The Back Bay restaurant L’Espalier, known for its sophisticated fare and impeccable service, is closing after 40 years. Its last day of operation will be Dec. 31.
“The lease is up, and I don’t really have the desire to continue to do this and renew,” chef-owner Frank McClelland says. He is working on a new project he can’t yet disclose, he says.
L’Espalier has been the site of countless marriage proposals and milestone celebrations, hosting everyone from Julia Child to Mick Jagger to Henry Kissinger. Elegant and expensive, it is synonymous with fine dining in Boston. The restaurant opened in 1978, in the Boylston Street space that would become the Rattlesnake and is now Globe Bar and Cafe. Its arrival signaled a new direction for the local restaurant scene.
“The city’s Yankee clubs and old-style French restaurants got a wake-up call from nouvelle cuisine when L’Espalier opened,” as a New York Times story once put it.
The restaurant received a rave review off the bat from Boston Globe critic Anthony Spinazzola, who praised founding chef Moncef Meddeb for the “careful selection of raw ingredients, care in preparation and imaginative changes in the menu.” Since then, it has moved twice: first to a charming, romantic, and cramped town house on Gloucester Street, then to its current location, modern and spacious, adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Boylston Street. (And right near the site of the Boston Marathon bombing; the restaurant was open and full at the time of the attack.)
It changed owners once, when Meddeb sold it to McClelland in 1988. But in many ways, little has changed. The restaurant’s reviews have always been excellent, and ingredients, care, and imagination have remained its hallmarks.
“I think it’s the jewel of the city,” McClelland says. “I don’t think a lot of people know how well it’s known in Europe. It’s known all over the country. It has built that legacy. The constant is that everyone’s a VIP. It’s not just Gene Wilder sitting at Table 23. It’s everyone sitting at every table, and every seat is a VIP. That drive to chase perfection is what has given the legacy over time.”
McClelland, now 62, first came to L’Espalier as a young chef de cuisine in 1980, after working at Harvest in Cambridge. Two years later, he left to become chef and manager of the Country Inn at Princeton in Princeton, Mass., where he had his own garden and traversed the region, seeking the best ingredients.
“Spring lamb, farm-raised chickens, the whole thing,” he says. McClelland spent much of his childhood living with his grandparents on their farm in New Hampshire. “That’s my DNA.” He was able to get many of his Boston peers to buy these ingredients, too. “It really helped a lot of farmers get a good start,” he says.
When he returned to take over L’Espalier, he brought those connections with him. In many ways, the restaurant helped usher in to the city what we now think of as the farm-to-table movement, decades before it swept the country.
“They were right at the beginning of a number of different culinary movements,” says chef Gordon Hamersley, who ran Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End for nearly 30 years. “They emulate the best of the French three-star Michelin-style restaurants in that they celebrate local food — the farm-to-table-type thing, which is what it’s morphed into, but really it’s been going on for centuries and the French have refined it to a level as high as it can get. L’Espalier aspired to that and was right there at the beginning.”
Unlike many other long-running restaurants, L’Espalier isn’t known for that one particular dish. Instead, its following has been for the cumulative experience: the tasting menus, presenting course after course of New England ingredients inventively prepared with precise, French-derived technique; a cheese cart to obsess over; a staff that would bend over backward to make sure each guest had the best possible experience.
“L’Espalier became Boston’s premier special occasion restaurant, and making sure that birthday and anniversary celebrations were indeed special beyond expectation was the most rewarding part of my job,” says Louis Risoli, who was maître d’ at the restaurant from 1983 to 2017, via e-mail. “It was a huge responsibility — and a vast amount of care and planning goes into making a night seem effortless. All of the L’Espalier team’s efforts went towards providing a dining experience marked by grace and kindness.”
The drive for perfection was daily and unceasing.
“One learned quickly that to say to Frank, ‘it would be nice, but it sure wouldn’t be possible or practical’ to offer our guests such and such, meant that such and such would be in practice the very next shift. And it would be great and we would make it work,” Risoli says.
That push and ambition helped make the restaurant great. They also made it a great training ground for generations of chefs. “Frank’s influence is all over the town, and that’s an important thing,” says Hamersley, who would often steer young cooks and servers looking for a new challenge toward L’Espalier. “His legacy is the people who learned their chops from him.”
Alex Crabb, who runs Asta, one of the city’s best new-guard restaurants; Matthew Delisle, now at Google; Daniel Bojorquez of La Brasa; executive pastry chef Jiho Kim and sous chef Becca Punch of the Modern in New York; and Ashley Abodeely, executive chef of the upcoming Firehouse in Santa Fe and previously at Eleven Madison Park in New York and the NoMad in LA, are among those who have worked with McClelland.
James Hackney, executive chef at Wequasset Resort and Golf Club, spent a decade at L’Espalier. McClelland has been a critical mentor and influence, he says. “I’ve never worked with anyone who had so much passion in the kitchen. It was an amazing time being there. It wasn’t easy.” He laughs. “But you needed that push. That’s where the mentoring came about. It was a very hard-driven kitchen, but we created an amazing family there. We are all still connected together.”
After 40 years, L’Espalier’s closing marks the end of an era. Following the closing of places like Aujourd’hui and Locke-Ober, it also raises questions: What will become of fine dining in Boston? Where will we spot celebrities and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries that end in zero? With the exception of Barbara Lynch’s Menton, many of the city’s more-formal restaurants are now gone.
“The public’s appetite for that type of dining is changing. It’s become much more of a relaxed environment, more of a fun environment versus a polished environment. When the demographics change, you see restaurateurs that change with them,” says Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “You can’t continue to offer a level of dining to customers that aren’t coming for that level of dining anymore. It’s a simple business equation.”
McClelland has mixed feelings about the transition. “I feel like I might be letting down the community at large,” he says. But change is good. He likes change. “My daily speech here is: I will evolve daily, we all evolve daily, we have to embrace change. That’s my mantra.”
Rather than close L’Espalier with drawn-out fanfare, cramming in legions for one last meal, he is choosing to go out quietly. As much as possible, it will be business as usual. “Call me crazy, but I’m more driven by what I do than what I have,” he says. “It’s not the almighty dollar. Could we use the revenue to close gracefully? Yes, but I think we’ve done a nice job as it is, so we’ll be fine. I want to go out on top and have people remember our greatness for the complete puzzle — ambiance, service, and food — and let that moment live with everyone.”
Then, onward. “It’s time for a new adventure.”