Top of the Hub is closing. Will the city really miss it?
The restaurant, 52 floors up, feels as quaint as the notion of the Prudential Tower’s being the tallest building in town (which it was for barely more than a decade), or the notion of aspiring to build the tallest building at all. Ambition was simpler when the restaurant opened more than 50 years ago: Success could be measured literally. It was magic to be able to eat that high in the sky. It could be magic still — that view! — if the food had kept better pace with the times, or if the prices hadn’t.
Boston Properties, which owns the Pru, has decided not to provide a new lease to Select Restaurants, the company behind Top of the Hub and the tower’s Skywalk Observatory. More than 200 employees will lose their jobs when the restaurant closes in April, according to Select. That is a real shame.
But when was the last time you ate there? I can tell you when I did: 2007, when I reviewed the restaurant, gave it a generous 2 stars, and wrote, “The food is exactly as good as it needs to be to keep guests happy.” I felt about Top of the Hub the way I did about Locke-Ober at the end: This majestic space could be put to better use. It’s possible to imagine something truly stellar up there in the stars, something that harks back with a wink to fine dining at the time the tower was built: caviar service, Caesar salads tossed tableside, cocktail carts, flambéing. Would it be expensive? Is this Boylston Street? We’ll see what Boston Properties does with the space (so far it’s promised only “an exciting new design for an observatory”), but it would be hard to fault the company for wanting a restaurant that brings the whole city up in that ear-popping elevator rather than mostly tourists.
Old-guard Boston dining is being gutted before our eyes: Top of the Hub, the No Name restaurant, Doyle’s, Durgin-Park, L’Espalier. Will anything that is actually old be left standing in this city of history? It’s worth noting, and questioning, the failure to protect and preserve a culinary legacy for the city.
Yet this is a city, not a museum. Restaurants close. It is part of the natural order of things. We don't have to lament the passing of every single longtime institution that turns out the lights. Sometimes those lights should go out. Sometimes it's just time.
Take the No Name, a frills-free seafood spot on South Boston’s Fish Pier that was founded in 1917 and closed at the very end of 2019. It was a good run, and a good story: A Greek immigrant, John Contos, arrives as a teenager with nothing, opens a restaurant, works hard his whole life, and makes a place for himself and his family in America. But when a restaurant sticks around for more than 100 years, things can start breaking down. The No Name filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, owing hundreds of thousands of dollars and leaving employees out of work right before the new year.
With its simple, affordable food — chowder, fried and broiled fish — the No Name was a vestige of a Seaport past, along with Jimmy’s Harborside (1924-2005) and Anthony’s Pier 4 (1963-2013). All have now closed, making way for a neighborhood of shiny, high-end restaurants such as the three-story Legal Harborside, with its rooftop bar and sushi lounge, and the new Woods Hill Pier 4, where all of the ingredients are organic and non-GMO. The Seaport is barely recognizable as the scruffy, scrappy fishing hub of yore. On the one hand, something is indisputably lost. On the other hand, that was 100 years ago. What would you expect?
In its latter days, the No Name was visited mainly by out-of-towners. Quality had slipped. Slide into its Yelp reviews for a portrait of a restaurant in decline: 1-star review after 1-star review, followed by comment from the owner. “We take great pride in serving delicious five-star meals, and sincerely apologize for the disappointing meal. Please know we will be using your comments to improve our meals.” It’s a little bit heartbreaking, as if they cared but were powerless to do anything about it.
So many people have positive memories of the No Name. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai waxed nostalgic about his father taking him there in 1979, Tsai's first year at Andover, for the largest plate of fried seafood the Ohio boy had ever seen. The food was fresh and bountiful, and the restaurant was always busy, he recalled. There was always a line.
Had he visited in more recent years? "I feel bad," he said with a rueful laugh. "I'm one of the reasons they may be going out of business."
We all are. We want the No Name to continue on in the Seaport forever in theory, but not in practice. One moral of this story is: Support what you love. If you want a restaurant to stay open (or a store, or a theater, or a museum), patronize it.
Another moral of this story is: Love is neither unconditional nor eternal, at least when it comes to restaurants. Our loyalty to a business is dependent on its staying relevant to our lives. When restaurants fail to do that, we stop going. And when they close, it’s OK to let them go, to separate our nostalgia from the reality of the moment.
As Michael Weinstein, chief executive of Ark Restaurants, said when his company decided to close the nearly 200-year-old Durgin-Park last year, “I don’t know how long I’m supposed to subsidize something so people can reminisce.” Even high-end L’Espalier, long considered one of the city’s finest, wasn’t what it used to be. After moving to modern digs on Boylston Street, it never quite regained the spark or charm of its cramped and antiquated townhouse location. And its ending was inglorious, marred by a refusal to honor outstanding gift cards, until the Attorney General’s office intervened and some card-holders received partial refunds. Now former chef-owner Frank McClelland runs a new place, Frank, in Beverly, and judging from the lunchtime crowds, it is highly relevant.
There are closures that are real losses for the city. Doyle's, the iconic Jamaica Plain pub that shuttered in October, was one. The place had so much history (it opened in 1882). Everyone was welcome. And the good people of Boston still gathered there regularly, for after-work drinks and birthday parties, to take in the vintage photographs and enjoy the benefits of having a "third place" — one beyond the home and the workplace that still feels like yours. Musicians, governors, long-lost friends: You never knew whom you'd run into.
But the owners couldn’t afford to stay in business. Sitting on a double cash cow of real estate and liquor license, they made the logical decision. Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse purchased the license for $455,000, so it can serve cocktails at its new location, in the Seaport, of course. “If we don’t buy this license, it’ll be someone else tomorrow,” said Davio’s owner Steve DiFillippo after the hearing, and he’s right. No shade here to either party: This is how it is in the city, and in many other cities besides.
It’s bad, and sad, and maddening for those who want Boston to keep its character, its sense of place. So rage, rage against the dying of the dive bar, the neighborhood joint, the bearer of history. Please, feel free. I’ll rage alongside you, somewhere we can still find a cheap beer and a burger.
But don’t rage indiscriminately. Rage precisely. There are painful aspects to every closing, in particular the loss of jobs. Each closing says something about the city and the ways in which it is changing. But change itself isn’t inherently bad, or inherently good. Sometimes it burns what we love to the ground. And sometimes it makes way for something new, and maybe something better.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.