Sterling’s opened this spring on State Street, the latest offering from the Glynn Hospitality Group (Granary Tavern, Clerys, Jose McIntyre’s, and more). What makes it stand out?
“Sterling’s initial allure is its impressive atmosphere, the upscale eatery’s ‘it’ factor is thanks to a trifecta of stand-out elements that includes equally appealing masterfully crafted cocktails and creative comfort cuisine.”
So says the website copy, sounding like an instruction manual for an appliance manufactured in a non-English-speaking country.
But Sterling’s true allure, initial and otherwise, is its patio. And those who work here know it. When a party arrives on a night when the weather is better than catastrophic, there’s not even a question: inside or out? The hostess simply leads the guests to one of the al fresco tables.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Sterling’s is perched between the Financial District and Faneuil Hall, tucked behind an office building. It’s convenient but removed from the fray, a suitable spot for people-watching or keeping one’s own company. But what happens to the place when the nor’easters roll in?
Never mind. There are a few more days of summer yet, and Sterling’s is busy with buttoned-down financial types and sleek-haired women in bright sundresses, meeting one another after work over watermelon margaritas and cold drafts. A young couple on a date shares a bottle of red. Professional and friendly, servers keep the drinks and snacks coming. There are $2 oysters and a comfort-food menu of usual suspects (chicken tenders, a burger) with a few surprises (pork belly sliders with Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce, schnitzel). Opening chef Keenan Langlois purportedly was inspired by Julia Child and the 1960s when creating the menu, but these influences are subtle. (He has since moved on.)
Glynn’s properties aren’t meant to be gourmet hot spots. They draw people in with reasonable prices and the promise of drink. Every city needs this kind of place. But value and simplicity don’t preclude quality. At Sterling’s, the food is sometimes insultingly bad.
The pork belly sliders feature dry meat and no discernible Dr. Pepper (or other) flavor. Swedish meatballs are mush. Fondue arrives with a skin over its surface, some past-their-prime red grapes moldering in a side dish. Small pieces of asparagus ends are suspended in the cheese, hard to scoop with the accompanying baguette. The more people eat, the chunkier the dip gets. And claiming that this restaurant serves an “heirloom tomato pizzetta” is actionable in August in New England. The pale, mealy slices on the flatbread might have been bred in a test tube.
Steak frites features a few slices of meat, a bit of watercress, and oversalted fries. Is there truffle vinaigrette somewhere on this plate? There is supposed to be. Pork schnitzel has soggy breading, but the cutlets are drizzled in blue cheese cream, so at least there is flavor there; an arugula salad on the side is a pleasant complement. Sterling’s burger is so unmemorable I actually, literally, can’t remember it.
In comparison, then, it is easy to get excited about Sterling’s better dishes. Roast chicken is nicely done, with juicy meat and crisp, well-seasoned skin. It comes with serviceable mashed potatoes, lemon jus, and “Spanish olives,” which appear to come sliced from a can. Linguine is served al dente, garlicky and entwined with tender clams and bits of tomato; there’s a real kick here from chili oil. And a lobster roll features a good amount of meat, cloaked in just a bit of mayo, on brioche. See? Simple yet still good, particularly when eaten during the tail end of summer on an urban patio, watching the clean-cut crowd meet cute as strains of live music float in from Faneuil Hall.
Dessert won’t leave a pleasant taste in the mouth, though. There are two options (a third, cheese, is on the menu but never offered). A dry cake is billed as carrot, although it doesn’t look or taste like it. Then there’s a creation called a chocolate bar. It has a graham cracker crust that cannot be penetrated by mere metal, topped with caramel and peanut butter mousse. Don’t risk breaking a tooth. Just pick up a Snickers on the way home.
Sterling’s has an entirely within-the-ordinary wine list, but beer is a bit more interesting. The list is heavy on pale ale and lager, but craft and local brews mingle with Corona and Bud Light. Half the house cocktails feature vodka, flavored or otherwise. Alongside drinks like the blueberry vodka-based Figawi Wowie, there is something of a “Mad Men” motif. There’s the Ginger Joan (vodka, ginger liqueur, lemon, mint, and ginger ale), the Sterling’s Fizz (gin, St. Germain, mint, and lime), and the Mad Men Mule (bourbon, lemon, and ginger beer).
And the decor inside the small restaurant, which one takes in on the way from the patio to the restroom, is said to be inspired by the show’s time period — lots of dark wood, chandeliers, leather booths, and a large photo collage featuring images of ’60s politicians, musicians, and athletes. The evocation of the era feels halfhearted and random.
Sterling’s needs to commit to its theme or discard it. Committing to its menu wouldn’t hurt, either. High-quality comfort food would make the place more than just a pretty patio.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor