When Douglass Williams, chef-owner of the Mida restaurants, first came to Boston in the early 2000s to work at the glitzy Radius in the Financial District, the plaintive wail was that Boston was so lame because nothing was open late. There were pleas for later dining times and a very brief stab at an MBTA Night Owl bus, but the hand-wringing that Boston was the stodgy sister to swinging New York City continued.
Williams remembers those days. But now all of his restaurants — the original Mida in the South End, Mida in Newton, and the newest Mida on the East Boston waterfront — open at 4 p.m. “We’re finding that people want to eat earlier,” Williams says.
He’s not the only one who’s noticed that eating early is no longer only for the senior set. In fact, recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere suggest diners are jostling for 5:30 p.m. reservations and hosting dinner parties at 6. Is 5 p.m. the new 8 p.m.?
The post-pandemic changes in lifestyles may be clues. But restaurateurs also find that altering opening times is helpful for both customers and staff members. The Mida restaurants in Newton and East Boston serve lunch or brunch daily, and Williams says opening earlier “keeps the momentum, the energy up” for the employees. “For us, energy is the biggest component.”
Besides, Williams says, people who now routinely work from home often have a different take on dining times. Workday hours may be more flexible, and fewer people have to factor in commuting time and changing clothes before going out to dinner. Plus, he adds, there’s nothing as off-putting as looking inside a restaurant that’s locked but with people still inside finishing lunch. “Telling people no is not something we want to do.”
That’s echoed by Jacky Robert of Ma Maison on Beacon Hill, who has seen decades of dining habits in Boston and elsewhere. “When I worked at Ernie’s in San Francisco, we were open for dinner until 11 p.m., and there was lots of late dining.” It made for long days and nights for the staff, he added.
Now his Beacon Hill restaurant opens for lunch and serves through the afternoon into evening. “We are very busy at 5,” he says. Dinner service begins at 4, and the rush is at 6 p.m. “We didn’t have that before.” Ma Maison has plenty of regulars, and some of them dine at 3 p.m., Robert says, as their main meal of the day. And while diners may start earlier, they still seem to be ordering good wines and having a full dining experience. He himself changed his habits: He eats his main meal at 6 or 7, and goes to bed earlier. “I feel good, and sleep better,” he says.
The importance of sleep has been emphasized in recent years, says Rebecca Robbins, a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “I am hopeful that we’re collectively waking up to the importance of sleep.” Although there are those who function better at night and those who are morning people, Robbins says, “When we take time from our sleep, creativity and productivity plummet.” She suggests that allowing two to three hours between eating and going to bed might improve sleep quality.
Nevertheless, views vary about earlier dining. Corean Reynolds, who became Boston’s director of nightlife economy last spring, says, “The city is working to support and grow the number of businesses that are looking to stay open later across Boston.” She feels a range of late-night options is critical to support the city’s workforce and “highlight Boston’s vibrancy.”
In the past, eating early might have been followed by the movies or theater, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case these days. “We’re by far the busiest at 5:30,” says Alexandra Caruso, general manager and director of operations for Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn. Since the restaurant isn’t near theaters, diners aren’t grabbing a bite before other entertainment. And early diners are often more adventurous, she says of those coming to the popular restaurant, which offers 7- to 14-course tasting menus. Caruso, who has worked in beverage management at Boston restaurants from the Beehive in the South End to Fox & The Knife in South Boston, says that “early diners are no less committed.” Even when cancellations open up later reservations, “people aren’t asking” for them.
For Back Bay resident Madeline Segal, 6:15 is the perfect dinner hour, especially on weeknights. Vito Politano, a yoga teacher who lives in the North End, says he used to book early because reservations were easier to get, but he also prefers eating “earlier than later.” However, he says he’s noticed lately that the places where he and his boyfriend dine are busy by 6 or 6:30 p.m. That doesn’t really count in North End restaurants, though, he says. “They’re busy all the time.”
Rhod Sharp, a former Scottish BBC broadcaster who now has a podcast, says, “It’s really hard getting a reservation at 6,” on the North Shore, where he lives. His wife used to say that they should “dine when the queen eats dinner,” at 8:15 p.m., but now they gravitate to earlier hours. For young parents like Meredith Hedin of Charlestown, dinner out with her preschool-age children is 5 or even earlier. But even when she and her husband go on a date night, Hedin says, it’s still an early night. “I’ve always liked getting up early,” she says.
Boston’s earlier dining scene can be a boon for restaurant workers, too. “For many years, the hospitality industry has been a challenging culture,” Robbins, the sleep scientist, says, since late nights can affect health and especially sleep. Williams of Mida says that pre-pandemic late nights were sometimes “defeating to our staff.” The trend toward earlier dining also has “cracked the code” of having the tables turn. Now there are diners from 4:30-6:30, then another set from 6-7:30, and a third after that until closing. “Employees can make more money and get home earlier.”
So what about Boston dining now? Reynolds, the nightlife czar, says she gets a reservation whenever she can, be it 5:30 or 9:30 p.m. Caruso, from Nightshade in Lynn, says she thinks Boston-area dining is “on the precipice of being a world-class scene.” Maybe as early-bird dining gains momentum, the country will see that “lame” Boston has always been ahead of the curve.