The first punches were thrown playfully, just a bro at the bar roughhousing after too many beers. The next few were unmistakably rougher, enough to prompt his drinking buddies to tell him to knock it off. The fists kept coming, directed at a friend to his left. Hit to the thigh. Kidney shot. Jab to the ribs.
By now, the barstool scene was drawing stares from nearby tables. Seated right behind the melee, we quietly edged away. Not until the boxer’s companions grabbed him and bellowed “stop it!” did he actually stop.
I’ll get to the food eventually, I promise. But the performance wasn’t over. A half-hour later, thoroughly trashed, the same young man had to be helped out the door, one friend at each shoulder to prop him up. Outside, he tripped and fell near the restaurant’s entrance, landing sprawled on the cement while the crowd inside gaped and gasped.
Every bar, no matter how classy, has its drunks. I get that. But this wasn’t a sports bar. It wasn’t some dive. It wasn’t a bucket-of-blood tavern near North Station populated by guys in Celtics and Bruins jerseys. It was State Street Provisions, a fashionable place on coveted downtown real estate serving charcuterie plates, salted caramel cream puffs, and $35 rib eyes.
Where was the restaurant’s staff during this? Nowhere to be found, although two employees at the host stand did join the gawking as the guy staggered out the door. Obvious note to management: When a drop-down drunk is in the house, and later collapses on the pavement outside your establishment, at least go through the motions of checking if he’s clutching car keys or needs a ride home.
Which got me doing some frivolous existential pondering: When is a bar just a bar, and when can it legitimately also be called a restaurant?
Management’s indifference to that episode, which capped two visits marked by uniformly mediocre food and lackadaisical service, left me questioning what exactly State Street Provisions wants to be.
Located on Long Wharf at the former site of Sel de la Terre and City Landing, State Street Provisions is the first Boston outpost for the Grafton Group, the respected restaurant company that also runs Grafton Street Pub & Grill, Park Restaurant & Bar, Russell House Tavern, and Temple Bar, all in Cambridge. The new spot opened in December.
SSP — let’s call it for short — is beautifully designed, with a wood-floored, leather-boothed dining room partially overlooking the Greenway. There’s also a handsome bar and a charming “pantry” filled with cured meats and cheeses, house-made preserves, mustards, jams, and other little jars of goodness. The decor is vaguely nautical, a theme that extends to the bar menu; there’s a rotating grog, and cocktails have names like Quarterdeck, First Mate, and Nantucket Reds.
Local wharf history is milked to the max, including drinks containing ingredients with historic waterfront significance, like smoked molasses (a reference to the North End’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919), caramelized bananas (because the city’s first shipment of bananas supposedly came through Long Wharf), and tea (be very ashamed if you don’t know tea’s place in Boston’s history).
Warning: This is a loud restaurant. How loud? During one visit, we glanced at our friends’ 6-month-old son — who’d been impressively quiet throughout the meal — and were startled to see his face contorted, mouth agape and eyes squinched, the telltale visage of a distressed baby. He was mid-scream, but we couldn’t hear a thing because he was drowned out by the din.
We had some OK food here. The bread basket was easily the highlight. It’s filled with Parker House rolls, a New England classic, warm and soft and exquisitely buttery even without being buttered.
An asparagus salad was nice. The spears were grilled with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then paired with farro, pine nuts, and a sunny-side-up egg. We were puzzled by the white paste it rested on, which matched nothing in the menu description. “That’s farmer’s cheese,” our waiter replied matter-of-factly when we asked, information later contradicted by chef Tom Borgia (former executive chef at Russell House Tavern), who described it as a puree of Parmesan and heavy cream. It was an odd omission in this era of food allergy hyper-awareness.
Salt cod fritters were a big hit, a masterpiece of frying. They’re crunchy on the outside, light as air in the middle, and just the right balance of bread and fish. They’re made with a beer batter also used in the tempura-fried cod, explaining why the cod’s fried crust is so good. Unfortunately, it sits in a gummy pool of quahog-littleneck chowder, what one of my tablemates aptly called “quahog goo.”
The quinoa fritter is basically a fancied-up veggie burger, serviceable but not memorable. It’s accompanied by peas, carrots, and a pea puree that resembles guacamole.
SSP makes a decent burger topped with cheddar, pancetta, smoked onion, and house-made pickles on an English muffin. “It’s the best in Boston,” Borgia assured me. Self-confidence can be a valuable personality trait, but boasting should be backed up by execution; our burger, like our grilled rib eye, was ordered medium-rare yet arrived verging on well-done. They were flavorful, yes, but extremely dry.
Things went further downhill from there. House-made sausage arrived loukanico-style, a Greek approach with coriander, orange peel, and fennel seed, and was oddly sour. Roast chicken was bland, although it came with a nice selection of root vegetables. Grilled Atlantic salmon was marred by a blood orange-ginger vinaigrette that tasted mostly of vinegar.
Of all our entrees, a grilled pork chop had the most robust flavor, but it was excessively salty, even for brined meat. Is the kitchen not tasting dishes before they leave for the dining room?
We tried all five desserts and can only recommend two: Rancatore’s sorbet or wonderful cream cheese flan served with macerated berries and addictive caramel popcorn. The cream puffs were stale and, bafflingly, contained no cream. Flourless chocolate cake: not worth the calories. Our hopes for the hazelnut-cherry cake died when we had trouble slicing through its rubbery texture.
We settled up and felt sad. “We just spent a lot of money on really subpar food,” one friend pronounced.
Because of its prime location, State Street Provisions will inevitably benefit from tourist traffic, but it’s going to have to up its game if it hopes to earn business from regulars and not hurt the Grafton Group brand. In its current state, it’s succeeding as a bar — drunks aside, we enjoyed the beer, wine, and cocktails — but stumbling as a restaurant.
STATE STREET PROVISIONS
255 State St., Long Wharf, Boston, 617-863-8363, statestreetprovisions.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$13. Entrees $18-$35. Desserts $8.
Hours: Dinner daily 5-11 p.m. (late-night menu until midnight Sun-Wed and 1 a.m. Thu-Sat). Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Noise level: Loud enough to drown out a screaming baby
What to order: Grilled asparagus salad, salt cod fritters, tempura-fried cod, burger, cream cheese flan
A previous headline on this story referred to a “fistfight,” but the punches were thrown by one individual.