Kenmore Square usually feels most alive in springtime. It’s a place rooted in rituals: The annual return of Red Sox fans spilling over the Brookline Avenue bridge toward Fenway Park. A tightly packed crowd watching Marathon runners stream by. Students basking in the sun, and diners people-watching from the sidewalk patio of Eastern Standard.
But this April, the square feels dead. Baseball’s back, but with only a fraction of the fans. The Marathon has been put off until October. Scaffolding for various building projects has turned the sidewalks into an obstacle course. And Eastern Standard’s once-lively patio is dark, occupied by weedy planters and a jumbo-size rat trap.
The recently announced permanent closure of the landmark restaurant and its siblings in the lobby of the Hotel Commonwealth — Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne — feels to many like the end of an era for Kenmore Square, 15 years in which the student-oriented neighborhood finally grew up, and played host to a new generation of Bostonians who made it their own over brunch or before a Sox game. The demise of the three restaurants, caused by an acrimonious breakup between owner Garrett Harker and his landlord, in some ways reflects how far Kenmore has come, and where it might go next.
People of a certain age might remember a Kenmore Square where fights were more likely to take place on the street than in a lawyer’s office. In the 1970s and ‘80s, punk and new wave music filled The Rat, while disco ruled at Narcissus. Guinness floats were hoisted at Deli Haus, and booze-soaked patrons teetered toward IHOP after last call.
“It was more of a music-and-nightlife neighborhood back then,” said Pam Beale, who along with her husband has owned Cornwall’s Pub in Kenmore since the 1970s. “It was edgy, a little offbeat. The kind of place that came alive between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.”
It wasn’t always pretty. Cheap booze and food sold briskly, but the retail vacancy rate was high.
“It’s safe to say it wasn’t the glistening jewel of Boston,” said Patrick Lyons, the local hospitality scion who at the time was opening clubs in the derelict warehouses surrounding Fenway Park.
By the mid-’90s — around the time the T station flooded and had to close for two months — Boston University had begun buying up buildings as part of its vision for what would become the Hotel Commonwealth. Longtime developer Frank Keefe helped lead that project for the university, and remembers bringing investors to look at the south side of Commonwealth Avenue, then home to a Supersocks store and a methadone clinic.
“This cab pulled up. Three guys stumbled out to go to the clinic,” he remembered. “My banker friends came up with lots of excuses to get out of there.”
The Rat ― its glory days long gone ― closed in late 1997, and was razed in 2000 to clear space for the 148-room hotel, which began welcoming guests in 2003. Two years later, Eastern Standard opened its doors, and a transformation had begun. Diners, discount stores, and dive bars were replaced with a more refined — but still welcoming — vibe.
“Our image for Eastern Standard was a place where mothers pushing a baby carriage, students, doctors, concert pianists, they’d all feel comfortable,” Keefe said.
Harker, a former partner of chef Barbara Lynch who was brought in by BU to run the restaurant, said he loved that vision for the square, and wanted to help make it a reality.
“They had a mission that was much more than a commercial enterprise,” he said. “It was agenda-driven, it was civic improvement, and it had a nobility to it.”
Early on, the Boston Globe’s restaurant critic dinged Eastern Standard for trying to be “all things to all diners.” But Harker says he wore that slight as a badge of honor, a challenge to be “so present, so flexible, so aware,” that anyone would feel welcome, he recalled recently in his first interview since the restaurant shuttered.
“It was also a business reality,” he said. “If a 200-seat restaurant in Kenmore Square was going to survive, we had to be as versatile as we could be.”
Eastern Standard did more than survive. It thrived, and that success led to new partners who helped open Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne next door. Together, they cemented the square as a dining destination some even dubbed “Harkertown” — after the impresario, who became known for his ability to remember a customer’s anniversary or cocktail of choice. Between hotel visitors, diners, and the omnipresent college population, Kenmore Square found new life: a neighborhood with less character, some complained, but one better positioned for the future.
The undoing of Eastern Standard and its two related restaurants was seeded in 2012, when BU sold the Hotel Commonwealth and cut a deal with Harker that called for him to pay above-market-rate rent for the space for several years, in order to eventually buy out the school’s interest in the restaurant. The agreement, Harker says, was that the rent would drop from that inflated rate at the end of the lease in 2022. Then in 2014, the hotel’s new owners sold the ground-floor space, leased by Eastern Standard, Island Creek, and The Hawthorne, to another firm, Boston-based retail landlord UrbanMeritage.
Harker and UrbanMeritage several years ago started to negotiate an extension. They never reached a deal.
Harker thought the $90 a square foot he had been paying should be closer to $60. UrbanMeritage principal Michael Jammen, seeing large-scale development and swanky restaurants circling Kenmore Square, believed the area was on the cusp of a boom, and pushed for more.
“We were willing to tear up that lease and do a brand-new 10-year lease that would have saved him millions of dollars,” Jammen said, noting that UrbanMeritage would have taken less than the $90 Harker was paying in his old deal. “He wasn’t willing to do that.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jammen — convinced that Eastern Standard wouldn’t renew and believing Harker’s restaurant group was likely to split up, as it since has — was showing the space to other tenants. Then came last spring’s forced shutdown. Harker was unwilling to reopen without a long-term lease in hand, and he disputes Jammen’s version of what was proposed. In interviews last year, Harker made it clear he had presented multiple offers to UrbanMeritage that received no response, saying UrbanMeritage offered a single take-it-or-leave-it proposal.
Ultimately, both sides say they are limited in what they can say by confidentiality agreements. But colleagues of Harker with knowledge of the situation say there’s also a non-compete clause, written in the early days of the deal with BU, which will keep him from opening another Eastern Standard within two miles for at least two years. That means the neighborhood Harker did so much to transform will go on without him, at least for a while.
“Oftentimes when a restaurant’s a success they can be penalized for it,” said Lyons, whose venues include Sonsie, the Bleacher Bar, and Game On in Fenway. “If you create a heartbeat in a neighborhood and it’s desirable and people want to go there, then developers develop.”
It’s a pattern that has played out all over Boston in recent years. Neighborhoods evolve, and the people and places that helped to establish them get pushed out. Jackson Cannon, a business partner of Harker’s at The Hawthorne, said the wave of development raises hard questions about what sort of city Boston is becoming, especially in the wake of a pandemic that has devastated so much.
“In a world where we want the kind of development that that kind of capitalism can bring, how do we hold UrbanMeritage responsible for losing the city something truly special?” Cannon said.
Jammen said UrbanMeritage has a deal lined up with an operator who will take all three vacant restaurant spaces. He hopes to make the news public in a month or two and expects all three spots should be open by Red Sox opening day next year.
“We are very excited,” he said. “We’re shocked at how much interest we had. It’s very reassuring about the future of Kenmore.”
Development giant Related Beal will play a key role in that future. It’s re-doing a long block of buildings beneath the Citgo sign, properties it acquired from Boston University in 2016. When it’s done, the project will include nearly 250,000 square feet of office and lab space — enough for hundreds of well-paid workers — along with a line of storefronts along Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Streets and wider sidewalks.
The Hotel Buckminster is also getting an overhaul; construction crews are in the process of gutting the interior. Representatives of the hotel’s owners did not return messages seeking comment, but two people familiar with their plan said they’ll soon seek city approval to add a penthouse floor to the 124-year-old building, and will upgrade its rooms and restaurants.
Nearby, work is set to start soon on the long-planned Fenway Center project, which will put a $1 billion office-and-lab tower on a deck over the Massachusetts Turnpike, turning the loud, windblown bridge where Brookline Avenue crosses the highway into a new street lined with storefronts. On the other side of the Buckminster, developer Robert Korff has city approvals to build a flatiron-shaped high-rise hotel where a squat Citizens Bank now sits, and is planning a nearly-one-acre plaza where Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street meet that he hopes will make the western edge of the square more friendly to pedestrians.
“That will be a very important new public space,” said Korff, who is trying to secure financing after a deal with a “major hotel brand” fell through amid the pandemic. “It’s going to change the character of the square in so many different ways. It’s going to knit it all together.”
There are plans for more green space, too: a new design for the Kenmore end of the Commonwealth Avenue mall, and a proposal to link the Esplanade and the Emerald Necklace. Several smaller residential projects also are in the works.
When everything’s finished in a few years, Jammen said, he expects a busier Kenmore Square, with more daytime foot traffic from new office buildings. Maybe more residents, too. The nocturnal neighborhood that Beale remembers, which Harker turned into a lively evening hangout, will bustle 18 hours a day, Jammen predicts, maybe more.
“I have trouble coming up with a scenario where Kenmore Square in two or three years isn’t better than it was before,” he said.
As for Harker, he is keeping busy with his other restaurant, Branch Line, in Watertown, and his pretzel company, Eastern Standard Provisions, where sales have surged during the pandemic to more than $17 million. Harker appreciates the many condolences he received over the Kenmore restaurants’ closing, an outpouring he called “heartbreaking.”
“It was gratifying at its core that you feel like your life’s work would get recognition like that,” he said.
Beale, who considers Harker a good friend, has made sure the restaurateur meets with each of the new developers coming in, on the chance they might work out something timed to the end of his noncompete. The bar owner has lived through several incarnations of Kenmore Square, and she’s hopeful that Harker could still play a role in the next one.
“He was such a good fit for the square,” said Beale. “You hate to see the end of something that was fun. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have fun going forward.”