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A Fenway Comeback

Edward Lee (left) of Sunshine Construction consulted with Rachael Truong and William Lee, co-owners of the proposed Swish Shabu restaurant in the Fenway. Steven Frechette (right) carried through materials. Edward Lee (left) of Sunshine Construction consulted with Rachael Truong and William Lee, co-owners of the proposed Swish Shabu restaurant in the Fenway. Steven Frechette (right) carried through materials. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Sara Brown
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2011

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A new sign has gone up at El Pelon Taqueria. The owner of Thornton’s Fenway Grille has proudly posted shots of new tabletops on the restaurant’s Facebook page. And down at Rod Dee Thai Cuisine II, a fresh menu is visible through a glass door.

For Fenway residents, these tantalizing signs of life along “Restaurant Row’’ on Peterborough Street signal the end of a long wait for the return of beloved neighborhood hangouts that were destroyed in a devastating January 2009 fire.

Although no official opening dates have been announced, owners say they are very close, and excitement is building along the intimate nook set amid brick apartment buildings. For residents and fans of the restaurants, it will be a chance to rekindle a sense of community distinct from the crowds and lights of nearby Fenway Park.

Matty Stevenson, 28, who worked at Thornton’s in college and even took some shifts after he joined the professional workforce, started a post-fire memorial to Thornton’s on Facebook. He described the block as “a staple of the neighborhood.’’

“The day it opens, if it’s during the week, I’ll take the day off work to go,’’ said Stevenson, who now lives in Medford. “I’m not alone, either.’’ He’ll be ordering the chicken and broccoli.

Thornton’s, along with El Pelon Taqueria and Rod Dee Thai, are all on the verge of reopening, pending city permits, according to property owner Monty Gold. A fourth restaurant, Swish Shabu, a Japanese hot pot-style eatery, isn’t as far along as the others, he said.

Three other original “Row’’ restaurants - Sorento’s Italian Gourmet, Umi Japanese Restaurant, and Greek Isles Restaurant - will not return to their Fenway locations. A former dry cleaner also has no plans to reopen there.

Marty Thornton, the owner of Thornton’s and a 20-year resident of the Fenway, said the restaurant should reopen by early November with an updated menu. Otherwise, it will stick to its tried-and-true approach as a “neighborhood place, a local hangout,’’ he said.

When passersby ask whether their favorite dish is still on the menu, “I say ‘of course,’ ’’ Thornton said. “ ‘If it isn’t, just ask for it.’ ’’

Although John Fitzpatrick just moved to the neighborhood, he’s heard about the beloved restaurants. While his roommate loves Thornton’s, he’s excited about El Pelon, which drew a loyal following from far beyond Fenway and which opened up a new taqueria near Boston College after the fire.

“I’ve heard so much buzz about that one,’’ said Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old native of Ireland. “I think that’s probably [the restaurant] people are most excited about.’’

Memories of the four-alarm blaze that left the block a charred wreck and caused $5 million in damage remain fresh here.

Stevenson recalled that he was supposed to work a Saturday shift at Thornton’s.

On the Monday before, it burned down. An electrical short circuit has been blamed for sparking the fire.

“Oh, my God. It was awful,’’ he said. “It was just so sad.’’

Some employees and fans of the restaurant gathered amid the ashes the next day. “A lot of people were kind of in shock,’’ Stevenson said.

More than 300 people joined the Facebook tribute page for Thornton’s, which carries the following description: “This place was more than just a bar. It was more than a job. It was your good friend and a place of many good times.’’

Others joined a Facebook group called “Friends of Peterborough St. Fenway Restaurants,’’ sharing their sadness.

Since then, residents have had a lot of time to wait, reminisce, and sometimes wonder about the fate of the restaurants. Many feared they would never reopen, even as new restaurants sprouted on nearby Boylston Street. Others worried the site would become a high-rise apartment building.

At a November 2010 community meeting, Gold announced his intention to rebuild the restaurants, apologizing for the delay.

“I’m sorry it took this length of time,’’ Gold said at the time, citing personal reasons. “It is what it is.’’

Now, he’s excited by the prospect of dropping by Thornton’s for a glass of wine. Despite the delays, he said: “We got it done, and we got it done correctly. That’s what we want; a good, safe building.’’

City Councilor Michael Ross, who represents the Fenway, said it has been a long haul to get to this point.

During the long delay, he said, he heard from residents, whom he said were engaged and “refused to sit back and let it languish.’’

“This is a very important resource for the community,’’ he said. “It’s a great place. . . . It created life and activity, it created a special and dynamic rhythm to that neighborhood.’’

To read more coverage of Boston’s neighborhoods and surrounding towns, go to boston.com/yourtown Sara Brown can be reached at yourtownsara@gmail.com.