Dynamic impresario Nia Grace, 40, will open Grace by Nia in the Seaport this week with Big Night Entertainment — part regal Southern supper club, part speakeasy lounge, part performance venue. In a neighborhood not lacking for chains, this is a homegrown effort: Grace is from Roxbury, and one of her first jobs was at Spirit of Boston, not far away. Grace also runs Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen on the edge of Roxbury and the South End, and The Underground Café, a few blocks away.
What can we expect from the new venue?
You can expect to be totally surprised. We have a couple of photos that are out there, but they actually don’t even do the space justice. Once you arrive and see our canopy that reminds you of the old Cotton Club or theater shows, you’ll come behind our padded leather door and literally, hopefully, your breath will be taken away.
We’ve got 30-foot ceilings that have columns adorned with golden palm leaves, and that reminds me a little bit of Copacabana. You’ll see on our wall some really great, interesting wallpaper, which has blue and teal hues. It actually looks like it’s in motion. That’s kind of the energy that you’ll see, especially when you start to hear the music.
We’ve got multiple spaces: one where we’ve got our immediate stage dining area. When you walk in, you have the gallery, which will soon be adorned by art curated by Rob Gibbs — ProBlak is his pen name — for Artists for Humanity. Then you’ll come around the corner to our bar, which seats 22 guests and has an elevated bar dining area as well as oversized booths, perfect for parties. The food’s awesome. You’re going to smell it coming in.
Tell me about the food.
The food is definitely rooted in comfort value. I wanted to take some of my previous experiences and flavors that I love but do it just a little bit different.
We’ve got some classics. Our jambalaya is done differently than the way we did it at Darryl’s, which was more tomato-based, Creole-style. I was able to get a little funky, a little spicier here, with the Cajun style of jambalaya. I wanted to play with chicken and waffles, and I really love a good carrot cake done well, and so we’ve got some chicken-and-waffle carrot cake. That’s super exciting. We’ve got this great fried green tomato dish with mozzarella. It’s layered, and it’s got this pickled red onion and a basil oil with balsamic glaze. It gives you caprese, but it also gives you mozzarella sticks that are kind of deconstructed. It’s fun.
Why the Seaport? This is a neighborhood people have strong feelings about.
For me, this is actually a full-circle moment. One of my first jobs in the restaurant industry was at Spirit of Boston, and that was 20 years ago. When I was here 20 years ago, even the building that I’m in right now was a parking lot. And there was another parking lot, and another parking lot. … I did see a void in this kind of restaurant dining experience. And so for me, if you’re going to have a new concept, an experiential dining concept, there are some areas that you might desire, but I’ve always wanted to come back down to the Seaport. Much like Darryl’s, this is really a destination.
What’s your take on our nightlife scene?
I just think you needed some more layers and some more depth to it. We’ve got some great nightclubs. But I think there might have been that absence of this middle ground of restaurant meets club. You’ve got great nightclubs, and you might have restaurants that have great late-night menus, right? But now you’ve got this thing in the middle, where it’s like: OK, I can get a little bit of live music that can go late; I can have a DJ, and I even have a late-night kitchen. … . And so I can come in and get some dessert or a small bite. I remember Finale, and I want people to think of this space, like, ‘Hmm. I’m going to come here for my finale!’ Yeah you will! And we’ll give you some cocktails and a great musical environment.
Take me back to the beginning. What led you to get involved in the restaurant business?
One of my first jobs was as a counter girl at Purple Cactus, making smoothies and cashiering. I was shocked because I’m actually pretty shy. I’m really kind of timid sometimes. I was actually shocked at how out-of-body the experience was, that I could just be so personable and really enjoy people in that way. And I was like, ‘Oh, I like this. This is really kind of innately against who I think I am. But I guess this is really might be who I am!’
Years later, I walked into Darryl’s, and I fell in love with that concept. And I said, ‘I really love to cook and host people.’ When I was doing concerts and comedy shows, I never actually realized that there was a concept that would allow me to do both at the same time and do it in a high-level way until I was introduced there. That was the bug, I think.
You were studying criminal law before, right? Am I making this up?
That was me. Look at you! So I studied criminology, minored in African American Studies. I just knew I was going to go to law school. I had a plan. I was going to come back home and maybe work in the juvenile court system. I really wanted to represent some folks where I understood what their story was and how they needed better representation.
But when I was in school, I got this bug doing entertainment production. I was working on my campus restaurant producing shows there and promo events. ‘How do I do this? I’m three years into school already. I can’t change my major; I guess I’ll figure it out.’ When I graduated, it was either law school or I was going to try something really different. I went to New York. I was a talent agent for a couple of years; I represented all the HBO Def Poets.
But New York is tough. We all know that. I was working three jobs to live there and survive. Initially, my thing was to bring talent back to my city. So I came home and met with one of the executive vice presidents of the Pine Street Inn, and she gave me a mock interview for a development position. She was like, ‘This is what you need to do. You’re going to be able to continue to nurture your creative bug. But you want to be able to give back, and you want to be able to do these events. So go into development. You’ll be able to find a space that allows you to kind of [use] all those skills.’
I got a job with Volunteers of America, and we operated 10 human service programs throughout the state. It was located in my area, and I actually used to volunteer at one of their girls’ programs. I was able to raise money and awareness about [their] importance, and it just felt great. I did that for five years. From there, still in the spirit of creativity, I went to Boston Neighborhood Network, and I served as their director of marketing and community outreach.
It was probably through that job that I got as close as I did to Darryl’s. I was able to respond to some of their media requests for coverage and start to take meetings there. I just kept falling in love with it. And so when I left Boston Neighborhood Network … I wanted to take this corporate experience and really help small businesses that didn’t have the time or even know where to start with a strategy to help build their businesses, and Darryl’s was one of them. I looked at their social media presence at that time, and I was like: ‘We can do some more marketing here.’ From that, it became a job. And from that job, it became ownership.
When you were growing up, were there venues you loved that foreshadowed the types of spaces that you’d go on to create?
When I was growing up, my mother would love to take me to theater shows and concerts. We would often go to the Strand for plays; we would go to the symphony. I remember seeing one of my first gospel concerts at Symphony Hall. That, to me was like, ‘This is it!’ If I could have just been eating while watching these experiences, I would have been a happier person.
When I was in college, I went to a place called Jazid. I was finally 21, in Miami, and I’m going to my sophisticated location! It was a small place, multiple levels, but it just felt good. It felt warm, and I couldn’t escape the energy. It’s great to have music piping through your speakers, but it’s just something special when you’re watching it happen to you live.
How do you think our food and nightlife scene has changed and evolved?
I think that specifically with the food scene, people have, in the New England area particularly, decided to just go for it. And that means go for anything. We’re going to fusion this, we’re going to flip this, we’re just not giving you traditional New England fare anymore.
Right now, I think this is a very exciting time for our industry. … We want exciting dining. And I think, a long time ago, it might have been that one Sunday dinner or that one holiday. Typically, we’re going home for dinner; we’re going home for lunch. Now, these are moments that aren’t just once in every while occasions. I’m figuring out what I’m doing this weekend and next weekend.
If you could get one directive or order to the new Boston nightlife czar, what would you say?
I would just say: Please make sure that the nightlife options are creative, and they’re not one-note, and that they service more than just a 21-plus crowd. I remember at some point going to the Children’s Museum when I was younger, and then doing the overnight. We would get to play, and our parents would be able to hang out and have a little cocktail hour, and that was special. Try to make sure that there’s a breadth of options. And don’t forget that transportation is key to these later-night options.
There’s a [perception] that Boston is not diverse, or not diverse enough. What would you say to that?
There’s lots of diversity in Boston; it’s just not showcased well all the time. And so I think that’s what excites me about [Grace by Nia]; we’re able to showcase it on a really grand level.
You know, you could say the same thing when it comes to women and our presence in this industry. I think that we’re here, and we’ve always had aspirations, and I think that we’ve been doing the work — and now it’s time to pay attention to that.
Where can we find you when you’re not working?
You can absolutely find me at MIDA in the South End, one of my favorite restaurants. A lot of people go to the North End for Italian. I stay right down in the South End for it. One of my other new favorite places is Pescador on Commonwealth Ave. And you can also find me at Empire here in the Seaport, and it’s not just because I love the team. I really love Empire.
What’s your favorite food-related vice?
I have to get my weekly birria taco fix from Maria’s Taqueria in the Theater District. It can’t be beat.
If you had to describe the Boston food scene in a few words, what would you say?
It’s diverse. It’s exciting. And I think we’re getting pretty experimental with it.
What food can you absolutely not stand?
I love it all. I do not discriminate.
As somebody who’s lived here most of your life, what restaurant, bar, or venue do you really miss?
Eastern Standard and that New Year’s Day hip-hop brunch. Come on now.