Boston’s restaurant scene has been in a molting phase. Titans have fallen by the wayside (goodbye, Locke-Ober), with modern, of-the-moment spots opening in their place (hello, Yvonne’s). The people behind the most expensive restaurant in town (O Ya) recently opened the only sushi spot to ever actually encourage chugging sake bombs at the table (Hojoko). Big-name chefs like Ken Oringer (Clio), Michael Leviton (Lumiere), and Gordon Hamersley (Hamersley’s Bistro) closed or otherwise parted ways with their flagship restaurants. The Boston Public Market finally took root downtown, while Eat Boutique, an ultra-chic, pop-up artisanal food hall, set up shop before the holidays — in Allston, no less.
Where will that leave us in the year to come? Here are a few ways you can expect to see the food scene shift in 2016 — with predictions from restaurant insiders for added perspective.
Grains will grow
Grains such as rye, spelt, and triticale will continue to infiltrate restaurant menus for varied texture, flavor, and heft. “I think there is a whole new wave of gluten coming,” says Oleana’s Ana Sortun. She favors grains from Northfield-based Four Star Farms, as do chefs Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi, who will be grinding up Four Star’s spelt with a flour mill on the premises at forthcoming Venetian restaurant SRV, transforming it into chewy, rustic pastas. More heirloom flint corn varieties are available to chefs, too, thanks to specialty growers like Westport’s Ivory Silo. At Bondir, Jason Bond uses the ancient Mesoamerican technique of nixtamalization to process his own red flint corn, grown in Concord. He then incorporates it into bread and corn caramels.
Vegan food: Not just for vegans
Vegetable-focused cuisine has been on the rise. We will continue to see more dishes and restaurants that are vegan, sometimes sneakily so. The Allston space that’s home to casual, counter-style Whole Heart Provisions was previously the veggie-centric Root, and before that a vegan pizzeria called Peace o’ Pie. But co-owners Rebecca Arnold and James DiSabatino seem to be the ones who can actually make a vegan concept stick here. The key? Not just appealing to vegan diners, but tempting carnivorous ones with appealing meat-free meals. “I’m trying to impress my friends — people who have never had a meal without chicken,” DiSabatino says. This mind-set has pervaded the higher end as well. At Townsman, chef Matt Jennings put a vegan, charred vegetable-based Bolognese (topped with optional shaved cheese) on the dinner menu without labeling it vegan. “I think the [misperception] for us is that we are a meat restaurant, so for me it was about showing people that I think we do vegetables as well or better than most places,” Jennings says. “We thought it would be cool to do something with that meaty flavor and umami, but [that] had no meat products in it.”
More not-so-old restaurants will close
We are losing area stalwarts apace — Hamersley’s Bistro, Clio, East Coast Grill. But 2015 also saw the closure of several quite good and not-very-old restaurants — A4, East by Northeast, and Hungry Mother, to name a handful. And while reasons for the closures vary, one thing is clear: More are on the way. There are simply more restaurant seats in interesting restaurants than there are interested diners, with options increasing all the time. And an ever-worsening labor crisis makes it hard to keep things running up to snuff. “Everyone will talk about how hard it is to staff, but no one is not opening their second restaurant,” points out Tiffani Faison, who did just that with the Southeast Asian-inspired Tiger Mama in the Fenway. Factors like a lack of late-night MBTA service and high residential rents, meanwhile, are barriers to new, fresh talent coming in. “I hate to say it, but I don’t know if Boston, being the size that it is, has enough people to sustain the kind of cuisine that people want to do here,” says Matt Gaudet, chef and co-owner of Kendall Square’s much-lauded West Bridge, which closed at the end of 2015 after just 3½ years. He’s staying in the business but is starting to rethink the types of restaurants that make sense to open here.
Chefs will diversify
In order to maximize a less-specialized labor pool, appeal to diners looking to spend less, and open new revenue streams, more chefs will continue to open fast-casual concepts, augmenting their higher-end restaurants. From Jody Adams (Rialto), for instance, comes “fine-casual” Saloniki in the Fenway. The team from Journeyman just announced they will start serving their ticketed, high-end tasting menus Thursday through Sunday only, with a new casual, a la carte concept the rest of the week. (They are also replacing all of their stoves with a wood-burning fireplace.) And Puritan & Co.’s Will Gilson has opened a juice bar in Kendall Square’s Google building and expanded a private dining area next door to Puritan. Private dining, Gilson says, is “the No. 1 growing sector from 2015 that we knew we had to work on trying to capture.”
Other chefs are leaving the traditional restaurant industry altogether, to focus on consulting and food advocacy. “There are interesting things going on here that could become national if they scale properly — to me that is really interesting,” says Michael Leviton, who recently sold his Newton flagship Lumiere and bowed out of his partnership in Area Four. What will this mean for him, exactly? “I’m going to be deliberately vague,” Leviton says. We’ll have to wait and see.
Central Square will blow up
While long a neighborhood with stellar food (see: Craigie on Main, Toscanini’s), Central Square and environs will be gaining even more traction in the year to come, with Little Donkey from Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, an arcade-themed bar from DiSabatino and Area Four’s Michael Krupp, and the all-day cafe and restaurant Pagu from O Ya alum Tracy Chang. Closer to Kendall Square, a new (rumored to be Myers + Chang-style) restaurant from Joanne Chang is in the works, while farther up Mass. Ave. toward Harvard will be Waypoint, a seafood and pizza-focused spot from Alden & Harlow’s Michael Scelfo. “All of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, from MIT’s campus down through Porter [Square], feels like it will be the most exciting corridor where things are happening in 2016,” says Jesse Baerkahn of GraffitoSP, a retail-development firm involved in some of the deals. Other neighborhoods to watch: Fenway and South Boston.
Bars will chill out
After years of teaching the general public that fine cocktails should be revered, bartenders are dialing back the serious factor. You’ll find more and more over-the-top tiki drinks, and spots like Fenway’s Hojoko serving cocktails that come from tanks (think: Auntie Anne’s lemonade style), from slushie machines, and in shot form. Beyond loosening things up a bit, there are other advantages — with quick turnaround times, drinks can get to guests rapidly and allow bars to push more volume.
Even the wording on cocktail menus is being toned down. “How much does the amount of effort that we’ve put into a drink really matter to [the customer] enjoying it?,” says Hojoko’s Daren Swisher. “I don’t know if I need to construct a menu where I need to show off that I am super-smart and can pronounce all of these weird Italian bitters.”
More celebrity chefs
With skyrocketing rents and liquor license costs, it’s becoming increasingly hard for chefs to open restaurants in Boston proper. You know who can deal with those factors? Wealthy celebrity chefs from out of town, backed by big-money restaurant groups. Despite the lack of success with previous, higher-end attempts from Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Market) and Guy Martin (Sensing), we will see a slew of more-casual spots infiltrating the city. In addition to Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental, Mario Batali’s Eataly will set up shop in the Prudential Center, joining his successful Babbo on the waterfront, while San Francisco chef Michael Mina will be opening an outpost of izakaya PABU.
Restaurants will do more with less
Businesses will grow by shrinking down. Demonstrating what just a slip of space can produce is the new Gracenote coffee shop on Lincoln Street downtown, a collaboration between Gracenote coffee producers and Alessandro Bellino of the Coffee Trike. It’s a spot offering some of the finest coffees in the city, plus a handful of baked treats from nearby Townsman, within just 240 square feet of space. “I think the new technique in the urban setting is that you make the space smaller — then you can imitate what you see in more fringe neighborhoods,” says GraffitoSP’s Baerkahn, who helped with the Gracenote space as well as a group of vendors located in shipping containers at the Waterfront’s Innovation and Design Building. The Boston Public Market, meanwhile, lets upstart businesses test out their wares with short leases, allowing them to be more experimental.
Restaurants, too, are getting crafty with space — this year, in what used to be a market, Somerville’s La Brasa opens Fat Hen, an Italian restaurant-within-the-restaurant.
Breakfast gets more interesting
Mornings are getting a major upgrade. Oringer and Bissonnette’s Little Donkey and Chang’s Pagu will function as all-day cafes. At the soon-to-open Juliet, in Union Square, chef and co-owner Joshua Lewin will be taking the breakfast idea one step further, augmenting to-go items with sit-down breakfast sets served at a kitchen counter in back. “The presentation of multiple items at once felt really good for breakfast time,” says co-owner Katrina Jazayeri of the meals, which might be Japanese, Persian, French, or all-American in style. “We thought this could be a really fun way to showcase a lot of ideas and techniques.”
What restaurant professionals want to see this year:
“Good God, I hope this is the year we see the beginning of the ‘small plates meant for sharing’ backlash. Everyone came out of the recession wanting the hip, newest fads in food, excited that they could afford it. And it was fun. But now I think people are starting to realize that they want delicious, honest food, prepared well, served in a way that makes sense and honors the guest before anyone else.” — Scott Jones, chef de cuisine, Menton
“Going to larger-format, more community-based [dishes]. We see lots of parties of 10-15 people together dining and getting larger formats, whether that’s cocktails or food. . . . [At Hojoko] we actually have the tuna ribs; it’s the whole backbone of the tuna. We sell out of it.” — Tim and Nancy Cushman, owners, O Ya and Hojoko
“I’m really excited for Filipino vinegars, like coconut vinegars. I was just in the Philippines and I had some really simple ones. You can buy it in Ming’s in Chinatown. I like it on pretty much everything — vegetables, fish, meat. . . . It adds that awesome twang.” — Jamie Bissonnette, chef/owner, Toro, Coppa
“I see a lot of delicious, naturally smoked ingredients popping up — honey, maple syrup, olive oil, yogurt.” — Cassie Piuma, chef-owner, Sarma
“I want to see a modern automat open in Boston. . . . Can robot servers take orders this year, too?” — Gordon Hamersley
“With new spots offering up Greek food, for instance, I bet guests will learn that’s there’s more than Retsina and Ouzo on the beverage lists. The array of fantastic Greek wines available, and incredible spirits like Tentura, Mastika, Rakomelo, Tsipouro, Dittany herbal bitters, and the variety of styles of Ouzo (served chilled and enjoyed with the meal, not after), will wow guests who have never traveled to the country.” — Brother Cleve, barman extraordinaireLeah Mennies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @lmennies.