Lucien and Ann Robert ran Maison Robert in Old City Hall like a fine Parisian restaurant. Tall, regal, American-bred Ann, in a smart suit, oversaw the front of the house. French-born Lucien was in the kitchen, at one point with nephew Jacky Robert and a young Lydia Shire, later with his and Ann’s daughter, Andree. Up a flight of stairs at the entrance to the building, you passed a coat-check room and entered a dining room with high ceilings and grand floral arrangements, tables set with crisp cotton, heavy flatware, and handsome high-backed upholstered chairs. Well-trained waiters presented pates, terrines, bisques, fricassees, ragouts, and other classics on French tableware. Sometimes I went to the more casual Ben’s Cafe on the lower level, and dining outside on a warm day really felt like France. But I always stopped to peek into the grand dining room, because even the best hotels couldn’t match this mom-and-pop institution’s grace and elegance.
East Coast Grill
The original East Coast Grill was a narrow Cambridge storefront with gaudy neon signs, an inadequate ventilation system, and some of the happiest, hippest workers and customers in town. The prized seats were right in front of owner-chef Chris Schlesinger’s live-fire grill. You went home smelling like a charred steak, but you also got a cooking lesson, watching him make barbecue and turn rare, juicy steaks and thick slabs of swordfish over coals. In the early days, the affable chef often served the food himself. He sent corn bread to the table, a nod to his boyhood in Virginia, and made spicy relishes few people knew. Among his popular riffs on classics was a memorable gazpacho in which every veggie in the bowl had a turn on the coals. Later, the restaurant expanded into the adjacent space and became known for its raw bar and annual Hell Nights, when “chile-heads” saw just how much heat they could tolerate. You might have had an assigned server, but the whole staff looked after every table in the room, and they were a bold and sassy lot.
Gordon and Fiona Hamersley opened a tiny Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End before moving across the street to the buttercup-yellow French-inspired dining room that became many Bostonians’ favorite haunt. On any given night, it drew A-list entrepreneurs, politicians, and literati. Fiona was at the door, Gordon in the open kitchen, wearing a baseball cap and greeting diners with a wave. The signature dishes could never come off the menu. The wild mushroom sandwich with sauteed fungi and roasted garlic, heaped on toasted bread, and the simple, perfect roast chicken were in nightly demand. The latter dish probably started the roast chicken craze in restaurants, and though it’s nicely done at certain other places, it’s never as good as it was at Hamersley’s.
UpStairs at the Pudding/UpStairs on the Square
You had to wonder if there was a sale on purple and pink paint when Deborah Hughes and Mary-Catherine Deibel were renovating the Winthrop Street spot in Harvard Square that became UpStairs on the Square. They were moving from a space above the Hasty Pudding Club, where the restaurant was called UpStairs at the Pudding. The new place looked wacky. It had a pink and mirrored ceiling, banquettes covered in zebra-striped fabric, and green plaid walls with purple trim. The first-floor Monday Club Bar, which I preferred, was more casual than the upstairs dining room. At one point Susan Regis ran the kitchen and made small pizzas, including one topped with lobster, and a rosy cioppino brimming with local seafood. The best seats were in the glassed-in Zebra Room, all bright pink with a harlequin-patterned floor, which was a little chilly some months of the year. You never felt it, because Hughes, in dark glasses, and Deibel, in a dramatic wrap, spread their warmth every night.
Lydia Shire got the opportunity of a lifetime in 2001 when she was hired to revitalize Locke-Ober Cafe, the iconic downtown restaurant where Boston luminaries had dined since 1875 (much later, when she went with her parents, the men-only policy in the first-floor dining room meant she and her mother had to eat upstairs). Shire and business partner Paul Licari spent a fortune returning the room to its original glory. There were rows of silver tureens, dark wood walls, high chandeliers, and beautiful Old World tableware. It looked like a period Boston mansion that a well-endowed historical society had brought back to life. I accompanied former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton when she was in town and ate JFK’s favorite creamy lobster stew, crab Louis, scrod, and Wiener schnitzel. Was the magic the sparkling dining room, being in the presence of the doyenne of reviewers, or the food? I’ll never know.
STIR THE POT
What are your favorite longtime Boston-area restaurants? And what now-closed places do you miss? Share your recommendations and regrets at email@example.com.Sheryl Julian is the former food editor of the Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.