To a child, the concept at the flaming core of Boston's FiRE + iCE sounds like the greatest advancement in dining culture since the invention of the free bread basket.
Pile all the foods you like best into a big bowl and bring it to a showman chef at a giant grill in the center of the room to be sizzled up real good. If you're still hungry, you can go back for more.
"There are going to be a lot of people there because that sounds like the best restaurant ever," my 9-year-old dinner companion told his mother.
He was half-right.
On a recent Saturday night a host was turning away groups without reservations, and warning of three-hour waits. Other eateries that focus first on entertainment have closed — Medieval Manor, Melting Pot, even the original FiRE + iCE location in Harvard Square, extinguished this year after a two-decade run. But on high-rent Berkeley Street in Back Bay, the FiRE still burns.
This is all the more remarkable because FiRE + iCE is, by the standards of 21st-century dining, a catastrophe. It's bewildering and stressful and not particularly clean, dishing out food that a barely competent home cook would decline to serve to company. Nobody you know has been here since college; everybody who packs the place appears to love it.
Like Mongolian barbecue turned up to 11, the FiRE + iCE concept is enough to make a freshman football team, a pack of wild animals, or a city health inspector salivate. Bottomless bowls of raw meat are piled so high that chunks of chicken and pork occasionally fall onto the counter. Boston's new rating system for restaurant health inspections requires posting a letter grade in the window; FiRE + iCE should post an exclamation point.
Meanwhile, the menu offers no particular insight into how one might successfully assemble a meal from, say, shaved beef, raw pollock, lo mein noodles, and any of a couple dozen sauces ranging from alarmingly sweet to upsettingly salty. You are given a bowl, a brief tour of the facilities, and a giant laminated menu from which to order appetizers and drinks — traditional and scorpion bowl-style cocktails the size of a toddler's head.
The dark, deafening dining room — it's on the second floor, but it feels like a basement — is all sharp angles and oversaturated colors, like a supervillain's lair. From the dark recesses of a window booth, you can see a silhouetted ring of people lustily shifting their weight from one foot to the other in the cone of bright light that engulfs the grill. This must be what it feels like to have dinner adjacent to a cockfight.
FiRE + iCE is a restaurant in the way a room full of broken guitars is a rock concert, where the band hands you a guitar pick and wishes you luck. It's the casino buffet at the third-nicest slots parlor in hell, where the amiable cooks shovel food haphazardly onto your plate like a croupier sweeping away the pot. When I trudged upstairs on a second visit, the sound system was playing a Britney Spears jam from 2003: "Toxic."
On a crowded Saturday night and on a slightly more mellow weeknight, nearly everyone at FiRE + iCE is ecstatic. A pack of tween girls grazes and chatters happily at the noodle bar about what they'll concoct. Couples on dates and groups of young men crowd around the doughnut-shaped grill, laughing and joking with cooks who twirl their spatulas and toss hamburger buns around like frisbees.
Waiting at the downstairs bar — underFiRE — the bartenders huddle and, against all odds, mix up a respectable Old Fashioned. Locations in Providence, Anaheim, and Lake Tahoe have been open for years, apparently going strong. "Tomorrow, THE WORLD!," FiRE + iCE's website boasts or threatens, depending on your perspective.
"I'm going to fill my bowl with cheeseburgers this high!" the 9-year-old you brought says, and then he does it. He fills the bowl with raw burger patties and wedges in two hot dogs. The hot dogs, he reports, are cooked well.
An adult dining companion returns with a plate of meat and fish so ghastly that it appears to have been attacked by raccoons, and announces, "Surf and turf!," and the table dissolves into laughter.
A girl who couldn't have been older than 10 sets her bowl on the counter for one of the cooks. He stoops slightly to talk to her, then invites her back behind the counter to hold a spatula and give her food a few whacks. When he goes on vacation, he tells the beaming child, she'll have to come fill in.
On some level — a level that actually matters — a cook who is that sweet to a child is not a bad cook. So how can a restaurant that is filled to capacity with people unapologetically enjoying themselves be a bad restaurant?
For all the joy on display here, FiRE + iCE seems hellbent on finding out.
A small selection of appetizers, mostly deep-fried and prepared by the kitchen rather than on the flat-top, is something less than an afterthought. Seemingly straightforward Buffalo calamari — deep-fried calamari with Buffalo wing sauce and blue cheese dressing on the side — is aggressively terrible, the squid so tough that chewing it into submission is a challenge. Sweet potato tots have either been fried in oil no hotter than bathwater or removed far too quickly, turning them into a sad, sodden clod of orange gnocchi.
A carefully assembled vegetable Alfredo bowl with peas ends up with a stranger's pork chops hitching a ride — a mismatch only uncovered when the chops' teenage owner protests.
Why would you put hunks of pork on an Alfredo? The cooks here do not question such things. They dutifully grill and chop whatever horrible mess arrives in the bowls like overzealous trash collectors who empty your cans and then uproot your mailbox because everything that's sitting in the right-of-way is damn sure going to the dump.
Frankly, it doesn't much matter. Everything that emerges from the hot-tub-size flat-top tastes the same. The grill operates on a sort of infinity pool system, with a tray to catch anything that falls off the side. This creates a horrific ring of detritus that festers in full view of anyone waiting for their food: half-cooked vegetables, broken hot dogs, soiled napkins, and buns that overshot their targets.
In the center of the grill is a hole into which all the seared-on sauces and particles of food are scraped. However much they're paying the person who has to clean that hole, which by the end of each service must resemble the pit that ate Boba Fett in "Return of the Jedi," it's not enough.
Despite all this, cooks flip and juggle their spatulas, laughing and joking with everyone who arrives at the counter. Servers gamely race around, delivering apps and drinks to abandoned tables. The line to get to the grill backs up almost to the sauce bar, but nobody's complaining.
For not the first time, shout-singing erupts all over the restaurant: Somehow, it's everybody's birthday.
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FiRE + iCE
205 Berkeley St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-482-3473, www.fire-ice.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $6-$13. Lunch $11.99. Dinner $19.99. Dessert $6-$9.
Hours Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Noise level Escalating calamity
What to order Ordering? What even is that?