Euz Azevedo is relieved that he no longer has to drive down Boylston Street and see the front of his restaurant, Forum, all boarded up.
But now that the plywood is finally down for Thursday’s reopening, Azevedo faces a new challenge: jump-starting a business that is also the site of one of the city’s biggest tragedies — the Boston Marathon bombings.
He is understandably nervous. He grasps the enormity of Forum’s return. It is the last of the Boylston Street businesses hit by the attacks to reopen.
“Like it or not, it’s a part of history now,” Azevedo said. “It’s something we can’t tell people not to think about. It’s affected a lot of people.”
Forum, which is changing its name slightly to Forum Bar & Restaurant, was the site of the second blast during the April 15 attacks that killed three people and injured 264 others. It reopens with a private fund-raiser in support of former New England Patriot Joe Andruzzi’s charitable foundation. Andruzzi was hosting a fund-raiser there the day of the Marathon.
Closing Forum was never an option for the 33-year-old Azevedo. Instead, he decided it was time to start fresh.
“We made a decision to brighten the space,” he said. “We wanted to erase those memories that people had. I just didn’t want to open with the same look because if you come back to a place where something bad happened to you, you’re going to have those memories again.”
When the restaurant opens to the public for dinner on Friday, customers will see a completely remodeled first floor. A massive bar that occupied a large portion of the room is gone, replaced by a smaller bar located at the front of the restaurant, allowing for more dining space. The 15 television sets that dominated the room are gone, as is the dark paneling.
Instead, new white subway tile and maple-tone patterned walls reflect the warm glow from circular chandeliers. (Small cosmetic changes were made to the second floor, which was minimally affected by the blast.) Along with the new look, Forum has also hired a new chef, Dan Schroeder, and is introducing a new menu.
General manager Chris Loper knows some people will come into Forum simply out of curiosity, and he knows the only way to get those customers to return is to excel when it comes to the food and atmosphere.
“You don’t want to be that place that people say ‘Let’s go and check out that bombed restaurant,’ ” Loper said. “We want people to think they’re being supportive of a great restaurant.”
He also wants Forum to live up the broad support it has received from the community and city officials.
“It’s a new look, a new logo, a new chef, but they still have the same dedication to the city and its patrons,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “I think people are going to come out and show their support.”
The decision to overhaul the space rather than rebuild the first floor with the same footprint was an expensive one, particularly since the restaurant has not yet received insurance money and has been closed for four months. The restaurant’s management team was paid during the closure.
“With no revenue stream whatsoever, everything has come out of our pockets,” said Azevedo, who owns three other restaurants in the area. “The insurance process has gone on a long time. We had to decide if we would invest some money and open a better restaurant, or do we try to save some money and open with the same look?”
About one-third of Forum’s staff of 40 will return, according to marketing director Erinn Fleming. Many former employees found jobs at other restaurants, or returned home for summer break from college. Any staffers who wanted to return had a guaranteed job, she said.
There were about 200 customers at the restaurant the day of the bombings, and the 25 staffers who were working have been lauded for their calm and for helping customers to safety.
“We really don’t talk about that day,” said Joshua Glover, the assistant manager of the restaurant. “It’s just regular work talk now.”
No one on the staff has told Fleming that they are apprehensive about returning after the bombing. But the stress has mounted a bit as the reopening draws near.
“When we open those doors maybe we catch our breath for a millisecond, but then we’re moving on,” Fleming said. “Our focus really has been, ‘OK, let’s all get back in it and make sure we do things right.’ A lot of us are back together again, so it feels good that we were able to do this together.”
Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, says in some ways Forum’s situation is akin to any new restaurant opening — and in others, quite different.
“From a business perspective, the public is going to want Forum to win,” Luz said. “Boston has shown great support for the businesses down in that area. But ultimately those people will only be back if they have a good experience.”
And yet, even if Forum welcomes a stream of supportive customers, Luz believes the restaurant could still face obstacles. “The greatest difficulty is really going to revolve around the staff,” he said. “No matter what is done to the decor or the menu, that whole team is going to have to relive this over and over again because guests are going to come in and invariably ask about this.”
Symbolically, of course, the reopening of Forum represents something far bigger than the return of a single Back Bay business. It also marks a return to some sense of normalcy.
“It’s Boston moving forward in a positive direction,” said Andruzzi, who plans to be at tonight’s event. “It’s all about overcoming the adversity with that upbeat attitude.”