How a Boston Bistro Keeps Buzzing

Mistral’s chef/owner and GM dish on two decades in Boston’s dining scene.

On June 3, Mistral will celebrate 20 years of serving French/ Mediterranean fare at the border between Back Bay and the South End. Since that first dinner service in 1997, chef/owner Jamie Mammano has opened five other restaurants across the city under the Columbus Hospitality Group—and there’s a seventh on the way. To get the long view from the back and front of the house, we sat down with chef Mammano and Mark D’Alessandro, Mistral’s longtime general manager and the restaurant group’s director of operations, who chatted about cooking in the alley their first day, the evolution of Boston’s dining scene and their secret sauce to success.

What do you remember most from opening night in 1997?
Mark D’Alessandro: Before we even opened the doors, we had a special party here for the ICA. We were cooking in the alley in trucks.
Chef Jamie Mammano: I remember we undercooked the chicken.
D’Alessandro: Yes! We opened up to the public on June 3, which was a very quiet opening for us. Then we shut down that Friday and had a cigar dinner for George Hamilton. So that was a good introduction in terms of presenting Mistral to the city. I don’t know if you remember this, but the first couple of weeks were relatively quiet. Then all of a sudden it just kind of [snaps fingers] popped. Then we started to get busy.

What’s been the biggest change?
The level of quality in the city is night and day at this point and the level of talent coming in with front and back of the house.
D’Alessandro: The dining scene has also become significantly more of a social scene than it has been in years past. Back 20 years ago it was probably more of a special occasion.
Mammano: Social media has attributed to that tremendously.
D’Alessandro: Social media and all of the cooking shows out there. The dynamics of the cooking show has changed from Julia Child and Lidia [Bastianich] standing at their kitchen counters cooking to these chef competitions, which has brought it more to the mainstream. I think that has created an energy level for the dining scene overall. And that’s been good and bad in my opinion. Sometimes I think those shows give an—I don’t know if incorrect is the right word, but…
Mammano: An unrealistic perspective.
D’Alessandro: An unrealistic perspective of the industry.

Do you feel that you’ve achieved what you set out to accomplish?
Mammano: Beyond our wildest dreams. Twenty years is a long time to be successful in the restaurant business.
D’Alessandro: In this business you can’t think long term in that sense. You’ve got to look at each day. Focus on that. Make sure you’re creating an experience for guests that’s going to make them want to come back. Obviously you want to be around for a long time. But in this business you never know what’s going to happen.

What’s your secret sauce to thriving in Boston’s dining scene?
D’Alessandro: Consistency in everything that we do. Obviously it starts in the kitchen. It’s consistency in the food, the staff, and Jamie has set a standard for that company-wide.
Mammano: It’s helpful to understand the whole hospitality industry. Being gracious hosts, it makes a difference. You can’t lose sight of that. In this business it’s fundamental. You just need to stick to it.
D’Alessandro: And don’t take it for granted. We have an advantage here that we have very little turnover. That makes a huge difference. You take care of the kitchen staff. You pay them well. They perform at the highest level. And our front-of-house staff, the same applies to them. Because it benefits everybody … It just creates a dynamic when you have that many people that are wanting this restaurant to be successful, it’s inevitable that it’s going to be. I think it’s very rare to find that.

All-time favorite dish at Mistral?
D’Alessandro: That’s a tough one! When I talk to guests that dine here, I can tell you the two dishes that are most talked about: the tuna tartare and the beef tenderloin pizza. Those are two dishes that you hear about more than any other.
Mammano: What about the Dover sole?
D’Alessandro: Yeah, Dover sole is on there, but…
Mammano: You know what I want [smiles].
D’Alessandro: No, but it’s amazing. We joke all the time that the classic Mistral dinner is you come in and have a tuna tartare and a tenderloin pizza and you’re satisfied for the night. That’s all it takes. Obviously the Dover sole and a rack of lamb, if you want two main courses. Also the crab ravioli and the foie gras. We tried to change the foie gras back in 2008, and that lasted about a week before everybody who was coming in was asking, what happened to the foie gras?
Mammano: We can’t change the menu unless we open another restaurant! [laughs]

Speaking of, what’s next?
Mammano: Bar Lyon. It’s a smaller restaurant over on Washington Street across from Mass. Ave. that we plan to open early fall. We wanted to open a new business and the building over there is vacant. So we’ll do something simple.
D’Alessandro: Simple as that!
Mammano: You know, at this point in time, we have staff who are thriving. It gives us an opportunity to give them a promotion. It gives them an opportunity to flourish and grow.

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