Boston's Late-Night Boom
by donna garlough
Boston has always had some things in spades: Marathoners. PhDs. More vendors hawking Harvard sweatshirts and clam chowder than any tourist could possibly want. Looking at today’s nightlife scene, you could be forgiven for assuming we’ve always had an abundance of high-style spots for mingling, munching, and tipping back icy martinis too. Surely it’s normal to attend a launch party for a shiny new hotspot nearly every month, no?
In fact, the last year and a half have brought some of the largest bar and restaurant openings the city has ever seen—and, unlike with past booms, the growth hasn’t been limited to one corner of town: There is Storyville in Back Bay, Trade on the Waterfront, Descent at the W Boston in the Theater District, Julep Bar and Nix’s Mate in the Financial District, and Catalyst Restaurant in Cambridge.
The frequency of these debuts has been a boon to Boston’s social scene, not to mention its economy. But perhaps more interesting than the fact that developers, business owners, and patrons seem bullish on the market for nightlife is that the nature of our nightlife itself has shifted. Thumping music and velvet ropes are no longer enough to draw crowds (or at least the kinds of crowds you want coming back). “It’s not just a restaurant or just a night club anymore. It’s an entertainment venue,” observes Charlie Perkins, president and owner of The Boston Restaurant Group, Inc., which specializes in the sale and appraisal of restaurants.
It’s the nature of what “entertainment” means to us that has changed. The new Bostonian wants not just music, but also quality cocktails, delicious food, and sophisticated high-design spaces. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you could find a space, paint it black, bring in some speakers, and call it a day,” says Boston City Councilor Michael Ross, a vocal supporter of some of the city’s biggest mixed residential and restaurant projects, including the redevelopment of the area around Fenway, where The Hawthorne most recently opened. Fresh design, Ross says, is an increasingly important part of today’s nightlife projects. “It used to be if you had a great sign outside, you could bring people in,” he says. “You’d look at some of those places today and kind of wince.”
Now, Ross observes, standards are higher. “Boston is upping its game. We have world-renowned chefs, and we’ve been thought leaders in some of the national restaurant movements, like sustainability.” And when it comes to new nightlife, the most forward-thinking restaurateurs are scientific about combining food, drink, and design to create sensory and gustatory theaters of sorts.
The shift in what we demand from our nightlife follows the national trend. As a culture, we’re starting to appreciate, as those in Paris, Tokyo, and Barcelona long have, that there’s more to nightlife than loud music and potent cocktails. Possibly it’s also the HGTV and Food Network effect, where we idolize designers and chefs. The appreciation for design and great dining, however, has permeated our modern lifestyle, and at night it’s become a sport. We track new restaurants we’ve tried like notches on a bedpost and post photos of our meals on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Where we’ve been has become a reflection of who we are, and we’ve become gourmands and design aficionados.
Architecturally, The Liberty hotel’s award-winning design led the way with its incredible renovation of the old Charles Street Jail. For its first few years, from 2008 to 2010, it was the place to be no matter who you were, and it still draws significant crowds (especially on Thursday nights). The popularity of such a beautiful space made scene-spinners and restaurateurs realize that design is crucial, and now they go to great lengths to create gorgeous spaces. Perkins estimates that the glossiest build-outs in town run $650 per square foot, or about $9 million for a space the size of Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge. And Empire partners Ed and Joe Kane, Randy Greenstein, and Kevin Long spared no expense design-wise: they commissioned a custom slab of marble from top-notch stone cutters at Cumar for the sushi bar, created coffered ceilings and wall screens modeled on Hong Kong hot spots Ed Kane toured (and sketched) himself, carefully placed lighting, mosaic tiled floors and back splashes, and an open kitchen with a hard-to-find large-capacity wok. When they found a blue toile fabric depicting a Chinese scene, they had it reproduced by hand on wall paper and laid beneath glass as an accent to the sushi bar’s Italian gray stone. Everything from the carpet pattern to the carved wood partitions were custom-made based on the owners’ travel snapshots, napkin sketches, and on traditional Chinese motifs.
One pier down the waterfront from Empire, at Liberty Wharf, Roger Berkowitz created the crown jewel of his über-successful Legal Sea Foods brand. Planning the rooftop bar at Legal Harborside, president and CEO Berkowitz knew that the water views were paramount, but that inclement weather was a reality—hence the glass walls and retractable glass roof. “We spent a lot of time brainstorming what would be conducive to this space,” he explains. And that thoughtfulness has paid off: Crowds have descended and it’s tough to get a seat at the bar after 6 pm on weekdays (or after 4:30 pm on weekends!). Across town, Emerald’s $3-million build-out included a $500,000 sound system and a $150,000 glistening metal “tornado” sculpture that dominates the decor (a play on the lounge’s The Wizard of Oz theme). The restaurant’s private bar room is outfitted in ruby tiles, with tall, blood-red shirred upholstered banquettes and spirited swiveling bar stools.
The other component restaurateurs realized was essential to creating the next line-down-the-street night spot is food. In the last decade, our palates have become more sophisticated; we’re looking for more than just nuts and olives when we’re out. Dining—and good, often adventurous food—has become a real component of what we do for entertainment. For Storyville, consulting chef Louis di Biccari came on board to create a menu of nibbles like fried oysters with tangy kimchi sauce, and mini burgers. Julep Bar tapped the kitchen of Blue Inc., its sibling across the street, to bring patrons exclusive seasonal menu offerings. “People expect you have to have a light menu,” Perkins says. “Times have changed.” And the best night spots have taken that gourmet attitude behind the bar too, crafting interesting and unique cocktails using fresh herbs (often grown in the chefs’ own gardens) and house-made simple syrups, infusions, and bitters.
Thanks to all that consideration, even the quietest nights at these current spots trump Fridays at the head-pounding dance clubs of a decade ago. And in blessed contrast to the old Alley bars crawling with tipsy twenty-somethings, today’s best venues have a more-refined but no less vibrant scene. Think less Amy Winehouse, more Adele. Want the full experience at each carefully conceived space?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE DISKIN