Buttonwood is back, and it feels like it was never gone
Restaurants close for a lot of reasons. Maybe they’re not very good. Maybe the location is bad. Maybe the concept is wrong for the location. Maybe they’re too expensive. Maybe the service stinks. Maybe it’s just time.
And then there’s Buttonwood. It opened in January 2018, in the Newton space that had previously been 51 Lincoln. It was great. People loved it. It was always busy. I loved it. I gave it 3 stars when I reviewed it that April: “It is confusing for everyone — myself included — that when people ask me where to eat in Boston these days, the restaurant I keep sending them to is in Newton,” I wrote. But, see, there were these really good ribs with honey za’atar glaze and labneh, cilantro and mint. There was an incredible cheeseburger. There were lovely vegetable-focused dishes like berbere-spiced red lentils and a snap pea and radicchio salad.
It was open for just five months. Then there was an electrical fire in the kitchen. A single-alarm, nothing to worry about, Newton Fire Department quickly had it under control, no one was hurt. Someone posted from the restaurant’s Twitter account: “Thank you to everyone who’s reached out, and know that we will be back ASAP!”
Sometimes P just isn’t that S. A month went by, and then another. Buttonwood had done everything right. It closed because of dumb bad luck.
And then, just as it started to seem that maybe “closed for renovations” was restaurant code for “you’ll never eat here again,” Buttonwood reopened, almost a year after the blaze.
You know how people say you can’t go home again? That you can’t step into the same river twice? Remember how New Coke was terrible? How “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was remade as “Guess Who,” only it reversed the premise and instead of Sidney Poitier gave you Ashton Kutcher?
Forget all of that. Buttonwood is almost exactly the same as it ever was, and just as good. There is some new wallpaper. It’s pretty.
On a recent rainy Monday, the streets are empty but the restaurant is full. Families with toddlers sit at the tables, drinking wine and spooning food into their children. The music is low-key. A bartender mixes up a rummy potion and hands it to the guy across the bar: “Please enjoy, dude.” The dude enjoys.
Not all of the same faces are here, but most of them are. “We were able to keep everyone on staff,” says chef-owner David Punch. “We lost two staff members the whole time. We have all the same cooks, all the same servers, two new bartenders. The same management team. The same dishwashers and preppers — everybody, which is really, really wild.” Insurance allowed the restaurant to keep people on the payroll. Some went to work at sister restaurants Sycamore and Little Big Diner; others stepped in temporarily at places such as Sarma, Oleana, Whaling in Oklahoma, and Nantucket’s Straight Wharf. It wasn’t ideal — Punch says it was “heartbreaking” — but it was also an opportunity to learn new things.
Now chef de cuisine Francisco Millan is back in the slightly retooled kitchen. The menu looks familiar. A version of the ribs, with a Thai-inspired glaze and charred pineapple, is here. So is the cheeseburger, and the red lentils. The snap pea salad returns, tasting like spring, if spring came buried in a blizzard of cheese.
There are also plump mussels with soppressata, white beans, and chile butter. Whole-wheat spaghetti with peas and pancetta is tossed in mouth-tingling cacio e pepe butter. Pork schnitzel is served with purple cabbage slaw, all crisp and crunch. From the grill come whole cauliflower with green sriracha and tahini remoulade; whole branzino with a sauce of lemon, garlic, and herbs; smoked lamb sausage with tzatziki. The food is relaxed, but also interesting.
At the bar, summery drinks are already starting to arrive — an Aperol Schvitz, a Pimm’s Cup — alongside darker, deeper tipples. Spicy Negronis are on draft. The beer is good, carefully chosen. Punch gleefully tells me he just purchased a barrel from Ipswich’s Privateer Rum. A month back into it and things are humming along.
Plenty of restaurants have trouble with consistency. Buttonwood was somehow able to maintain it over a closure that lasted twice as long as the restaurant had been open in the first place. That’s pretty remarkable.
There’s also a story here about labor. It’s hard to find good people these days. Anyone running a restaurant will tell you that. With so many restaurants creating demand, there’s a serious shortage of skilled workers. Yet Buttonwood never seemed to have a problem attracting them, and it certainly doesn’t have trouble retaining them.
There are always market forces at work. Restaurants close for many reasons. But they stay open because of just a few. For instance: They serve good food that people want to eat, in an atmosphere where people want to eat it. And they are well managed.
“I really like that restaurant,” says Punch. “I didn’t want to see it close. I really liked all my co-workers there. We owed it to them to reopen as opposed to just walking away.”
51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands, 617-928-5771, www.buttonwoodnewton.com