Somerville’s Union Square versus Boston’s Seaport. It’s like comparing Brooklyn to Times Square or HBO to reality TV. One is a newly gentrified hipster haven. Another is a freshly built neon-and-skyscraper wonderland that wraps visitors in the familiar gauze of expense-account restaurants and upscale stores: sleek and steely and safe.
I’m old enough to remember both places in their more-or-less original incarnations. I used to visit a friend in a creaky walk-up on Rossmore Street a few blocks from Union Square, and we’d get Mexican food at what is now Cantina La Mexicana. At the time, it was just a counter serving cheese-oozing tamales and chips with smooth, spicy salsa — no chunky nonsense. Not too much else around.
On the other hand, the Seaport is where we took my grandparents for their 50th anniversary at Anthony’s Pier 4. My nana posed with owner Anthony Athanas as if he were George Clooney. We parked right in front, and I don’t think we lingered afterward to see the sights. I can still smell her Shalimar perfume wafting into the back seat as we peeled out of the parking lot past the docks. Now it’s like driving directly into the throbbing heart of a miniature Las Vegas.
So I set out to compare a night out in both neighborhoods, based around two new developments.
The first was Bow Market in Union Square, a two-story nucleus of micro-shops and restaurant stalls anchored by a courtyard peppered with bigger names: Remnant Brewing and the Comedy Studio, formerly inside the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square. It broke ground last year and was completed in May. The official opening is next month.
Matthew Boyes-Watson and Zachary Baum developed the space with architect Mark Boyes-Watson, Matthew’s dad. Each lives within a mile or so of the market. The trio turned a defunct storage facility with 20 garage bays and a parking lot into a two-tiered outdoor bazaar. The storage bays are now 165-square-foot mini-boutiques; the parking lot was turned into a pleasant outdoor common area. Take that, Joni Mitchell.
There are 30 shops, for which Baum fielded nearly 400 proposals. Leases are usually one year with a one-year option to extend. Rent is less than $1,000 per month. They found fledgling vendors the old-fashioned way: prowling farmers’ markets and approaching businesses on Instagram.
Meanwhile, the Seaport has One Seaport, two gleaming silver city blocks of residential towers and retail, operated by WS Development. WS Development oversees many of the al fresco shopping spaces you know and love: The Street in Chestnut Hill, MarketStreet in Lynnfield, Legacy Place in Dedham, and Derby Street Shops in Hingham. Groundbreaking happened in 2014; today, there are 21 businesses in two buildings. The first opened late last year with more following this year.
There’s ShowPlace ICON, a deluxe movie theater; Kings Dining & Entertainment, for bowling and games; and an assortment of marquee restaurant chains, from Tuscan Kitchen Seaport to Sweetgreen to fried chicken joint Fuku, opening soon from Momofuku mega-chef David Chang.
I spent a Friday night at each, taking in the sights, eating the food, communing with the crowd. This is what I found.
Ease of arrival: No T to Union Square yet. If you opt to drive, parking is easy enough — there’s a quaint metered lot next to my favorite old taqueria. There’s lots of foot traffic, too, and the sidewalk hums with reassuring activity on a crisp fall evening.
The crowd: Skews young and appears displaced from the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” You will probably experience pangs of beard, eyeglass, or leather envy. Spotted: zero children and zero people over 50.
The setup: Easily navigable on two floors: food and courtyard on the bottom; boutiques and the Comedy Studio up top. But what will happen when it’s covered in January sludge? Baum says that propane heaters will warm the courtyard and that they’ll implement a drainage system for snow.
The food: You can snack on anything from pierogis to empanadas to roast beef sandwiches here, served at counters, eaten either inside Remnant Brewing or al fresco. A few places haven’t opened, such as Saus (frites) and Tanam (Filipino). But there are plenty of options.
Here’s the nice thing about food at Bow Market: You can chat with each vendor. The spaces are so tiny that you have no choice but to make eye contact.
Melissa Stefanini and Sebastian Galvez run Buenas Empanadas; Stefanini’s family is from Argentina; Galvez’s family is from Uruguay and Chile. His mother, Sylvana Troccoli, works behind the scenes.
Their empanadas — three dense ovals for $9 — are wheat-flour-based and oven-baked, unlike their corn-based, deep-fried Colombian brethren. They’re doughier, drier, and softer, filled with tuna, ham and cheese, root veggies. Dip them in pebre, a ubiquitous Chilean table sauce of onion, garlic, cilantro, toasted chile peppers, and red wine vinegar, or chimichurri, made with parsley and garlic.
“TV chefs don’t make chimichurri right,” says Troccoli, laughing behind the counter. “They don’t use parsley!”
Sisters Vanessa and Casey White run Jaju Pierogis next door. They make the hearty Polish dumplings using their grandfather’s old recipes (jaju is the Americanized spelling of grandfather). They started out at farmers’ markets, selling out of 50 boxes in an hour. This is their first storefront.
I snag three for $6 — potato and cheese, their signature, plus jalapeno cheddar — brightened with sour cream and tart sauerkraut. Paired with beer, it’s a warming fall snack.
But if you eat nothing else at Bow Market, don’t miss the roast beef at Hot Box. This is a more established vendor. The team also runs Mike & Patty’s in Bay Village, lunch purveyor to discerning sandwich hounds. Here, Mike Gurevich and Ania Zaroda offer dueling specialties: North Shore roast beef sandwiches and South Shore bar pizza. Bar pizza is a matter of taste. Crackly crust and greasy, burnt cheese browned into molten bubbles is not for everyone. The roast beef sandwiches are otherworldly. A $9 Super Beef comes on an onion roll smeared with mayonnaise, tangy barbecue sauce, and that sturdy, beautiful guilty pleasure: American cheese. The Niman Ranch roast beef is sliced translucently thin, ringed with fat, soft as velvet.
Amusements: Weird and wonderful. Browse animal heads, forgotten Rolling Stones albums, and frayed maps at Blue Bandana Relics, run by picker Keith Tate (just don’t trip on the dog snoozing on the floor). After losing myself among old Television albums at the Vinyl Index record shop, I step outside and am intercepted by an official-looking woman in a blazer. She represents Lemoi, a cocktail pop-up. Would I like to sample a drink personalized by artificial intelligence based on my favorite smells?
Well, maybe, but baser pleasures await: I have an 8 p.m. show at the Comedy Studio to get to. In the front is the Variety Lounge, home to flaming scorpion bowls, a photo booth, and a stack of “Bob’s Burgers” coloring books. I wander in without tickets, but for just $15, I grab a seat near the stage and watch seven comedians, each of them various gradients of legitimately funny, tended by a server happy to fetch wine.
There are plenty of people strolling at night’s end. I glance into PA’s Lounge — an old-school bar that was here before all of this took hold — and watch five women ballroom dancing, side by side, on a shadowy stage. It all feels right.
At Bow Market, an evening can unfold without advance planning or monetary investment. Want an empanada? Spend $3.25 to try one. Game to see a jittery comedian? Right this way. A night here feels David Lynchian — ripe with possibility, populated by nocturnal characters, each harboring a special story. Close one door; open the next.
Ease of arrival: The Silver Line is right here, which is a relief — because God help you if you drive. You will be rerouted down one-lane roads and under-construction alleys, and then charged $18 for the privilege of parking in a garage while trying not to scratch a double-parked Porsche.
The crowd: A few suits sit outside in the courtyard at One Seaport. But other than that, foot traffic is lacking. Where is everyone? Inside, presumably, safely encased in glass and steel. A little boy sits alone at a window-front counter at Caffe Nero. We exchange a long look. He cracks first and grins.
The setup: Two residential towers with retail and restaurants on the bottom floors, accessed by escalators, awash in bright lights and ringed by velvet ropes. There are many men in black blazers and walkie-talkies looking serious. Lululemon sits vast and quiet by nightfall. All the lonely yoga pants; where do they all come from? High above, a billboard looms. “Boston is the new Boston,” it says.
The food: No hyperlocal empanadas here, but there are tried-and-true places like Sweetgreen and Caffe Nero. One local spot, 75 on Seaport, has closed. However, there is a Tuscan Kitchen Seaport, a regional Italian chain, next door. If you’re dining out on-site, this is a likely evening stop.
“Join Us For Dinner” suggests a sign on the bottom floor, like the placards they use for hotel conventions. I ascend three flights of stairs — inhaling the buttery aroma of popcorn from ShowPlace Icon nearby — to the beige and brown dining room, anchored by a host stand that looks like an airline boarding counter. Several women answer phones and try to corral throngs of families and teetering twosomes who alight at the counter. I mention my reservation and am directed to a big, beige, buttery club chair for summonsing.
Big, beige, buttery: It’s a theme here at Tuscan. The room is big and beige. The menus are encased in buttery leather, and there are plenty of them: a wine list, a cocktail list, and a rectangular menu that occupies most of our table. My mushroom raviolis, too, are buttery and big. And expensive: $34. But, really, who comes to this neighborhood to save money?
And yet Ami is our server, and he joyfully banters with my toddler and laughs when he wiggles an applesauce pouch in his face. He teases him about pizza. My toddler howls with glee. He brings our food fast and warns me off a scalding hot plate. And when I tell him that we need our check, he materializes instantly, sensing that things might go awry. He says goodbye to my kids at their level. He smiles.
I leave Tuscan feeling downright sentimental.
The amusements: Next stop is Kings Dining & Entertainment. I have promised my children an evening of arcade games, which are here in profusion: Mario Kart, Pac Man, The Simpsons, buoyed by a soundtrack that toggles between deafening country and No Doubt.
The Red Sox game is on at the bar, with screen upon surreal screen: dudes at tables, groups of friends eating nachos, kids with parents, a few people clearly on first dates and relieved that the music masks their silence.
Servers wear black jerseys and blend into the shadows, joking, cracking beer bottles as the night grows loud and hazy. Our waiter brings us a $6.99 chocolate milkshake — smooth, thick, and sweet, with whipped cream and chocolate syrup dribbling down the sides. Bliss.
He returns with my check but not my credit card. Then he resurfaces with my credit card but makes me re-sign my check. He is bashful and sweet.
“I’m so sorry. It’s only my second day,” he yells over the din. Nervous, he almost knocks over my milkshake heading back toward the kitchen.
He turns to smile one more time.
“Like I said, my second day.”
Something in his plaintive smile charms me.
Heading into both neighborhoods, I knew what to expect: Avant-garde quirk in Somerville; predictable glitz at the Seaport.
I underestimated something, though. I’d started out by reflexively categorizing the experience on the whole: food, atmosphere, crowd.
But in both places, it was about the people, one by one. Sebastian Galvez’s mom. Mysterious dancing ladies silhouetted in a darkened barroom window. Keith Tate and his dusty records and snoozing dog. Ami, the cheerful server who wasn’t too busy to joke with a squirmy kid. The guy at Kings who just started and really wanted to do a good job. The grinning boy at Caffe Nero.
The neighborhoods? Nothing alike. The people? Kind. Real. Flashes of humanity around every corner, whether over cheap empanadas in Somerville or big-budget ravioli in the Seaport.
After the past few weeks, it felt good to see that.