First, the chef quit.
That was on the second day of operation.
The staffing situation at Blackmoor Bar & Kitchen collapsed further from there, becoming a revolving door of hosts, servers, prep cooks, dishwashers, and other kitchen workers. The constant turnover meant continual training and retraining of new hires, and inevitable blunders by rookie employees unfamiliar with the menu or drink list.
How many bartenders has the restaurant gone through since opening in May?
“Oh, God — I don’t know,” said Greg Coughlin. “Maybe 15? 20?”
Literally 15 to 20 bartenders in fewer than four months?
“Literally, dude,” Coughlin told me. “I have gray hair right now for a reason, and I didn’t three months ago. This is the most frustrating experience I’ve ever been through in my life.”
Coughlin is the owner of Blackmoor, a big, upscale tavern — it calls itself a gastropub — in a prime spot just outside the Charlestown Navy Yard. He’s no newbie to the local food scene; he also owns Olde Magoun’s Saloon in Somerville and Copper House Tavern in Waltham. But his Blackmoor odyssey has him ruing what he calls “this nightmare of an industry,” otherwise known as Boston’s restaurant business. Elaboration on that to come.
Now we reach the reviewer’s conundrum: the bummer of knowing your obligation to readers while simultaneously pitying the restaurant you’re about to critique.
There’s no gentle way to put this: I had two mostly lousy meals at Blackmoor. Service was sluggish. The food was generally subpar. What arrived on our plates often didn’t match the menu descriptions. Even the WiFi wasn’t working correctly. On the upside, the dining room offers a knockout view of the Zakim Bridge.
If you want to have some craft beer (32 types on tap, another 32 in bottles), watch a game on one of the bar’s 14 TV sets, maybe order a burger or calamari, Blackmoor will do. Ditto if you’re a harried parent looking for an affordable place for a cocktail while your kids fling mac ’n’ cheese on the floor; at family-friendly Blackmoor, the din of the bar will smother any hollering, and no one will glare at you for the mess beneath your table.
If you have higher expectations, go elsewhere.
But while I can’t recommend you eat here — at least until the kinks get worked out — I feel a need to cut the restaurant a little slack, because its travails tell an instructive story of an industry. Blackmoor is a microcosm of the woes plaguing restaurants throughout Greater Boston.
Talk to anyone in the business, no matter the eatery’s size or stature, and you’ll hear a universal lament: There’s a shortage of staff at every level, from executive chefs to the lowliest kitchen workers. Poaching of talent is rampant. Inexperienced hires are the norm. The applicant pool doesn’t come close to meeting demand. Frequent turnover is a maddening fact of life.
That affects quality in every way. And those problems will only worsen with at least 20 new Boston-area restaurants slated to open in coming months, adding to the competition.
Running a restaurant has always been difficult, but it’s brutal in Boston these days. And when your chef bails on day two, that’s a massive stumble right out of the gate.
“I’m now on my fourth chef,” Coughlin reports, “and I hope to not be on a fifth.”
How long his customers will patiently wait for things to stabilize remains to be seen, especially when a dozen other restaurants beckon just up the road at Somerville’s Assembly Row.
If you go to Blackmoor, which replaced a Papagayo, you’ll probably get faster service if you sit near the bar. On our first visit, we felt marooned in the vast dining room (the restaurant has 230 seats), despite its being largely empty.
The water carafes on our table were a godsend since we could self-serve when our waiter went MIA, and we bided our time with a lively game of Name That ’70s Pop Song as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, and Pink Floyd cycled through the playlist.
The menu is all over the map, with foods from England, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Asia, and the Middle East. Coughlin calls it a “global tour,” which in this case is a synonym for “random mishmash.” Blackmoor would be better off doing a few dishes well than dozens mediocrely.
Seafood is one of the kitchen’s strengths, relatively speaking. Calamari was fresh and flavorful, although it arrived deep-fried rather than the promised flash-fried (the current chef, Patrick Lord, acknowledges that his staff has had a problem with overcooking it). Sauteed salmon and roasted cod were perfectly prepared, though.
Fish tacos needed some pep, easily solved with a squeeze of lime. Unfortunately, fish ’n’ chips were so heavily battered that the fried exterior sloughed off the delicate cod when we tried to eat it, like a snake shedding its skin.
Blackmoor’s namesake burger — on an English muffin with Stilton cheese, grilled red onion, and a fried egg — is good. But the bacon it’s supposed to come with was instead a slab of brisket. (“It’s quite possible you could have gotten the wrong burger,” Lord told me later.)
Some menu descriptions seem to be aspirational, like sesame-ginger-edamame hummus with daikon, pickled carrots, and Japanese crackers. What arrived at our table was run-of-the-mill hummus with cucumbers, carrot sticks, and pita bread. (Lord also acknowledges a problem with getting his staff to follow menu specifics.)
I liked the unusually sweet chili (secret ingredient: brown sugar), but beyond that there’s not much on the menu to recommend.
A lamb burger was awfully dry. The Bavarian pretzel was stale. The tomatoes accompanying the burrata were unripe. Flatbread pizzas were a soggy mess. The “goat cheese curds” on the poutine sure tasted like melted mozzarella.
Chicken tenders were thickly coated with an overpowering, powdery spice rub. At $16.95 for two giant pieces of panko-crusted pork, the schnitzel was a bargain, but why drown it in gravy when a simple lemon slice would best bring out the meat’s flavor?
Blackmoor should ditch its dessert supplier. Boston cream pie tasted like frozen Cool Whip, and a harshly vinegary balsamic sauce made the strawberry shortcake inedible. The only dessert made in house, bacon chocolate bread pudding, is a sweet, salty, sticky indulgence, but so rich and dense it’s hard to get down more than a few bites.
In restaurant-challenged Charlestown, opportunity is ripe for a reasonably priced, high-quality eatery to make its mark on the neighborhood. Blackmoor’s enviable location — on the Freedom Trail, steps from the USS Constitution, close to the TD Garden — virtually guarantees a customer base. But if it wants to survive, it needs to make dramatic improvements. And with the local restaurant industry’s personnel crisis, that will not be easy.
Before opening Blackmoor, Coughlin thought he might one day own even more than three restaurants. Now he’s not so sure.
“After this one — I don’t know, dude,” he sighed. “This is a rough one.”
Blackmoor Bar & Kitchen
1 Chelsea St., Charlestown, 617-580-8166, www.blackmoorbar.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $4.50-$12.95. Entrees $14.95-$23.95. Desserts $6.
Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m-1 a.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-1 a.m.
Noise Level: Loud
What to order: Calamari, chili, Blackmoor burger, cod, salmon