Nir Caspi, 42, grew up in Israel. After five years in the Israeli army, he transformed Café Landwer from a relatively small coffee business into a restaurant with dozens of branches around the world. He runs two restaurants in Boston (the first one opened in 2018) and lives in Newton with his wife and four sons.
“It was my wife’s decision to move here. For my wife, education and community is the most important thing, and the Israeli-Jewish community in Boston is one of the best in the United States,” he says.
He hopes to introduce Bostonians to authentic hummus (“it’s all about the tahini,” he says) and provide a casual yet sophisticated gathering spot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Just don’t ask him to eat gefilte fish.
What’s the first restaurant you remember eating at in Boston?
Staying at the Hotel Commonwealth to get breakfast for the kids at Eastern Standard in June 2016, when we first moved here. We had an Airbnb, but we landed at 5 a.m., and we needed a hotel with the kids to have a few hours of sleep. I grabbed something and brought it to the room!
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Coming from Israel, vegetables and fruits are very fresh. You take it from the tree, and you serve it a day after that. Here, it’s a bit tough when you get most vegetables from California, and fruits. You can feel it in the taste. I’d like to fix this.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you started working in Boston?
Now it’s about the whole experience: the music, the hospitality package that you’re getting walking into a place. It’s something that I feel in my stomach. Sometimes I can’t even say what it is. It feels right. The layout, the music, the acoustics, the smiling of the people. I think that Boston is doing great on this one. The experience of the new restaurants is improving all the time.
What restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
Either Ostra or Mystique. Those are the two high-end restaurants I like. If going with kids, Legal Sea Foods. I have four boys!
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think that you might work in restaurants someday?
Definitely schnitzel. It’s a food every Israeli kid’s grandma or mom is making. It’s so tasty when you make it at home. It’s homey. I remember schnitzel and pasta was the thing. That’s my childhood memory. It’s chicken breast with bread crumbs, and you put it in the fryer for a short time. It originates from Vienna, Austria, but this is what Landwer is — it’s an Israeli melting pot from all around the world. The Jewish people came from all around the world, and each one brought their own food. Some people came from Morocco like my parents, or from Lebanon, or Syria. Israel became kind of a hub or a melting-pot area for this food. That’s what we present.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
That’s a tough question! It’s probably something with hospitality. We ate at the Chestnut Hill Mall. I won’t say the restaurant name, but the overall experience was awful. We came with our kids; the greeting was bad, the food was bad, and the hospitality. Everything we asked, they said no. They weren’t nice. I related more to the hospitality aspect rather than the food. Food is usually OK; sometimes it’s amazing. Usually it’s OK. The hospitality experience can be very tough and bad.
How could the Boston food scene improve?
More Mediterranean restaurants are coming in. There’s Bonapita, which I really like. I think it’s kind of stepping up; it’s good for us, because we like competition. We like people challenging us to be better. I think, in this aspect, Boston is making progress. I can compare it to Toronto. We have three stores in Toronto as well, and it’s less competitive.
Describe your customers in three words.
I am coming from a different culture. In Israel, if someone wants something, they wave their hands and yell. Here, people just want eye contact! So: nice people, polite, and they’re not open-minded. It’s tough to open their minds, and it takes some time to open them to different flavors. I’ll compare it to Toronto. From day one, everyone came and tried us. Here in Boston, people like pizza, pasta, burgers. They are opening themselves to a different palate, but it takes more time.
What’s the most overdone food or drink trend right now?
Light roasting coffee is overdone. I think coffee should be dark-roasted, like we have in Europe and Israel. The third-wave coffee movement.
What are you reading?
I’m reading two books: One is an autobiography of an Israeli politician, Bogie Ya’alon. And I’m reading “Good to Great” for the third time. It’s an amazing book.
What’s one food you never want to eat again?
Gefilte fish! My wife likes it.
How’s your commute?
It’s 15 minutes. I live in Newton.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing?
Wow. I think casual dining is something that Boston is missing; that’s what I think Landwer is trying to cover, this void. If you don’t want to go to a high-end restaurant or a coffee shop, you need something in between, where you can go in the morning in flip-flops and shorts or dress up nicely in the evening and have a great dinner for a reasonable price. Those restaurants I couldn’t find in the United States, not only in Boston. You have old diners, but I don’t feel like they give the right experience, the healthy food. I think they’re a bit behind.
What Boston restaurant do you miss the most?
This is the easiest question: Oishii on Hammond Street [in Chestnut Hill]. I used to eat there twice a week. It’s a neighborhood place. It’s the biggest loss in Boston for us!
Who has been your most memorable customer?
In 2004, when we first opened, the first week, I remember one guest who waited an hour for food. I remember her yelling at me. I remember I was trying to stay calm and explain. And it’s an example I give my staff: Sometimes we’re doing something wrong and the guest — we call them guests, not customers — when a guest is getting upset, stay calm and nice. Don’t get into your corner and get upset with him.
If you were to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
I’d go to Ostra and order lobster!