How do we make things feel special in times of duress? How do we make things feel normal-ish, normal-adjacent, in a world that came to look so different so fast?
It was our anniversary, and we wanted to celebrate.
Right now every restaurant is an occasion restaurant, simply because it exists. Right now every meal we don't cook ourselves feels like a celebration. But we wanted to go somewhere we might have gone in the Before Times, and we wanted it to feel normal-ish, normal-adjacent.
I thought of Chickadee. When the restaurant opened in 2018, it hit the ground running, as polished and hospitable in its first week of business as if it had been there, planted in the far reaches of the Seaport, for years. The food was great and the service was lovely. I took my mom for her birthday once. She loved it; I knew she would.
The owners, chef John daSilva and beverage director Ted Kilpatrick, came out of some of the city’s best restaurants (they met working at No. 9 Park, where chef de cuisine Stef Bui also spent time) and brought their collective experience to the venture. It’s the rare place that feels both like the grownups are in the room, and everyone is still having fun. Whatever the Chickadee experience might look like now, I trusted it would be polished and hospitable, 2020-style.
That, it turns out, is an ever-moving target. Chickadee reopened with a strong takeout program: lunch, dinner, a pantry stocked with fresh pasta and sauces, baked goods and dairy products, and useful things like flour and yeast. Then the restaurant partnered with Social Wines in South Boston to create and sell cocktail kits for DIY home bartending. When outdoor dining got the go-ahead, the Chickadee team applied for and was granted an extension of its space at the Innovation and Design Building. The patio is now so sizable they are able to position tables 10 feet apart rather than the required 6. “We want people to come and say, ‘I really felt safe there. I really felt they care about safety. We’ll be back and we’ll recommend it to others,’” Kilpatrick says.
Now they’ve turned one of the adjacent shipping-container restaurants into an outdoor cocktail bar called Mayday!, serving frozé, margaritas, Miami Vices (strawberry daiquiri and pina colada — layered), and other frosty drinks. It’s open Thursday through Saturday, from 4-9 p.m. Call ahead for reservations; if you’re hungry, you can get food from Chickadee while you’re there.
But we wanted something simpler, to have a picnic by the water. Not just any picnic: an occasion picnic. Is this a thing now? We were going to make it one. We wanted pita and mezze. We wanted seasonal vegetables prepared with the kind of energy and creativity we can rarely muster for our CSA share. We wanted Chickadee’s house-made pasta. When I went to place our order, I discovered one of my favorite dishes from the opening menu had returned. I still think about that porchetta, served with watermelon, chiles, mint, and peanuts. It was spicy, bright, and savory, and it probably still is. I can’t believe I didn’t order it, but I was distracted. Distracted by fried chicken.
Now, everything at Chickadee is very good. There are those mezze — dips and spreads like black bean hummus, tzatziki, and baba ganoush. I can’t resist the pimento feta, tangy cheese stained orange with harissa spice. The menu changes all the time, and you might find snacks such as chickpea fries with Calabrian chile aioli or smoked bluefish dip with salt-and-vinegar rye chips.
Vegetables get turned into tempting little plates: grilled carrots with avocado hummus, marinated beets with whipped goat cheese. A salad of arugula from Verrill Farm in Concord was height-of-summer perfect, the peppery greens served with juicy peaches and burrata. More of the season's vegetables were whirred into a silky gazpacho swirled with mint-almond pesto.
And, as ever, pasta is a star of the menu. Compositions like snail-shaped emmer-wheat lumache with lamb sugo and fava beans, or squid ink fusilli with soppressata and tomato, are available in half-size or full portions. Radiatore are infused with the smoky flavor of charred scraps worked into the dough, served with barbecue pork sugo, fermented peppers, basil, and ricotta salata. It’s a dark and deep counterpoint to crisped semolina gnocchi with sweet corn fonduta and chorizo, sprinkled with feta and thin-sliced chiles.
But the fried chicken completely steals the show. It’s a feast. We order the half-chicken, four perfectly crispy, perfectly juicy pieces. It’s truly excellent on its own merits. But it also comes with two cheddar biscuits, plus honey butter to slather them in. Also a tub of wonderfully rich brown-butter hummus. And then some rice pilaf with cauliflower florets, cashews, dried currants, and plenty of snipped fresh herbs. It’s a lot of very delicious food for $34. The whole chicken, Kilpatrick tells me, feeds a crowd.
We take our food to a nearby plaza that juts into the water. It’s laid out with a few picnic tables, flanked by red metal fencing and a stand of leafy trees. To one side, there’s a man fishing. To another, there’s a cement factory, its towering silos emitting what might kindly be called white noise. I like this industrial waterside stretch, the channels and docks, the view of a seaport that is both scenic and useful, a place where beauty and hard work exist side by side. And there’s the anniversary romance you were waiting for, because what is marriage, after all? We pop open the bottle of pink bubbles we got along with our food, pour it into the plastic lidded cups that Chickadee had on hand. Next time maybe we’ll bring glassware, but it’s also fun to drink the pink fizz through a straw. It matches the rose tint that’s starting to seep into the sky.
We’ll come back soon. I’d like to visit Mayday!, and not just because of the Miami Vices. The nautical name is a nod toward the restaurant’s dockside setting, but it’s also a legitimate distress signal. Restaurants are fighting for their survival. Without significant government assistance, many of them won’t make it, no matter how many smart ideas those involved have, no matter how many times and ways they overhaul their operations.
"As creatives, we're fueled by pivoting and coming up with new ideas," Kilpatrick says. "Mayday! has been fun, and as another trickle of revenue it's important as we fight toward break even. This is the most balls we've ever had in the air to achieve the lofty goal of break even." Chickadee is fortunate to have an understanding landlord and a covered patio that can carry it into less-glorious weather, but the question of sustainability remains. "Thirty seats on the patio plus whatever Mayday! brings in ends up being half of a decent night" from before the pandemic, Kilpatrick says.
He and daSilva have been asking themselves some of the same questions I was when contemplating celebration: How do we make things feel special in times of duress? How do we make things feel normal-ish, normal-adjacent, in a world that came to look so different so fast?
“We don’t want to act like a restaurant that’s not Chickadee,” Kilpatrick says. “We don’t want to pare things back to the point where we’re not even ourselves anymore. That’s the kiss of death.”
21 Drydock Ave., Seaport, Boston, 617-531-5591, www.chickadeerestaurant.com. Chickadee: Dinner Tue-Thu 5-8 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-9 p.m. Lunch Tue-Sat noon-2 p.m. Mayday!: Thu-Sat 4-9 p.m.. Call 617-531-5592 for reservations; walk-ins possible if there’s room.