal sizzle. Naturally he hopes not. It may help, he says, that a cozy fireplace sits on Legal’s roof deck, ready to attract wintertime patrons.

Todd Hall, Temazcal’s chef-owner, notes these new restaurants opened strongly, long before visitors kicked into summer mode. “People are habitual. They’ll come back to wherever they’ve had a good time,’’ he said, adding that waterfront dining “could be very romantic with snow coming down’’ on the harbor. And none of these establishments lacks for floor-to-ceiling glass.

“We’ve done a lot of research that shows business as usual’’ this winter, said general manager Gregg Rinaldi of Del Frisco’s, which has been jam-packed since its April opening, notwithstanding a soft economy and its $44 steaks. “The foot traffic may not be here, but the destination will be.’’

Laurie Videtta, for one, does predict that business would slow significantly this winter, however. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for those currently enduring two-hour waits for a tables. Neither does that bother newlyweds and Seaport District residents Chris and Erin Smith, either. The couple, both 26, moved into an apartment across Northern Avenue this June. Theirs is definitely an up-and-coming neighborhood, they say, but that too has its drawbacks.

“It’s gotten so busy, when we go out for dinner these days it’s usually to Brookline or Cambridge,’’ said Erin Smith, beer in hand as she admired the setting sun from Legal’s roof deck. “We’re kind of hoping for bad weather.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.