Eastern Standard is a perfect restaurant. Eastern Standard is not a four-star restaurant. So often stars are beside the point.
This is the place you come before and after the game, to celebrate a birthday, late at night, in the middle of the day, for a casual dinner, for a nice dinner, for brunch, when you’ve got kids with you, when you’ve got vegetarians with you, when someone in your party has a food allergy, when someone in your party is picky, when your nonagenarian nana and punk-rock niece are going to be celebrating at the same table, when you are by yourself and don’t want to deal with anyone at all except a bartender who will hand you a well-made cocktail and know enough to leave you alone. It’s the place where you wind up sharing a platter of local oysters with a jovial businessman from Alabama, because he’s never had them before; it’s the place where you linger with a dear friend for longer than you should, drinking one more drink than you should, talking about the meaning of life while sinking deeper and deeper into a curved red booth. It is, in fact, “all things to all diners,” as the headline read a decade ago in the original Globe review, just after the restaurant opened.
A few years back, we saw some of Boston’s most-established restaurants close: Aujourd’hui, Locke-Ober, the Oak Room. We talked a lot about the passing of tradition, and lamented a way of life some said was disappearing, and fretted that the bartenders and waiters we knew by name would never again bring us that ice-cold martini or grandiose lobster dish. But the restaurant scene abhors a vacuum. Ten years in, Eastern Standard is Tradition: The Next Generation. When I look around the room I see the little table by the window where I shared a cheese plate with the man I’d one day marry (it’s a good cheese plate!), and the bar where like so many others in this town I got an education in a different kind of cocktail, courtesy of bar director Jackson Cannon, and the booth where I ate with journalist friends the night we spotted David Carr of The New York Times on the street and wanted to invite him to dinner but were too shy, and a few months later he was gone. I will always regret that dinner we didn’t have. I will always want another cocktail from that bar.
The space itself gives pleasure — a big, bustling brasserie that isn’t overdone or self-conscious. It’s just right. On one side is the dining room, with burgundy banquettes and white tablecloths crowded with thick, red-rimmed china platters of roast chicken and baked rigatoni from chef Matt Garland. On the other is the bar, a length of white marble with red leather stools, facing a row of high tops. The tile-covered floors remind me of old apartment-building lobbies. The lighting is not too dark and not too bright, cast by lamps with red shades and overhead globes. It’s impossible to walk past the raw bar station without craving shrimp cocktail in the worst way. The outdoor patio, warmed by heating lamps, offers a steady stream of urban vignettes. It’s French style by way of Keith McNally’s New York, in Boston, loud and comfortable and welcoming.
Owner Garrett Harker is also behind adjacent Hotel Commonwealth spots Island Creek Oyster Bar and the Hawthorne, Row 34 in Fort Point and Portsmouth, N.H., and the new Branch Line in Watertown, opened with Eastern Standard GM Andrew Holden. Another Island Creek Oyster Bar is planned for Burlington. Harker’s restaurants are known for hospitality in a town that doesn’t always specialize in it; he might be the closest Boston comes to a Danny Meyer. Despite the burgeoning empire, Eastern Standard’s service is mostly holding strong. It’s a surprise on a recent night when, after a long wait at the bar despite a reservation, a staffer tells us to close out our tab so we can “take care of” our bartender. Of course we are going to tip this person who has taken such good care of us — recommending an obscure yet perfect drink for a friend, mixing a spot-on Aviation, somehow making wonderful both a drink incorporating radishes and Calvados and another combining gin with curry and mango chutney. Eastern Standard’s bar lineup, headed by bar manager Naomi Levy, is eternally one of the strongest in town. There’s also a corking good wine list from wine director Colleen Hein, and a really fine selection of beers.
The food is and has always been the reason Eastern Standard is not a four-star restaurant. Some nights it’s there. The oysters are perfectly shucked. The steak tartare is the best in town, the raw beef perked up with onion and capers and topped with an array of pickles, so fresh and savory you can’t stop eating. The frisee salad is rich with poached egg and duck cracklins and bright with Banyuls vinaigrette. The grilled cheese is buttery and crisp, Vermont cheddar tangy against house-made rye; the burger is the one I’ve always loved, beefy, juicy, just medium-rare, augmented with a modicum of cheddar and some pickle slices. Carrot agnolotti balance sweet and nutty, the tender dumplings swathed in brown butter and sprinkled with pine nuts. A Friday-night special of halibut is gorgeous, roasted golden and plated with clams, chanterelles, and sweet corn. Grilled flat-iron steak is juicy, with fantastic flavor.
Other nights, there’s shell in your Moon Shoals. The balance of the tartare is off and it needs seasoning. The frisee is underdressed. The grilled cheese is squishy and the cheese so bland you wonder if the kitchen ran out of cheddar; the burger lacks oomph, swallowed by the buttered, toasted brioche bun it usually fills out amply. Semolina-based Roman gnocchi have gone soggy under the richness of truffled Mornay sauce. Bluefish with cherry tomatoes, hominy, and hazelnut romesco sauce is nothing special, the fish dry and the flavors failing to add up. Smoked pork porterhouse is overcooked too.
The roasted bone marrow, pushed over the top with ’nduja marmalade and tomato vinaigrette? The fries, salty, skinny, so crisp they are barely potatoes at all anymore? Pastry chef Lauren Kroesser’s butterscotch bread pudding, sweet and comforting, with praline ice cream and salted caramel? Oh, and those cheese plates with fetching accompaniments? These are always grand.
Home after a recent dinner on an off-night, I sent one of my tablemates a message. “I know our meal wasn’t all that great, but I still love Eastern Standard and want to go back right now.”
She replied: “I feel exactly the same way.”
• Eastern Standard wins 2014 Munch Madness
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.