25 June 2014

From the Archives: "Leftovers: Testing the enduring appeal of some of Boston’s old-school dining favorites"

The now-closed and crumbling Anthony's Pier 4
Photo courtesy of Chris Rich
As some of my old published work gradually fades from view online -- in this case, as the archives of Phoenix Media's bygone publications The Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine become more unreliable -- I will occasionally reprint pieces here, like this old Stuff cover feature. Filed with the proposed title, "Your Fifteen Minutes Were Up Fifteen Years Ago", it recounted my visits to four Boston restaurants that had passed their peak of fame and critical acclaim, former "It Places" still coasting on ancient laurels. It is perhaps unsurprising that five years on, none of them remains in business. Sic transit gloria.

Testing the enduring appeal of some of Boston’s old-school dining favorites
by MC Slim JB
Stuff Magazine, February 23, 2009

Ever been to dinner and wondered, "Damn, is this the hottest restaurant in Boston right now?" The signs are obvious. Weekend prime-time reservations are like gold. The bar is four-deep with walk-ins waiting an hour-plus for a table. There’s excitement in the air, in your glass, on the plate. You spot a local celebrity or two. You can’t wait to tell your friends how amazing it is. You’re at an It Place, alright.

Of course, seasoned observers know that It Places don’t stay that way for long. Most have their moment in the sun and quickly fade. The crowd that makes it their obsessive business to patronize only the freshest of the fresh has a short attention span – after a few months, it grows bored and moves on, anointing another darling du jour. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.

Boston’s restaurant landscape is pocked with the craters of meteoric stars that flared briefly before crashing to earth, like Excelsior, a former Back Bay hotspot that abruptly shut down last month. The current economic freefall is partly to blame: many high-end restaurants are struggling to survive the drastic shrinkage in business entertaining. But Excelsior had already lost whatever edginess made it exciting when it opened in 2004. After a white-hot debut, it faded into the Not-It twilight, becoming just another expensively-decorated restaurant with an unchallenging menu, crazily-priced wines, and a bar prowled by plump businessmen and flinty-eyed gold-diggers. Its last-fresh-sale date was a distant memory.

So how is it that certain former It Places – restaurants whose bright, shining moment passed years before Excelsior’s – manage to survive despite the imploding economy? Knowledgeable locals may dismiss them with a, "Pfah, that place started sliding ten years ago", or, "Oh, I guess we loved it as kids when our grandparents took us there", but they’re still packing in the customers. One theory is that today’s faded-It-Place patrons are naïfs who’ve been sold a bill of goods: clueless tourists following their hotel-room dining guides, business travelers steered by graft-collecting concierges, local rubes who think the Phantom Gourmet is not only funny but untainted by sponsor bribery.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? Could these superannuated superstars still have something worthwhile to offer? How fun would it be to convince your food-snob friend that a restaurant she derides as a passé tourist trap is in fact a hidden gem? I decided to test this contrarian idea by revisiting a few restaurants that are still popular, despite not having been The Hotness since at least before the arrival of PlayStation 2.

Todd English neglected to pay his bills at Olives Charlestown
Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe

I checked in first at Olives Charlestown, which for a long time was one of the most critically-acclaimed and popular restaurants in town, but now inspires indifference from many once-ardent fans. (Olives failed to even crack the top 50 of Boston Magazine’s recent ranking of local restaurants, a composite of the reviews of Boston’s major food critics.) How did the first smash hit from chef/owner Todd English, one of the most successful and telegenic chefs ever to emerge from Boston, fall so far from the top of the heap?

When Olives debuted as a 50-seat Charlestown storefront in 1989, English was the smokingest young chef on the scene. His take on rustic Italian cooking was creative, fresh, and full of bold, concentrated flavors. (Some critics carped at "too many tastes on the plate", but I disagreed, adoring his dense, fiercely-flavored compositions.) With a no-reservations policy, Olives had folks lining the sidewalk before the doors opened each night; two-hour waits for tables were common. It was a brilliant, deserved success.

English got progressively more ambitious, moving Olives to a larger location and opening his first Figs pizzeria. He added Kingfish Hall and Bonfire, more Olives and Figs outlets, and eventually another dozen restaurants around the world, attaining bona fide celebrity-chef stature. But running an empire left English with little time to actually cook at his flagship restaurant; Olives’ quality suffered under the stewardship of various lieutenants.

Twenty years on, Olives still draws crowds, though it now takes reservations. A recent visit revealed a crumbling physical plant (men’s-room partitions falling off the walls) and indifferent bartenders decanting overly-sweet $11 cocktails into unchilled glasses. One appetizer was a delightful echo of Olives’ glory days: a luxurious, truffle-flecked savory flan ($15) topped with fine wild mushrooms, foie gras and a wondrously intense reduction of veal stock. Entrees were pretty fine, too, like a slow-smoked lamb shank ($25) atop a rich root-vegetable mash, and a Flintstones-esque wood-grilled pork chop ($30) so moist it must have been brined, though it arrived overdone. But an appetizer of tagliatelli Bolognese ($11) was a major misfire: overcooked fresh pasta drowning in truffle butter and sporting a crown of carmine ragú crudely overseasoned with cinnamon. It was terrible in concept and execution, a dish that would never have been served had The Man Himself been in the kitchen.

Other aberrations cropped up, too, like a neighboring couple’s side order, a football-sized mound of deep-fried onion strings ($8). This seemed better suited to a casual-dining chain like the nearby Ninety-Nine than the restaurant where English won two James Beard awards. Service was sweet and mostly attentive if a bit callow, but at $200 including a modest bottle of wine, dinner for two was a distinctly uneven, unsatisfying experience. For those of us who remember how perfectly delicious Olives was in the days before English became a superstar, when he was at the stove every night, it’s a cautionary tale on the perils of expansion. Maybe Gordon Hamersley, a chef/owner of lesser fame and fortune whose single, far-more-consistent restaurant still makes the top ten lists, is onto something after all.
Olives, 10 City Sq., Charlestown, 617-242-1999

Harbor view of the forlorn Anthony's Pier 4
Photo courtesy of Chris Rich

I moved on to Anthony’s Pier 4, which my dad, back when he was a high-flying salesman, favored for celebrating his big business deals. Anthony’s was the reigning king of Boston fine dining in the 1970s, an oversized temple to Americanized Continental cuisine and fancy New England seafood whose football-field-sized parking lot was always full. Pretty harbor views, one of the city’s biggest and best wine lists, the bustle of a cavernous dining room, and an always-throbbing bar scene made it the preferred haunt of the city’s movers and shakers. For a long while, it was the It Place for the thousands of Bostonians who would never (or could never) set foot in the stuffy French restaurants and Yankee private clubs that otherwise dominated fine dining at the time.

Thirty years later, Anthony’s remains pretty much a fly in amber, exactly what it was in its heyday. Formally-clad waiters still wheel out trolleys laden with lobster bisque ($11.95), New England clam chowder ($6.95), and bouillabaisse ($12.95). The deluxe raw bar platter ($49.95) is a showy pile of local raw oysters, cherrystones, littlenecks, shrimp, mussels and lobster on a mountain of crushed ice. Popular entrees include scrod ($24.95), baked stuffed shrimp ($27.95), grilled swordfish ($27.95), a pound-and-a-quarter boiled lobster ($32.95), and prime rib ($31.95). The a la carte menu boasts old-school sides like char-broiled onions and ratatouille Provençale (both $7.95). You can even order a proper Grand Marnier soufflé ($9.95).

If all this sounds like a short step up from the dinner buffet on a mid-market cruise ship, you’re not far off. Anthony’s crowds might be the oldest in town; its tables are spaced widely enough to accommodate walkers. Every other party seems to be celebrating some golden anniversary or diamond birthday. Boston’s dining scene has become a UN of global influences, but you’d never know it here, aside from a lonely sashimi platter ($19.95). We recently took my now-wheelchair-bound dad there, and you could see him reliving his glory days, when his expense account would let him order fine French wines and that giant raw-bar platter for his clients, then grandly commandeer the check. At Anthony’s, it’s still 1979 in the kitchen, and that’s exactly how its nostalgic, snowy-haired customers like it.
Anthony’s Pier 4, 140 Northern Blvd., Boston, 617-482-6262

The bygone Locke-Ober Room in its goldenly glowing glory days
Photo courtesy of The Hub's Metropolis

Next I visited Locke-Ober, which opened in 1875 as the kind of hushed, formal, mahogany-and-old-mirror-lined room then favored by our dwindling Brahmin class. You’ve seen them around town, those gaunt old WASPs with good Beacon Hill addresses and family fortunes dating to the 17th century. One family at a nearby table was prototypical: mom in the Hermes scarf, Chanel suit, and helmet of white hair resembled an 80s-vintage Barbara Bush, while her son, fortyish in brown tweeds and a hand-tied bow tie, probably played squash with Tucker Carlson when they prepped at St. George’s.

Locke-Ober’s peak of national fame occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy (the Hope and Change candidate of 1960), whose family loved the joint precisely because as arrivistes they coveted its aristocratic sheen. In a token of his clan’s belated acceptance by the Palm Beach set, the superb lobster stew ($18) is now named after JFK. But by the 1990s, this grande dame was distinctly threadbare: I used to worry that the ceiling paint might flake off into my chowder. The 19th-century menu looked like a worn relic, too. Bostonians were flocking to nouvelle French and New American cuisine: Dover sole Meunière and Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein seemed about as hip as Burt Parks singing Auld Lang Syne.

Then along came Lydia Shire, one of Boston’s most original and beloved chefs, who decided to rescue Locke-Ober and renew its former luster. With a deep-pocketed partner, she bought it in 2001, restored the space’s fin-de-siècle elegance, and subtly refreshed the menu in her signature style, adding bits of offal here, unusual vegetables there, and Mediterranean accents throughout. The old formal flourishes – rolls served on silver salvers, individual salt-cellars, the flattering glow of Art Nouveau sconces – remained. (One regrettable holdover is the 1970s-vintage bartending; if any place ought to catch up to the current revival of Golden Age cocktail craft, it’s Locke-Ober’s handsome little bar.)

Despite the recent, much-buzzed-about suspension of lunch service -- a terrifying omen for local restaurants -- Locke-Ober continues to host big parties of trophy-wine-swilling Financial District types celebrating whatever remaining deals they’re still winning. One nearby table full of navy and gray suits overflowed with slurred toasts to Mammon, racks of lamb ($42), prime strip steaks ($44), and gargantuan lobster Savannahs ($62). I ordered one of those old-school classics that isn’t much seen anymore, a perfectly-tender, barely-seared calf’s liver ($28) with two beautiful, oversized onion rings, bacon, carefully fried parsley, and (thanks to Shire), a balsamic/fig reduction loaded with toasted garlic.

My server, in his traditional vest, bowtie and apron, was a steely, dignified old pro who monitored his tables like a hawk, swooping in with finesse to fulfill his customers’ whims, something he’s been doing here for thirty years. I finished with baked Alaska ($11), another bygone classic: a spiky, flambéed snowball of meringue encasing a thin layer of cake with strawberry and vanilla ice cream, flanked by strawberry sauce and fresh berries. Grandma would surely have oohed at that one.

So on reflection, maybe Locke-Ober doesn’t belong on this list. Its resuscitation under the loving eye of a certified celebrity chef brought it some brief attention from trend-scenting exurban lemmings. But mainly it resists the strongest tides of modernity, holding out as the last dining room in town where patrons in sneakers or jeans are firmly refused a table. Locke-Ober abides more as an indispensable fixture, a Mecca to which faithful habitués of the dining scene should make at least one hajj. Not ever really an It Place, I hope it remains as an Always There Place.
Locke-Ober, 3 Winter Pl., Boston, 617-542-1340

Seasons, once a great incubator of chef talent, disappeared and nobody noticed
Photo courtesy of the Boston Business Journal

My last stop was Seasons at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel, which in the early 1980s was an essential station on the Boston food-geek circuit. The owners had a knack for hiring immensely talented, fast-rising chefs to execute the restaurant’s innovative New American menu; many left to attain local and national stardom on their own. Seasons launched the independent careers of Jasper White, Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, Gordon Hamersley, Scott Hebert, Peter McCarthy, Tony Ambrose, and many others.

As I walked up to the hotel, I thought, "Nobody talks about Seasons anymore, but maybe it’s hiding the next Tony Maws or Barry Maiden. Hmm, where did the entrance go?" The doorman ruefully informed me that Seasons had closed nine months ago, converted into a ballroom. I felt a pang: a wellspring of Boston’s culinary renaissance had vanished, unremarked and unlamented. I mentally lit a candle for Seasons, wondering how a former It Place could fade away with most of us not even noticing.

That experience left me hoping that restaurateurs remember to cherish their regulars, the folks who come in on a Tuesday night when it’s snowing, and will still be there when the trend-moths have fluttered along to the newest sparkly light in town. And I reminded myself that it’s never good as a diner to get too wrapped up in the pursuit of novelty – especially when the pressures of the economy now threaten to put many worthy restaurants out of business. While you’re out scrambling for a table at this week’s Miss Thing, you’re neglecting a solid old standby in your back yard that may be dying. Guess which one you’ll miss more if they both disappear?