Barbara Lynch has influenced Boston dining for 20 years. I ate at all of her restaurants to find out how they are today.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of occasion-restaurant standby No. 9 Park, and thus the 20th anniversary of chef Barbara Lynch’s culinary influence on this city. Before opening her flagship in 1998, Lynch had cooked at the likes of Olives and Galleria Italiana and been named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs. But it was with No. 9 Park that she came into her own.
She is part of a cadre of chefs who put Boston dining on the map: Jody Adams, Todd English, Gordon Hamersley, Lydia Shire, Jasper White. And her DNA is visible in some of the city’s most-exciting restaurants, from Bar Mezzana to Chickadee to Haley Henry and Nathalie, where the majority of staff members have at some point called her boss. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that two of Boston’s greatest culinary loves — Italian cuisine and oyster bars — are two of her greatest strengths. She has won multiple James Beard awards, brought the prestigious Relais & Chateaux title to town with Menton, was named one of the most influential people of 2017 by Time magazine, and published a cookbook and a memoir, “Out of Line: A Life of Playing With Fire.” (There have been rocky moments, too: staff turnovers, reports of financial instability at Menton, an OUI arrest last year.)
But Lynch’s biggest imprint on the dining scene has been the restaurants themselves. The Southie girl who never wanted to leave Boston just kept opening new places to eat and drink: B&G Oysters and the Butcher Shop in 2003, Drink and Sportello in 2008, Menton in 2010. (There have also been outliers like demonstration kitchen/cookbook store Stir, and partnerships with the likes of Eataly restaurant Il Pesce and Boston Harbor Cruises.)
As No. 9 Park turns 20, and Sportello 10, how are Lynch’s restaurants holding up? I visited all six to find out.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
A foundational fine-dining experience
No. 9 Park is the first restaurant many think of when it’s time to celebrate that big birthday or anniversary. It has lodged in our minds, a foundational fine-dining experience. There’s just something about walking past the Common and up that hill toward the State House. The location makes it feel special, and makes the city we inhabit feel special, too. Then there’s the building itself: the windows that offer a glimpse of the evening unfolding within, convivial and warm. The lettering that feels classic yet frisky, with the “O” perched atop the dot, and the loop of the 9 not quite meeting its body, and the point of the “A” peeking over the tops of the surrounding letters. Someone put real thought into that logo.
The restaurant’s interior both feels like it could use a bit of an update, and like that would be a terrible mistake. The beaded shades on the light fixtures look like something one might have purchased at Pier 1 a decade back, but they cast romantic starbursts of light on the ceiling, and mirrors are everywhere, and the place is always full. Big groups of friends share good bottles of wine. In the lounge, two women splash out on truffles. There are people in suits, and people wearing baseball caps. The cocktails are excellent. Always remember and never forget that the cheese cart waits for you at the end of the meal.
And the service is uncannily good: knowledgeable, attentive, friendly, funny, invested. The people who work here are masters of the unexpected gesture; they take extra pains as a matter of course. It feels genuine, never precious.
Given all this, does it really matter what you eat?
It does. It matters. And — I am surprised to find — the food is the thing that’s currently not holding up its end of the bargain.
On a recent visit, one billed ingredient is missing with every dish. Plating is sloppy. Porchetta rises from a clump of broccoli rabe, surrounded by blobs of walnut skordalia, an out-of-place dollop left on the rim of the plate rather than wiped away. It’s a small thing, but it shows that the kitchen isn’t taking those extra pains as a matter of course. The pork is one of the saltiest dishes I’ve tasted in a long time — until I take a bite of scallops with smoked pumpkin, sweetbreads, and tarragon hazelnuts, which is simply too salty to eat. The signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras is historically one of the finest plates in Boston, but even this falls short, the dumplings heavy and doughy. For dessert, the pecan grand macaron is notable mostly for being half-cloaked in edible gold; the macaron itself is stale.
I watch two people seated in the window, each eating a dozen Island Creek oysters, $4 a pop when this town is teeming with $1 oyster offers. Eating at No. 9 Park was never meant to be a value proposition; we are paying for the privilege. But when the food falls short of expectation, that no longer feels like a fair deal, even with all of the restaurant’s charms.
9 Park St., Beacon Hill, 617-742-9991, www.no9park.com
We love you, you’re perfect, now change
Menton was founded on ambition, tilting at everything: stars, status, perfect polish. It was a gamble on the Fort Point neighborhood, which at the time was just picking up steam. It was a gamble on the city’s desire for pricey tasting menus, which it offered exclusively. That it felt seamless, that a chef known for dropping F-bombs could pull it off with such aplomb, was a testament to the skill of Lynch and her opening team.
The neighborhood took off. The pricey tasting menus were a harder sell. Gradually, Lynch made changes. The space was spruced up with the goal of making the restaurant feel more relaxed and inviting. An a la carte menu was introduced; the formal service was toned down; new emphasis was placed on lunch. Now a meal here is much more in line with one at No. 9 Park, both in terms of cost and experience. (One of the main differences between the two is that at Menton you learn the name of the cow who produced the butter that comes with your bread. It’s Babette.) I’m not sure how much the dining public has cottoned on to this; on a Thursday night, there are plenty of empty tables.
But the food is better here. There’s a delightful crab bisque, poured tableside, little puffs of pate a choux floating on its coral surface. A gnocchi dish practically purrs with richness, blanketed in Pecorino fondue and black truffles. (Veal ravioli with olives and broccoli rabe is a disappointment, with tough wrappers around a not-very-tasty filling.) Arctic char is perfectly nice, plated prettily with kohlrabi, tiny turnips, and crispy quinoa. Rosy slices of lamb loin are perfectly nice, plated prettily with honeynut squash and pine nuts.
It’s all perfectly nice. It looks like fancy restaurant food is supposed to look. But it doesn’t stand out. Even when the food sputters at No. 9 Park, that place has personality. Menton opened with a clear identity. Now it feels like a restaurant in search of a new raison d’etre.
354 Congress St., Fort Point, 617-737-0099, www.mentonboston.com
The party next door
Meanwhile, in the adjacent space, you’ve got modern Italian diner Sportello located above cocktail bar Drink. The setup’s like a mullet that has mercifully grown out: Party up top, party down below.
Remember when Drink opened and we were all like, “Whoa, bespoke cocktails. You can tell them you like herbs and gin and lime, and they’ll make you the perfect drink!” We have now been there and done that in plenty of other bars around town, but Drink helped start the local “craft cocktail” movement, and I think we all drink better for it. The place can still feel hectic, but it seems to have moved beyond the It Bar phase, and the bartenders know what they’re doing.
This makes it a fine stop before dinner at Sportello, where all the seats at the zigzagging white counter are taken, and why not? The place is buzzing with energy, the servers are amusing, and you can have the grown-up’s version of tomato soup and grilled cheese — sorry, spicy tomato soup with taleggio and caraway crostini. Also strozzapreti with braised rabbit and picholine olives, still great. And Lynch’s famous tagliatelle with bolognese, because you’re not a cretin. If you want, you could have a vegetable side. Or a steak. But there’s no real reason you need to order anything beyond a bowl of house-made pasta and a big glass of red wine (thank you, wine director Cat Silirie, for 20 years of astute selections), and there’s no real reason you shouldn’t do that tonight.
Surf and turf
I don’t know when I last ate at the Butcher Shop or B&G Oysters. It had probably been years. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but not this:
The Butcher Shop has aged into itself so well. When it opened, it was revolutionary: A restaurant with a retail component! Charcuterie platters to share! Now this is just the way we live.
The whole neighborhood is here on a rainy night, and it couldn’t be cozier. A woman at the end of the bar is eating the double rib eye all by herself. (Respect.) A friend and I share a sausage board, featuring spicy soppressata alongside a milder, fennel-scented link, with mustard and aioli for dipping. We have the tagliatelle bolognese, again, because we’re not cretins. We ease onward to a perfectly seared, juicy prime rib eye with greens and excellent roast potatoes. (See, we ate vegetables. “No, you pretty much just ate meat,” says the woman behind the bar, laughing indulgently and pouring more wine.)
The food is great, the drink is great, the atmosphere is great. I can’t believe how much I still love it here, and I can’t wait to come back soon.
Seasonally, you can view the Butcher Shop and B&G Oysters as one perfect restaurant. When it’s rainy and cold, hunker down at the former and eat meat. When it’s sunny and warm, cross the street to the latter for seafood on the patio.
I used to come by myself to B&G every year on my birthday, eat a dozen oysters for lunch, and ponder the passage of time. I remember now it’s a lot more fun to come with a friend at dinnertime, put your name on the waitlist, and crowd in at the marble counter, yelling to hear each other over the din.
The raw oysters, of course, are wonderful, sparklingly fresh. Somehow the fried ones are even better. They may be the best fried oysters in town: craggy and crisp and plump and salty, each resting in a shell filled with tangy remoulade. We whisk the fried shellfish through the sauce and drink glasses of Chablis, and all is momentarily right with the world.
Eh, well, not with the gnocchi, which are leaden and tough and served without much in the way of seared calamari. But the lobster butter sauce spooned around them makes us swoon. And Atlantic blue cod al limon — with parsnip puree, bright, citrusy Brussels sprouts, and crisp mushrooms — is a simple showcase for nicely cooked fish.
The best of both worlds
What a delight to find Lynch’s more-casual concepts are still such a pleasure. And it is a pleasure to find people still delighting in them, particularly at a time when it feels we are often off chasing the new. Going out for a meal means something different now than it did 20 years ago. We don’t expect the trappings, the tablecloths, the traditional full-court press.
But we still need these things, sometimes. We need places to celebrate the big birthdays and anniversaries. We need places to impress business prospects over lunch. So it’s a real disappointment that Lynch’s top properties aren’t always keeping pace.
Yet despite unevenness in the kitchen, No. 9 Park is eternally busy. (Indeed, Lynch’s greatest achievement might be the way she is still able to get butts in seats.) It shows how we can continue to have occasion restaurants in a landscape that doesn’t always support them. They need to be the best of both worlds.
I recently met friends at the No. 9 Park bar. We ate gorgonzola fondue with lamb and brioche, a salad of greens with zippy dressing alongside. It was just what we wanted, not too much and not too little. We had yet more cheese for dessert. A staffer slipped us a taste of perfectly runny Epoisses, poured us an extra sip of wine to go with it.
It was an average Monday night, but it sure felt special.