Neighborhood restaurants bring fine dining back home.
The freshly minted bar at Estelle’s, the latest venture from chefs Brian Poe and Eric Gburski, feels cozy, even homey.
Gburski arrives in a pressed white button-down, yellow bandana tied atop his head, and sets down a plate of crispy fried chicken thighs, so tender they practically come undone at the touch of a fork, served with fresh watermelon and radish salad. Behind the bar, a TV plays soundlessly.
Employees roll silverware and make small talk while they wait for the dinner crowd to arrive. Soon, an eclectic mix from financiers to fashion students will flood the small dining room and bar area. On this corner of Mass. Ave. and Tremont, Gburski and Poe are serving up thoughtful, well-executed dishes at an affordable price point. The idea is democratic, even progressive. It’s making fine food accessible to those of us who live and eat among the 99 percent.
Over the past couple of years, some of the city’s most renowned chefs have turned away from white tablecloth dining in favor of casual, neighborhood joints where a superb dinner doesn’t cost half a paycheck. Take Tiffani Faison at Sweet Cheeks, Chris Douglass at Tavolo and Mark Goldberg at Park, to name a few. There’s good business to be made in the middle parts of the culinary scene, from the return customer at a neighborhood haunt.
When Poe—chef/owner at Beacon Hill’s Tip Tap Room and chef at the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill—set his sights on expanding into the South End, his main concern was customer experience. “We wanted to do fun, pub-style food,” he says, “but that grew into Southern style because it’s comforting, and it takes all the work out of doing it at home.” The idea, he explains, is, “what can you, the customer, have without having to work for it? We want people to come in and relax.” Poe, who hails from Georgia, knows about Southern hospitality. Along with executive chef and East Coast Grill alum Gburski, he’s loosely based much of the menu on what Poe’s grandmother used to cook in her Alabama farmhouse.
But besides offering timeless food in a casual environment, there was another concept at work. The new restaurant’s namesake, Estelle’s, once belonged to a nightclub in Roxbury Crossing, just one block away from the new venue’s Tremont Street spot at the end of Restaurant Row. Gburski and Poe say they liked the idea of extending the string of urbane South End eateries further down the road to blur the lines between both neighborhoods. They want residents from all zipcodes to come in, have a beer and a plate of brisket and take a load off. At the corner of sophisticated and studentville, they see Estelle’s as a catalyst to bring people together by appealing to all sides: offering refined food in an environment that’s not hostile if you’re wearing sneakers.
In a way, contrary ideas are colliding. “It’s Southern Living magazine across from a gas station in a Dickens novel,” says Poe. Gburski likes the analogy, and adds that they feel like they’re joining a culinary community in the neighborhood, too. “From Andy Husbands to [Gordon] Hamersley to Barbara Lynch’s group,” he says. “These are people we admire and respect. And if we’re going to stand up on this corner and say we’re gonna stretch Restaurant Row even further, then we want to bring that aspect to it, but we also want to be part of the community and get to know our neighbors.” The menu is, and will continue to be, driven by conversation. If there’s something their customers want to eat, you can bet they’re listening.
In the 20 months since opening in Cambridge’s Technology Square, chef Michael Leviton says he and his partner, co-owner Michael Krupp, found themselves adapting their restaurant, Area Four, to the demands of their clientele.
Initially, Leviton says, they were looking to open a bar/restaurant where the focus was on small plates and entrees designed for sharing. The draw, they thought, would be the approachable vibe and wood-burning ovens. Instead, in addition to the bar and upper-level dining area with vast open kitchen, they found the L-shaped space called for a cafe in the front. “There was nothing in the area at that point to service all of these people,” Leviton says. “So we twisted the concept for the neighborhood. They determined what they were and were not gonna buy, literally and figuratively.”
To Leviton’s surprise, what was immediately and overwhelmingly popular were his New Haven–style specialty pizzas. The thin, snappy crust is more tender than traditional New York or Neapolitan–style pies, and with toppings like arugula, caramelized onions and house-made mozzarella, apparently it was just what the community wanted. “For better or for worse, it’s the thing for which we’ve become known,” he confesses.
So how did this award-winning chef go from serving fine French cuisine at his Newton flagship, Lumière, to slinging pizzas for MIT students and lab rats? “Look, I opened Lumière in 1999 when the economy was booming, and we were at the height of irrational exuberance. And I think in the dining trend, things are getting more and more casual,” he says. “Frankly, when [Krupp] and I go out, most of the time we want to wear jeans, and we’re probably wearing sneakers. The more that we can relax and have a great time, the more we’re going to appreciate the experience.” Leviton says that at Area Four, he sees repeat customers, often on the same day: in the morning when they grab coffee or breakfast in the cafe, later for lunch and sometimes even again for dinner or an after-work snack. In order for that to occur, he says they need to cultivate a laid-back feel, deliberately letting servers wear graphic-Ts and Levi’s.
The experience might feel disparate from fine dining, but Leviton says the execution is exactly the same. “They’re very similar in terms of products we use,” he says. “The overall goal for [both places] is just to take good care of people, make them happy, and feed them food that we can believe in in terms of attention to detail.” He says both styles are committed to simple, excellent food and service. “To my mind, they’re really not that different at all, they just happen to be in different neighborhoods and have different price points. The underlying conception, aesthetic and modus operandi are basically identical.”
In the spring of 2011 Tim Maslow left his post as chef de cuisine at David Chang’s East Village Momofuku Ssäm Bar and revamped his dad’s Watertown diner, Strip-T’s, swapping tuna melts and grilled cheese for Totten Pond oysters and pighead posole.
It’s an incredible value for a place calling itself a sub shop, with an ever-changing menu featuring inventive plates like “forest tartare.” (“It’s like you’re a lumberjack in a forest. How would he cut the meat? He’d use an ax and just whack it up, so we don’t cut a nice French dice,” says Maslow. It’s served with coarse “lumberjack” crackers: “something he’d pull out of his pack and sit down on a rock and eat.”) For the record, Maslow has a new project in the works: a 68-seat New American eatery in Brookline’s Washington Square rumored to be named Ribelle, but his lips are sealed. “Ribelle is a farce,” says Maslow. “Maybe.”
After 22 months and plenty of buzz around town, the last remaining relic from the old menu is the Caesar salad: classic romaine lettuce tossed with bagged Parmesan, bottled lemon juice and anchovy paste. “It’s funny watching these cooks who come from really talented backgrounds,” Maslow says. “Like our garde manger cook, he’s from L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre, and he’s f***in’ mixin’ a Caesar salad in a huge bowl every few minutes.” Chef de cuisine Jared Forman was at Per Se before joining Maslow at Ssäm Bar and then Strip-T’s after working at Gramercy Tavern. Sous chef Dan Amighi came from Bondir. And the front-of-the-house staff is made up almost entirely of former Barbara Lynch Gruppo and Craigie on Main staffers.
Maslow himself studied at the French Culinary Institute. When questioned about the disconnect between training and venue, he’s displeased. “I really feel like this is the way restaurants are moving,” he says. “People want to cook the food and serve the beverage that they want to eat, not overstylize food.”
Maslow says the preparation and care of each dish, from aging meat to using local ingredients, is equal to that of Momofuku, “but the misnomer here is we don’t care if anyone knows that stuff. We just wanna serve food, and there’s no pretenses here. And what’s cool about that is we don’t have a large overhead, so we don’t have to charge prices like in the city.”
It’s that middle-of-the-road price point that chef Louis DiBicarri says had been missing in Boston for quite some time. DiBicarri’s cooked at L’Espalier, Sel de la Terre and is the creative force behind the Iron Chef–style pop-up Chef Louie Nights. In the ’90s, he says, New Yorkers and San Franciscans could get a steak dinner for $18. “But Boston had Clio and Anna’s.” When he embarked on opening Tavern Road, a rustic restaurant aimed to appeal to the vanishing artist community of Fort Point, DiBicarri wanted a modern, hip, high-energy place full of local artwork. Price point is, of course, instrumental. Artists simply can’t afford Fort Point anymore, DiBicarri says, so he’s trying to keep the menu simple: most likely charcuterie plates, salumi, porchetta and shared entrees.
For DiBicarri, the perfect dining experience is one where the conversation is driven by the plates coming out of the kitchen. “When I see groups going out to eat, there’s a lot of sharing happening,” he says. “People are really into communal dining. There’s this curiosity that goes on at the table.” And the food chatter seems to be getting even louder, thanks to Instagram and #foodporn. It’s the viral aspect of the media, DiBicarri says, that has brought once-rarities like bone marrow into the mainstream. “You’re seeing it on TV, being prepared by top chefs, and so you’re thinking about it differently when you see it on a menu.”
According to DiBicarri, the media drives not just consumer interest in food, but competition and experimentation among kitchens as well, fostering a generation of chefs not interested in following rules. “We’re seeing chefs becoming very relevant who are not necessarily wearing the white toque and apron, name-across-the-left-breast and Iron Chef jacket. You’re seeing guys who are running around with shorts on and scally caps in the kitchen listening to punk rock. You see kitchens like this on Instagram, on Twitter and on Facebook, and it’s almost like they’re all in this secret society. They know what their friends are doing across the country and they’re watching that, and they’re trying to step it up a bit.” DiBicarri claims that, aside from being fun to watch, it’s inspiring more interesting food in neighborhoods.
“It’s viral, it’s accessible,” he says. “Ten years ago, the only way I’d know what Dave Bazirgan was doing at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco is if I went there myself. Now I can see his food as he’s plating it, and I can see it before it even hits the table. That’s incredible.”