A conversation with Naomi Levy of Better Sorts Social Club
Naomi Levy moved to Boston from the Washington, D.C., area in 2005, going on to work at high-profile places: She was on the team that opened Cambridge’s late, lamented Hungry Mother; she was also the bar manager at Kenmore Square’s Eastern Standard for six years. Now she’s beverage director at Better Sorts Social Club, a bespoke cocktail bar inside the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel downtown. Despite those swanky surroundings, though, she’s content with eggplant parmesan at an East Cambridge dive.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever tried in Boston? Oh my goodness. I grew up coming to Boston because I have family here. One of the most memorable meals I had shortly after moving here was at Elephant Walk, the one that’s no longer there, in Brookline. I don’t remember exactly what I ate, but they had this salad, a Cambodian salad. I got it after my meal, so I felt very European.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I’d like to see more risk-taking. Boston is a hard city. There’s a ton of red tape. There’s not a lot of small spaces that are affordable. I hope we continue to think outside the box, continue to push our community forward.
What other restaurants do you visit? Sarma in Somerville, and Muqueca is my favorite off-the-radar place. I feel like most people have seen Sarma out and about; it gets a lot of well-deserved press. But Muqueca is my neighborhood spot that I love. And you can probably find me most frequently at Atwood’s Tavern.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I don’t know that I knew it at the time, but this is something I look back on. As a kid, I would take it upon myself to make [our family’s] menu, type it up, print it out, make it look all pretty, and serve people. I would set the table and get drinks. I didn’t realize I was essentially playing server.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? This place doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve been a vegetarian a long time. I went in for a vegetarian tasting menu, which means I don’t have to think about anything. The second course had roe on it, and something gelatinous and jiggly. . . . They scooped it off. Two courses later, something jiggly came out, with meat gelatin. Finally, for dessert, they served me something else with gelatin. I felt so high-maintenance! I shouldn’t have had to worry about it at all.
How could the Boston food scene improve? I think it already is. I would like to see more places with a clear vision of what they are. Sometimes, the downfall is being too many things to too many people. Places that do the best, my favorites, are very clear about what they are and stick to it — a specific cuisine or philosophy. I’d like to see more of that rather than places where you feel, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this menu. It has a little bit of something for everybody.’ Something with a voice.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. This sounds silly, but nice. I have really nice people who come in. Nice, eager, and excited.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I think it’s starting to pass already, but shishito peppers.
What type of bar is Boston missing? A really great outdoor bar. I know that’s hard because our outdoor time is so limited here. But there’s not a whole lot when it comes to just a bar with really cool outdoor space. A lot of other cities have some great outdoor bars. I’d love to see that.
What are you reading? I was just gifted John Waters’s new book. I can’t remember the name of it. It might be Mr. Know-It-All?
How’s your commute? It’s OK. I work very close to a bunch of T stations. I don’t live close to them. I live in East Cambridge. If I don’t want to walk 20 minutes — I have some ankle problems — I try to get a 69 bus or bike to Lechmere. The 69 bus comes when it feels like it. It doesn’t really work out.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Really weird things. I have traveled quite a bit. There are definitely some Asian soft drinks that I am totally good on. And, I think 1,000-year-old egg. Tried it; never need to eat it ever again.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Hungry Mother. I opened Hungry Mother, and then I moved and was a short walk away. They were family.
Who was your most memorable customer? I had a regular at Eastern Standard, this eccentric guy who traveled the world. He made money in the craziest way, by buying telephone numbers close to things like 1-800-FLOWERS, and they would buy him out. I don’t know. Then, he just spent his money right, invested right, and would invest in strange things. One time, he said, ‘Did you see my clear piano on the Grammys?’ He was a fun person to have at your bar, and one of the most interesting people in the world.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Eggplant parm with noodles on the side with alfredo sauce at the East Side Grill, not to be confused with the East Coast Grill. It’s a small Italian-American spot with a giant Frank Sinatra picture. They make comfort-food eggplant parm the way I want it.