First of all, there is the roast chicken. Hamersley’s Bistro has been known for it since the restaurant opened 27 years ago, across the street from its current site, in a considerably grittier South End. The chicken is simple yet perfect, prepared with garlic and lemon. Julia Child loved the dish. All of Boston loves the dish. It could never come off the menu. You might make it yourself — the recipe is all over the Internet — but it wouldn’t taste the same at all.
Then there is proprietor Gordon Hamersley, who runs the place with his wife, wine guru Fiona Hamersley. He is so low-key it seems strange to call him a celebrity chef, but he has won so many plaudits over the years, it is impossible not to. Unlike most celebrity chefs, he never branched out to other projects. And he never stopped cooking. Why would he? It was what he loved doing, where he loved doing it. Visit Hamersley’s and you would see him standing behind the line, wearing his Red Sox cap, eternally in the kitchen.
But nothing lasts forever, in the restaurant business least of all. On Wednesday, Hamersley announced that his restaurant will close at the end of October. The space and license are spoken for; the undisclosed new owner will renovate and open with a new concept after Jan. 1.
“Fiona and I have had a 27-year, wonderful experience working in the restaurant, but we came to a point in our careers where it was a good stopping point,” Hamersley said by phone Wednesday. Both are in their 60s. He plans to take some time off and reflect, he said. “Then I’m going to work very hard to write the second book I have not been able to get off the ground for 12 years,” a follow-up to 2003’s “Bistro Cooking at Home,” “and continue to work very hard mentoring the young cooks in town.”
Hamersley has worked with students at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury and the nonprofit Future Chefs. “It is very important to me and the future of restaurants in Boston that these kids get educated,” he said. He will consult with young chefs who want to open their own restaurants. And he will see what opportunities life might hold on the other side of the stove.
It is hard to imagine what Boston’s restaurant scene would look like without Hamersley’s Bistro. The restaurant serves as a blueprint for the kind of place we take for granted today. But when it opened, it was a breath of fresh air, serving uncomplicated, French-inspired food with casual grace in a butter-yellow room. The idea that dining out needn’t be stuffy and formal, the idea that simplicity was compelling enough to anchor the table, that whole farm-to-table, seasonal thing: These were not the way things were done in Boston circa 1987. People like Moncef Meddeb (L’Espalier) and Jimmy Burke (Allegro) were starting to bring in fresh ideas. Upstarts like Hamersley and Todd English (Olives) moved in to seal the deal. Restaurants were just arriving in the South End. And now, on any night of the week, in any part of the city, a tattooed server in jeans will say “Hey, guys” and bring you a glass of biodynamic wine sourced painstakingly from a small producer, along with a plate of charred local carrots.
“I’ve been in this period of reflection lately about what the South End was like and how it transformed itself. I feel proud of our city. Look who we are attracting — Mario Batali and Daniel [Boulud] are coming,” Hamersley said, citing two famed chefs with Boston restaurants in the works.
His place, along with restaurants like Chris Douglass’s Icarus, was one of the catalysts for the neighborhood’s transformation. Today, you can barely take a step without bumping into a restaurant along Tremont, Shawmut, Washington, Harrison . . . The culinary creep continues, block by block.
And the landscape continues to evolve. Icarus closed in 2009, a time when the economy was bleak, seats went empty, and restaurant closures were common. Hamersley weathered the storm, closing on his own terms. (Chef Steve Johnson of Rendezvous, a newer but beloved spot in Central Square, recently did the same.) At the end of June, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe shuttered after 87 years in business, making Hamersley’s look like a mere whippersnapper. Happily, Charlie’s looks to rise again next year, under new stewardship (Evan Deluty of Stella, a Washington Street favorite) but otherwise intact. Vive le turkey hash.
Restaurants are training grounds for future generations, and Gordon Hamersley’s mentorship is not to be underestimated. He brought up the likes of Jody Adams in his kitchen. Today, his youngest employee is 17. Hamersley’s opened before she was born. What will Boston’s dining scene look like when she opens her own place?
It won’t have Hamersley’s Bistro in it, with the boss in his baseball cap eternally in the kitchen. And we won’t be eating the roast chicken Julia Child loved, that we thought we’d be eating forever.