fb-pixel Skip to main content

Downtown Boston wasn’t always green space and Sweetgreens. It was a warren of smoky bars interspersed with grand dining rooms like Locke-Ober and Marliave. A few blocks away, the Combat Zone was still legitimately seedy. Assembly-line salads, juice bars, and quick-service burritos were mere dreams conceived by people probably not even born yet.

As restaurants suffer throughout the city, and especially in a hauntingly vacant downtown, Milk Street Café is a holdover from that grittier era. Owner Marc Epstein, 63, marks its 40th anniversary this year alongside wife Beth and son-in-law and successor Mitchell Baratz. But it’s not a true celebration: The milestone happens against a backdrop of restaurant closures, dwindling loan money, and layoffs. The caterer and café endured several temporary closures throughout the pandemic before officially relaunching in mid-August amid persisting uncertainty.

Advertisement



“We think, unfortunately, that the majority of the mix is trending in the wrong direction for us with the Delta variant,” Baratz says. “But we’ve made the decision that it’s time to reopen and give it everything we’ve got. … Our belief is that if we cut back on 10 percent of our operations, we’ll lose 50 percent of our customers. We’re opening up at 100 percent, and we’re going to keep it going as long as we possibly can.”

It’s that enterprising spirit that buoyed Epstein in the first place. The grandson of a butcher, he comes from a hospitable family who loved to feed the neighbors.

“Growing up in Worcester, our home was very open. My friends used to come over on Friday nights. I thought they came over because they knew I didn’t drive on the Sabbath until I realized they came because my mother made the best pastries,” he says.

The harvest salad at Milk Street Cafe.
The harvest salad at Milk Street Cafe. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The storefront launched in November 1981 during the last gasps of the “Mad Men” era, when executives still enjoyed three-martini lunches. Milk Street was unique for the time: a kosher, vegetarian restaurant in a meat-and-potatoes world. This was a period when, according to Epstein, “The most popular book was ‘Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.’”

Advertisement



Sure enough, competitors began offering vegetarian entrees alongside protein as the decade hurtled toward health-consciousness. To stay in the game, the Epsteins added beef and chicken to a new corporate catering menu in 1989.

“Corporate catering really only came into vogue in Boston in the 1990s. That’s when people moved from wrapped deli sandwiches to a really nice, serious meal in a conference room,” Epstein recalls. “You didn’t want people unwrapping sandwiches in front of you with grease on it and stuff. You want it to be a beautiful display of food.”

Breakfast pastries at Milk Street Café.
Breakfast pastries at Milk Street Café. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In Epstein’s telling, this dovetailed with the beautification of downtown, ushered in by Post Office Square Park in the early 1990s.

“When Post Office Square was built, it was as if the buildings surrounding it — which had their rear ends toward the seediest, ugliest, smelliest public garage you saw in your life; you could smell it from across the street — decided to turn around. It was such a beautiful park, and every building around it became so much more beautiful. You know where Charles Schwab is on Federal Street? It used to be lousy-looking. Every [building] cleaned themselves up,” he remembers.

Despite changing times (and aromas), Milk Street stayed true to its kosher roots.

Advertisement



“We’re kosher because I’m personally kosher. There’s no economic value to it,” says Epstein.

While some customers have appreciated that aspect, other tastes have changed.

The rainbow roll at Milk Street Café.
The rainbow roll at Milk Street Café. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Matcha tea. Breakfast bowls. Trends come and go, but what we’ve seen is that actually offering choice and variety is really more important than anything else,” Baratz says. (As a rule, younger people tend to order bowls and older folks go for full-sized sandwiches. The menu ranges from wraps to soups to sushi to hot breakfasts and entrees.)

In Epstein’s mind, “kosher” is a way of doing business as much as a dietary choice. The café donates unused food to the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Pine Street Inn, and a kosher shelter run by Maimonides School in Brookline.

It also means “to be modest — not to sing from your rooftops. . . . It’s also how we treat our employees. We are trying very, very hard to take care of our staff. And that’s more than a full-time job,” Epstein says.

This hasn’t been easy: Milk Street briefly shuttered in March 2020 when catering orders dried up. At first, it seemed like a blip.

The daily special: Beef Kofta with Tabouleh at Milk Street Café.
The daily special: Beef Kofta with Tabouleh at Milk Street Café. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“We had a meeting in our conference room saying, ‘Monday, April 20, we’ll be back up and running. We’ll get through this. It’ll be OK,’ ” says Baratz. Instead, Milk Street went dark until August and briefly reopened last fall thanks to PPP loans. But the money ran out by the end of October.

“We kind of knew right away that we would have to close back down and really wait for people to come back to the office. Mark, Beth, and myself — every single person — went on unemployment. There was nobody left on the payroll,” Baratz says.

Advertisement



He was forced to lay off 75 people. But like many, the family expected that a successful vaccine rollout would end the pandemic. They planned to reopen in January, then March, then April. Finally they settled on August, expecting a big return to offices by Labor Day.

Baratz says he’s heard from many customers who do in fact plan to return come fall, and he’s receiving catering orders again, notably from MIT. But other customers are pulling back, delaying their contracts until winter. Meanwhile, Milk Street will run out of loan money by mid-October, Epstein says.

The watermelon gazpacho soup at Milk Street Café.
The watermelon gazpacho soup at Milk Street Café. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Just the same, 50 percent of Milk Street’s staff is back to work, and he hopes that everyone can return soon.

“Even if they had other jobs, I would say about 90 percent of [our staff] have returned, which is, I think, more of a testament to the fact that they enjoy working here and they want to be here. But our goal has always been literally from that Friday, March 13, to get our business back to the point where we can rehire everybody,” Baratz says.

The family hopes that catering lures people into the office, at least part-time, as an ongoing company perk — a reward for commuting, even if it’s no longer the norm. And they aim to hang on long enough to see it.

Advertisement



“At the end of the day, Boston will absolutely come back. I have no doubt about it. We hope Milk Street is a part of that,” Epstein says.

The pulled beef sandwich at Milk Street Café.
The pulled beef sandwich at Milk Street Café. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.