Michela Larson, 69, was one of Boston’s trailblazing female restaurateurs in an era when they were few and far between. Her namesake East Cambridge restaurant, Michela’s, opened in 1985 and first employed chefs such as Todd English and Jody Adams. She later partnered with Adams to open Rialto at the Charles Hotel; she also opened blu in downtown Boston, Red Clay in Chestnut Hill, and the South End’s Rocca (once home to Tiffani Faison). This year, she created the newly opened Mod Espresso inside South End furniture design company Modern Relik.
“It’s a beautiful little coffee bar. The coffee is European and consistent and delicious all the time,” Larson says, complemented by all-star treats: mini ice cream sandwiches from Toscanini’s, bread from Clear Flour, meats from Formaggio Kitchen, and chocolates from EHChocolatier.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston?
Cafe Budapest, and it was just the most beautiful, elegant, luscious experience because it was just beautifully appointed. It was very European in feeling. It had shimmering chandeliers and beautiful, old-school service. And the food was delicious. I had never had a stroganoff before, or a cherry soup, so I was eating food that I was not familiar with and loving it. So I was lucky to have a true restaurant experience where I was learning, I was enjoying, I was having a good time tasting food. This was maybe ’75, ’74.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Well, I think we need a living wage. ... There needs to be a supportable infrastructure that allows front and back of the house to really be making money they can live with and live on, and that respects the fact that this is a real, live profession, that this is no longer something you do while you’re waiting to do the thing you’re going to do.
What other restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
In my neighborhood, Myers + Chang. Bar Mezzana. I love my neighborhood restaurants. And I also go to Walkers Maine, which is in Cape Neddick. It’s just a brilliant, beautiful restaurant run by a great couple. I’m in Maine a lot, so it’s an easy-peasy thing to do, but they are extremely talented.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants?
This is a little complicated, because I grew up in a very large family with a mother who is and was a brilliant mother but a very indifferent cook. And that’s putting it kindly, I want to say. But she knows this, she knows this! I always loved to eat, so she started buying cookbooks for me. I could cook for the rest of the family. But I never imagined going into the restaurant industry, actually, until I moved to Barcelona when I was 25. I stayed there for three years and I thought: OK, this is what my mother’s been taught. My mother grew up in Florence, Italy, and she always talked about the wonderful meals she used to eat and that it was impossible to find any of them in this country. I for the first time understood: Ah, this is what she’s talking about. The food is absolutely delicious. ... I left Barcelona, and I said, “I think I’m going to do something in food. I don’t know what, but I’ve got to be around beautiful food.”
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
That’s a hard one, I think, for restaurateurs or people who work in our industry to answer precisely, because we all know every restaurant has a bad day. You have a bad day and something doesn’t work. But I will tell you I’ll forgive everything if the service is good. No matter what, I will forgive everything. But if the service isn’t, then I don’t go back. Just because I feel like somebody’s not paying attention. Somebody’s not training. It’s really about training. It’s about teaching your staff to be welcoming and arms open, and noticing and looking and seeing what people need and want, and attending to it.
I was with my son who was about 10 years old, and we were just celebrating an end-of-school lunch. We were in a restaurant; we were seated right next to the bathrooms and the door to the kitchen. There was a lot of traffic back and forth, back and forth. My son, who had been eating in restaurants since before he was born, said, “Mom, do you know what’s wrong?” He began to outline everything that was wrong with our table, with the traffic, with people bumping into our chairs.
I thought: Oh, this is bad. My kid is pointing out everything that I’m thinking and just letting go.
Then he said, “I don’t think we should tip them.” And I said, “No, no, we’re totally going to tip.”
The food arrived late, and the check never arrived. We were the forgotten table. We were absolutely the forgotten table, the worst table in the place. I believe it was because I was there with my son. I don’t know. But we were put sort of at the outskirts of things, and I said, “You know, you just learn from this.” If you have other tables, don’t put them here. This is your last resort. So, at any rate, my son has ended up in the restaurant business!
How could the Boston food scene improve?
Aside from changing the weather, which is a big deal? I actually think the cost of opening a restaurant and the cost of things like liquor licenses and the lack of availability, that all needs to change. As soon as you begin to add all these costs together, you have to actually think less about what it is you’re attempting to offer to the world. You end up thinking: How many seats do I need in order to break even? How much do I have to charge for the drinks? And now, that’s not to say that you don’t do that anyway, but ideally that’s not the first thing that you’re thinking about. And it’s prohibitively expensive to do this these days, I believe, and I don’t like the fact that liquor licenses are very difficult to obtain.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston?
I don’t want to say there was no scene, when I arrived, because it was years and years and years ago. There was a scene, there were some very wonderful innovative restaurants like Cafe Budapest, Maison Robert, even the Harvest. The Harvest was opened by architects, basically. There was a lot of excitement happening. And Romagnoli’s Table in Faneuil Hall. So there was little bits and pieces of it. But now, can you list 15 favorite restaurants? No, you list 25. It has changed dramatically. It’s a whole other world. The other piece of it is, of course, there are a lot more women in it now. Although there were women in it then that we didn’t always hear about. Another Season, which is actually the first kitchen I started in on Beacon Hill [had] Odette Berry. There were, but it was not the place that you were encouraged. It wasn’t the field you were encouraged to go into.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners.
I think they’re really knowledgeable. They’re very savvy, and they’re absolutely not shy about giving you feedback, which I actually love. And I think they’re very inquisitive. They really want to know more all the time.
What’s the most overdone food trend right now?
Well, I barely even look at the drinks menu anymore, because I feel like they’re so complicated and they take so long to make. And, back to the issue of the liquor license, the cost of the drinks is insane. It’s so high for an ounce or two of alcohol. But you have to pay for that liquor license.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing?
I feel like we have so many beautiful ones, but I would love to see a fresh, simple seafood Italian restaurant on the water. That’s a lot of pieces.
What are you reading right now?
I have very eclectic taste. First of all, I need to stay very current. So I read everything: The New Yorker, the Globe, the Times, The Washington Post. I read a bunch of news. I read popular and political. I go the gamut. When I’m not doing that, I love Kate Atkinson. I always have three or four books by my side of the bed. ... There’s this one book right now that I’ve got, Thomas Seeley’s “The Lives of Bees.” It’s the untold story of the honey bee in the wild, I think. I want to know what I need to do to make sure I have a boatload of bees in my garden all the time.
How’s your commute?
Three minutes. And I love to walk.
What’s one food that you never want to eat ever again?
Oh, it’s just such a no-brainer for me: brains. I don’t want to eat brains, ever again.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant?
I miss the East Coast Grill. And to be honest with you, this is not self-serving, but I miss Red Clay, the restaurant I did with my partners in Chestnut Hill. I miss it. ... It was a great, beautiful restaurant with a very talented team and great people in it who are now all over the country doing interesting things.
Who was your most memorable customer?
Definitely Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid, and a variety of other inventions, loads of them. One of my favorite days at my first eponymously named restaurant was the day that Steven Jobs came up to me and asked me if I would introduce him to Edwin Land. I thought, “Wow, this is like, two incredible worlds colliding! What do you mean, you need me to introduce you to him?” Anyway, I loved them both for different reasons. But Edwin Land was a wonderful diner. Any time I went over to his table to speak to him, there would always be an interesting question. There would always be something about the food, but also something about whatever else was happening within the restaurant. So I always felt like I had to be ready for a real conversation, and that was thrilling.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
I would go to Community Servings, the organization in J.P. that delivers medically tailored meals to people living with a variety of illnesses. Food is made from scratch, and it’s incredibly delicious, and it’s made with love. It’s helping people to move through their illnesses, and to get better. And it’s now scientifically proven that it works. The staff at Community Servings is absolutely one of the most caring groups I’ve ever met in my life. And they’re entrepreneurial, so they’re always thinking of new ways in which they can grow their business, so to speak, even though they don’t necessarily want to.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.