In the 18 years that I’ve lived in Boston, neither I nor anyone I know has ever ventured to the 52nd floor of the Prudential for a culinary adventure with a view. Dining in the sky at places like Top of the Hub has lost its appeal among those who prefer to look at the food on the table, not what’s beyond it. What a pity.
Restaurants atop towers have a storied, albeit 20th-century, heritage; Tom Wolfe’s description, in “The Pump House Gang,” of a particularly ribald evening in the “Top of the Fair” tower at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York captured the moment when dining above it all reached its zenith. These days, solipsistic chefs would rather not compete with a skyline, the result being that excellent fare and excellent vistas are too often mutually exclusive. Top of the Hub remains a slightly threadbare reminder that fine diners once aspired to both.
All of which explains the two main duties of the maitre d’s: They’re the first line of defense against the riffraff — those attempting to spend the $18 fee for the Pru’s Skywalk Observatory on Bud Lites instead, while enjoying the same view. When such scofflaws are detected, the seasoned host-stand attendants will invoke the restaurant’s dress code, casting the T-shirted and flip-flopped interlopers back down to the lobby to rethink their plan. Second, the maitre d’s are here to ensure that whatever “special day” brought the couples, tourists, and suburban families up here is not marred by inferior service.
In fact, service distinguishes Top of the Hub from its chef-centric, earthbound cousins. When we arrived early on a Saturday evening, we were enthusiastically greeted (my male guest was wearing a sport jacket) and escorted to a table up against the window facing the Hancock building, Back Bay, and the Harbor Islands in the distance. After placing my napkin in my lap for me (a gesture I always find creepily intimate), the uniformed waiter walked us through the straight-down-the-middle occasion menu from executive chef Stefan Jarausch, who stepped into the role in February. After pointing out the appetizer section (helpfully labeled “appetizers”) and explaining the concept of prix fixe, the server offered us three water options: still from Fiji, bubbly from Sarasota, or Boston tap. House-made seltzer has yet to stream up these great heights.
It’s impossible to pull one’s eyes from the rivers and rooftops, though we did take a moment to contemplate the wine list as well as the aggressively smooth sax-laden jazz issuing forth with inexplicable enthusiasm from the ceiling speakers. Many of the by-the-glass vintages will be familiar to anyone who has perused the supermarket aisle, though we were drawn to the Top of the Hub-brand chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel, which the waiter reassured us were actually from California’s Rutherford Ranch Winery, a “big company” that put the TOTH label on it. That may have been the first time I’d heard someone equate mass production with quality when it comes to the fruit of the vine. The bottle list is extensive, and if you recently unloaded a good amount of cocaine or junk bonds, you’ll delight in knowing that several $1,000-plus bottles are on offer here.
Within 30 minutes, the dining room swarmed with date-night two-tops, multigeneration families celebrating grandma’s 80th birthday, and other rated-G assemblages, resulting in teens wobbling on heels to steal quick FaceTime chats with their boyfriends in the ladies’ room, and, presumably, countless backlit group portraits shot against the skyline. As plates began arriving around us, it was clear that there’s much demand for surf-and-turf: The split and baked lobster and the brick-size filet of beef (origin unknown) were flying out of the kitchen at a terrifying rate.
Our first courses arrived quickly: Traditional Creamy Lobster Bisque — buttery to distraction but fortified with two or three generous chunks of tail meat — and a duck confit pappardelle with thick, chewy noodles, a slightly too-sweet rich wine sauce, and what I considered a miserly complement of fresh, tart cranberries, more of which could have added balance. The pappardelle was one of the three-course tasting menu offerings; next, a massive short rib that reminded me of my grandmother’s brisket — beautifully cooked, tender, juicy — sadly, served on a bed of undercooked peeled root vegetables devoid of character nudging a gooey, uninspired polenta.
The New England Fisherman’s Bowl featured a similarly listless broth ladled atop various rubbery shellfish contemplating their individual fates, crowned by a desiccated hunk of swordfish astride an empty lobster carapace. We searched for a unifying flavor, but came up empty. Two forlorn clams sat uneaten on a side plate until they were spirited away without comment by the waiter.
I’d read enthusiastic reviews of the creme brûlée, and hoped it would turn the mood. Unfortunately, the brulée tended more eggy than creamy without a hint of vanilla, and was disappointingly runny under an anemic burnt top. I’m not sure when confectioners’ sugar was last considered a culinary flourish, considering that it comes in a $3 box at Star Market, but someone in the kitchen thought a couple shakes would look nice. Unfortunately, much of it went up my nose when I took the first bite. An unremarkable Lavazza espresso (served in a branded cup) ended our meal, and we headed back down the elevator with half of the short rib in a plastic container.
And yet, this review has a happy ending. I returned for weekday lunch with a companion, and discovered that in a city desperate for decent midday joints, TOTH may be the best-kept secret. Again, we were assaulted by equal parts smooth jazz and incomparable vistas, this time facing north toward Cambridge. The wait staff was just as attentive, though less demonstrative. And the food excelled.
Following a bowl of creamy, fresh New England clam chowder that rivals Legal Sea Foods’, we enjoyed a sesame-ginger spiced tuna tartare as good as any, and a well-appointed Native Lobster Salad Roll — lightly dressed with fresh chives on a fresh brioche bun, with a generous side of crisp house-made chips. A perfectly cooked, open-faced grilled salmon sandwich ($17) garnished with a light mustard-seed and honey dressing was just as good. That said, I recommend sticking to the a la carte menu. I ordered off the three-course prix fixe menu, and again there were root-vegetable issues. The roasted heirloom carrots with whipped goat cheese lacked definition, and the seared boneless chicken thigh was simply fine, as were the three halfhearted vanilla cream profiteroles.
Throughout lunch and dinner, we continually turned to the view, which rendered even the chattiest companion speechless. Pondering Boston’s layout, we reminisced about past meals at tower-top restaurants in other cities around the globe, including a two-starred Michelin restaurant in Amsterdam and a micro-cuisine phenomenon in Shanghai, both memorable a decade after our visit. Perhaps now that Boston’s restaurateurs are demanding a place at the international culinary table, someone should rethink Top of the Hub. It’s prime property waiting for the right visionary to turn it into a suave and sophisticated hot spot, high above ground.
TOP OF THE HUB
800 Boylston St., Prudential Building, Back Bay, Boston, 617-536-1775, www.topofthehub.net. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Dinner: Appetizers $11-$22. Entrees $28-$56. Desserts $10-$15. Three-course prix fixe $60 ($80 with wine pairings). Five-course tasting menu $80 ($115 with wine pairings). Lunch: Appetizers $10-$24. Entrees $16-$24. Three-course prix fixe $29.
Hours Sun 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Noise level Moderate
What to order Stick to the basics: lobster roll for lunch, 12-ounce prime center-cut New York strip steak for dinner.
Follow Rachel Slade on Twitter @RachelSlade1.