Getting Salty with Sheila Borges-Foley of Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery
Union Square, once a locals-only corner of Somerville, is changing by the day. The new Bow Market lures visitors munching pierogies and poutine while browsing vinyl records and vintage barware. The old PA’s Lounge is now called Union Tavern. Restaurants like Celeste and Juliet attract diners from all over the city and beyond.
But some things never change, such as the Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery, where lines snake down the block for weekend breakfast. Sheila Borges-Foley runs the restaurant, which her late brother opened in 1983. Later, her dad — once a cook at PA’s — joined him. She even lives above the business with her husband and son. Her mother and another brother live in the same building.
Even though she’s now the face of the Neighborhood — and, really, the neighborhood — she still considers it her brother’s place.
“Before he passed away, he handed me the keys. I feel like I’m running it for him,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? La Hacienda in Somerville. I got their pizza. It was the best pizza ever, even today. . . . Very Italian, old-school, always a cop sitting at the bar over there. You’ll never see it again.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? This is a passion, not a 9 to 5. I want more passion. Not Mickey Mouse. This work is something you should put your pride and heart into. . . . You gotta love it. It’ll come out, if you don’t, because you’re going to be nasty to people. Some people are on the floor too long. I go out to eat, and people act like they’re doing me a favor. You know? No. You treat your customers like it’s the first and last dollar you’re going to make. I embed this in our girls. If I hear one “I don’t want to be here today” attitude, you’re never going to be here again.
What other restaurants do you visit? I go to Gracie’s Ice Cream. If I could, I’d be there seven days a week. My son won’t eat ice cream anywhere else. I pick places my son would go to. That’s where I am in my life. Culinary-wise, I am dying to try Juliet. I support who supports me. And that little Bow Market is freakin’ adorable. There’s a little bit of an attitude, maybe I was there on the wrong day, but culinary-wise, they got a great little concept there. I wish them nothing but flourishing and money and good stuff.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? My father had to make it on the streets of Portugal and get a job. He sucked at every one. He got yelled at and fired. He got a job in a kitchen, slicing, dicing. The owner said, “You’re very good at this.” He sighed and said, “Thank God! I found my home!” My early memory of food is of my father, who then moved to Newark, taking a huge pig, bringing it into our backyard, and slicing it open to make linguica. The blood would trickle down through the driveway, and the neighbors would call the cops. My father would have chickens, rabbits. While talking to you, he’d start killing them in front of you. That’s how he lived. . . . I would cry my ass off every time he killed something. My early childhood was them being grown in the backyard, raised, farm to table. Organic? I don’t even know what that means. I didn’t realize now that I’m in this very organic world, this city we live in. I grew up that way because my father was from another country. . . . I still eat healthy, not because I read about it in magazines, but because my father instilled it in us.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Oh, God. In Boston, a roach walked across my table. I’d just gotten here. I was 21. I walked out, obviously. Chinatown.
How could Boston become a better food city? Can it? I don’t know if it can. I’m so impressed by the young chefs today. The way they come up with the things they come up with, the schooling, the creativity. These young people, 20 and 30, really have something. I think they really are doing good. I like them. I don’t know much about it, but they are crafty and clever.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Appreciative, patient, funny.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Nothing! I don’t see anything I would ever roll my eyes at. I cannot think of one thing.
What are you reading? Oh, my God. I’ve got an 8-year-old. I am reading “The Grinch,” over and over. My girlfriends told me about a book — their kids are grown – and I bring it to my car, my room, it’s all over. My intention is to read it, and I can’t remember the name of it! It’s a true story about a girl’s tortured life with her mother. I love true stories, life stories.
How’s your commute? I live upstairs from the restaurant.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I don’t like salmon. My husband took me to Legal Sea Foods. It was amazing. Waiter, food, amazing! He asked me to try char. I never heard of char. I loved it. But a little to the left, in the salmon family, and it’s a done deal. It’s so healthy, but I can’t eat it. I never want to see or smell salmon again.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I love Cuban food. . . . I keep seeing this place called Gustazo on Mass Ave. I keep waiting for it to open! I grew up with a brother-in-law who was Cuban. I’d love to see an authentic, real, good Cuban place. I grew up in Newark. In West New York, there was a place on the corner that made Cuban sandwiches. And this other place, you would get — like “Seinfeld” — only one thing: steak and cheese. You didn’t ask for “no onions” or extra anything. You walked to the counter and said, “one” or “two.” That’s all you said. You got that sandwich, and the line was down the street. That was heaven! We miss that: authentic, real, good ingredients. When people make pizza, they’re trying to save money to make money. Not one pizza place uses homemade sauce. They don’t make their own dough. They’re missing the basics. We make our own jelly from our grapevine grapes. It’s an old-school thing to do. You don’t throw anything away. They’re not thinking old-school or going back to their roots.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? La Hacienda.
Who was your most memorable customer? I used to have two guys, older gentlemen, back in the ’80s. Dennis, and I can’t think of the other one. They used to come in and hang out with me, sit there and talk. When I was off work, they’d take me to this old-school place where that fancy place that gets awards all the time is now — Highland Kitchen. There used to be an old place, like a 99, but not a chain. It was all wood paneling, and you’d go in there and get a prime rib. That kind of place. They used to take me out to eat and were my little buddies. I was fresh from Jersey. I didn’t know anybody. Back then, they had to be in their 60s. I’m not sure they’re alive anymore.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Oh, God! Where would I go? I have to focus. I have a restaurant downstairs from me! I’m really into eggs Benedict today. I’d do eggs Benedict because I never let myself have it. I’m always on Weight Watchers, and that would be every point for the whole week.