boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Jack Sidell; helped launch celebrity-chef restaurants in Hub

Jack Sidell stood at the counter of Pomme Frite, a European bistro he opened in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. He opened a second Pomme Frite before closing them a few years later. Jack Sidell stood at the counter of Pomme Frite, a European bistro he opened in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. He opened a second Pomme Frite before closing them a few years later. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/File 1994)

Consider, in alphabetical order, the following restaurants: Au Bon Pain, Bertucci's, Biba, The Blue Room, Charley's, Davio's, Hamersley's Bistro, Jasper's, Mr. Leung's, Olive's, and Tuscan Grill. Then consider what they all have in common: Jack Sidell.

As the chief executive and driving force who turned a small bank into UST Corp., Mr. Sidell offered loans to a series of upstarts that became the leading lights in Boston's constellation of celebrity-chef restaurants - along with financing less-pricey eateries that are staples of the quick lunch crowd.

"I'm well known for saying that without Jack Sidell, the restaurant community would not be what it is today," said Gordon Hamersley of Hamersley's Bistro. "He took chances on restaurants that no other banker would take chances on, and he helped chef-owned restaurants in Boston move forward. A lot of people think restaurants are just about food and wine and menus, but without the bucks you've got nothing."

Mr. Sidell died Wednesday of congestive heart failure. He was 76 and had lived in Boston.

Compact in stature and larger than life, he didn't just put his bank's money in kitchens and dining rooms. During his quarter-century run as one of the most visible members of Boston's banking industry, he helped finance hundreds of businesses.

"He was a perfectionist, he was single-focused, and he set exceedingly high standards," said his daughter Kathy Sidell Trustman of Brookline. "He was crusty, tough, and really charming."

Depending on the situation, Mr. Sidell was quick to ladle out the charm - or he could be crusty as week-old bread. In 1998, he took an aw-shucks view of his banking career when speaking with a Wheaton College publication.

"Basically, I was an entrepreneur," he said. "I always was offended when people called me a banker; I preferred to be called a lender."

But in an interview with the Globe, he looked back less lovingly at the moment he was forced out as chief executive of UST Corp. in 1993. With the Massachusetts Miracle fading into memory and a series of real estate loans gone bad hobbling the bank's health, federal regulators pressured UST to move Mr. Sidell into a largely ceremonial post on its executive committee.

"The regulators tried to tell me how to lend money," he told the Globe in 1995. "They would send in these young business school kids. After 25 years I wasn't about to be told by a civil-service employee how to make or recover loans."

Born in Boston, Mr. Sidell was the son of a prominent obstetrician. He graduated from Tufts College and received a master's degree in biochemistry from Boston University. Then he began working with his father-in-law, who owned a furniture installment business and recognized Mr. Sidell's talent with numbers.

In 1959, Mr. Sidell went into business for himself and several years later was called to a lunch with his banker.

"After the tomato juice, they politely told me that they would have to shrink my line of credit from $1 million to a half-million," he told the Globe in 1985. "I didn't stay for dessert."

Determined to never again fall prey to the whims of a lender, he decided to buy his own bank. Mr. Sidell purchased Brighton Bank and Trust Co. and renamed it Barclay Bank and Trust. To play off its British namesake, he purchased London-style taxis for his messenger service and brought in prominent speakers to entertain his customers during a "Breakfast at Barclays" series.

A couple of years later, he raised $11 million to purchase United States Trust Co.

"Our debt to equity was a zillion to one," he told the Globe. "It was crazy, but it was the break of my career."

Under his leadership, US Trust bought other banks and became a player as Boston grew during the 1970s and '80s. Mr. Sidell wasn't content simply to call the shots in the boardroom.

"He was also very creative in the marketing end of the bank," said his daughter Stephanie Sidell Sokolove of Newton. "Not only did he have this great business head, what was unusual was that he had a great creative head, too. It defined him in that 20- to 30-year period. He was a lender, he was a banker, he was a marketer. He lived, ate, and breathed building that bank."

Said his daughter Kathy: "It was parallel with the rise in the city, so he was really able to have a huge impact. He definitely was an out-of-the-box thinker. He pushed things to the limit."

"He didn't believe in 'no,' " Stephanie said. " 'No' didn't exist."

With public prominence came less desirable attention. Mr. Sidell and his wife, Barbara, tussled in divorce court, reconciled, and bristled when details found their way into the newspapers. They divorced in the 1980s. Mr. Sidell later married Louisa Kasdon; that marriage also ended in divorce. As emotions subsided he became friends with both.

More recently, he was director of a division at Capital Crossing Bank. Hailed by Capital in 2000 as "the ideal person to spearhead our new initiative in relationship banking," Mr. Sidell and the bank parted ways a year later when he was unable to rekindle his magic touch from US Trust.

Mr. Sidell, a star baseball player in his Tufts days, funded a field at Wheaton College in Norton, from which his daughters graduated. Though he always went by Jack, the baseball facility bears his full name: the James V. Sidell Stadium.

His love of food extended far beyond providing the financial foundation for restaurants. At home he could whip up a Dagwood sandwich for his children, and "to the day he died he was just enormously passionate about food," Kathy said. "If I didn't walk up to him with a brownie - the disappointment in his eyes! He lived to eat, there's not doubt about that, and that's a huge gift to Stephanie and to me and to the grandchildren."

Both of Mr. Sidell's daughters became restaurateurs - Stephanie with the eponymous Stephanie's on Newbury and Kathy with The Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill. Mr. Sidell even tried his hand with Pomme Frite, a European bistro that was too cutting edge for Cambridge in the mid-1990s. True to his passions, he envisioned a chain and opened a second Pomme Frite before closing them a few years later.

"He was a much better lender than he was operator," Kathy said. "The thing about Dad, he took things so damned personally about food. Food is a very subjective thing, and he just couldn't live with people not loving every bite of what he was serving."

But with his daughters and the other chefs whose careers he helped launch, Mr. Sidell could just sit back and bask in fatherly pride.

"He would say to me, 'You know what, Steph? You're running a hell of a restaurant,' " Stephanie said.

"He's been a father figure to me," Steve DiFillippo, owner of the Davio's restaurants, told the Globe in 1994. "Without Jack, we wouldn't have the great restaurant town that we do now."

In addition to his two daughters, Mr. Sidell leaves four granddaughters and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at noon tomorrow in Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES