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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Same as it ever was? A look at Boston dining by night

Crowded patios, plastic partitions, and a vibrant but downsized restaurant scene

The patio at Beehive in the South End.
The patio at Beehive in the South End.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It is a beautiful summer weekend in Boston. The storms that were expected have turned into perfect golden evenings instead. The city is thrumming. Selfies are back. Dinner with friends is back. Getting dressed up is back. In every dining neighborhood in the city, customers are out and about.

This doesn’t feel like a world in the midst of a pandemic. It looks, at first glance, like Boston on vacation. There’s buy-in, now, for closed streets, umbrella’d tables everywhere, bright orange barriers separating diners from traffic, humans taking priority over cars. We could have had these things all along, without the tragedy. (Now how about cocktails to go?)

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Look closer, of course, and reality reveals itself, in the masks many are wearing, the darkened window of a restaurant now closed, the servers hustling extra hard in PPE, the patio crowd that looks sparse from a distance but is actually at capacity, every table full. There’s only so much revelry a business can pack in at 6 feet apart. As Taranta chef Jose Duarte pointed out, after posting a photo of his patio Saturday: “It’s a relief but we are operating at 25% capacity bringing about 15% revenue of what we will normally do, our fixed expenses are still 100%. We are trying our best to save the restaurant but we need a Restaurant Stabilization Fund.”

So here we are, heading into Phase 3, bars closed for the foreseeable future, indoor dining back in the mix, even as some states close it back down or hold off altogether. What does Boston look like right now, viewed through its dining scene? Weirdly normal, totally different, and everything in between.

In the Fenway, on Boylston Street, the patio at Orfano is bustling, people seated at appropriate distances beneath festive red Campari umbrellas. Sweet Cheeks has a beachy little cocktail bar setup that feels closer to Jamaica than the Jamaicaway. Staff are carefully masked, but customers uncover their faces as soon as they sit. At one table a man yells loudly about the virus, his strong feelings airborne.

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People sit on the patio at Banyan Bar + Refuge in the South End.
People sit on the patio at Banyan Bar + Refuge in the South End. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The ballpark lots are devoid of cars. Lansdowne Street is in limbo, along with Fenway, until the first game July 24. Bar Louie is dark, closed in June. On Comm. Ave., the red awnings at Eastern Standard — once a beacon of hospitality — hang lank and lifeless. How many times did I sit in their embrace, safe from the elements, watching the world go by? Now the restaurant’s future looks dim. And then: the enticing, hopeful smell of curry. India Quality forever!

Outside Uni, the pressed and sundressed wait for seats in their masks. The tables in front of Eataly are mobbed. Capital Grille emits tantalizing, beefy aromas. But by the time I cross the marathon finish line, the sidewalk grows quiet.

The city feels exactly as small as it is without all the traffic, when you can traverse it in real time. Tiny kids emerge from the Common on bikes, headlights winking against the dusk like fireflies. In Chinatown, the streets narrow, the opportunities for outdoor dining fewer. The usually vibrant hangout scene by the gate is diminished but still present.

People walk past the exterior of Gourmet China House in Chinatown. The restaurant has erected clear plastic partitions between tables to protect employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19.
People walk past the exterior of Gourmet China House in Chinatown. The restaurant has erected clear plastic partitions between tables to protect employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

People are eating hot pot at Happy Lamb, takoyaki and frosty treats at Sakura Sunakku. But dining rooms are far from full, one table occupied at this place, another at that. People mill about outside Royaltea and TeaDo, the bubble tea scene displaced. At Spicy World and Gourmet China House, plastic partitions separate the tables. “We made them ourselves,” a Gourmet China House staffer tells me later by phone, with pride.

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I haven’t noticed the partitions in other neighborhoods, yet. That will change with the seasons. Will the crowds move inside with colder weather? Or will they return to eating at home? I hope the heat lamp factories are ramping up production. We’re going to need them.

Spicy World in Chinatown has erected clear plastic partitions between tables to protect employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19.
Spicy World in Chinatown has erected clear plastic partitions between tables to protect employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The fall is hard to contemplate, a series of giant question marks on the horizon. For now, it’s a lovely time of year to eat outside in New England, so that’s what everyone’s doing. The South End knows how to patio. The beautiful stretches of brick and foliage outside Banyan Bar + Refuge and the Beehive are more enticing, more of a blessing, than ever. The night air is nectar. Cathedral Station is busy, Elephant Walk is busy, Black Lamb is busy, B&G Oyster is busy, Kava Neo-Taverna is busy. Around the neighborhood, streets have been repurposed for further seating. Outside Boston Chops, a staffer waves to a group of departing women, spreading his arms like a graceful bird with a newly useful 6-foot wingspan. Farewell!

A man jogs past the patio at the Beehive as people enjoy their dinner in the South End.
A man jogs past the patio at the Beehive as people enjoy their dinner in the South End. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The Seaport is a scene: more people eating indoors, masks coordinated with outfits, the stylish set cocktailing at Committee, a whole entire Tuscan Kitchen pavilion. At long last, Americans seem to have adopted la passeggiata, the Italian custom of a nightly stroll in order to see and be seen. Walking is the new clubbing?

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In the North End, Hanover Street feels like business as usual, and then some. Dining rooms are busy; patios are packed. (I thought we were supposed to be 6 feet apart, not 6 inches.) Two men serenade a group of diners with violin and accordion, one with mask at half-mast, the other with no mask at all. He’s far from alone in this neighborhood with many naked faces, everyone smiling wide.

Over the river, there are orderly lines for gelato at Amorino in Harvard Square; people perch on the curb outside Christina's, a row of masks. The night is winding down, but Aleppo Palace is still slinging falafel long after everyone else has closed. Then, suddenly, there's a pop and a sizzle: The nightly fireworks show has begun.

This is Boston, summer 2020, a momentary layover while we wait to see what happens next. Right now, what’s certain is this: The city is hungry, and restaurants are fighting hard to stay open and feed it.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.