One spooky, oft-told tale around late-night campfires hereabout is the horror of the 1980s Boston restaurant scene. “Nobody served raw bar. Seafood was either deep-fried or baked in breadcrumbs. Asian flavors were rare; the boldest condiment around was A.1. Barbecue consisted of parboiled, grilled meat with a burnt-on finishing sauce. Margaritas were made with mixto and a radioactive nightmare called ‘sour mix.’ Waiters were stiffs in tuxedos who expected you to dress up, too. The only music ever played was the Gipsy Kings. It was a dark, dark time.”
It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the East Coast Grill had on wrestling Boston out of that backward age when it opened 32 years ago. So many of the innovations of original chef/owner Chris Schlesinger are now commonplace. We’ve since embraced raw seafood, offal, chili heat and globetrotting flavors, gotten sophisticated about fire and smoke cookery, learned what well-made cocktails taste like and come to prefer casual, warm hospitality over formal ambiance and service.
Schlesinger moved on in 2012, and the restaurant recently reopened under new owners Mark Romano and Marci Joy (Highland Kitchen). To return to ECG is to revisit many now-familiar pleasures. A multi-item raw bar with perfect local oysters ($2.75/each)—recently small, delicate Malabars farmed off Barnstable—is no novelty. Bold-flavored vegetarian salads like grilled romaine ($10) with charred corn, cotija and smoked-chili ranch aren’t surprising. Nobody blinks at the peppery heat of smoked-tofu dan dan noodles ($10), umami-rich with mushrooms and redolent of whole garlic cloves. Mussels ($11) given a Thai accent with coconut-milk-spiked lobster broth, lemongrass and chilies? Delicious enough to mop up with grilled bread, but not startling. How blasé we’ve become about a plate of crisp-edged braised pork belly ($11) in hoisin-chili glaze. The creamy, funky, crunchy-coated comfort of buttermilk fried chicken livers ($9) with bacon/brown-sugar vinaigrette? Awesome, but not “Holy crap, fried chicken livers!” awesome. Not anymore.
Consistent skill with wood-fire grilling? No rara avis. Grilled white-pepper-crusted tuna ($26) arrives a step past sashimi: cooked a bit at the edge with a cool, raw interior and accompaniments of pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi, plus some grilled bok choy and an excellent, nutty, crisp-coated jasmine rice cake. Grilled mahi mahi ($25) in a spice crust of cumin seed and chilies is exquisitely fire-cooked to just-done, with a pile of vibrant tomatillo/mango salsa and excellent renditions of black beans and rice and fried ripe plantains: vivid and delectable, certainly, but not brain-melting. Fried chicken ($17), an import from Highland Kitchen, features a thick, nicely ungreasy crust, even if it can’t avoid the bane of slightly dried-out breast meat.
Slow-smoke BBQ remains impressive for this latitude, as in the trio plate ($23): meaty, chewy, Memphis-style dry-rubbed pork spare ribs, vinegary Eastern North Carolina pulled pork and leanish sliced Texas-style beef brisket. All benefit from housemade hot and sweet BBQ sauces—fire-eaters, ask for mustard-and-Scotch-bonnet-tinged Inner Beauty—and excellent sides, notably baked beans ($4) and tamarind-glazed grilled pineapple ($3). Gentler appetites might opt for a terrific burnt ends of beef brisket sandwich ($12) with grilled onions on a good roll and a side of outstanding fries.
Generously proportioned desserts hit simple, inner-kid-pleasing grace notes with guava flan ($7), a firm puck of caramel-drenched custard, and toasted-coconut tres leches cake ($7). You can even get God’s frozen malted milk ball (OK, only I call it that), a scoop each of Mexican chocolate and malted vanilla ice creams ($4) from the fabulous Christina’s next door.
From the beverage program presided over by grizzled, justly venerated bartending kahuna Joe McGuirk, nice prices and versatility characterize lists of 11 wines by the glass ($7-$12), 10 draft beers ($4-$8) and 19 packaged beers and ciders ($4-$16). Specialty cocktails heavy on exotic rums and fruit juices evoke tropical island resorts with their festive swizzle sticks, as in the Inman Swizzle ($10) of slightly funky Haitian rhum, falernum, cinnamon and lime over lots of coarsely crushed ice, or the D’yer Mak’er ($10) of bourbon, dark Jamaican rum, tart creole shrub and lime. Drinkers of a certain age can relive that joyful moment, decades ago, when this bar poured them Boston’s first margarita ($9) made with quality pure-agave tequila, a respectable orange liqueur and fresh lime juice.
The three rooms (open kitchen, bar and island-themed Lava Room) still feel subway-tile bright, comfortably loud and familiarly decorated with rock, surf-culture and mid-century rec-room accents, possibly by your Parrothead great-uncle. One welcome deletion is the old raw-bar display, which makes its former home at the streetside end of the bar much more open and conducive to group lounging. As ever, service is extraordinarily amiable and attentive for a place with such a determinedly casual aesthetic, another notion that once seemed revolutionary.
In short, if you don’t understand the fuss over ECG’s rejuvenation, it’s probably because you’re spoiled by the current ubiquity of its once-pioneering ideas. Maybe it’s finally time to recognize the East Coast Grill for what it is: an embodiment of many of the best ideas of the last 30 years of Boston dining, the kind of iconic restaurant that gives being an icon a good name. You know, the kind where the food and drinks are actually really, really good, not just famous.
-Grilled romaine salad
-Smoked tofu dan dan noodles
-Coconut curry mussels
-Grilled spice crusted mahi mahi
-Toasted coconut tres leches cake
East Coast Grill 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge (617-714-4662) eastcoastgrill.net
Hours: Dinner, daily, 5-11 pm (bar open till 1 am); brunch, Sun., 11 am-2:30 pm
Reservations: For parties of six or more only, Sun.-.Thu.
Parking: $5 private lot across the street, metered street spaces
Liquor: Full bar