Restaurant Row has been on my mind a lot lately. It used to be located on Tremont Street. Then, for a while, it moved to Washington Street. Now, it probably means Harrison Avenue. I'm sure that in a few years it will have moved to Albany Street, and then maybe the Southeast Expressway, and then under water.
Seeing South End favorite Garden of Eden dark and empty at dinner time started me thinking about this topic. For the first couple of years, GOE (as we used to call it, affectionately, back in the day) was a fantastic place to get an inexpensive bite to eat. One could grab dinner (in my case, a GOE salad topped with a grilled chicken breast, and a half order of pasta) for under $15.00, including service, not including alcohol. Included, weather permitting, was perhaps the best people watching in all of Boston. It seemed like everybody walking by knew everybody dining, and vice versa. In those first couple of years, I logged in a lot of GOE time, with friends, with past relationships, and every Wednesday night, a "date" with one of my dearest friends. I'm quite sure that I ate there at least 4 times a week.
Sadly, I stopped eating at GOE when prices skyrocketed and it started looking like a Chuck E. Cheese (by day) and a geriatric center (by night) , circa 2003. Walking by the darkened windows at night now, I see the ghosts of past friendships laughing at that tilted and warped community table in the front, before it became a baby changing facility for local mommy groups at lunchtime.
With GOE in mind, I started thinking about how, unsurprisingly, the South End has lost so many affordable restaurants over the past few years. And by affordable, I mean affordable in the sense of normal citizenry being able to eat someplace 3 or 4 times in a week. Not in the sense of "The dining halls at BU are gross, so I hop in the Jag with my friends and head over to the South End every night on my parents' credit card."
An article last month in the South End News addressed the issue of affordable dining option in the South End. In the article, a couple of general managers of South End "hotspots" weighed in on the topic, stating that there are now "so many more affordable options," that successful restaurants in the area "keep their price points within human reach," and that "people want to dine out every night, not just a few nights." What? Where? The restaurants cited by these GM's charge in the low-to-mid $30 range for an appetizer and an entree. That's exclusive of service, alcohol, dessert, side dishes, etc. Add alcohol and service, and you're in the well over $50 per person. Do that every night and you've spent at least $350 in a week's time. Is that what passes for "affordable dining" these days?
Apparently, all that granite, maple and stainless steel is sitting there in the South End unused!! Why use your six-burner Viking stove when you could dine out for a fraction of the cost of, say, having a personal chef?
We seem to have lost all the affordable options while the yuppie options have increased 10 or 20 fold. Gone are Geoffrey's (I know, it moved around a bit, but its not here anymore), Rave (not for everyone, but it had some good dishes), On the Park, Purple Cactus on Shawmut (eye candy central back in its day), and Flux, just to name a few. Interestingly, all of the above had some connection to the gay community, through either ownership or explicitly catering to the gay community. Not surprisingly, they did not survive the recent "straightening" of the South End ("The Great Straightening of 'o1").
In their places popped up a bunch of yuppie "Emperor's New Clothes" restaurants. At one point, I was fairly certain that several of the new yupporiums could have switched their menus with each other and no one would have noticed. It was as if some consortium of South End chefs had found a New York Magazine from 1994, circled all the buzzwords from the restaurant review section, and vowed to include them all on their menus. Mmmm. Pea tendrils!! Heirloom tomatoes!
In that vein, I am including here the menu from a fictitious, pretentious restaurant ("Chez Louise") that could easily be located in the South of End if it were real. Truth be told, it is a yuppie menu generator of sorts, with all the current dining buzzwords - and wines. I have spent quite literally hours hitting the refresh button to come up with even more hilarious dishes. Twice-baked hand-picked brioche with a durian compote? You bet. Maple-glazed ramps with a dead-sea-salt sorbet? Mmm-mmm-mmm. South End restaurateurs, you've been found out. We know what you've been up to and where you came up with those menus.
In the late 1990's, the award-winning food writer Alan Richman authored a scathing and controversial article about Boston restaurants in GQ Magazine. Among the barbs aimed at Boston chefs were comments about Boston not being the capital of haute cuisine, but rather "heap cuisine," whereby incongruous and non-sensical ingredients were heaped upon diners' plates, and portion size was more important than quality or finesse. I seem to remember that he (or was it another critic?) was also of the opinion that Bostonians generally were more interested in the drinks than food. Visiting the current South End hotspots, I'm not exactly sure we've come a long way since that article. Aside from nearly interchangeable menu's, I've been to all the hotspots and although they weren't necessarily bad, they weren't anything memorable. In fact, the best dining experiences I've had in the last several years have been in Somerville, Brookline, Cambridge and Jamaica Plain.
One new-ish Harrison Avenue eatery left me stunned when patrons there (some in acid washed denim jackets, I swear) at two very large and separate tables had dueling "Happy Birthday" songfests. As if that hadn't been enough of an assault on my senses, the bar area, on this Sunday night was filled with what I can only imagine was some sort of gathering of many young Asian women for rent and many older men looking to rent them. The food did not justify the horrific visuals.
At another Washington Street hotspot, heatseeking and fur-clad 60-something friends of my parents from Chestnut Hill cornered me, raving about the food, and their daughter who just got engaged to a surgeon. Having been dragged there by friends and acquaintances numerous times (not on my vote), I have never understood the fuss. The food was ok, kind of dull actually, and certainly nothing special. The drinks were good (of course), and it was quite a good place to see and be seen, which is really what its all about in the S.E. I don't think there was one neck that wasn't craned to scan the room, not one couple making eye contact with each other, an attention-deficit-disorder nightmare. If I could have read the thought balloons over each diner's head, they would have read: See me!! Notice me!! I'm here in this hotspot!! I've arrived!! Now I'm fabulous, too!!
I found the people-watching in the park just across the way to be much more interesting. I also made a mental note that if I ever wanted to go looting, Chestnut Hill apparently sits empty on a Saturday night.
Of course there are still some affordable places left that are quite good, but I'm not going to mention them for fear they'll be overrun and I won't be able to eat there anymore. Hint: None of them has valet parking! And not one of them looks like a Disney-fied version of a Parisian bistro or brasserie.
Truth be told, I want in on the action, so that I too can laugh all the way to the bank. I am currently looking for investors for my new french style bistro-brasserie tentatively called "L'Arriviste." The menu will be an Icelandic-inspired, French-Alsatian-Carribean-Asian Fusion noodle bar, with an extensive cocktail and bottled water list. The kitchen will be run by two Columbian sisters who can sometimes be quite argumentative and who happen to be conjoined at the hip. Each one creates a dish with ingredients they think the other one would have used with items stolen from the other sister's fridge. Both were named as "chefs to watch" in the 2007 year-end issue of Chefwatch: the magazine about Columbian conjoined sibling chefs.
There will be one communal table, situated in an old bank vault, but it will feel like wartime France. Reservations will only be accepted in French, and reservations will be required even for seats at the bar, which is actually a salvaged farmhouse sheep urinal, shipped over from a working organic farm in Reykjavic which has been in operation since 1371. Videos of the urinal's restoration and rebuilding will be shown on screens over the bar. Reservations will also be necessary for the restrooms. All food will be organically grown and from farms no further than five miles from the South End. Menus will be printed on organic heirloom tomato pulp with cruelty-free, organic squid ink. One percent of the profit from all amuse-bouches will go to an outreach and education program to stop local valet parking employees from smoking.
Children will, of course, be welcome and no diner shall be more than 3 seats away from a baby-changing station. Valet parking for strollers will be available and valet parking for automobiles will be mandatory. There will be a dog-walking service and free shuttle service to Atelier 450, Atelier 490, Atelier 560 and any other South End condominiums with a vaguely artistic or bohemian name. A 9-square-foot retail "space" next door will sell the chefs' favorite organic tap waters from around the world at extraordinarily-inflated prices, as well as hand-signed original discarded menus from the restaurant.
Anyone want to invest?