At East Coast Grill, one final, fiery Hell Night
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There is a man running around Cambridge's East Coast Grill wearing dreadlocks made of red plastic chile peppers. He's dancing, whistling, and hugging people. They hug him back. Outside in the cold, two young women peer in the windows and shiver.
"That's him!" one yells. "It's Doctor Pepper! He's the mascot! He's a legend!"
"Stand back!" someone hollers from inside. "People need to get out. Please move away from the doors. People need to leave!"
A throng sways snakelike to the right, allowing a wild-haired man with a cane and parachute pants to pass into the frigid night air.
"Amazing!" he cries. His face — twisted in disbelief and glee, years of history in those wrinkles — is illuminated by the restaurant's neon signage. "Just amazing!"
Is this a revival meeting? A rally? Similar fervor, but nope. This is a last chance for loyal patrons to pay homage to Hell Night — a recurring, reservations-only meal featuring East Coast Grill's most blistering dishes, known to reduce many to tears of pleasure and pain. The 30-year-old landmark closed Jan. 23.
The barbecue restaurant electrified Boston's dining scene under former chef Chris Schlesinger when it opened in 1985, injecting a splash of smoke and heat into an era of heavy sauces and tall salads. Some restaurants had white tablecloths and leather wine lists; East Coast Grill had neon lights, fish mounted on the walls, and plastic mermaids dangling from cocktail glasses. Special menus on appointed Hell Nights pushed the envelope even further and gave chefs a chance to experiment with other spicy cuisines — Thai, Indian, Caribbean.
And so a cultish curiosity was born. Hell Night became a rite of passage, like your first trip to Newbury Comics as a teenager. Did you get in? You ate what? Was your stomach ever the same? The fiery faithful became known as Chile-Heads. The motto, spelled out on the bottom of the menu: "No wimps. Absolutely no substitutions."
On this night, current chef-owner Jason Heard is re-creating the scene one more time, reviving the spiciest dishes from the past decades, like Pasta From Hell and Scorpion Chile-Artichoke Dip. He has called the event "One Last Night in Hell."
Let's be honest: There is a gimmicky masochism to eating a chili dog named Massive Ass of Destruction. But nostalgia is an equalizer. Heard tells me that there were 300 reservations, with 120 more people on standby. Dozens more hover at the door.
"This is like the death of a friend," says Newbury's Kevin Barlow, whose dining companion fans her tongue.
Across the way, Hyde Park's John Towle beams with pleasure as he picks apart a Hell Bone.
"This is what East Coast Grill does best. Unbelievable flavor. Hot as hell." He blushes and composes himself. "I'm what you might call a Schlesinger groupie. I have the cookbooks. I've been to about 10 of these things," he says.
A lone diner hunkers in a corner of the dining room with a spread of dips and dogs. He has waited 45 minutes to get inside. Doctor Pepper — he of the dreadlocks and warm embraces — saunters over to make pals. By day, he's George Greenidge from Mission Hill, and he's going to feel lost without his hangout.
"I don't know who's going to buy this place," he says. "But look! Look at all these people who love it!"
He's right. An older man sits next to a young guy with a baby in his coat, both elbow deep in wings. This might be the last egalitarian place to eat in Cambridge, a neon time capsule and one more restaurant — Chez Henri, UpStairs on the Square, Rendezvous — lost to memory. Except for a $33 raw bar platter, nothing tonight costs more than $20.
A table of 20-somethings who probably weren't born during the first Hell Night drink beer next to Tim Dineen, who says he assists Doctor Pepper with his costumes. He stands off to the side as waiters brush past, tugging at his Hell Night T-shirt.
"I've been coming here since Jake & Earl's," Dineen says, referring to Schlesinger's barbecue spot next door that was eventually taken over by this one. "I walk from Somerville. This closing hit me like a ton of bricks."
But for now, the heat is on. Chef Heard hollers orders at the pass like an angry preacher even though the end is near. The bar is five deep with men in sweater vests standing next to guys with big black earrings. Occasionally a generous customer buys a six-pack for the kitchen, and everyone erupts in cheers. Even devils need to drink.
Outside, an EMS worker waits at the door.
"Are you here to drag someone out?" an onlooker asks.
"I have before. But tonight I'm just here to see a buddy," he says, and then ambles down the sidewalk.
Another gaggle of diners spills onto the street.
"Thanks so much for taking me," a woman says to her friend. "This was on my bucket list."
She wipes away tears. Must be the heat.