In a modest commercial strip near the Watertown Arsenal, hipsters are a rare sight. But on a recent Tuesday evening, there they were. Drinking craft beer, sipping wine, and downing deer sushi at jam-packed Strip-T’s.
This tiny place, once known for tuna melts and catered office meals, has been raging ever since Tim Maslow took over the kitchen, added an ice cream maker, painted the walls, and developed a gutsy, modern menu.
Last month, the 28-year-old chef, whose father, Paul Maslow, opened the corner sandwich shop 27 years ago, was named a James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” semifinalist.
If he wins (nominees will be announced Monday), this section of School Street could propel Watertown’s dining scene into the big time.
“We strive to make everything delicious and that’s where we leave it,” said Maslow, who learned the restaurant business from his father and perfected his cooking skills at New York City’s Momofuku Ssam Bar, where he worked for seven years.
By leading with quality ingredients — everything from crusty bread for banh mi sandwiches to homemade burnt cinnamon ice cream for apple tarte tatin — Maslow is shaking up the city he calls “every town USA.”
“I’m very romantic about the restaurant industry,” he said. “Food is supposed to be simple.”
With the food cognoscenti descending nightly, nearby dining establishments are following Maslow’s lead and quietly stepping up their game.
Deluxe Town Dinner, a retro beacon of burgers and fries on Mount Auburn Street, has a new chef, William Simpkins, whose background includes stints at Rialto in Cambridge and Legal Harborside on Boston’s Liberty Wharf.
In the last two months he has added clam and corn fritters and bacon-wrapped plantains. Regulars, used to blue-plate specials, relish the elevated nighttime fare.
On a recent weeknight there, families hunkered down in booths in one corner and dates lingered over linguini in another. More upscale offerings like short ribs signal a fresh dining terrain. This is “a whole new area we hope to grow,” said Deluxe co-owner Daryl Levy.
Across the street from Strip- T’s, decades-old Porcini’s is sprucing up, too. The Italian restaurant is under new management and employees say the Strip-T’s effect has boosted business.
“I was just saying that in the last few months, business is picking up,” said manager Bridget Moloney, in this cavernous space where the heavy scent of garlic lingers and regulars travel from as far as Westford for chef Rodney Moreira’s artistic take on eggplant Parmesan.
With affordable and available real estate and a diverse population hungry for more dining options, the land of ethnic markets and lunch counters could become the next gourmet go-to.
“I think that there’s a real opportunity for Watertown to be more prevalent in the Metrowest for dining,” said Steve Magoon, Watertown’s director of community development and planning. “We have some very good restaurants serving the town’s needs, but we still have a lot of vacant restaurants we need to fill up.”
What could be holding the town back, said Magoon, is a shortage of liquor licenses to attract new development and a designated area where a concentration of restaurants, such as Waltham’s Moody Street, can thrive.
In the last year establishments such as Verona Restaurant, Maximo’s Takeout, and Orchard Park Grill have closed, leaving residents like Lara Egger scratching their heads on why Watertown’s dining scene is not more robust.
The co-owner of Estragon tapas bar in Boston’s South End, Egger thinks Strip-T’s exceeds most restaurants in Boston and Cambridge and proves that Watertown could pop. “If we ever had the funds and the courage to open here, we would,” she said. “It’s a pity there isn’t more.”
Spots like Red Lentil, a contemporary vegan and vegetarian fusion restaurant in Coolidge Square, have become a destination for healthy dining since it opened in 2009. Owner Pankaj Pradhan says business improves each year. “When we opened, very few restaurants in the Boston area were doing this. Now there are several, but we are still doing well,” he said.
Customers from New Hampshire and Cape Cod trek into the bright green restaurant for fried cauliflower and Zen burgers. And this month Red Lentil ups its game with a tasting menu paired with organic wine. “Watertown has a lot of diversity, that’s for sure,” said Pradhan. “It’s good for people to try all different kinds of food.”
The taste for the new knows no boundaries. Though still committed to Watertown, Maslow is opening a new restaurant this spring called Ribelle in Brookline’s Washington Square.
He is tight-lipped about details and the opening date, but is compiling an all-star cast including New York City pastry chef Jake Novick-Finder, whose designer desserts will “surprise the hell out of people,” said Maslow.
At 68 seats, Ribelle will nearly double Strip-T’s capacity and will be in a highly visible location. Maslow says he is ready. “I want to work in a restaurant I had a hand in designing. I saw a space and thought it was beautiful.”
With Strip-T’s success leading the way, Ribelle will likely be packed from the get-go. And this time Paul Maslow, who is a partner, will be following his son’s lead.
“We have always believed in quality and are always changing,” said Paul Maslow. “We’ve shown that Watertown can be a destination place. I doubted it in the beginning.”