What gives these restaurants staying power? Everything from an enlightened landlord to Larry’s lobster fritters
Twenty-five years is an eternity in the restaurant industry, which thrives only at the whim of fickle diners, a fluctuating economy, and rising rents. We’ve seen a spate of high-profile closures recently, from Cambridge’s Les Sablons and Tupelo to Boston’s Doretta Tavern and Townsman. As my colleague Shirley Leung recently pointed out in a column examining the potential dining bubble, the number of restaurants in Boston has declined by 2 percent since 2015 — a small but troubling omen in an otherwise bustling economy.
And yet: Several notable restaurants have celebrated silver anniversaries over the past year. How did they do it? I talked to their owners to find out.
Sonsie, Back Bay
Tom Brady and Jason Varitek celebrate here. Jon Hamm once dined curbside with his dog leashed to a chair. The Newbury Street restaurant, with French doors opening onto the sidewalk, is a celebrity-spotting paradise. But it takes more than gossip column mentions to keep a restaurant in business.
Owner Patrick Lyons — a longtime nightlife and restaurant impresario who’s had a hand in places as diverse as Lucky’s in Fort Point and Scampo at the Liberty Hotel — credits an “enlightened landlord,” longtime Back Bay denizen and investment professional Sam Perry. As rents have risen throughout the neighborhood, Perry hasn’t jacked up prices.
“He’s a long-term thinker,” says Lyons. “He’s like a partner in our business.”
Before Sonsie moved in, the building was home to Japanese restaurant Genji, another steady tenant.
“Sonsie, when it started out, was something that attracted celebrities — but with the passage of years, it did exactly what Genji did, which is it became a neighborhood restaurant. I’m not gouging them, and they can keep their food prices realistic,” Perry says. “As an individual, I’m not motivated by greed. What I’m selling them is peace of mind. I have great affection for Patrick and [partner] Ed Sparks. Sonsie is a good citizen, and I’m a good citizen. It’s the type of place that makes Boston the nice place it is to live.”
The menu changes seasonally, just four times per year, and has something for everyone: mashed potato pizza, burgers, roast chicken, gluten-free options aplenty. New chef Jason Hanelt, a Hamersley’s Bistro alum who replaced 23-year opening chef Bill Poirier, brought fresh life to the kitchen.
Lyons is circumspect.
“I think it’s a consistent place, and you know what you’re going to get,” he says. Even if it’s a brush with the beautiful people.
327 Newbury St., Boston, 617-351-2500, www.sonsieboston.com
The Parish Café, Back Bay
Restaurateur Gordon Wilcox is a candid guy. The industry vet has had his share of flops, from Estelle’s (“a heartbreak that just didn’t work”) to short-lived poultry purveyor Cluckit (“another stupid thing”). Another branch of the Parish Café sandwich shop closed in the South End, too, when Wilcox was offered a sum that he just couldn’t refuse.
He’s also had triumphs: Beacon Hill’s Tip Tap Room, a duo of Bukowski Taverns, and the Lower Depths.
Oh, and the original Parish Café in the Back Bay, which turned 25 last November. The idea is simple: sandwiches created by iconic Boston chefs. In the old days, it was people like Chris Schlesinger (Monterey Jack cheese and smoked ham on warm banana bread — but who’s to argue, he’s Chris Schlesinger!) and Todd English (almond-coated chicken breast on Tuscan wheat). Now Parish’s chefs execute eggplant milanesa created by Jamie Bissonnette and a “Flour” BLT from Joanne Chang.
In the old days, Wilcox says, the neighborhood was “all male prostitutes.” Now the naughtiest thing peddled on the block is grain bowls filled with white rice instead of brown.
It’s a fickle business, and the Dorchester-bred son of bartenders has few illusions. It’s rough to run a restaurant.
“There are two prerequisites: one is to be a moron, and the other is an inability to do anything else. I happen to fall into both categories,” he says.
Luck helps, too. Early in the Parish Café’s run, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stopped in for a meal, Wilcox says. He’d asked his limo driver where to go for the best sandwiches in town, and his chauffer knew just the spot.
“He sat down at a stool by the kitchen, in the middle of the place. He got a sandwich, took a look at the menu, and couldn’t believe the concept. He gave the menu to Regis [Philbin] and Kathie Lee [Gifford] — and, from that day forward, we’ve had 19 straight years of growth. The New York Times picked it up, and a few national magazines, and we had lines every day,” he says.
361 Boylston St., Boston, 617-247-4777, www.parishcafe.com
Bella Luna & The Milky Way,
This is the rare spot where you can feed a toddler, throw a wedding, croon karaoke, or attend a Queer Halloween Costume Ball.
Bella Luna has always tried to reflect and support the neighborhood, says co-owner Megan Mainzer. That means trying to empower people in the community and paying a fair wage.
Mainzer’s mother, longtime nonprofit head Kathy Mainzer, wanted to create a gathering place that would both reflect and employ diverse residents.
“She came from the nonprofit world, where it was the broken windows concept: If you open a small business, it creates jobs and brings people together,” Mainzer says.
A 19-seat Hyde Square pizza parlor seemed like a cheap and reasonable concept, which Kathy Mainzer launched alongside current City Year dean Charlie Rose and his wife, Carol Downs. The restaurant, which moved out of its original space in 2008 because of an increase in rent, is now expanded within the Jamaica Plain Brewery Complex. They often host community fund-raisers and celebrations, including early same-sex marriage receptions. Teachers get half-price appetizers on Tuesdays. There are queer line-dancing nights. Mayor Tom Menino helped lead a parade to welcome the restaurant to its new digs, cheered by thousands of residents.
Though the location is different, the mission remains the same.
“We want people to come, feel safe, feel accepted, and be able to share their art and their music,” Mainzer says. “We’re not in it for the money. We prioritize paying people well and creating an environment where we value their work. . . . We don’t have a ton of money, but we’re prioritizing people so they can live in this expensive city.”
Employees make between $18 to $25 per hour, she says.
“We’re not charging people extra. It comes out of our bottom line. That’s a priority. It’s hard. I don’t like to promote that to other people. I don’t like to pat ourselves on the back,” she says.
In honor of their November anniversary, the restaurant is showcasing stories from longtime employees on social media. People like Thiago de Souza: Bella Luna was his first full-time job after coming to the United States from Brazil. He started as a dishwasher; now he works in the kitchen and bartends several nights per week.
“I like the way they treat employees. They pay good wages, and they’re involved in the community,” he says. “It’s also a very diverse place. I enjoy being there. People with different backgrounds are welcome. I feel like some places are so stressful. They’re so corporate. People are anxious to go to work. That’s the total opposite of Bella Luna.”
Melissa Rodriguez and her wife and young daughter are longtime customers, drawn by the reasonable prices, friendly atmosphere, and — let’s face it — on-site brewery building parking. They visit (or at least order takeout) weekly.
“They make you feel at home and get your meals to you quickly. That’s always the case, no matter how busy they are. They’re a community pillar,” Rodriguez says.
284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6060, www.milkywayjp.com
Terramia, North End
Terramia owner Carla Gomes was a dental hygienist with small children when her brother, a restaurant owner, suggested that his chef wanted to open a place in the North End.
Gomes was intrigued and eager for a change. So she signed on to run the front of the house, even though she’d never operated a restaurant before. However, she did grow up in the North End with a mother who loved to host large family gatherings.
“You walk in there and you figure it out. I just figured it out,” she says. “When we left our attorney’s office, I related it to the movie ‘Field of Dreams.’ If we build it, they will come. I believed in the chef [Mario Nocera], the way his food was. His cuisine was unbelievable,” she recalls.
It was a contrast from the Italian-American restaurants popular in the neighborhood.
“We were considered to be doing something new. It was called ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘nouveau.’ This was the food he grew up on in Italy: pasta and peas. Peasant food. He’d do spicy pasta and chickpeas in a spicy garlic sauce and add shrimp. I credit him with changing the face of how people ate in the North End,” she says.
Nocera earned raves from then-Globe critic Alison Arnett in 1993. But even though the food was good, Gomes’s steady presence made it feel like home. She’s often spotted bussing tables, running food, and helping out at the bar. When her children were young, they came to the restaurant with her, she says. Today, she also owns neighborhood staple Antico Forno. Gomes says the guests keep coming because she’s there, and she cares.
“Don’t allow anyone else to carry out your vision,” she says. “Work! I was naive when I first opened. I thought, ‘This is exciting. I can do this. I can talk to people.’ I thought it’d be like a social hour. It’s hard work, a lot of work, but I think the most important thing is being in the restaurant and familiar to your guests,” she says. “New people who don’t know me don’t know that I’m the owner.”
I’m about to file this story when Gomes calls me back late on a Friday.
“I have to tell you a story about our lobster fritters,” she says. “We had a customer, Larry, from Natick. He’d come in several times per week and order the fritters. And the day he passed away, he called me. He said, ‘I wanted to let you know that I have cancer. I’m checking out today. I wanted to say goodbye to you,’ ” Gomes recalls. “He got very emotional on the phone. I said, ‘Larry, Terramia will always remember you. And I will always call them ‘Larry’s lobster fritters.’ ”
Beginning on Nov. 1, the restaurant will serve a $25 prix-fixe menu until the end of the year, spotlighting favorite dishes.
Larry’s fritters are there.
98 Salem St., Boston, 617-523-3112, www.terramiaristorante.com