Barbara Lynch talks about the Boston restaurant scene
Barbara Lynch celebrates the 20th anniversary of her flagship restaurant, Beacon Hill’s No. 9 Park, in September. She’s been through a lot since it opened: more restaurants, from Drink to the Butcher Shop to B&G Oysters to Menton to Sportello; business shifts (high-end Menton just underwent an approachable refresh, with wood tables and simple white walls); a compulsively readable autobiography; a drunk-driving arrest; a place on Time magazine’s “most influential people” list. And, through it all, the Southie-born chef really just wants a good tuna fish sandwich and some vanilla ice cream.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Jasper’s. Oh my God. He was closing. I saved up all my money. [Jasper White] announced it the night before. It was like his last hurrah. I was working at Pomodoro. I got out early, I went down by myself, and I had red snapper with spring-dug parsnip puree in lobster sauce. And I still . . . remember it. He put, like, soy sauce in it. Now, they call it umami. Way back then, it was [expletive] incredible.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? More original. Less is more. You can put that however you want. I’m talking about affordability, but brilliant. Roast chicken, foie terrine, asparagus. Call it a day. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bowl of really brilliant steamed potatoes, leeks, and a beautiful glass of wine? We’re missing originality and casual. And bistros — when your check is on average $80, it isn’t a bistro. It shouldn’t be.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? I feel like when I started, it was chef-owned restaurants, and that community isn’t what it used to be. Think about it: Jody [Adams], Lydia [Shire], Jasper [White], Todd [English], Gordon [Hamersley]. I was coming up the ranks. We’re inundated with more commercially driven restaurants and larger volume. I feel like Cambridge is on fire with individuality versus what we are, and I don’t know why. Rents, probably.
What other restaurants do you visit? I don’t go out that much. I just don’t. If I do, it’s probably Oleana, Sarma, or Sofra. In Boston, I got to Mistral for pizza. I have my little favorites. Yankee Lobster.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? Anything that reminded me of home cooking, with heart and soul. Do you remember when Jasper [White] opened the Summer Shack? The crab salad [was] . . . delicious. I ordered two. I didn’t go out to eat as a kid or when I was younger.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I try not to set myself up for that. I know when it’s going to fail, and so I’m instinctual. Generally, if I even go in and see what it’s like, if I go to a bar or wait for a table or order a glass of wine, [I ask,] “What do you have for wines by the glass?” If they hand me a list, I’m out the door. It’s not worth it. I don’t want a list. I want you to tell me what you should have. Why should I pay $15 for a glass of wine if you can’t tell me what it is? It happens too much. It doesn’t do any good. It’s not good for your servers, your employees. Knowledge is power. If you hand me a list, then we have nothing to talk about.
How could Boston become a better food city? More affordable rents. I mean, why do we have to pay $60 a square foot? Why? Why do developers develop spaces, and then, as a second thought, add a chef and a restaurant? It takes a village. I find now that I love going to Quincy — there’s diversity. Chelsea, Eastie. Why can’t the actual city have diversity?
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Oh, God. So it’s almost like “Cheers,” how you have your customers. At No. 9, I had regulars there from day one. Boston diners are a lot more savvy than you think. They’re world travelers. And they like consistency. They like to be known.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Doughnuts, in an ice cream sandwich. I can’t even eat a doughnut, let alone put ice cream in the middle. Or small plates! Just give me one beautiful plate: steamed fish, potatoes, I don’t know, and just make it delicious. Stuff I want to eat every night. That’s what I like, cooking at home.
What are you reading? “Dark Money,” about the Koch brothers. And I’m reading Hillary Clinton’s memoir.
How’s your commute? I have an apartment in the city in the Channel Center. My commute is great, if it has to be. Otherwise, from here to [my house in] Gloucester, it’s 40 minutes on a good day. The actual traffic in the city drove me out. I can’t. It’s too much. When I stay in the city, I walk everywhere.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? [Expletive] sandwiches with heavy bread. I’m over it. Why don’t we have great delis or something that’s just brilliant? A great BLT? Tomatoes, the right amount of bacon, mayonnaise, white bread. I had my mother’s tuna sandwich recipe every day on the beach [this summer], with Cains mayonnaise and classic pickle juice.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? We’re missing simple. I mean, I think, like Frank’s [Steak House], you know you’ll get steak and baked potatoes. Simple food. I think a success for the industry now would be roast chicken, a perfect salad, a piece of cheese, and you’re out for $60. Food you want to eat every night would be my ideal, and I think we’re missing that. Or a real pub, not with frozen french fries. Pub food can be great.
And the private club industry — keep an eye on that. Restaurants were entertainment; now, they’re looking for education: how to build a bar, how to build a perfect cocktail. It doesn’t have to be food. It’s about breaking bread and networking. I think that’s important. And it shouldn’t be hard to go out to eat anymore. Because it’s just as easy to get food at home.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Jasper’s. Pignoli. God, that was brilliant.
Who was your most memorable customer? Marco Pierre White at No. 9 Park. It’s like when your hero walks in the door, and he was my hero. His was the first cookbook that I bought, “White Heat.” Three Michelin stars, and he never left Liverpool. And he was amazing. We served him all the food — it was a book-signing, a tribute to him. It was the end of his book tour.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Any place that serves surf and turf. I want lobster with melted butter, steak and fries, and vanilla ice cream.