After a lengthy landlord-tenant dispute that ended with the closing of three high-profile restaurants in the Commonwealth Hotel, the real estate group UrbanMeritage announced it has new tenants for the venues formerly occupied by Kenmore Square stalwarts Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and the Hawthorne. New York-based Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group will bring in brasserie, seafood, and sushi concepts in the coming months.
The national group, helmed by brothers Eric and Bruce Bromberg, launched Blue Ribbon Brasserie in the SoHo section of New York City in 1992. It now operates 20 restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Miami, and Los Angeles. This will be the Blue Ribbon’s first Boston location. (The group is not related to the local chain Blue Ribbon BBQ.)
The announcement comes after a four-year battle between UrbanMeritage and restaurateur Garrett Harker and his business partners over renegotiating their lease, which had been set to expire in 2022.
Harker had contended that the terms in his original lease, with Boston University, had him paying $120 a square foot — well above market rate at the time — and included a “kicker” fee in order to buy the university out of its ownership stake in the restaurant. According to Harker, the terms stated that at the end of the lease, he could negotiate market-rate rent. The negotiations were stymied by the pandemic, forcing UrbanMeritage to accelerate the process of finding a new tenant.
Michael Jammen, principal at UrbanMeritage, contends that in the 15 years since Harker opened Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square — helping to usher in the maturation of a once-gritty neighborhood — the above-market-rate rent he was paying then ended up on par with rents today. The square is seeing a surge in development as new buildings crop up on seemingly every corner.
“We said, here’s a new deal, and we think it will save you $3 million over the next 10 years from where you were before, and we’ll give you significant money to stay,” Jammen said. “And we went through that process for four years and got nowhere.”
Harker declined to comment for this story.
Jammen said he began seeking new tenants in December 2019, ultimately bringing on local restaurant consultant Phil Colicchio, of Cushman & Wakefield’s Specialty Food & Beverage Group, to help advise on the project. In total, 18 groups submitted proposals for the 18,000 square feet of space, which encompasses the two restaurants and the lounge the Hawthorne once occupied.
Because the operators of the restaurants also provide food and beverage service to the Commonwealth Hotel, Blue Ribbon quickly became one of the top contenders, Jammen said, because it has operations at hotels across the country. “The thing we found comforting about Blue Ribbon was, one, they’ve entered new markets before and were successful, and, two, they have an incredible amount of employees who have been there from the beginning.”
Jammen said he took proposals from several local restaurant owners, including Harker and his team, but stressed that he wanted to find operators who would provide a neighborhood- restaurant feel, regardless of where they were from.
“We had the celebrity-chef options, but we didn’t feel that was the right fit for this. We were cautious about what the concepts were going to be and what the price points were going to be,” Jammen said. “A lot of it is matching the concepts and the right operators to what the neighborhood looks for.”
Jammen said that after flying across the country to try several Blue Ribbon restaurants during the pandemic, he welcomed the Brombergs to Boston, where they explored Kenmore Square and met chef Barbara Lynch her Butcher Shop restaurant in the South End. (Lynch and Harker were once business partners; after a falling out, Harker went on to open Eastern Standard.)
“They hit it off with Barbara; she knew of their reputation right away,” Jammen said. “Everyone was really excited about them coming to Boston.”
“The entire focus and guiding principle of Blue Ribbon is to build lasting and enduring relationships and restaurants,” chef Bruce Bromberg said in a statement released by UrbanMeritage.
“When we were asked to put our hats in the ring for the opportunity to be part of such an iconic project, there was never a doubt in our minds that we were going to be doing just that . . . We couldn’t be any more excited to bring our love for hospitality and cuisine to Kenmore Row.”
Lynch, a chef and owner of the Barbara Lynch Collective, is not associated with the deal, but offered her support for Blue Ribbon in a statement released by UrbanMeritage:
“The Brombergs are great people, their Blue Ribbon Restaurants are the places chefs and industry folks go to eat and hang out. I’m personally thrilled that they will open in the heart of Kenmore Square bringing a new dynamic destination for fabulous food, drinks and character during the day and well into the night.”
Jammen said he anticipates the sushi restaurant will open this fall in the former Hawthorne space, with the seafood restaurant opening in late winter or early spring in the Island Creek space, and the brasserie opening soon after in the Eastern Standard space. He expects to have all three restaurants up and running by Red Sox opening day next year.
To slot very similar concepts into the iconic restaurant spaces is essentially “plug and play,” said Christopher Muller, who recently retired as a professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality. Blue Ribbon’s brasserie menu is nearly identical to that of Eastern Standard, he said, but whether the service will match the hospitality that had come to be associated with Harker and his team will be the question.
“It is going to be an easy adaptation for the customer base,” Muller said, “other than the loyalty that someone may have had to Garrett and Harkertown itself.”