Last week I had the famous roast chicken with garlic, lemon, and parsley at Hamersley’s Bistro for the last time. After 27 years, the South End establishment closes its doors on Wednesday with a fund-raiser for the Boston Center for the Arts.
The farewell was already in full swing when I was there. People took photos outside and inside the restaurant, selfies, portraits with spouses, portraits with chef-owner Gordon Hamersley, who runs the place with wife, Fiona. After one last dinner, a regular tried to slide in for a second last dinner before regular service ended Monday: “Gordon said to ask you about the possibility of a reservation for three,” he wheedled at the host stand. (She made it happen.) There were silver-haired men in suits and coifed women with statement jewelry, the people who came up with the restaurant and now must say good-bye. But also here: South End eccentrics, the city’s foodizens, young couples on their first visit, so they could say they’d been.
“It’s been like a Saturday night every night,” Hamersley said by phone later. “The cooks have just been like rocks. The people we know and see all the time have been wonderful. People I’ve never met before come up to us and say this has become a special place for us and thank you. We feel very good about the fact we’ve done our job as restaurant people, which is to bring folks together around the table, celebrating and doing business deals and exchanging ideas and laughing and joking, and sometimes crying and breaking up and who knows what else.”
The room filled with the hum of talk and the clink of solid utensils. An arrangement featured sunflowers and red autumn leaves: shoulder-season nostalgia. The bar was a museum of pre-Internet civilization, no one finger-tipping a smooth screen, everyone engaged in textured conversation. Until, at last, it was time to Uber home.
What of the staffer who makes cocktails, pours wine, takes dinner orders, and talks with regulars at the same time? “You’ll find me in some gin joint,” he said. But first he’s going to renovate his house.
Acquaintances got reacquainted. “How you doing, man? Coming for a last meal? What did you have?”
Oh, the feathered slaughter of Hamersley’s last weeks. One shudders to think. Truth be told, I think there were better dishes on the restaurant’s final menu. I’d rather have the spicy halibut and clam roast with bacon-braised greens, white beans, and black trumpet mushrooms, for one. But what else are you going to eat for a last meal at Hamersley’s Bistro?
Maybe this doesn’t have to be our last taste of Hamersley’s roast chicken, however. The recipe is out there, in the chef’s cookbook, “Bistro Cooking at Home,” and in various permutations online. So I made it the other night, blanketing a pair of chickens in a green paste of parsley and aromatics and tucking them into the fridge for a nice, long rest. I missed Hamersley’s before those birds were even done marinating.
Don’t get me wrong. The chicken was a pleasure to make. Gordon Hamersley gives a good recipe, clear and easy to follow over many steps. Whiz up the marinade, apply to birds, wait. Then roast, and while you’re at it, do some garlic, too. Throw in a pan of wedged potatoes and onions if you’re feeling crazy. When the chicken is ready, take it out, degrease and deglaze, carve and broil, reduce the juices with lemon and swirl in butter, then plate it all up. It looked and tasted like a plausible approximation of the dish Boston loves. (Hamersley offers the following tips by phone: The marinade is too thick, so add a few drops of water, broth, or wine to thin it, and dry your chickens thoroughly inside and out.)
But it’s different at home, at your comfortable kitchen table, NPR on the radio, sipping whatever’s left of the last bottle of wine you opened, your fingers still smelling faintly of raw garlic, and a wet dishtowel drying on the back of a chair. These are some of domesticity’s best moments, the stuff of life.
At Hamersley’s, the decor is simple — streamlined black chandeliers, white brick, rough wood beams in the ceiling, Botero posters of portly women and bathrooms straight out of some middling Parisian hotel. Even as you sit in the unenviable little side room, though, someone is making that chicken for you. You are being taken care of. You might even be dressed up. (For all the whinging about the slovenliness of blue jean-clad youth, they win the fashion show here: velvet jackets and pocket squares, black cigarette pants and classic leather heels.)
Straight from the oven, the home version has perfectly crisp skin. But the restaurant version came with Hamersley’s hospitality. Plus, let’s be real. Instant gratification is gratifying. The chicken is a project.
So now the dish becomes an artifact — unless, of course, Hamersley opens his version of Boston Market. That doesn’t seem likely: He’ll be finishing a cookbook and working with nonprofits Share Our Strength and Future Chefs to help kids get jobs in the culinary world. “There’s a great need in our city to tap the potential workforce we have in vocational schools,” he says. “I don’t see any reason we can’t grow local cooks as well as local tomatoes.”
But that’s OK, because guess what? There is a whole lot of excellent roast chicken in this town. What there aren’t a lot of: restaurants with serious longevity, where the chef-owner works in the kitchen, night after night and year after year. That’s what made Hamersley’s Bistro Hamersley’s Bistro, not any one dish. And that’s what we will miss.
7/22/05: On the patio at Hamersley’s, lighter fare illuminates a summer’s eve
• 10/12/03: Gordon and Fiona Hamersley renovate their funky farmhouse kitchen in Sudbury