Restaurateur Gordon Wilcox co-owns two Parish Cafés (with more possibly slated for the future), two Bukowski Taverns, the Lower Depths, and the Tip Tap Room. The Dorchester native grew up in a family of bartenders and got his start serving pizza downtown as a teenager, followed by stints as a dishwasher. He’s come a long way since then, but he still has simple tastes.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Oh, my God. What the hell is the name of it? The old Ashmont Grill. It really could have been any restaurant along Dot Ave. I grew up in Dorchester.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I wish there was more profit to give to the back of the house. I think most owners feel that way. We tend to overpay by industry standards, and most of the better restaurants try to, and it’s just — they work so hard. Our margins are so low generally. A good restaurant is 10 to 14 percent, which isn’t all that great; 17 to 18 is really successful, and most restaurants have a hard time getting there. I have many employees who have been loyal, and you have to try to take care of them. I wish I could get them more money. It’s a fallacy: People think if you own a bar or restaurant, you’re rich. I have six restaurants. Four make money. Two don’t. Some you carry when you shouldn’t, because the employees become like family.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? Profit margins have gone down and costs have gone up. To maintain it, you have to pass it on to the customer. Labor keeps going up.
What other restaurants do you visit? I go out all the time. I’m always looking for new chefs for the Parish Café. I keep notes. My girlfriend is a chef, and we both like to go out. I love Lydia [Shire]’s food at Scampo. I love my chef Brian Poe’s food. It’s just fun food. Chris Schlesinger, his restaurant, I still go even though he doesn’t own it anymore, the East Coast Grill [which has since closed]. Any new restaurants, any James Beard winner or a chef that’s up for a James Beard award, I’ll visit.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants”? It isn’t a food memory at all! I worked in restaurants all my life. My mother bartended. My grandmother bartended. They always told me, “You are not going to do this. You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer.” Their feet always hurt. I slung pizza at 13 years old, at Park Street Station, being around rats all day. I hated it. I became a dishwasher at a deli on Tremont Street. I hated it. I used to work at the Sevens on Charles Street and have beers at the Bull & Finch Pub. I used to play football on the Common with the waiters. They’re still friends of mine to this day. We played football and would go out. These guys were happy-go-lucky, fun guys. I said, “Wow, these guys aren’t miserable. These guys are having fun. I think I’ll look at this. I’m having a ball!” What’s wrong with having fun? I could go anywhere and get a job. Have a ball, have fun, meet girls. It was a great thing to do in the 1970s.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? When you’re handed a menu and they say, “Just so you know, the kitchen closes in 15 minutes.” It’s so rude. Then they shouldn’t have seated you. It’s my biggest pet peeve. Acknowledge the customer. And very few restaurants pour beer properly. I can’t explain it. I’d have to show you a video. There should be a proper head on it.
How could Boston become a better food city? It’s on its way. It’s moving forward and has made unbelievable strides because of Chris [Schlesinger], Jasper [White], Lydia [Shire], Todd English. They transformed this city into what it is today, and it doesn’t get enough credit. I think most of the food trends start out West and move their way here. I’ve seen a lot of that over the past 30 years.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Diverse. Not as parochial. Flamboyant, with food and drink.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Steakhouses!
What are you reading? A book on John McCormack, an old Boston politician. I’m always reading something.
How’s your commute? I live downtown. My commute’s fine. I take my car or Uber.
What’s the one food you never want to cook again? There’s no food I can think of that I hate. Oh, yes! Brussels sprouts. That’s something I hate.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? Not much. You just need to look for it. We have Italian areas, we have Chinese areas, we have Allston, which covers the entire spectrum. It’s a very exciting time to be a diner here. There’s much to try, so much fun food out there. This is a boom city almost all the time. It doesn’t go backward too often, this city, business- or real-estate-wise. This is a resilient city. I just hate winter.
‘I have six restaurants. Four make money. . . . Some you carry . . . because the employees become like family.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Biba [by Lydia Shire] and Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill. I thought they were the most dynamic chefs in the city. I still think Lydia Shire is very relevant.
Who was your most memorable customer? Tom Menino. He was a great customer. He brought his grandkids, who were well-behaved and fun to talk to. I knew his children, too.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Have you seen me? I’m 300 pounds, for Chrissakes! My girlfriend is a chef. I’d eat her macaroni and cheese.Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.