Brian Lesser made a name for himself in Boston’s nightclub scene, and Marcus Palmer built his reputation by opening posh restaurants in world capitals for a famous chef.
Lesser and Palmer joined forces recently to launch another swank dining spot. Their location of choice: Lexington.
Welcome to Vine Brook Tavern, a three-month-old restaurant serving pork dumplings, 24 wines by the glass, and Cornish chicken prepared by a Todd English protege. Chef’s tables and tasting menus are part of the ambiance at the spot, located in a renovated building constructed in 1830.
Vine Brook Tavern is the latest addition to a growing list of restaurants offering upscale city dining in Boston’s suburbs. A crowded urban dining landscape, where space can be scarce and competition fierce, is prompting established stars and up-and-coming restaurateurs to seek fortune beyond the bright lights.
In towns like Lexington, Concord, and Wellesley, rents are cheaper and the overhead is lower. Liquor licenses are affordable and easier to obtain. Instead of red tape, proprietors encounter town officials eager to help.
Initially, Lesser and Palmer looked at spots in Fort Point Channel, the Back Bay, and the Theatre District in Boston before they settled on a two-story building off Lexington’s Main Street. Vine Brook Tavern, 14 miles from Boston, is their first foray into suburban dining.
“There is a sense of ownership here; the town has been poised for us to succeed,” said Lesser, who is well-known as an owner of the Boston nightclub Saint, now Storyville, as well as Minibar in the Copley Square Hotel and the barbecue bar Sweet Cheeks Q.
Operators who can deliver an upscale dining experience in suburbia are meeting locals interested in more than a new place to eat. They want a stake in the business.
“Our investors were lining up in order to help get this concept launched,” said Palmer, who managed Market at the W Hotel Boston and opened restaurants for Michelin-rated chef Jean Georges Vongerichten in Paris, London, and Mexico City. “They desperately wanted fine dining and a comfortable bar in Lexington.”
In nearby Concord, at the restaurant 80 Thoreau, success came quickly.
“Being able to have a Boston or New York City experience closer to home is meaningful,” said Ian Calhoun, who has been serving gutsy fare such as foie gras custard with figs and Concord grapes in a converted train depot for more than a year.
With a partner from Per Se in Manhattan and a chef from Rialto in Cambridge, business exceeded his expectations. He became profitable after 12 months.
Many point to chefs like Ming Tsai for finding gourmet gold beyond Boston. Fifteen years ago, Tsai opened the Asian fusion restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley and easily lured diners from the city to the suburbs.
Tsai’s decision to open his first restaurant 17 miles from the urban center seemed natural for Tsai, who lives in Natick with his wife and children. “It’s about building where you live, becoming part of the neighborhood. We want to be the neighborhood joint,” he said.
Boston will never lack for new fine-dining options. In fact, Tsai will open a new restaurant called Blue Dragon in Fort Point Channel on Wednesday.
Still, an impressive list of high-profile city chefs are following Tsai’s trail to the suburbs.
Cambridge culinary star Jason Bond is planning to sign a lease on a vacant restaurant in Concord Center. By the fall, the owner of the acclaimed Bondir expects to turn the space, formerly occupied by Walden Grille, into an upscale farm-to-table hot spot.
On weekly trips to buy produce from Concord farmers, the chef saw opportunity.
“Concord is really underserved. Here in the city, it’s a bit saturated,” said Bond, who wanted to find a way to enlarge his culinary empire.
Expanding from nine tables in an obscure part of Cambridge to a spacious 100-seat dining room in the heart of a historic downtown is a leap, even for a James Beard finalist.
“You are always nervous; you always hear stories. But we’ve done our research on the dining habits of people out there,” Bond said.
Chef Michael Schlow — of Radius, Tico, and Via Matta in Boston — is looking at Braintree and Burlington to expand his suburban trattoria, Alta Strada.
Schlow said Alta Strada, which opened in Wellesley in 2007, “does better volume-wise on a per-square-foot basis” than his Boston establishments.
But just because a community has “a high per-capita income it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to spend it on food,” he said.
Before opening in a small town, “you look at what the needs of the community are. What do they need, and what do they want?”
Another draw for top-tier restaurateurs is an exciting space.
In November, Chris Parsons opened Steel & Rye in Milton in a sprawling warehouse. Cooking swordfish under 30-foot ceilings in a 7,000-foot expanse has drawn crowds.
“It would be very difficult to find this kind of space in the city. It would not be obtainable or make financial sense,” said Parsons, who was looking for a neighborhood “to fill a void” when he sold Parsons Table in Winchester.
“At the end of the day, that’s what made the decision for us,” he said.
“It’s a cool, fun project. The fact that it’s not in the city is not a deterrent.”
Star chefs heading to the suburbs
Ming Tsai was one of the first big-name chefs to see potential in the suburbs when he opened Asian fusion restaurant Blue Ginger in Wellesley 15 years ago.
Michael Schlow, of Radius, Tico, and Via Matta in Boston, is looking at Braintree and Burlington to expand his Wellesley trattoria, Alta Strada.
Jason Bond, owner of the acclaimed Bondir in Cambridge, plans to turn the former Walden Grille in Concord Center into an upscale farm-to-table restaurant.