Wine guru Lauren Friel came to Boston to study journalism at Boston University. She dropped out and then enrolled at Harvard University to study poetry — “super useful,” she says with a laugh — supporting herself as a cashier at Savenor’s, where she fell in love with food and wine, eventually becoming the general manager. She went on to become consulting wine director for Committee in the Seaport and for New York City’s veggie-centric sensation Dirt Candy. This summer, she’ll open wine bar Rebel Rebel at Somerville’s Bow Market. It will pay homage to bars that she enjoys in places like London and Paris. “There, wine bars are wine-focused, not food-focused. We’ll have classes every Sunday and guest appearances from Boston’s biggest wine influencers,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I’m from New Hampshire. As a kid, we’d come down once a year to see the Boston Ballet perform “The Nutcracker.” It was a big family holiday outing and we’d always, always go to Legal Sea Foods no matter what. I always remember it being a very special experience. I always ordered the bluefish pate, as a kid, which is maybe weird. I just loved it. And clam chowder, of course. My mom always got the crab cakes.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? It’s definitely a tall order, but I’d love to see our health codes revisited. I understand why many of them exist, and I understand getting into the nuances of food prep is complicated. I empathize with that. At the same time, health codes and food regulations are incredibly restrictive, not just in terms of the motions we have to go through to make sure everything is safe, but in terms of how they restrict non-European and traditional cuisines. They restrict non-European chefs from cooking authentically. A lot of really traditional Chinese food is based in ferments and cured meats that you wouldn’t be able to do authentically, necessarily, or that you have to jump through insurmountable hoops to do authentically. Anything cured, fermented, like that, if there are ingredients that the health department isn’t familiar or comfortable with, it’s easy to hit a lot of walls.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston?
I came into the industry in 2002, and since then there’s been quite an explosion in terms of the number of restaurants. Along with that, there’s been a lot more diversity, but I think we have a long way to go. In terms of what we have access to cuisine-wise, and the demographic of people opening and running restaurants, we have more women and younger people, and I think that’s all great. I think we could always stand more, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.
What other restaurants do you visit? Bar Mezzana is my happy place right now. It’s just consistently wonderful. State Park I love so much; it has a vibe that is so cool, and the food is great, and the cocktails are awesome, and the staff is awesome. Thai North in Brookline is a favorite for a more traditional kind of authentic cuisine. They have a regular, Americanized menu, but then they have a blackboard menu that’s all really traditional Thai food. It’s really good. They do a pork sausage that’s really great. They have an eggplant spread that’s really spicy and awesome.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants?” I was working in restaurants through college and helping to support myself. I had dropped out of Harvard and worked at Oleana, waitressing. It was my first serious restaurant job. I’d worked all over the city in cafes and things like that, and I was a manager at Savenor’s before that. I remember being in that restaurant with Ana [Sortun] and Cassie Piuma and Theresa Paopao and Karen Akunowicz, who was sous chef when I was there. It was just this team of incredibly powerful, talented women. I had never experienced that in a professional setting, coming from academia and that world. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by these women who were just crushing it. It was incredibly inspiring. If it weren’t for that group of women, I don’t know if I would have gone in this direction. That restaurant and group of women changed my life.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? That’s hard. I try to be understanding, having worked in the industry so long. We all have bad nights, things go wrong, you don’t know what people are experiencing personally. Maybe their dishwasher didn’t show up. There are always a million things happening behind the scenes. But there’s a Michelin-rated restaurant in New York that I spent rent money on two years ago. I’d never left a restaurant angry, except for that night. Being a sommelier, the thing I usually care most about is the wine service. I was with someone who wasn’t a wine person. The sommelier was extremely condescending, and I’m very sensitive to that, because it’s the kind of preconception that people have about the wine industry: We’re condescending snobs. I work hard in my personal life to combat that. They were very dismissive and didn’t engage.
How could Boston become a better food city? I think we could all support pop-up communities in Boston a lot more. Some of the best food I’ve had in the city, not just in terms of execution but creative, exciting, innovative risk-taking, is in pop-ups right now. Supporting that community is huge, and it [helps] chefs who may not have financing. At the end of the day, it’s women and people of color who don’t get the backing that white men do. Pop-ups allow them to do what they want to do without having to front hundreds of thousands or millions [of dollars] to get a brick and mortar. It’s a great way to support non-dominant communities.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Intelligent, discerning, loyal.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Other than uni on everything? I love it, but come on. And this clean eating trend. I’m all about health and wellness, I love me some kale and I drink a gallon of kombucha a day. I’m all about it, but I think it’s perpetuating myths about fat and potentially perpetuating unhealthy relationships with food for a lot of people, where it’s easy to go from the realm of clean eating to the realm of restrictive eating. As someone who has struggled with body-image issues, I’m not sure if it’s always done responsibly.
What are you reading? Le Vin en Question by Jules Chauvet. It’s about natural wine production and one of the essential texts for people in the natural wine world.
How’s your commute? It’s great. I live in Back Bay. I’m here. I’m in it.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I hate those all-in-one microwavable bag meals, rice and vegetables in a bag. That isn’t food. I used to date a guy who had a freezer full of them. It’s horrible.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I’d love more South Indian food.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Hungry Mother.
Who was your most memorable customer? I don’t know a lot of celebrities. I famously live under a rock. A couple years ago at Oleana, Michael Keaton came in. I had a 20-minute-long conversation with him and didn’t realize it was him, and he got a kick out of that. He asked me out! I took his e-mail address and e-mailed with him the next day. We didn’t end up going out.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’d eat whatever Seizi [Imura] wanted to feed me at Café Sushi. I would trust that man with my last meal. Whatever he wants to feed me, I would die happy.