A conversation with chef Cara Marie Nance of Lower Mills Tavern
Most pubs specialize in heavy, meaty treats. Not Dorchester’s Lower Mills Tavern. Executive chef Cara Marie Nance, a vegan, sources ingredients from Canton’s Brookwood Community Farm — fresh veggie-topped pizzas, roasted cauliflower in red curry, homemade sunchoke hummus. And her regulars don’t mind a bit. (She’ll also happily cook a burger.)
What’s the first restaurant that you ever tried in Boston? I think the first one I ever went to in Boston was True Bistro, the vegan restaurant in Somerville. I got this beautiful take on devils on horseback — like a smoked, tempeh-wrapped date.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Oh, man. I would say more locality when it comes to bringing as many local foods to restaurants as possible. So much of the business over the last handful of years has been expensive imported items that you can charge a ton for, but they aren’t actually from here. It’s great to have all these things that you can’t get anywhere else. But local companies are manufacturing their own versions right in Boston. Companies are popping up left and right, local versions of stuff imported from other places. It changes the way you see food when it’s something so close to where you are.
What other restaurants do you visit? My absolute favorite is Julian’s in Providence, a food-for-all concept. They have a ton of vegan, vegetarian options, and a ton of meat-eater options. They have a little bit of everything for everybody. It’s my favorite place to go for brunch.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? This is going back in time here! My noni, my Italian grandmother, did a lot of homemade pasta-making when we were kids. Making all of the pasta from scratch was something she did; we used to spend every Sunday making pasta as long as I can remember. I still make pasta all the time.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Ooh. I’ve had a lot of not-so-good experiences. I’ve been to the Grange [in Providence] maybe five times. I keep giving them a try, and every time I’ve been disappointed. . . . It’s hit or miss. Great service and great food, but not great cocktails, or it’s too dark and you need to pull out your phone to read the menu. A huge compilation of a lot of things. For me, if I go somewhere with high expectations for food but the food ends up being subpar — all it needed was a little salt — it makes me feel like they could have put a little more love into it to make it a better experience.
How could the Boston food scene improve? The one thing I have noticed about Boston specifically is that there’s a lot of the same types of food, if that makes sense. A lot of sports bars. A lot of Thai food places. A lot of Mexican restaurants where you can get tacos. But only a handful of places that have what I look for, which is more of a food-for-all concept. My husband and I are vegan, but my 10-year-old son isn’t. He likes being able to get pepperoni on his pizza. I don’t want to force him to go to a vegan restaurant every time; I want to find restaurants I can go to with groups of friends and family who aren’t vegan and have an experience for all of us, and it’s really hard to find.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Hometown, habitual, familiar. We get the same core people, friends of friends. We get so much of our business through word of mouth. And they all live down the street.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Avocado toast. I can’t say it upsets me; I love avocado toast. But it’s the one thing I can be guaranteed to find at any restaurant for brunch. There are so many other great options you can do with an avocado.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? We’re missing a farm-to-table vegan restaurant with full rooftop gardens and an indoor hydroponic herb garden — a big wall of greens that they grow all year-round where everything comes from inside the building.
What are you reading? Richard Blais’s new cookbook.
How’s your commute? Not too bad, about 45 minutes on major highways. I enjoy driving, but the parking problem seems to be an issue. I put music on and just cruise until I get to work.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Oh, man, that’s a tough question! I don’t think I’d ever want to eat coleslaw ever again. I’m not a big fan of cabbage personally, unless it’s a kimchi or a stuffed cabbage. A wet, cold cabbage is not appealing to me.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Central Bistro in Downtown Crossing. They had this incredible ricotta cheese with a honey glaze with baguettes. I still dream about it.
Who was your most memorable customer? Judge Judy. In Providence, she used to come into the café I worked at all the time. She is this tiny, tiny little human. She’s so sweet in real life, just not on TV. In real life, she’s a hand-toucher. She puts her hand on your hand. She’s soft-spoken.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? It would be at the Tasting Counter in Somerville, the vegan meal, 12 courses. They make it right in front of you. I’d just eat 45 plates of food. I’d stay all night.