Confessions of a Boston-area restaurant owner
We can look back at 2018 as a hell of a year for the local dining scene, and now we enter into 2019 looking for our restaurant version of the Oscars’ “In Memoriam.”
From your neighborhood restaurant to big names like L’Espalier, Townsman, and even the storied and salty Durgin-Park, losing these places felt like losing loved ones. Places where we made memories, places we worked, and places where, despite recent assertions, Boston’s national reputation as a city for restaurants was made. (OK, maybe not in the case of Durgin-Park. . . . we can file that under “Historical Landmarks.”)
I remember a time when we used to treat the opening of a new restaurant the way we bought vinyl albums. We waited patiently for them to be released so we could enjoy them over and over again. However, lately, in the era of influencers and Instagram, it feels as though eating out is more like a streaming service. We can get what we want, when we want it, and check the box that says you’ve been there. Never listening to the lyrics of the record, if you will, just bobbing our heads to the beat. No wonder it’s hard for new restaurants to survive.
Why are restaurants closing? I can tell you it’s not because people didn’t know what they were doing. I’m in this crazy business, and I know these people well. They’re very capable and incredibly talented. We can’t even blame the closings on a poor economy like we did in ’08.
So what is it? Should we blame the rents, the staffing, or market saturation? It’s probably a little of all of those things. Staffing, or lack thereof, has definitely become one of the biggest struggles. On top of that, it’s not easy to compete with the influx of corporate money into our world, which used to be run by just by a few groups of local talent.
Mostly I worry Bostonians might not be hungry enough to support all of the area’s existing restaurants, let alone the ones that have yet to open. Count ’em: two new food halls with a smorgasbord of offerings, our first casino where no one will starve, all in a region dotted with cranes putting up buildings with a shiny new restaurant on the ground floor. We need to be careful, as we have already seen this play out in the Seaport District with its foreign-city feel and countless chains.
As local restaurateurs, I think we need to learn from that. Bigger and newer doesn’t always mean better if it comes at a cost we can’t afford to pay. Just because this is our city, it doesn’t mean we need to overextend ourselves to be in the biggest restaurant space in the flashy new destination.
We need to change the way we think about restaurants and how we open them. But we need everyone on our side. That means the diners, the developers, even our respective city halls*. That change will help us with creativity and innovation we get accused of not having. *City Hall, please take note!
Look at the places that are getting the national attention locally, like Celeste and Yume Ga Arukara. They are small, they are scrappy, they are opening up in parts of the city not necessarily known for night life or dining, and because of this they can afford to be creative. Maybe this is our wake-up call.
From closed restaurant spaces, we saw innovative pop-ups like Rabottini’s creating hype by being a hermit crab that thrived in the shell of a dead restaurant. Reviewers declared that it served the best pizza in the region.
Listen, I’m not here to be Boston’s token guy who plays a tiny violin about how hard it is to be a restaurateur in this era. I’m just here like the rest of you, being shocked when I hear of another well-known restaurant closing. We’re past the pearl-clutching and outrage; we’ve now entered the phase where the generals are just looking at sheer numbers of alive and dead.
Daily, I worry about whether or not the public opinion of a restaurant has a shelf life, and honestly, as a restaurant owner, I really don’t know. But there has to be a reason why Oleana has been open for almost 20 years, why Toro just had its 13th anniversary, and why Celeste, a hole-in-the-wall space in Somerville, can catch the attention of the national critics. What I do know for sure is that we have some pretty amazing places that are still here that you should be proud to patronize.
We don’t have a culinary Zamboni. We can’t just take all the things that aren’t working and smooth it all over back to the way things used to be. We have to stop being stubborn in order to change locally because it’s going to take that change for us to be a better restaurant city. Let the chains all pay the rent in the new areas, and let that area around them feel sterile. Let local restaurants be in the parts of the city that people want to move to because cool places to eat are there.
Revisit your favorite places this year. Bring your friends and family, and tell everyone you know how much you love those places. If you don’t, then you can’t be shocked when they close.
This is our city. I’m damn proud of that, and as a chef it’s my job to make you proud of it, too. That’s my new year’s resolution.
Will Gilson is the owner-chef of Puritan & Company in Cambridge.