Tim Maslow, one of the hottest chefs in Boston, knew he wanted a suburban spot for Ribelle, which he opened in Brookline’s Washington Square in October.
“I’m very much a suburbs guy,” says Maslow, who previously helmed Strip-T’s in Watertown to much acclaim. “I love it here. There’s a real neighborhood feel. We had regulars from the first week.”
Washington Square, once a sleepy culinary outpost, has become metro Boston’s favored restaurant row, lauded by critics and customers for the creative dishes, dazzling drinks, and stylized décor featured by its newest comers: Ribelle, Fairsted Kitchen, and Barcelona Wine Bar . The trio, all of which opened in the past year, added star power to an already solid list of neighborhood favorites.
“Washington Square is hot as a pistol,” says Charles Perkins, owner of the Boston Restaurant Group Inc., a commercial real estate firm that specializes in selling and leasing restaurants. “I would rather be there than [Somerville’s] Davis Square.”
Plenty of neighborhoods have a couple of cozy restaurants, but it takes a special alchemy to create a bona fide culinary scene, one that draws a stream of customers and ambitious chefs looking to get noticed. In the case of Washington Square, industry watchers credit proximity to the Green Line, plentiful parking, comparatively low commercial rents, a lack of big chains, and a location that’s accessible to a handful of surrounding neighborhoods and towns. Then there’s the food.
“You have your choice of a number of different concepts and cuisines coming into the neighborhood,” says Jason Boske, general manager of Beacon Street’s Barcelona Wine Bar, which opened last winter.
Indeed, the cavernous 186-seat Spanish tapas restaurant with a horseshoe-shaped bar is next door to Fairsted Kitchen, a cozy 47-seat spot that emphasizes family-style dining with platters to share. It opened in October.
That the restaurant owners here love the neighborhood is obvious. Fairsted gives a nod to Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who lived nearby in a Victorian mansion named Fairsted.
“We wanted to be part of a community first and foremost, and we love the neighborhood of Washington Square, how diverse it was in its history, and the people who live around it, and we thought it was ready for new blood,” says Steve Bowman, who owns and operates Fairsted with Andrew Foster. “Brookline offers the community of the suburbs while remaining nestled next to a major hub.”
But when Gerald Finnegan came to the square in 1999 to open the Washington Square Tavern, friends in the restaurant business told him he was crazy. “There’s nothing up there,” they said, just a few storefronts located midway between Coolidge Corner and Cleveland Circle.
“I’m like, ‘It’s an underserved neighborhood,’ ” says Finnegan, who bought the old Hammond Lounge and gutted it. “These days, we’ll have a couple with a 40-day dry-aged steak and a bottle of 40-year-old Chenin Cabernet Franc and sitting at the next table are a couple of kids from Boston College eating a veggie burger and drinking a Narragansett.”
Indeed, demographics have favored Washington Square, with a mix of residents, college students, and nearby suburbanites who may want to avoid the trek into Boston, with its accompanying parking challenges. Though the restaurants are on busy Beacon Street, the Square is surrounded by apartments and single-family homes and is about 15 minutes from downtown Boston. It’s also located between Boston College and Boston University, each a mile or two away.
“You’re drawing from Brookline, Newton, Watertown, the city, and it’s a very easy place to get to,” says Perkins. “There’s a lot of open space and it’s a very comfortable drive down Beacon Street.”
John Lank is general manager of The Fireplace, which opened five days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and quickly became popular.
“There’s only so many places left in the city of Boston and around it to grow,” he says. “Everything’s starting to max out. The quality of the restaurants that are coming into the area, as well as the ones already here, have certainly played into the popularity of the neighborhood.”
Chef/owner Jim Solomon of The Fireplace lives in Washington Square: “I know the cobbler, I know the tailor. It’s a real people neighborhood, not like Coolidge Corner, the anointed square.”
Solomon and his wife often dine out in the neighborhood. “I know the three new places and I think highly of them,” he says. “The tide will rise for all of us. People who don’t want to go into the city but want a restaurant the quality of the city’s can park here, they don’t have to deal with Boston traffic, and they don’t have to pay for valet.”
During storms that have buried the area this winter, people will cancel Boston reservations and “stay home and come here,” says Solomon.
In better weather, he cites the Square’s wide sidewalks as beneficial “for more outside dining and more strolling.” Like The Fireplace, both Fairsted Kitchen and Barcelona Wine Bar have outdoor seating. Solomon applied for a variance from the town of Brookline, which allows dogs to accompany diners onto his 20-seat patio.
Other neighborhood stalwarts include The Abbey and the Publick House. Joanna Chow recently returned to live in Washington Square after nine years in Chicago.
“My friends asked me what I would miss most about Chicago, and my answer was always the food scene,” says Chow, 27, a brand strategy consultant. “But when I came back to Brookline, I was really excited about some great new places right in my neighborhood.”
Chow has dined at some of them and finds them on par with Chicago. “They’re new, they’re fresh, they’re using a lot of inventive ingredients and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the combinations they put forth on the table,” she says.
Not only is the food inviting, but the Square itself has taken on new life, says Chow.
“It’s nice to see some young blood coming into the neighborhood. Before, things shut down a bit earlier. Now when you go to Washington Square on any evening, the restaurants are filled with people.”
On the other end of the age spectrum, Priscilla Kay and Dorothy Cotton are retirees who like to dine out. Though Cotton lives in the Back Bay and Kay in Newton, where there are plenty of restaurants, they often head to Washington Square.
“The new restaurants bring something to the Brookline area previously found only in Boston, a little sophistication, a little out-of-the-ordinary,” says Kay.
Finnegan, whose Washington Square Tavern is in its 15th year, agrees that success has bred success. “We’ve been busy for so many years, and other people looked and said, ‘Maybe we can get a piece of that.’ We wish the new places the very best. Welcome to the neighborhood, and good luck.”