There was briefly a time when the North End saw what could be: a blend of old charm and modern bustle.
Residents and tourists alike would lounge under streetside umbrellas on balmy summer days, sipping cocktails and eating spaghetti. All fun, no fuss. There were complications with the outdoor dining program, sure. Boston was trying something new after all. But any quarrels felt solvable.
“If we can come together and figure this out … we can have this for years to come,” said restaurateur Nick Varano at a spring 2022 press conference, Mayor Michelle Wu by his side. “But if we don’t, it’s going to be something that’s lost.”
Lost, indeed. Boston officials are expected to announce plans for outdoor dining this season soon. Most believe it will go on, without the North End, where the community remains locked in a bitter dispute over whether sidewalk seating helped, or hurt, the neighborhood.
A handful of restaurateurs are suing City Hall and lambasting neighbors, while others keep their heads down. Unhappy residents are keeping score, too, going so far as to avoid businesses they feel have gone too far in the fight. Nothing turned out the way Varano envisioned.
The newest battle began in early January, when several restaurant owners — including the putative peacemaker Varano — filed a federal lawsuit, dredging up grievances over the ban on al fresco tables in the North End and reviving well-worn complaints that Wu holds a grudge against white Italian-Americans.
This may feel like a lot of drama over relatively little. But the battle about outdoor dining in the North End is about more than where patios are erected. Really, it reflects what the vast changes in the neighborhood mean for the people who live and work in the North End, for the face it shows the rest of the world, and for who gets to tell its story.
With its deep Italian heritage, the warren of brick apartment buildings and narrow alleyways has for decades represented an authentic slice of Old Boston. Then time brought change: Immigrant families moved out, seeking space in the suburbs. Well-heeled transplants shifted in, enjoying the nightlife and the quick walk to downtown. By 2022, just 26 percent of residents had Italian ancestry, Census data shows.
As those numbers declined, the North End’s European vibe grew more valuable, its streets reflecting the idealized version promoted in numerous tourism campaigns: an old-world enclave where visitors can taste carbonara and cannolis.
That has brought crowds, which in turn has rankled both newcomers and old-timers alike, many of whom blame the restaurants for quickening the transformation of the North End into purely a tourist destination. The hardware stores, shoe sellers, bakeries, and butchers that catered to locals have mostly disappeared, said Adam Balsam, the blogger behind NorthEnd.Page. And corporate-backed restaurants took over Hanover and Salem streets, where mom-and-pop eateries once stood.
Any bad blood about that shift is bubbling over now, splitting the neighborhood into factions: those who fiercely want al fresco tables (some restaurants), those who do not (other restaurants and many residents), and those who wish they’d never heard the words “outdoor dining” at all (almost everyone else).
“I feel like the restaurant owners are being unrealistic, inflammatory, and reactionary. And I think the residents are being unreasonable, too,” Balsam said. “Sometimes, no one seems to know who they are fighting, how far it’s gone, or what lies on the other side.”
Outdoor dining once represented salvation. In the summer of 2020, when then-mayor Marty Walsh loosened restrictions on sidewalk seating, some restaurants doubled their seating capacity and fed much-needed customers. The streets came back to life.
But concerns arose about trash, noise, and congestion, especially on the restaurant-dense blocks of the North End. Ahead of the 2022 season, Wu announced a $7,500 fee for restaurants to participate in outdoor dining in the neighborhood, but nowhere else. The money, she said, would help fund cleanup and make up for parking spots lost to restaurant patios.
An uproar followed: Newly unified against a shared enemy — the mayor — most North End restaurateurs called the measure excessive and said they were being singled out. There were protests, angry meetings, and impromptu press conferences on street corners. Yet when the season began, the hubbub faded. Around 60 businesses chose to pay the fee and served al fresco that summer.
But a few business owners saw the fees as a declaration of war by City Hall.
In their lawsuit, this cohort described themselves as dishwashers who worked their way up the food chain to own restaurants, as “the shining lights that keep the city vibrant.” (An earlier lawsuit was withdrawn by restaurateurs in June.)
The complaint hints at a class fault line simmering below the surface. Restaurant owners painted members of a neighborhood group, the North End/Waterfront Residents Association, as wealthy, non-Italian outsiders engaged in “back-channel decision making” to shut down outdoor dining.
Ford Cavallari, chair of the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations and a former NEWRA president, said the group includes newcomers and longstanding residents alike, but doesn’t have “any kind of inside track to the thinking of City Hall” as far as he knows.
Residents and even some restaurant owners note how few people are truly involved in the lawsuit, pointing out that some plaintiffs do not even live in the neighborhood. (Public records show that several plaintiffs have addresses in Bedford, Lynnfield, and Canton.)
Just 10 owners joined the claim, and roughly half of the named restaurants are owned by one man: Frank DePasquale. The suit’s lead plaintiff, the North End Chamber of Commerce, was long dormant and was revived last summer by DePasquale and his allies in a bid, some critics say, to create the appearance of community support.
DePasquale declined to comment, saying the “complaint speaks for itself.” The other named plaintiffs did not return calls or declined to comment through their lawyer.
Felipe Ford Cole, a Boston College law professor, viewed the lawsuit as little more than a “PR strategy” and a “chance to re-litigate and repackage” earlier accusations in a “more flamboyant way.”
“Simply put,” he said, “it’s not a very potent claim.”
Ten restaurateurs not involved in the lawsuit agreed in conversations with the Globe. They said that while they felt their concerns on outdoor dining were not fully heard by the city, they had no interest in wading into an ugly spat. After the cost of engineering plans, equipment, and labor, al fresco tables make little financial sense anyway, they say.
“I felt like I didn’t really profit from outdoor dining,” said chef-owner Jen Royle of TABLE Restaurant, who spent $20,000 on her outdoor patio in 2022. “It’s not worth the hassle. I have businesses to run, besides fighting a fight that I know we can’t win.”
Others just hoped to avoid the nastiness of the lawsuits, which include claims that Wu intentionally targeted Columbus Day for a new city observation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or that her joke at the 2023 St. Patrick’s Day breakfast about problems that are “expensive, disruptive, and white” was a jab at Italian restaurant owners. Rather than questioning how the city spent the money raised by the $7,500 fee, many business owners said they prefer to focus on their own books.
“A war is expensive,” said Philip Frattaroli, the restaurateur behind Ducali and Lucia Ristorante. “And the restaurants want to get to making money.”
Many residents would just as well see the end of outdoor dining. For three summers, they navigated tight sidewalks crowded with tables to get to work or errands. That obstacle course was the last straw for some, a sign that the neighborhood they grew up in has largely disappeared.
Other neighborhoods have also seen complaints about outdoor dining: concerns about “extreme congestion” in Back Bay, “insanity on our street” in South Boston, and fire hazards in Roxbury, as the lawsuit cites. But nowhere has the dispute seemed nearly as tense as in the North End. People are boycotting restaurants they once frequented, or circulating an ever-growing list of objections: A neighbor broke an ankle walking near outdoor tables. An ambulance took 20 minutes to reach an emergency. The rat population “quadrupled.”
And any hope for a productive conversation seems dashed, said longtime resident Darlene Romano.
“We’re stuck in this,” she said. “When will it ever end?”
A recent attempt by Wu to make peace with the restaurant owners over lunch was torpedoed by the filing of the lawsuit on Jan. 4, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Eventually, only one restaurateur — Paul Barker from Pauli’s — chatted pleasantly over lobster rolls with Wu and State Representative Aaron Michlewitz last week.
“I always hope for compromise,” Michlewitz said then.
But with another outdoor dining season coming up, most everyone else seems to have given up on that idea.
Danny McDonald of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.