In Boston, No-Nonsense With Style, by Molly O’Neill, Nov. 1, 1989

“For 10 years, Boston’s dining scene has been stirring to life. The city’s Yankee clubs and old-style French restaurants got a wake-up call from nouvelle cuisine when L’Espalier opened in 1979. In the early 80’s, during the era of the ‘new American cuisine,’ Panache, Seasons at the Bostonian Hotel and the Colony became headquarters for the New England component.

But like the exotic spices and foodstuffs that have sailed into Boston Harbor since the days of Colonial trade, the stylized contemporary cooking was just one more ingredient in the local culinary cauldron. Now, after simmering as slowly as a proper pot of baked beans, Boston restaurants are becoming destinations and, despite themselves, trend setters.

The rest of the country is talking bistro. In Boston the genre has been redefined. In the past two years, a handful of popularly priced restaurants with gutsy, staunchly individualistic cooking has opened, and they are drawing loyalists from both coasts. The new dining milieu is not merely a smart business response to rocky times in the local high-technology industries. It also speaks to something fundamental in the Yankee disposition.

Style Without Nonsense

‘Bostonians,’ said Gordon Hamersley, a chef who has opened his own restaurant, ‘won’t put up with a lot of hype.’ Voila! No-nonsense dining, but with style.

It is fitting that a woman is blazing the trail in this city where Fannie Farmer brought order to the American kitchen through teaching cooking by weights and measures at the Boston Cooking School. Julia Child demystified French cooking on WGBH-TV in Boston. Madeleine Kamman, who opened a cooking school and restaurant in nearby Newton 18 years ago, was in the vanguard of contemporary French cooking. Today, it is Lydia Shire who is carving her own niche in this culinary pantheon.

Biba, the 150-seat restaurant that she opened in August, is a dining room that overlooks the Boston Public Garden. Up a winding stairway from Biba‘s street-level bar, diners wander through a marketplace of wine racks and wood-fired tandoori and pizza ovens before entering the dining room. The restaurant, designed by Adam Tihany, is a ramble of striated Brazilian cherry and maple floors, wrapped in walls that are sponged the color of aging parchment.

The antique terra cotta floor downstairs and the vivid kilim rug patterns painted in the coffered ceiling upstairs show a cheerful Mediterranean influence. Yet the windows frame an indisputably Bostonian panorama of cascading willows and swan boats drifting along the pond in the park below. Likewise, the menu combines exotica and regionalism to form a staunchly personal cuisine.

Always, the Element of Surprise

Ms. Shire’s crisp corn cakes with sauteed lobster and smoked cod, and cape scallops dusted in chestnut flour, pan-fried in chili oil and served on Indonesian glass noodles bring far-flung cuisines to bear on homely New England ingredients. Her cooking always has an element of surprise. The innocuous bread basket conceals an array of still-warm bread sticks, cracker-thin nan and herb focaccia; venison is served with sweet and sour pumpkin, and English black pudding is teamed with apple-potato cake.

But before she adds the whimsy, Ms. Shire generally cooks good, solid food. Occasionally, her menu overreaches. But Biba is steadily pulling in Brahmin ladies, local executives and politicians, traveling epicures and Boston’s smart set. It has been described as an ‘odd-looking crowd.’ In Bostonese, this means stylish. But Biba is not the only restaurant that has captured the imagination (and pocketbooks) of newly fashionable Yankees. Since 1983, Jasper White, who for nearly a decade ran hotel kitchens with Ms. Shire, has been attracting luxe-minded diners to his cool, modern dining room, Jasper’s.

Like his former partner, Mr. White begins with Yankee concepts, but then he adds an Italian flourish. The classic apple and cheese combination becomes mixed greens with blue cheese and savory apple turnovers; his pumpkin bisque is garnished with corn kernels and lumps of crab meat, and his smoked pot roast is served with potato pancakes and applesauce.

Recipes From History

At the Colony, an elegant restaurant that recalls the blue-blood dining rooms of early New England, the chef, David Kantrowitz, uses the historic recipes and techniques that he learned at Plimouth Plantation as a springboard for stylized dishes like rack of lamb with succotash and chocolate bread-and-butter pudding.

L’Espalier, a Back Bay mansion that has been turned into two Louis-something French dining rooms, is now owned by its chef, Frank McClelland, who turns out equally stylized (and pricey) dishes like foie gras with pumpkin cakes, maple-glazed venison with corn-and-wild-rice pudding, and raspberry-juniper sorbet.

Higher-priced restaurants like Jasper’s, the Colony and L’Espalier have earned the city a national reputation. But it is the less-expensive restaurants like Biba, with their casual feel and individualistic cooking, that distinguish Boston’s dining scene today.

Fair prices have always been a hallmark of the city. In the 17th century a pillory was constructed on the Boston Common to punish those who varied from the settlement’s strict moral code. The pillory’s first victim was said to be the carpenter who built it: his fee was considered too high. No wonder frugality reigned over (and until recently, limited) the city’s restaurants. But in 1985, Chris Schlesinger and Cary Wheaton brought good cooking, good times, good prices — and a new middle ground — to local dining when they established the East Coast Grill in Cambridge.

Bostonian Barbecue

This brightly lighted storefront serves up cowboy music and North Carolina-style barbecue. A bottle of the house hot sauce called Inner Beauty is set on each of the linoleum-covered tables, and the waiters wear T-shirts that say ‘Grills Just Want to Have Fun.’ Tout Boston dotes on the place. And Biba, as well as Hamersley’s Bistro and Olives, have moved into the popular-price, high-quality territory the East Coast Grill pioneered.

In Boston’s South End, where Victorian row houses and tumbledown rooming houses alike edge the red-brick sidewalks, Gordon Hamersley, who was once Ms. Shire’s sous-chef, opened Hamersley’s Bistro. The tiny Federal storefront is simple and breezy. Mr. Hamersley and his troupe of cooks in baseball caps sizzle oyster, leek and bacon fritters, toss duck confit with sweet and sour prunes, and smoke acorn squash and then puree it for a thick bisque.

Last April, beneath the Bunker Hill Monument and among the prim row houses of Charlestown, Todd and Olivia English opened Olives, a snug storefront that looks like the kind of tavern that Paul Revere might have stopped by for a quick bite before his ride. The 50-seat dining room has sun-kissed walls, bentwood chairs and tapestry-covered banquettes. But it is the brick hearth, grill and wood-burning rotisserie that pull Yankee souls like a magnet.

Lines of Diners

Mr. English turns out a faintly smoky cassoulet, spit-roasted chicken, grilled pork tenderloin with fennel and honey vinegar, and a leg of lamb that is sliced, stacked on chive bread and served with a roasted pepper salad. A continuous line of diners wait on the sidewalk in front of Olives for a chance to try dishes like the wood-grilled pizzas, butternut squash pasta, a sausage-stuffed rice croquette and banana cream pie.

In Boston, nobody seems to mind lining up for tables. After all, this is a city that has been waiting since 1918 for the Red Sox to win another World Series. You can wait up to 40 minutes to be seated at Olives. Sometimes you wait at Biba and Hamersley’s Bistro, too. Any Yankee can tell you that good things take time.

A Brief Baedeker: Who Goes Where

HERE is a guide to some popular dining spots in the Boston area, including summaries of the kinds of crowds they draw.

Biba is a warm, stylish dining room where sophisticated, eclectic fare is served to the cognoscenti, the Brahmins and Boston’s smart set; 272 Boylston Street (Arlington Street), 617-426-7878. Lunch from 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. Sunday through Friday; dinner daily from 5:30 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. (to 10:30 P.M. Friday and Saturday). Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $35. American Express, Mastercard and Visa.

The Colony is a highly refined, Colonial-style dining room that serves reinterpreted New England fare to a staid and moneyed clientele; 384 Boylston Street (Arlington Street), 617-536-8500. Dinner from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $65. American Express, Mastercard and Visa.

East Coast Grill is a neon-lighted storefront full of cowboy music and the perfume of the hickory fire that turns out excellent barbecued ribs and chicken. This is the headquarters for good times and good eating in Cambridge; 1271 Cambridge Street (Prospect Street), 617-491-6568. Dinner daily from 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M. (to 10:30 P.M. Friday and Saturday). Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $20. American Express, Mastercard and Visa.

Hamersley’s Bistro is a Spartan storefront dining room that serves artful New England cooking to a stylish, arty crowd; 578 Tremont Street (Dartmouth Street), 617-267-6068. Dinner from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. Monday through Saturday and 6 P.M. to 9 P.M. Sunday. Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $35. Mastercard and Visa.

Jasper’s is a sleek, contemporary dining room that features gutsy New England fare with an Italian accent. The restaurant is Boston’s reservation of choice for professional entertaining, special occasions and superb cooking, as well as a popular haven for visitors; 240 Commercial Street (Atlantic Avenue), 617-523-1126. Dinner from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. Monday through Saturday (to 11 P.M. Friday and Saturday). Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $60. American Express, Mastercard and Visa.

L’Espalier occupies a historic Back Bay mansion with two formal dining rooms that serve contemporary French cooking to a well-heeled, gray-suited crowd; 30 Gloucester Street (Newbury Street) in Back Bay, 617-262-3023. Dinner from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. Monday through Saturday. Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $80. American Express, Mastercard and Visa.

Olives is a cozy taverna that serves juicy chicken from its wood-fired rotisserie, pizzas from a brick oven and soulful pastas and stews. It draws a crush of young professionals and has become a gathering place in Charlestown; 67 Main Street (Monument Avenue), 617-242-1999. Reservations for parties of six or more only. Dinner from 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M. Tuesday through Thursday (to 10:30 P.M. Friday and Saturday). Dinner with wine, tax and tip, about $40. Mastercard and Visa.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “In Boston, No-Nonsense With Style,” by Molly O’Neill, Nov. 1, 1989

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