Every restaurant has a life cycle. It is easy to remember Locke-Ober toward its stodgy end, a stop for tourists in T-shirts and nostalgics who first frequented the place before women were allowed in. But in its heyday, the restaurant — in operation for more than 130 years — was the place to be. The city’s politicians and power brokers rubbed elbows at the tables, which came draped in white cloths and bearing steak dinners and martini lunches. Regulars had their own chairs. Jackets were required. A portrait of a scantily clad woman known as Mademoiselle Yvonne was draped in black whenever Harvard lost to Yale.
Now the space is called Yvonne’s, and it is — once again — the place to be. Heavy entrees have been replaced by small plates. Ward 8 cocktails, invented at Locke-Ober, are being made well anew, alongside drinks like the 1989 (vodka, lavender, elderflower, celery, and champagne) and the Ladder District (rye, Calvados, cinnamon, and bitters). Many original touches remain — the ornate dark wood, the hand-carved bar. In the cozy, clubby space called the Library Bar, walls are lined with books and there are portraits of a tattooed JFK (a Locke-Ober patron) and Christopher Walken and Bill Murray in military regalia. The dining room is decorated with flocked wallpaper, curved chartreuse booths, grand chandeliers, and swags of light bulbs that cast just the right glow.
Yvonne’s is often impossibly crowded and extremely loud. A line snakes out the door, onto brick-lined Winter Place. Patrons are herded through a salon at the entrance (opening next week); a doorman phones the host inside, then ushers parties in. No one needs an official dress code to tell them to look their best. Urban goddesses gather before gilded fireplaces and settle into tufted couches. Cufflinks flash at the white marble bar. The word people use most to describe the place is “sexy,” and they aren’t wrong. (Note to other local venues aiming to create a racy vibe: The women servers here look incredibly fetching in their suspenders. They aren’t poured into demeaning girdles and garters. Yvonne’s doesn’t trumpet its sex appeal. It whispers. That’s much sexier, isn’t it?)
At establishments geared toward creating such an atmosphere, the food is often an afterthought. At Yvonne’s, it is a focus and a strength. Culinary director Tom Berry (Nantucket’s the Proprietors) and executive chef Juan Pedrosa (the Glenville Stops) produce a menu that can feel disjointed. What do pumpkin hummus, baked oysters, Korean fried chicken flatbread, and flank steak stuffed with salami and provolone have in common? They are easy to share, and that is what we are meant to do.
Before filing pumpkin hummus away with pumpkin spice lattes and other scented atrocities, give it a try. Lightly sweet, it is showered with pomegranate seeds, pepitas, and shaved Parmesan. The flavors work well together, though the accompanying toasts inevitably run out before the dip. Baked oysters “Savannah” salute Locke-Ober’s signature lobster Savannah, wherein the meat was sauteed in butter and stuffed back into the carapace with a sherry-spiked cream sauce. Today, Duxbury oysters are returned to their shells with lobster, porcini cream, and Parmesan. “Crispy tater cubes” are tots extraordinaire, interiors compressed yet creamy, served with a version of the Dutch condiment Joppiesaus, gouda, and a beet-pink pickled egg. (Cheese appears on more than half the dishes here.)
The above are filed under “snacks” on the menu, which segues into “toast.” Charred maitake mushrooms are piled on the bread with a whipped miso sauce, a fine mix of savory flavors and contrasting textures. Another version is smeared with avocado, topped with hamachi crudo, passion-fruit brown butter, and “porky” cashews (which taste much like non-porky cashews). There is a lot going on here, and it all falls off when one tries to bite the too-crunchy toast. I have an idea: Just serve the crudo on a plate.
Stone-fired pitas — essentially flatbreads — come adorned with everything from broccoli rabe and green olives to Turkish beef sausage. The K.F.C. pita promises Korean fried chicken, but the pieces are so small, they are mostly Korean fried breading, with kimchi, scallions, and Gruyere.
Things pick up with “social plates.” Chicken and quinoa meatballs are slightly dense, but accompaniments of Chinese garlic sauce, spicy mayonnaise, peanuts, sesame seeds, and herbs invigorate them. Tender grilled octopus with gigante beans, grapefruit, fennel, and smoky, warming harissa is a dish to come here for, light and bright. (Toasted rice scattered over for crunch does its job too well. The black shards look — and taste — like burned matchsticks.) Perfectly cooked shrimp come stacked one atop the other, swimming in a pool of green mojo sauce, wearing a crown of fingerling potato chips. Charred broccoli rabe is topped with lentil-carrot fritters that read like extra-good waffle fries; Brussels sprouts are undercooked.
The kitchen is at its best when it comes to “feasts,” made to serve the table. (If you really want to supersize, accompany one with a large-format cocktail, like rye punch made with oolong tea or the Goodbye, Me, based around mint-infused gin, sake, and champagne.) The grilled “viper” chop features generous pieces of short rib over kimchi fried rice, with a spicy, compelling Korean sauce on the side. The dish is excellent. Even better is a platter of sliced tuna, breaded on the outside and raw on the inside, somewhere between sushi and schnitzel. It’s served over a salad of Sardinian couscous with arugula, cauliflower, olives, and pine nuts. A brick-red sauce of Calabrian chiles, the heat balanced by plenty of acid, is essential for drizzling. Half the staff stops by our table to tell us it’s their favorite dish on the menu. Ours too.
Pastry chef Kate Holowchik (Bread & Salt Hospitality) caps off the night with clever sweets like a sweet-salty popcorn brulee, the custard accompanied by caramel corn, raisins, and apples, and boozy versions of classic ice cream treats. The Campari flavor of the Negroni Drumstick gets lost a bit beneath the orange Magic Shell. But the Painkiller Choco Taco, with ice cream that tastes like a tiki drink, is pure cheeky pleasure.
Service here is strong, from the skilled and hospitable bartenders to the well-informed servers. (Hosts occasionally neglect parties waiting to be seated, due to the volume in the lounge.) Yvonne’s is the rare establishment that succeeds in bridging the divides between bar, restaurant, and club. Many blamed Locke-Ober’s demise on its tucked-away location. Seems now that wasn’t the problem. Its time had simply come.
Yvonne’s is just arriving.
★ ★ ½
2 Winter Place, Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-267-0047, www.yvonnesboston.com All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Small plates $9-$18. Feasts $70-$110. Desserts $4-$9.
Hours Daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m. (Food served 5-11 p.m.)
Noise level Loud.
What to order Pumpkin hummus, grilled octopus, crispy tuna fregola, grilled “viper” chop, Painkiller Choco Taco.
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