Is this really the Seaport — the neighborhood a Globe Spotlight story once referred to as “a brand new Boston, even whiter than the old”? Onstage, a singer is channeling Chaka Khan against a backdrop of curtains lit up blue and purple, the name of the venue — Grace by Nia — illuminated in white and turquoise neon. When the saxophone player eases into a solo, a woman in a black-and-white jacket with bright red hair begins dancing, arms in the air, pure joy on her face. “I love music! I love it,” she says to no one in particular. The bar is jam-packed, with men in button-downs and fleece vests, women in going-out dresses and towering heels, and everyone and anyone in between — all ages, colors, and fashion senses — drinking cocktails and moving their hips side by side. Acquaintances run into one another: “Well well well! Is this your first time?” The friendliness extends among strangers, too, and the staff works the room shaking hands. Is this really Boston?
Grace by Nia — part restaurant, part nightclub, all vibe — opened this month. It is the latest project from namesake impresario Nia Grace, in partnership with entertainment and hospitality group Big Night. Grace also owns Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, serving food and live music on the border of the South End and Grace’s native Roxbury. Office towers and luxury housing are everywhere in the glossy Seaport neighborhood. Soul, character, and diversity are harder to find. But between some intentional planning by developers and the tendency of the human spirit to ooze through small cracks, that is starting to change. Grace by Nia is part of the shift.
The warm welcome begins as soon as guests pull up to the host station outside the doors of the third-floor venue. It’s crowded on a recent Thursday night, but the hosts seem to actually want everyone to get in, find a spot, and get down to having a good time. That, shall we say, is not always the attitude of staff at the host stands of crowded Boston venues. This way is better.
Grace by Nia is 5,000 square feet, but it feels intimate, carved into several different spaces: a long bar, standing room only at this hour; the stage, fronted by an array of chairs and small round tables just the right size to hold two drinks and two plates, with a banquette and more tables alongside for lounging; a dining area away from the entertainment, for those who just want to focus on their food. The decor is lush, classic supper club put through a modern filter, all peacock swirls and gleaming golds, with dark leather, rich wood, and crushed velvet wall curtains. Chandeliers wear shimmering fringed skirts, and columns are topped with gold palm leaves. The dress code here is “fashionable attire,” but the space just makes you want to look nice, without having to be told. (Yes, you should make a reservation, and you should do so in advance.)
I try to elbow my way into a spot at the bar, give up, and ask for a table (where I’m recognized by Grace and Big Night cofounder Ed Kane). If my dress code is more attire than fashion — from each according to her ability — I still feel the glamour at one of the perches by the stage, where a cocktail menu beseeches me to pick it up. So I do.
It’s a fun one. Although I’d like to order the “designed to share” Killing It Softly — whiskey from Black-owned company Uncle Nearest, with blood orange, yuzu, and applewood smoke — all for myself, that might in fact be overkilling it softly. I find the smoldering vibe I’m looking for with the Smoke Break, a mezcal, raspberry, and gochujang potion that arrives strewn with pretty blossoms and crowned with a flaming lime half. “Blow it out before you drink it,” my server tells me solicitously. I make a wish, and that wish is that this drink will taste as good as it looks, and it comes true.
I sip for a bit as the band — Angelena & the Unit — heats up. “Mama needs more water!,” frontwoman Angelena Hightower calls, mopping her brow with a napkin and joking about hot flashes. “Add some lights and it’s the Sahara Desert,” she says. When women own businesses, said businesses suddenly seem so much more women-friendly. Funny thing.
Two influencer types next to me are chowing down on skillets of mac and cheese, and now I’m hungry. The menu is reminiscent of the one at Darryl’s — a pastiche of soul food, Southern classics, New Orleans specialties, and upscale bistro fare — but a bit more dressed up. There are oysters: raw on the half-shell, grilled with garlic butter and Parmesan, or fried in a Cajun cornmeal batter and served with remoulade. Ribs are cloaked in a mustard-spiked bourbon-peach sauce, and country fried chicken wings are drizzled with gochujang-honey syrup for sweet heat. A cheesy, gooey, and rich crab dip is seasoned with Old Bay, served with fancy plantain chips and Ritz crackers (both are good, but the Ritz just taste right).
The green tomato salad sums up the Grace by Nia aesthetic: a classy-but-comforting tower of fried green tomato slices, stacked with fresh mozzarella, pickled onions, basil oil, and balsamic glaze. “It gives you Caprese, but it also gives you mozzarella sticks that are kind of deconstructed,” Grace told the Globe earlier this month, and that’s it exactly — a New American classic imported from Italy, fused with a Southern standby, evoking a beloved bar snack.
The usual chicken and waffles here gets a twist: It’s a carrot cake waffle, with cream cheese icing. Braised oxtail comes with roasted vegetables, broccolini, and sweet coconut grits; there’s a whole chicken with cornbread stuffing and root vegetables, very New England were the bird not rubbed in jerk seasoning. (Filing that away for next Thanksgiving.) Creole seafood gumbo has a welcome heat, a skillet of white rice surrounded by a moat of rust-brown stew, with shrimp and sausage and crawfish to suck from their shells.
This feels like a place to get dessert, and although citrus crème brulee, chocolate pecan tart, and lemon sponge cake with raspberry compote (it’s vegan) sound just fine, it’s hard to beat something called Peach Cobbler Cheesecake Tsunami. “Are you ready for the magic?” a server asks, and slowly removes the plastic sleeve that holds the confection together. The dessert lets out its breath and relaxes onto the plate. It’s the sweetest, slowest-moving tidal wave of cheesecake, peach slices, and brown sugar crumbs that ever was.
Couples of all ages are taking turns dancing before the stage. I’m not quite ready to leave. A bottle of Champagne in a bucket of ice? A glass of red from Black-owned wine company McBride Sisters? Maybe an Aye, Aye, Aye, made with rum, passionfruit, coconut cream, cardamom, and Sorel liqueur, a tribute to the hibiscus-infused “red drink” enslaved people brought with them from West Africa. The cocktail is a well-tempered tropical dream, served over plenty of crushed ice, more blossoms included.
Grace by Nia might feel less remarkable in another city, one where friendliness is the default climate, one that embraces difference with greater ease. Here, it stands out, a pocket of soul, warmth, and welcome in the Seaport.
60 Seaport Boulevard, Seaport District, Boston, 617-927-9411, www.gracebynia.com. Small plates $9-$22, large plates $22-$42, desserts $12-$18, cocktails $16-$18.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.