Food & dining

Getting Salty

Getting Salty with Doctor Pepper

George Greenidge, a.k.a. Doctor Pepper, at a Hell Night at East Coast Grill.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/file
George Greenidge, a.k.a. Doctor Pepper, at a Hell Night at East Coast Grill.

Generations of Cambridge diners consider George Greenidge a neighborhood legend. By night, the amiable 75-year-old retired Cambridge physical education teacher — and Fenway sausage vendor — is better known as Doctor Pepper. He has attended nearly every Hell Night at the East Coast Grill in Inman Square, a local institution originally run by his old pal Chris Schlesinger. At these masochistic feasts, brave diners eat impossibly spicy dishes, priding themselves on just how much they can stomach. They’re distracted from their pain by Doctor Pepper, who dances, sings, and sports dreadlocks accessorized with red plastic chile peppers. As of this writing, Doctor Pepper was slated to appear at a much-anticipated Hell Night at the Automatic restaurant down the road, another Schlesinger project, where his loyal followers will sup on chili pie and Jamaican jerk wings. He’s part of the atmosphere, and fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? That would be the Window Shop in Harvard Square. It was a restaurant run by refugees from World War II. I was a bus boy and also a chef’s aide. I did multiple things: breading chicken, breading veal, cutting potatoes, all the basic stuff. One night I decided to bring my mother to dinner there, and that was the first time I went out for a big restaurant meal. I ordered breaded veal. That was probably 1957 or 1958.

What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I actually think [what I’d fix] is happening: You have a lot of variety, and there are different ethnicities. And I complain when I get a bad meal, but I generally don’t go to places where I’d expect a bad meal. I do my homework.

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How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? There’s more outdoor seating! And years ago it was meat and potatoes. Now you have variety, even with pizza. You have a great variety of different kinds of pizza places or steakhouses. Years ago, you wanted to go to a good restaurant, there were the big names, like Locke-Ober, but now there’s a wider variety of selection.

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What other restaurants do you visit? When I go for seafood, I go to Belle Isle over in Winthrop. I used to go to Legal Sea Foods a lot, but the prices have gone crazy and there’s not the best parking. I like to go to Winthrop.

What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants?” I’d love to say my mother’s cooking! She had five boys, and she worked. Everything was done in a pressure cooker. You wanted chicken, she’d put the chicken in a pressure cooker with potatoes, carrots, this and that, and it was dinner. Eat it today, or eat it tomorrow. Oh, and it was hearty. Nobody in my house was underweight. I grew up in the Port, in Cambridge.

What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? This was one time that I was courting my wife. We were up in York, Maine. We said, “Oh, let’s stop here.” And I looked and said, “Geez, there’s only one car in the yard.” We go in, and we open up the menu, and it was exhaustive. I’m saying, “How can they do this?” I ordered clams. They tasted like they were — well, I had to leave. It felt like it was out of a can. No taste, it wasn’t fresh, and I looked at my girlfriend and said, “This is crazy! This is Maine!” You figured it would be fresh, but it was disgusting. I should have known when I saw one car in the yard at noon.

How could Boston become a better food city? More free parking.

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Name three adjectives for Boston diners. They want to be taken care of. And people who go to Hell Night are crazy. Some people practice before they go. They start eating raw hot peppers. They eat the peppers like they’re eating coleslaw. They’re just crazy. And they want a good time.

What’s the most overdone trend right now? Burgers.

What are you reading? Generally, I like sports books and things on relationships.

How’s your commute? There was a time I lived in Somerville, which was close to the East Coast Grill, but now I live in Mission Hill. It’s probably the same amount of time to get to Cambridge, about 20 minutes. I drive.

What’s the one food you never want to cook again? Oh, what’s that fish with a tremendous smell? My ex-wife used to cook it — finnan haddie. There was a smell that just drove me out of the house.

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What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? Greek wasn’t being promoted that much, and now we have an explosion of Greek restaurants. Now we need a good soul food place like Sylvia’s in New York.

What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Legal Sea Foods in Inman Square. Everything was served on paper, plastic knives and forks, and you paid before you ate when you ordered. It was quick.

Who was your most memorable customer? One guy ordered two orders of the Pasta From Hell. He finished them both! And he practiced. He ate peppers for three weeks to a month before he came in, just to prep.

If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? That’s hard to say. I’d probably go for a steak. The problem is [most restaurants] don’t cook on charcoal. I love the taste that comes from charcoal and high heat. I like Ruth’s Chris. It comes out with a tab of butter on it.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.