Ring the bell at a handsome Back Bay brownstone, tap on your smartphone to request dinner, and ascend four floors to a capacious space outfitted with plush couches, cozy reading nooks, communal tables, and a balcony. Your food will be ready once you step within. Take your repast to a welcoming corner, greet friends old and new, and shake off the day’s strife.
No, this isn’t one of the city’s upper-crust private clubs. It’s Hall, opening to the public on Sept. 5, an egalitarian neighborhood dining space where membership is open to anyone — particularly those who yearn for connections more enduring than those forged over drinks at a neighborhood bar.
Prices vary based on commitment, but subscriptions start at $69 per week. Members can buy one-month, three-month, or six-month access. They can drop into the Wi-Fi-outfitted space at 44 Gloucester St. from 6 a.m. until midnight daily to work, converse with fellow members, and, come evening, feast. Two meal choices, a light and hearty option, are offered from 5 p.m. onward Sunday through Thursday evenings, with menus presented in advance. During the day, members can graze on healthy snacks like granola bars and fruit, included in their subscription. On weekends, the space will host private events.
Founder and CEO Albert Nichols, 27, hopes that Hall becomes a gathering place where food’s connective power matters as much as the meal itself. He attended the Fay School, Deerfield Academy, and Tufts University. On each campus, Nichols says, dining hall experiences stuck with him. Food was a unifier. It wasn’t just about pizza or unlimited soft-serve; it was about forging relationships.
“When I was at boarding school and college, meals centered around not necessarily just food, but a common place. The dining hall held more importance than the food it served. The food was the excuse to go, but it was a conduit,” Nichols says.
After studying computer science in college, things changed. He found himself caught up in the familiar grown-up grind: work too many hours, commute, forage for something fast and hopefully healthy come nighttime.
“I wanted to socialize, but I was working too much. I wanted to be eating healthy. What could I do? Spend $15 at sweetgreen or cook Trader Joe’s in my apartment and not see anyone? I got frustrated,” he says. “And, tinkerer that I am, I wondered if other people were facing this issue.”
Turns out they were. He surveyed hundreds of people throughout the Back Bay, he said, sometimes approaching them cold to inquire about their dinnertime routines. Over time, he began to organize informal Monday evening dinner parties in his own apartment with similarly dissatisfied friends.
The first feast was in November 2015, when he contacted a few pals and told them not to bother cooking that night.
“I said, don’t worry about your healthy meal or socializing — just come over. This isn’t a dining club or a dinner party: I’ll just be in my kitchen, cooking. Use my apartment as if it were your own. Stay, do some work and eat here, or take your food to go,” he recalls.
It was a hit, and he began to host these easygoing gatherings every Monday night.
“I’d leave work at 3, bike to Star Market with a duffel bag and a backpack, and start cooking like a madman,” says Nichols, who doesn’t have a culinary background. The gatherings took on their own life, as friends of friends began to materialize at his apartment, craving togetherness and a home-cooked meal.
In September 2016, he hung up the duffel bag and officially began work on the Hall concept, which he calls a neighborhood space to “be productive, eat healthy, and socialize with your friends.”
And for those longing to re-create the ease of college connections — and perhaps feeling a bit displaced as an adult — it might prove a welcome haven. This is especially true in Boston, where breaking into new circles after graduation can be as tough as throwing together an edible meal at 9 p.m.
‘I wanted to socialize, but I was working too much. I wanted to be eating healthy. What could I do? Spend $15 at sweetgreen or cook Trader Joe’s in my apartment and not see anyone? I got frustrated . . . and, tinkerer that I am, I wondered if other people were facing this issue.’
Such is the case for inaugural member Calum Barnes, a 26-year-old project manager at Seaport software provider LogMeIn. He lives in South Boston, but his girlfriend lives in Cambridge, so the Back Bay location is a handy midway point to pick up dinner en route.
“The convenience of getting food and being able to see and meet new people is what resonated with me, especially at my age. I’m more than a couple years out of college. I’m 26, and meeting new people and adding people to your network outside of work or who you know from college is tough,” he says.
Who wants to admit that, though? Hopefully, Hall can take the sting out of urban alienation by serving as a low-key gathering place for like-minded folks — subscribers can connect with one another on the app and are welcome to bring guests.
“ ‘I haven’t been eating well; I’m looking for more; I want to be more social and meet someone new, but I want it to be easy, without dropping a lot of money to socialize.’ Nobody ever says that out loud,” says Nichols, noting that some members are well past their post-grad years. At a recent pop-up to introduce the neighborhood to his concept, he also received membership inquiries from those closer to retirement.
But why not just, you know, swing by your favorite restaurant? Camaraderie, for one. Standing in yet another line after a late work night at Dig Inn might pose an existential crisis; coming back to a welcoming brownstone with a scratch-made meal, on the other hand, feels like home. Think of Hall as “Cheers” 2.0 — subtract booze and add Wi-Fi.
Nichols hopes that Hall serves as a social epicenter where food is a backdrop, not the star. Unlike at your favorite watering hole, nobody’s going to interrupt your conversation with a list of specials or shuffle you through an assembly line. There are only two menu choices every evening; drinks consist of water, seltzer, and coffee. No Fernet-Branca or large-format tiki drinks here. In Nichols’s view, restaurants are about the food, the drink, and the chef — as well they should be. But at Hall, well, it’s all about you.
“Your conversation won’t be interrupted by a dish description. It’s a hospitable environment. It caters to what people want. You can come by on a Tuesday night in your gym clothes,” Nichols says.
That said, the food is more thoughtfully composed than what you’ll unearth reaching bleary-eyed into your fridge after a long day. This is thanks in part to operations manager Ryan Johnson, a recent Tufts graduate. In college, Johnson ran the Tufts Cheese Club and was part of the T86 Cooking Collective, a series of informal, high-quality pop-up meals. Johnson was known on campus as an excellent improvisational chef, and he has also cooked at Cambridge’s Alden & Harlow and at Deuxave, just down the street from Hall.
At Hall, Johnson will greet members, learning their likes and dislikes and developing nutrient-rich recipes alongside Nico Zuvia, Hall’s director of meal production, a former general manager at New York City’s Maple Food Co.
Together, they prepare what Johnson calls “different takes on comfort food, done in a simple and approachable way.” There’s a purposeful balance of grains, proteins, and vegetables, but nothing unrecognizable or showy. Light meals are free of gluten, shellfish, dairy, and tree nuts; they avoid excess salt and oils. Meals are served as one dish, in a compostable container, prepared at the Stock Pot Malden commissary and finished on site. Options include things like mushroom kale over quinoa with roasted tempeh, coconut curry, and chicken tikka masala with roasted broccoli and jasmine rice. (“The tikka masala is a hallmark,” Nichols says.)
Ingredients are sourced from Katsiroubas Bros. and through Costa Fruit & Produce’s network of local farmers. Menus change daily and repeat monthly on a three-month cycle based on season. They’re dispatched to members in advance, so they can plan to drop by if, say, it’s tikka masala night. Members also offer suggestions and feedback on dishes through Hall’s app.
“There’s convenience and consistency,” Johnson says, emphasizing the collaborative process.
However, as any teen who’s waded into a crowded dining hall might tell you, it’s intimidating. Images of middle school flash before your grown-up eyes: Every seat is taken, and nobody knows who you are. Flashback! How on earth is this appealing?
“Your first time might feel like that cafeteria. Time after time, you become more comfortable in the space and you build passive interactions with other people in the community. Maybe in the elevator, or maybe you see them or hang out with them. You build a network of connection and social belonging,” says Nichols.
Subscribers are also free to bring guests. The first visit is free; after that, guests pay $15. Before joining, each subscriber visits Hall and meets with their team, perhaps to allay any first-time jitters. And if Back Bay isn’t convenient? Never fear, urban wanderer: Nichols hopes to open more locations in Central Square, the South End, and South Boston. There’s a hunger, he says, among his niche demographic.
“When they view food, it’s not in a vacuum. It must be consumed in a space — and, more often than not, consumed with other people,” he says.Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.