Rats. Smells. Noise. Crowds. Garbage.
Living above a restaurant used to be among the major hazards of city living. No more.
Developers seeking to upend conventional wisdom are pitching upscale restaurants at your doorstep as amenities for tenants. With promises of insider service, their goal is to transform a generic luxury building into an 18-hour high-rise neighborhood, one where you can channel your inner Norm Peterson of “Cheers” fame at the bar, or wander downstairs in a sweat shirt during a snowstorm.
John and Karen Marshall sold their Colonial in Andover last year and moved into a one-bedroom condo in the Sepia building at the Ink Block complex. The empty nesters quickly became regulars at Bar Mezzana after it opened in their building in May, wandering downstairs to snack on grilled octopus or lobster pasta at least once a week.
“The last thing I want to do is jump in a car and go the next town over to experience something like this,” John Marshall said. “The fact that it’s right downstairs is fantastic for us.”
The restaurant-in-residence concept has been taking off at luxury projects throughout Boston as developers seek to raise the ante and lure tenants.
Samuels and Associates plans to put several chef-driven restaurants in the Van Ness luxury apartment building in the Fenway. Chef Jody Adams just opened Porto in the recently renovated Avalon tower at the Prudential Center in the Back Bay. At another forthcoming restaurant at the Ink Block, Bottled & Bond, residents will be able to enter the dining room though a private entrance via the building’s lobby.
And owners in the Millennium Tower in Downtown Crossing won’t have just the sushi stylings of the James Beard award-winning chef Michael Mina when his PABU restaurant opens there this fall. Mina will also operate an 800-square-foot kitchen in the building’s owner’s lounge, where residents can drop in for a $68 lobster pot pie or choose a power greens salad with lemongrass, prawns, and quinoa that has been preapproved by the tower’s fitness instructor. If they don’t feel like dining in the lounge, they can order a set of pre-measured ingredients from the kitchen, Blue Apron-style, to prepare at home.
The in-house restaurant boom was almost inevitable, given the economic factors in play, said Jesse Baerkahn, whose Boston firm, GraffitoSP, works as a matchmaker helping developers to find the right retail partners.
“It’s a really interesting perfect storm in Boston, with high-rise development at a scale that we’ve never seen,” he said. “And that’s happening all at the same time as retail is changing and people, when they’re outside of the house, are spending more money on food and beverages.”
Ted Tye, the managing partner of National Development, worked closely with the team at Bar Mezzana to open the restaurant in the Ink Block complex in the South End this past spring. He said he and other developers are increasingly willing to offer chefs attractive lease agreements to help underwrite a restaurant’s success.
So instead of setting a flat rent for the 4,600-square-foot-space, Tye is taking a lower base rent, plus a percentage of Bar Mezzana’s monthly revenue. Other developers, such as Samuels and Associates, have helped foot the bill for liquor licenses in order to help get restaurant tenants off the ground.
“It’s a big investment, both for the developer and the restaurant. There are some real hurdles in Boston, liquor license costs being one of them, construction costs being very high,” Tye said. “It’s almost like you become a partner.”
“You really do,” said Jefferson Macklin, the restaurant’s manager, as he caught Tye in a hug earlier this month. Macklin said moving into a new building alleviated many of the stresses he’d dealt with over the decade he spent with Barbara Lynch Gruppo.
Tye helped grease the wheels in getting the restaurant’s liquor license and was willing to help foot the bill for parts of the restaurant’s build-out. And Macklin didn’t have to worry about pulling permits for a patio because all the outdoor space is on Ink Block property.
Another benefit: The space was designed with both the restaurant and the building’s tenants in mind, with sound-proofed ceilings and a ventilation system to prevent odors from seeping upstairs to the units above.
“I’ve been a part of restaurants that have been in existing spaces, and to adapt is a lot harder sometimes,” Macklin said. Percentage rent, he said, “essentially lowers your entry rent cost, and you share in the success of your restaurant.”
Will Gilson, the owner and head chef at Puritan and Company, said he has seen the restaurant real estate game completely inverted since he opened in 2012. Five years ago, he said, developers were focused on building lab space in Kendall Square and finding restaurant tenants that could serve power lunches to workers in their buildings.
Now, developers are building luxury residences and wooing chefs like him. Gilson said he’s become infatuated with the idea of putting his next restaurant concept into a high-end residential complex and has been consulting a local real estate developer planning such a project in the city. He said the appeal is the built-in audience: young, high-income workers and empty nesters, both of whom who can’t be bothered to cook.
But there are challenges that come with opening a restaurant in a new space, said Tiffani Faison, chef-owner of Sweet Cheeks, a restaurant that opened in the Fenway Triangle apartment building in 2011, helping to cement the neighborhood as a dining destination. Having a nondescript “vanilla box” can be a huge design challenge, Faison said, noting the hours she and her team spent configuring the space that her second restaurant, Tiger Mama, now occupies.
Still, the pitch is an enticing one for established restaurateurs looking to expand their portfolios.
Chef Jody Adams, who spent over 20 years operating Rialto out of the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square before closing it in June, said she feels less pressure being the only restaurant in a Back Bay residential building, in part because the building manager has a steady stream of income from the 1,000 inhabitants upstairs.
“There is a really nice feeling of being, we’re it,” she said. “All we have to worry about is focusing on being the best restaurant we can be.”
The fact that she’s now running Porto in the space where the building’s leasing office once stood underlines that point: A restaurant can be a bigger draw to potential tenants than a flashy apartment rendering.
And for residents, having a five-star chef downstairs isn’t just a nice perk for when they have hunger pangs.
John Marshall, the Bar Mezzana regular, sees the restaurant as an expansion of the investment he made in his condo.
“From a financial perspective, it certainly adds to the value of my place there,” he said.
“Now when I say I’m going out, I mean I’m going downstairs.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Ink Block building where John and Karen Marshall live.