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The surprising truth behind ‘cursed’ restaurant locations

Deuxave Restaurant, at the corner of Comm. and Mass. avenues, is doing well despite its the location’s history of failed restaurants.
Deuxave Restaurant, at the corner of Comm. and Mass. avenues, is doing well despite its the location’s history of failed restaurants. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

It happens all the time. A restaurant opens in a space where a string of restaurants have failed, and sure enough, it, too, goes bust — the inevitable victim, everyone agrees, of a “cursed” location.

But is the perception accurate? Can a space, like a baseball team, be jinxed?

The answer is definitely no — but also sort of yes.

Nick Varano , a player on Boston’s restaurant scene, insists the supernatural has no role here. He says a place succeeds or fails based on a few things called quality and value and customer service and matching the concept to the neighborhood.

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“If I believed in curses,” he said, “I would never have been the first in the Seaport.”

It was pointed out that when he opened Strega Waterfront, in 2010, the Seaport was not a cursed location, but rather a nonlocation. Unless you were taking your grandparents to Anthony’s Pier 4 or Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant, you didn’t go.

In contrast — by its very definition — a cursed space fails where it should succeed. A cursed space can emerge in a trendy restaurant zone like the Back Bay or Southie, and in less pricey neighborhoods, too. All around eateries are packing in foodies and regulars, while it stands deserted, silent, pitied.

Let’s go to what’s believed to be one of the city’s most cursed locations, the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues. Every time you looked, it was something different. Baci’s. The Seasonal Table. Panificio. That’s when it wasn’t vacant.

As Donald Trump might demand to know: What the [heck] is going on?

Was the space hexed by a dissatisfied diner exacting a revenge that went way beyond a negative Yelp review? Was it doomed by real-world factors — a high Back Bay rent, a long, narrow configuration, the awkward curved walls?

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Whatever the problem was, when chef Christopher Coombs signed a lease in early 2009, he recalled, “I had people in the industry telling me I was crazy.”

In other words, even though the location’s physical and financial challenges were well comprehended by restaurant folks, the “cursed” reputation still made some of Coombs’s peers so wary they tried to warn him and his co-owner away.

But rather than a hex,Coombs saw opportunity. He liked the big windows and the exposed brick, and believed that a favorable lease, plus a gut renovation that included moving the bar to the front of the restaurant, could overcome the space’s losing streak.

And he was right. When the Globe reviewed the resulting restaurant — Deuxave — it got three stars.

But as restaurant consultant Ed Doyle explained, sometimes the mere perception that a space is cursed can drive away operators who have choices about where to open — namely those who are well-financed and experienced.

That means the restaurateurs most likely to go into a space that has hosted multiple failures may be the very people most likely to fail no matter where they open: novices and those without strong financing.

In a business with notoriously tight profit margins, where seemingly surmountable things can become significant — the foot or vehicular traffic pattern outside the front door, a bar that breaks up the energy of the room, a second-floor location — one failure makes the next more likely.

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Doyle gave an example of a situation in which a restaurant closes suddenly, owing the landlord $50,000 in rent. Eager to recoup whatever he can, the landlord can be willing to rent the space at bargain prices.

It’s snapped up by an operator without many other options, who, in turn, is less likely to do the renovation that may be needed, said Peter Gori, a director with Newmark Grubb Knight Frank who specializes in restaurant leasing.

“They’ll change the bathroom color scheme and people will go in and say, ‘This is the same place as we just left.’ ”

Sometimes a previously admired famous person does something so bad that everyone knows it will become the lead of his obituary. A location’s losing streak is equally significant. Inevitably, it’s mentioned in any review of the latest restaurant to try its luck.

Consider this review of the Salty Pig, a charcuterie-focused restaurant that Jim Cochener and his Coda Restaurant Group dared to open at 130 Dartmouth St. — a seemingly ideal location next to Copley Place.

“Despite all kinds of traffic,” the Boston Phoenix noted high up in its 2012 review, “it didn’t work as Moka, Hazel’s, Firefly, or Six Burner.”

Cochener says people thought he was “out of his mind” to go risk the obvious “jinx.” But as paranormal investigators know, not everything is what it seems.

What the passersby who took note every time the restaurant’s name changed likely didn’t know, he pointed out, was that all of the restaurants were owned by the same operators — in other words, it wasn’t a case in which owner after owner gave up on the space.

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Asked about the impact of the space’s “cursed” reputation on the Salty Pig, Cochener said that diners who knew him from his popular Coda in the South End likely came, and noted that he’s been in business for five years — and earned glowing reviews.

“But I don’t know how many stayed away because they thought it’s just another redo of what was already there.”

You know who else doesn’t believe in curses? Russ Berger, the former co-owner of all those revolving restaurants at 130 Dartmouth St.

The problems were in fact very real world, he said. He and his wife, Sherry, were overburdened because they were also running three other restaurants in Boston while living in Danvers and starting a family; and, back then, the restaurant space had inadequate ventilation (since fixed) that meant diners would leave smelling like food.

The Bergers now own one restaurant, the popular Red Rock Bar & Grill in Upton, and some six years after giving up on Dartmouth Street and Boston once and for all, Russ Berger seemed pleased that another operator was making a go of the space.

“I believe restaurants are like theaters,” he said. “Sometimes you just need a new show.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.