The suburbs are brimming with ambitious diners, chefs
By Kara Baskin GLOBE CORRESPONDENT APRIL 14, 2015
Years ago, Charlie Foster was the Guinness family’s personal chef, where he prepared elaborate nightly feasts for aristocrats in the Spanish mountains. He also served cosmopolitan swells as executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen and Bar in Manhattan. These days he’s still working a busy dining room, with some differences: The peak mealtime is earlier, the kitchen is on a quaint street in a quiet town, and there’s a kids’ menu.
Foster is executive chef at the new Woods Hill Table in West Concord. It’s one of many restaurants springing up in the western suburbs led by chefs with big-city pedigrees. The allure is a pastoral lifestyle and the prospect of cooking for a growing demographic of suburbanites who expect quality food and don’t want to trek into Boston for it.
“I don’t have to be in New York or Boston anymore. I can serve my food elsewhere and people will understand its value and seek it out,” says Foster, who also worked under restaurateur Ken Oringer at Clio. He says Woods Hill is “slammed” every night with locals clamoring for his charcuterie and seasonal entrees sourced from places like Sudbury’s Siena Farms and Woods Hill’s own New Hampshire farm. Foster doesn’t miss urban life. “I’m comfortable with trees and Walden Pond close to my house,” he says.
People moving from Boston with big expectations and little time to cook spur the businesses, says Linda Friedman, who has lived in neighboring Acton for 38 years. When her children were small, she says, pizza was the only game in town. Nowadays, she dines at Concord’s 80 Thoreau, led by chef Carolyn Johnson, late of Cambridge’s Rialto. “We’ve always had a huge amount of pizza places. Now we have higher-end, Boston-caliber restaurants, and there’s a crowd that can support it. People are eating out more than years ago,” Friedman says. Acton now has a gastropub, the Red Raven, whose opening chef was KO Prime alum Josh Buehler. It’s down the street from a new local brewery, Rapscallion Table & Tap.
But is there a professional sense of selling out by heading to the ’burbs? A riff on the classic family who vows to never leave their chic downtown apartment, then ends up buying the practical house with the two-car garage?
Maybe, but these chefs have no regrets. David Punch, chef-owner at Newton’s Sycamore, grew up in Natick, where his dining experiences revolved around trips to Cabot’s Ice Cream. He wanted to bring a sophisticated neighborhood bistro to the area for the influx of families he knew from Cambridge, where he cooked at Ten Tables. Initially, he got good-natured pushback. “Some of my chef friends begged me not to do it,” he says. “They told me, ‘You’re going where restaurants go to die!’ ”
He proved them wrong. Energized by Sycamore’s success over the past two years, he’ll open an East Asian restaurant in Newton Centre this summer. “We have regulars several times a week. People come wanting to party and cut loose,” he says. “It was a logical decision to open in an underserved market.”
Logical and cost-effective, says chef Daniel Stokes, who runs Red Bird in Waltham, which opened last July to glowing reviews. Stokes had worked at Boston’s Franklin Cafe and initially “dismissed Waltham because I thought it was too far from the city.” He soon realized that rents were cheaper farther out of town. “I didn’t want that daunting challenge facing me my first time owning a restaurant,” he says.
There are other challenges, though, like ensuring a restaurant’s vision floats with the neighbors. Josh and Jennifer Ziskin from Brookline’s La Morra bought the Sherborn Inn with plans to convert it this spring into Heritage of Sherborn, a farm-inspired tavern and restaurant. Recently Jennifer Ziskin was approached by a Sherborn resident eager for input. The woman convened a focus group so Ziskin could understand the town’s needs. “People told me they want food they wouldn’t cook at home. They want an experience that’s community-oriented, where they can go out to eat and see people they know,” Ziskin says. Their feedback will inform her plans.
Bondir’s Jason Bond had a similar experience. When he got word that his precise menu descriptions at the Concord outpost of his acclaimed Cambridge restaurant perplexed some diners, he shifted gears. “We pay attention to the language we use. Too much seems to annoy people. I’ve been told, ‘I didn’t bring my French dictionary,’ ” he says. “One of the biggest challenges is knowing who’s out there, and how do I take care of them?”
Same with Saltbox Kitchen, the soon-to-open West Concord cafe from chef Ben Elliott, who worked with Barbara Lynch at Boston’s No. 9 Park and Stir. Elliott knows his audience. His emphasis is on prepared foods to go, sourced from his family’s Saltbox Farm up the road. “People can grab lunch, then take the train to Boston. Busy parents going to soccer practice can pop in to get dinner,” he says. Not just any dinner: A sample menu touts a farmhouse ale and buckwheat crepe, Berkshire porchetta with salsa verde, and a kids’ “bento box” with seasonal organic vegetables.
Yes, in this area, even casual dining has gone classy. Oscar Garcia cooked at Mistral before opening Oscar’s Burritos in front of Boxborough’s Nashoba Valley Olympia Skating Rink last June. Garcia struck cubicle gold: The Route 495 corridor teems with hungry office workers.
Garcia’s freshly prepared Mexican food has been such a hit that he hopes to launch another restaurant. “There are lots of big companies here. Cisco [Systems] is down the street. There was a need for something like this, accessible but sophisticated,” he says.
Saltbox’s Elliott agrees. “You get these 30- and 40-somethings who aren’t living in the South End anymore. They’re demanding good food, and they don’t want to drive into the city,” he says. “This is the generation that’s all fired up by the Food Network.”
There’s something to be said for old standbys, though. Take it from Elliott, who grew up in Wayland and recently visited a childhood haunt, the Villa. “It used to be my family’s go-to. I got the eggplant, and it tasted exactly the same.” He pauses. “You know what? It was great.”