Lunch time in the Innovation District brings the unusual sight of diners at MC Spiedo picking rustic Italian dishes from rolling carts pushed by waiters in the service style of Cantonese dim sum. After work, the assembled crowds at Gather can pair a tasting flight of craft beers with char-grilled octopus or duck tacos with apple kimchee.
What you won’t see is a group sharing a Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhhouse, or baby back ribs at Chili’s. In Boston’s most rapidly evolving neighborhood, a creative, adventurous food scene is also fast emerging, in which restaurant owners feel compelled to be as singular and inventive as the young technology entrepreneurs who define the Innovation District.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurial folks, a lot of foodies, a lot of techies,” said Ed Kane, who traveled to Shanghai and Hong Kong in search of authentic furniture and décor for his Empire Asian Restaurant and Lounge on Northern Ave. “It’s kind of artsy and cool, and it’s no coincidence that all these restaurants are opening up.”
There is no rule against large chains in the Innovation District. Legal Sea Foods was among the early arrivals three years ago, shortly after former Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino bestowed the Innovation District moniker to signal a new era for the expanse of parking lots and old rail yards. Starbucks will soon join Strega Waterfront and the ICA Water Cafe in the Fan Pier complex of office towers and luxury condominiums.
With his tenants’ coffee fix to be sated this summer, developer Joseph Fallon said he mostly hears requests for dining spots that deliver the unexpected or the unfamiliar.
“Different works in this neighborhood,” said Fallon.
The new lineup is a far cry from the few restaurants that dominated the old Seaport district for decades. Indeed, during their heyday Anthony’s Pier 4 and Jimmy’s Harborside reigned as standard-bearers for an era of fine dining that valued classic plates over unorthodox tastes. But as the American palette evolved and became more adventurous, both Anthony’s and Jimmy’s were unable to find a new foothold in the neighborhood changing around them and closed in recent years.
Where Jimmy’s Harborside once served baked stuffed lobster stands Liberty Wharf, a complex of restaurants where these days diners use iPads at Temazcal Tequila Cantina to order lobster ceviche in a spicy coconut and citrus marinade, with mango salsa and red chile oil.
Many of the Innovation District’s new restaurants are not so different from clever establishments elsewhere. What distinguishes the neighborhood is that different is actually the norm. Instead of scattered foodie beacons in a sea of Applebees’ and Cheesecake Factories, there is a gastropub tideswell.
And it’s not that every new restaurant here has to be a candidate for the Bizarre Foods TV show. But a certain style is appreciated: natural food, industrial chic, and casual attire. Most importantly, the menu and atmosphere must be carefully calibrated to appeal to the young and fairly affluent professionals who like to feel they are experiencing something new.
Blade Kotelly, who developed a video editing business, Storytelling Machines, at the MassChallenge program on Fan Pier, said workers in the district are particular about their food and drink.
“They don’t have a tolerance for the same old thing,” Kotelly said.
Experienced restaurateurs said they could not simply replicate in the Innovation District what has worked at their other businesses.
Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier own a pair of farm-to-table restaurants in Maine, where the service style is traditional: Waiters seat the guests, distribute the menus, and take the orders. But in opening MC Spiedo inside the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel in February, the duo veered “totally out of our comfort zone,” said Gaier.
Hence the rolling lunch carts with ready-to-eat salads, antipasti, sandwiches, and even cocktails, designed as a clever way to cater to workers who have the budgets and palates for sit-down lunches — but not always the time.
And in a district full of tech geeks and scientists, MC Spiedo borrowed a page from the world’s greatest inventor — literally: Leonardo’s Notebook Salad — lettuce, fennel, garlic, torn herbs, with an herb vinaigrette — follows a recipe that Leonardo da Vinci scrawled out in one of his journals in the 15th century.
The Briar Group would hardly seem to fit the scene. Its restaurants serve familiar pub fare: fish and chips and beef stew at MJ O’Connor’s; burgers and wings at The Harp near TD Garden.
But when it opened Gather, located at District Hall, the meeting and event space for the Innovation District, the Briar Group adopted a catchy slogan to guide its menu choices: “Inventive cuisine for innovative people.”
The motto extends to the actual menu, too, which is printed on recycled wrapping paper as a little green nod to environmentally conscientious patrons. Besides the octopus and duck tacos, the colorful pieces of giftwrap present some unusual twists on common dishes, like a pizza topped with short ribs, mashed potatoes, smoked gouda, and truffle oil.
“These are the early adopters of new technologies, and that translates into other areas as well, like being more adventurous eaters,” said Hannah Huke, the Briar Group’s marketing director. “It makes us think about how we can offer a dining experience that’s different from our other restaurants.”
Garrett Harker expects that some of his regular patrons of Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square probably will not like his latest venture, Row 34, in Fort Point. Instead of black ties and vests, servers at Row 34 wear tee shirts bearing the logos of the restaurant’s food suppliers — a dress code that reflects the unofficial uniform of the tech set and also lets diners know that ingredients are local and natural.
There is also no liquor in the joint; the alcohol lineup is largely reserved for a lineup of two dozen little-known beers, though wine is also available.
“It’s not motivating for me to try and be something for everyone,” Harker said, “especially in a neighborhood where innovation and having a point of view are important.”