April 30 will be bittersweet for Debbie Lewis, the owner of 29 Newbury. It’s her 60th birthday, but also the day she is shuttering her restaurant after nearly three decades.
The restaurant, which features lobster and cobb salads and other fare typical of an upscale American cafe, drew a strong tourist trade in the summer with its outdoor patio. That part
of Newbury Street, on the block closest to the Public Garden, features high-end boutiques such as Giorgio Armani and Cartier. It’s increasingly pricey real estate for a small business operating on thin margins.
Lewis, a month-to-month tenant, said her landlord, D.L. Saunders Real Estate Corp., told her in mid-March that she had to be out by the end of April.
“I’m really heartsick,” said Lewis, who opened the cafe in 1986. “This has pretty much been my home for years. Everything I have done revolves around 29. It’s like watching a family member die.”
The closing comes as the real estate boom sweeping Boston is resulting in higher rents and property taxes, particularly for restaurants and retailers in the Back Bay. On Newbury and Boylston streets, the average tax bill for both residential and commercial owners rose 18.4 percent, compared to 5.7 percent citywide, according to the City of Boston.
“It’s a place where small independent businesses are increasingly going to be priced out,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, a business group. “It’s going to change the character of Newbury and Boylston.”
The Forum restaurant on Boylston Street was shuttered in February. The Mass Ave Tavern, near the intersection with Newbury, closed Jan. 1. The business told the website Eater Boston that the landlord had declined to renew the lease and was planning to renovate.
The harsh reality for restaurant owners, at least on Newbury and Boylston streets, is that as property values rise landlords prefer to rent to national retailers willing to pay higher rents, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. And 29 Newbury is just one example.
Donald Saunders, owner of the four-story brownstone, said that he intends to lease the restaurant’s space to a well-established retailer, the type of company that often has higher margins and more stable finances.
A restaurant, Saunders said, is “the last type of tenant we want.”
Saunders said higher property taxes and values played a role in his decision to stop renting to 29 Newbury. The tax bill on the building, which also houses Newbury Fine Arts and the venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, jumped 16 percent, to $221,541, after the building was reassessed in 2015 at $7.5 million, 22.3 percent higher than its previous value.
The restaurant, which is on the ground floor, did not have a lease and paid 10 percent of its monthly sales as rent, which Saunders said works out to about half of what he could get at current market rates.
Saunders said sales and the rent decreased each month. He wanted Lewis to renovate the space to increase sales, but said that she didn’t have the money to do it.
“We reached the point of no return,” Saunders said. “I can no longer afford to subsidize Debbie Lewis’s business. We love her. She’s a great lady and has a great restaurant, but the taxes are too high.”
Lewis refutes his characterization. She said sales declined only during Boston’s record-setting winter, when restaurants across the city struggled. She could have renovated the restaurant but wanted a lease first, she said. Regardless, Lewis said, Saunders did not talk to her before ending her tenancy.
“They just decided that they wanted us out,” Lewis said. “I absolutely could have afforded to renovate the restaurant. It never got to that.”
Lewis’s former husband bought the restaurant, which opened under different owners in the early 1980s and went bankrupt, as an engagement present in 1986. She ran 29 Newbury for a number of years and became the sole owner after their divorce.
Over the years, 29 Newbury drew celebrities such as Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Nicholas Cage, and John Kerry. Most of its business is in summer, from tourists, while a smaller crowd of regulars support the restaurant during the off-season.
She said the restaurant often sells as many as 100 cobb salads in a day. Its most popular dish is a $25 sesame-encrusted salmon on snow peas, which customers continued to order long after she tried to remove it from the menu. To stay fresh, Lewis said, she tweaked the menu at least every quarter. The secret to its long survival was treating all customers the same and providing a comfortable atmosphere, she added.
“I had a homeless man who would collect nickels and dimes and have a hamburger and a beer,” Lewis said. “Whether it was the postman coming in for lunch or someone with a Ferrari outside, it made no difference.”
Luz, of the restaurant association, marveled at the fact the business stayed alive as long as it did.
“Twenty-nine years makes it prehistoric,” Luz said. “For something to have survived that long and done well is remarkable.”