The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
NEW BEDFORD — It’s a windy fall afternoon, and Steve Silverstein turns to face the water with wonder.
The prolific restaurateur, whose family has done business in New Bedford for over a century, is standing at the entry of his most recent project, a summer play space on the city’s southern peninsula whose expansive patio is studded with picnic tables, Jenga blocks, and bars. Cisco Brewers Kitchen & Bar, a joint venture with the Nantucket brewery, opened in June, and has been essentially printing money ever since.
Even on this gray day, the restaurant is packed inside with guests munching on sushi, barbecue, and assorted seafood. Silverstein looks toward Butler Flats Lighthouse and lifts his arms toward the sea. “Where else in America can you buy three and a half acres on the waterfront for $1,550,000?” he asks.
Probably not many places besides New Bedford.
Technically, Silverstein bought the property for $1.6 million, but that’s chump change to a man who spent the last 20 years building a chain of Not Your Average Joe’s restaurants into a $100 million enterprise that stretches from Virginia to New Hampshire.
Silverstein retired three years ago but quickly realized he couldn’t sit idle. Since then, he’s invested more than $10 million into his hometown, opening four restaurants in an effort to help put this historic city back on the map. In addition to Cisco, he now owns The Black Whale at Pier 3, the seasonal clam shack The Whale’s Tail, and the craft cocktail bar Cultivator Shoals.
While restaurants in other Massachusetts cities have faltered during the pandemic, New Bedford’s have largely hung on, in part because its downtown has never been overly reliant on foot traffic from office workers or college students. And some in the food industry are taking advantage of the city’s lower rents — not to mention its proximity to super-fresh seafood — to open up shop.
“The restaurant industry nationally suffered considerably,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said. “But the reality in New Bedford is that we added restaurants during the pandemic.” The city has seven more restaurants than it did when the public health crisis started.
They include newcomers like Back Door Burgers & More, a casual lunch spot overlooking the harbor that serves comfort food staples and a selection of patties named after the city’s neighborhoods and parks. Another new entry, the Dough Company, offers coffees, sandwiches, and its signature “muffnuts” on the first floor of the Kilburn Mill, a massive former textile facility on the south side of the city that’s received an infusion of cool since new ownership took over four years ago. The space, which is home to 160 artist studios and small business tenants, now hosts weddings, and this summer it kicked off a rooftop music series. As a bonus, there are expansive views of Buzzards Bay and Clark’s Cove.
Lifelong New Bedford resident Peter Andrade, who has been managing the building for more than 30 years, said having the Dough Company in the complex is a huge plus. “It’s tremendous, it makes people want to stay on the property and explore it more,” he said. “I’ve always seen this property as a potential destination point within New Bedford and it seems to be coming to fruition.”
The idea that New Bedford is becoming a dining destination has been bolstered by the swelling summer population on the South Coast, not to mention the surging traffic for its ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cuttyhunk, Mitchell said. “It serves as a retail anchor bringing visitors here who will dine and shop.”
He’s hoping to expand that further by incorporating more public access points along the working waterfront to draw tourists. “It’s in the fishing industry’s interest for people to lay eyes on the waterfront and what they do,” he said. “Historically, there’s been a huge separation between the waterfront and the rest of the city. I’ve tried to knit the two together.”
Silverstein said he’s buoyed by the renewed interest in his hometown, and he has the receipts to prove it. He’s expecting to make $9 million at his Cisco spot by year’s end, and another $7 million at the Black Whale.
“I bring this up not to brag about the numbers, but as a point of validation,” he said. “People can say negative things about New Bedford, but we’re proving that New Bedford can generate as successful results as anyplace.”
Read more about New Bedford and explore the full On the Street series.