Next time you glide into the Back Bay’s Citrus & Salt and bask in the rose-gold Miami Beach vibe, think of Colleen Hagerty before scooping up your ceviche. The 41-year-old restaurant managing partner deliberately conceived the space as cool and beachy: “I wanted people to feel like they were on vacation — nothing brassy and leathery,” she says. She’s also the acting general manager at the Theater District’s Abby Lane and a cheerful presence at both spots.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston? I think the first time I went to a restaurant in Boston was with my mom and grandmother. They went to Filene’s for their annual shopping trip, and I think my memory is of going to a deli nearby and eating a corned beef sandwich right on the Common. That was my first meal in the city. It was probably in the early 1990s. I grew up in Worcester, and every year [my mom] would go to Boston to do back-to-school shopping.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? A challenge for me and everyone who works for me is work-life balance. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to fix that, but it’s been harder to attract talent, just because hours are crazy and you have to be fully committed and married to the job. You’re open 24 hours. Even when we close, we’re back three hours later receiving orders and figuring out next service. We need to reel it in, make it less frantic, so we can bring in young, aggressive talent who want to work hard but not compromise their lives.
What other restaurants do you visit? Peach Farm late-night dumplings are a must-have, and also there’s a lobster pasta dish that Colin [Lynch] makes at Bar Mezzana. It’s so good; it’s almost sexy. I think about it all the time. I miss it. If I’m going to go out, it has to be something I crave that’s more of a treat. As restaurant people, you’re always around higher-end ingredients. My team wants to go to Olive Garden and have breadsticks and salad! It’s funny. Industry people love trashy food; it’s something we never get to do.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? Being from New England, it was all about fall holidays. My mom loves cooking. In Worcester, there wasn’t much of a food scene. It was all fast food, and she was very anti-fast food. For her, food was love and nourishment. Every year, we went apple picking at Hamilton Orchards in New Salem, and I distinctly remember her teaching me how to make an apple pie.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I haven’t had an absolutely awful experience. It’s just when I’m super-excited to bring someone and an off-night goes from bad to worse. I’m a nightmare to go out to eat with. The lights are too bright! A chair needs to be pushed in! The music is too loud! My expectations are usually so high.
How could the Boston food scene improve? The cost of operating is the biggest challenge I face. So young, talented people don’t have a platform, because rents are so high, the cost of business is so high. It makes it expensive for diners as well. I’d love to give young talent a forum, but you have to go with something tried and true because it’s so risky. I’d love more small, boutique-y spaces that are more economically friendly, to take more risks.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston? Over the last 10 years, it’s changed immensely. When I first came here, everything was an Irish pub. Steak tips and burgers. Limited options. Now I feel that every time I turn around, something new and amazing is opening. It helps me stay motivated. It inspires me to see décor, new styles. The quality of chefs now is amazing, and new neighborhoods like Ink Block.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Educated: I think people have come a long way in knowing what’s in their food and how much it costs, especially with Whole Foods being accessible. Curious: I’m always so happy to see people trying anything. People aren’t just looking for the steak and potato dish; people are trying crazy sushi options and food from countries they’ve never traveled to and are quite excited about. And generous: The local Boston community rallies around us as a smaller business with their time, money, support. It’s nice to see and have here.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? That’s a bad question! We’re very trendy at Citrus and Salt. [Chef] Jason [Santos] created a flaming hot Cheeto street corn. I was skeptical. I’m surprised by trends. People loved it. Personally, people using vegetables to trick it into being pasta. Keep your flavorless zucchini off the menu! If you’re going to go out and eat pasta, splurge and enjoy it.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? I like how there are more quick, casual spots. You can get a dozen oysters and not make it an all-night commitment. Or a great bowl of ramen. But we need the cocktail piece and beverage program. I’d love to have a glass of champagne with my oysters or ramen with a delicious, complex cocktail. That component is kind of missing.
What are you reading? I’m reading “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, because I miss her.
How’s your commute? It’s super-easy. I bought a little condo in Dorchester a couple years ago. I’m close to the highway and can even walk if I wanted to, and it’s kind of a necessity because I’m on call 24 hours.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Bone marrow. I hate it with every fiber of my soul. I know it’s luxurious. We do not get along.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? That’s a really good question. I’m trying to think. Intermission Tavern. Mike Connors welcomed me like family when we opened Abby Lane in the Theater District, and some of my best early work memories are chatting with him over a strong drink and late-night comfort food. It closed shortly after he passed away unexpectedly. He and it are very much missed.
Who was your most memorable customer? With Abby Lane, we get celebrities coming in. They’re discreet and lovely and don’t want any attention. But recently Jeffrey Goldblum came in. He was the life of the party, hanging out at the host stand greeting people. He was just over the top and super-fun and lovely.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? That’s a good question, too! Honestly, I’d end up late-night in Chinatown at Peach Farm eating dumplings and drinking cold tea.