From the Seaport to the suburbs, countless large-scale restaurant construction projects are underway. But, asks commentator Louisa Kasdon, who besides the real estate developers and the leasing agents stands to gain? (khkg/flickr)

In May, Peter Meade, the president of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was crowing with delight as he clicked through his PowerPoint of architectural renderings of approved, “shovel-ready” projects. Standing before several hundred Boston-area restaurateurs, he declared, “From the Fenway to the Waterfront, from Downtown Crossing to Dudley Square, Boston is the most exciting city in America!”

Meade didn’t give an exact number, but a good estimate of building projects already under way forecasts an increase of approximately 1,000 new restaurant seats in Boston over the next several years. Meade was exultant. I was, frankly, a little depressed.

I am a proud, born-and-bred daughter of Boston and a longtime cheerleader for our local restaurant community. I worry, however, that by building large, expensive restaurants, we are cannibalizing the Hub’s culinary exceptionalism and putting at risk the fabulous chef-owner culture that put us on the map as one of America’s great dining cities.

The big chains come into town and pay exorbitant square-foot rates that screw up the whole market.

– Charlie Perkins, Boston Restaurant Group

Over the last three years, over 4,000 new restaurant “seats” have been added in Boston. Most of the new capacity is in the Seaport and waterfront areas and favors large, mostly upscale chains, with several hundred seats for diners at each location. All this should be great for Boston, right? Great for Boston’s amazing community of culinary professionals, right?

But the net effect may be exactly the opposite. It may make Boston much less affordable for the talented local chefs who scrape together every last cent to open a kitchen or bistro of their own.

Boston is an expensive place to do business. The rents are high, the current cost of a liquor license is upwards of $200,000, and as anyone knows who has ever dined in metro Boston, parking can be a riff on Russian roulette.

Charlie Perkins, president of the Boston Restaurant Group, laments, “Big restaurant spaces make eminent sense for the landlord, but they suck the oxygen out of the South End, the North End and Newbury Street. The big chains come into town and pay exorbitant square-foot rates that screw up the whole market.”

The economics are simple: more seats, more competition. I asked Peter Meade, “Where will all the bodies come from?” His answer: “The suburbs.”

Hmm. Another problem. The suburbs are building up a healthy inventory of restaurant seats of their own. In upscale malls in Lynnfield, Hingham and Dedham, new dining options are springing up like nutrient-rich dandelions.

Almost all the new spaces in Boston or in the ’burbs favor larger restaurants, big chains with established concepts and owners who can more easily get financing for expensive leases and costly build-outs. And they are not only hogging all of the diners, they sop up the top-tier servers, bartenders and cooks who follow the money and migrate to the newest hottest spot. The house is betting against the independent chef-owners.

This isn’t an idle, anti-growth concern. I too can barely hold myself back from marching through the front door as soon as I hear about any new restaurant opening. I want them all to succeed. But when the flurry of upscale bistros opened in the South End a few years back, there was a whooshing sound through the eateries of Harvard Square. And in 2011, as the Seaport District came alive, a new windstorm rattled the cozy little bars and bistros in the South End, the Back Bay and the Fenway. All the things that make the Seaport a blissful destination for suburbanites — an exit right off the expressway, oceans of underground parking, not to mention the waterfront view — put the more urban, older dining districts of Boston at a relative disadvantage.

So, is all this growth good for Boston’s culinary scene? A decided maybe. Will it make Boston a better dining city in the long run? Doubtful.

Click here to listen to Louisa Kasdon on WBUR’s Radio Boston.

Tags: Boston

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • mvhynes

    “My name is redevelopment, best of the best:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

  • J__o__h__n

    It will be even worse when the casinos come.

  • AlexMMM

    The Seaport has one very clear advantage over most Boston neighborhoods: lack of neighbors. I had my first Seaport dining experience this week at Legal Harborside, and was outside, enjoying drinks until midnight on a Wednesday. When I left, the streets were crowded with people, having fun.

    Contrast that with where I live, the South End. The streets on a weeknight are ghostly quiet, and along Washington Street, neighbors very loudly and publicly nixed two very good restaurant proposals in the last year, one of which was for a space that has been vacant for as long as anyone can remember.

    Part of the appeal of an evening out, whether you live in the city, the suburbs, or out of town, and are just visiting, is a sense of fun, that you’re in the place to be. We in Boston have decided that the neighbors in residential areas, even if they live on major commercial streets, should be allowed to block that kind of energy and maintain empty streets.

    In order to get to the Seaport, where I will probably eat mediocre food, I pass by at least 20 South End restaurants where I can get better food for less money. But I will be back to the Seaport, because it is currently the only place in Boston that is allowed to achieve a critical mass of dining and fun, without the little old ladies wagging their fingers and telling us all to go to bed.

  • Tiredofbostonbeingbehind

    I agree with Alex on the little old ladies, assuming you mean the back bay residential authority that puts the kibosh on anything creative. But the seaport is the Fanueil hall area with a different name. complete lack of any soul, creative cuisine or atmosphere. Its a SHAME how many corporate restaurants Boston lets in. We have more steakhouses than we do Thai food, who really cares about simple red meat? Give me new creative cooking, new cultures and the ability to let the next generation grow without worrying about how much rent they need to cover.

    the cost of a liquor license is insane. you can a b&w license in SF for $10k. every corner has a great little bistro. Do we really need another burger joint? How about a solid wine bar? Something Non Italian?

  • Lynette Krajewski

    My husband and i were just discussing this very topic.. We are both chefs, and we recently had to close our restaurant in Maine. We moved back to Boston, and he is a chef in the South End. My husband has to hire a sous chef and the level of applicants is pertty lean. I was a chef in Fenway, briefly, and the level of applicants I was getting was terrible. When we worked in Boston ten years ago, you were on the line with cooks that were good enough to be chefs of their own places. Now you are happy if someone knows how to sear a piece of meat. As for the small business owner, the other aspect is buying power. Small places cannot compete with the purchasing power of a Legal Seafood. I think small chef owned places are going to become rare. After all, how long have we had the same celebrity chef’s? They have built empires so they can compete, but what about the little guys just starting out?

  • Pingback: Cognoscenti: The Danger Of Restaurant Chains | Radio Boston()

  • LDGourmet

    Couple of questions I don’t know the answer to, but thought I’d throw out:
    – the large Seaport places can they survive on Convention Ctr traffic? it seems to me they are tailor made (in menu, in size, in design, in location) for that.
    – do the same people go to both the small neighborhood joints instead of or as well as the Seaport carnival?

    I can’t see choosing throngs of conventioneers and cookie-cutter food over a neighborhood bistro, ever. Maybe there is room for both? My gut says there’s two really different audiences/customer bases.

    I wonder if the same hand-wringing accompanied the Hynes Conv Ctr development? Can the restaurants in the Back Bay and their pre- & post- experience tell us anything?

  • Sean williams

    Great article Louisa. We look at the North End and realize that the neighborhood is amazing but tired. We don’t have the parking or the big wide sidewalks that the new seaport does. The North End still has plenty of charm and attracts tourists and a healthy amount of people from the suburbs but we lack the shiny new infrastructure. There may not be an easy solution but we have to realize that the chain restaurants do suck the life out of the small independents and the Seaport is the new chain restaurant mecca. There has to be a point where you try and support smaller local businesses. I know I do, I always try and eat at independents and enjoy the innovation and effort put in by the owners and staff. Chain restaurants make people feel safe. People know what they’re getting into. It might not be the best food or service, but the uncertainty of trying a new independent is removed. I wonder what the Boston dining scene is going to be like in the future. Maybe there will be a chain restaurant on every block, but as the backlash against large corporations begins, I wonder if that will translate into more people dining at locally owned and operated restaurants.
    I hope so!
    Sean Williams
    Lucca Restaurants

  • vandermeer

    I love the small towns with chef owned restaurants on the North Shore.
    Maybe after the chains arrive, Bostonians will be coming up here.

  • Yvonne

    For my job I sometimes have to book meetings for 25+ guests including private dinners. As much as I want to support local, non-chain restaurants, I often can’t. They usually can’t accommodate the group size. The next option I try for is regional chain restaurants. In my private life, I always prefer non-chain over chain restaurants. There has to be room for both especially in a city that is trying to attract convention/meeting business.

    • Charles Draghi

      I own an award-winning Italian restaurant in the center of Boston. My cooking is highly-regarded as being unique not only in Boston, but in the entire country. We have two function rooms above our main dining room; one seats up to 30 diners, and the other seats up to 70 diners. (They can be combined for larger parties. We also book parties up to 30 in our cafe, and allow buy-outs of up to 175 diners, on two floors.)
      I often find that when trying to entice companies to book those rooms, the people in charge of the bookings prefer to go with the “safe choices” of chain restaurants. Even though I tailor-make the menus of each party to the culinary (and budgetary) needs of the customers, and can easily accommodate any palate, they are often afraid of the possible dietary restrictions, finicky tastes, and lack of culinary sophistication of the people in their group. Many of the people charged with booking these parties feel that the ersatz, corporate chain restaurants offer a safer chance of pleasing the widest number of personal tastes, even though we can deliver much better food- and at a much better price.
      Obviously, I feel that they are missing an opportunity to have a very successful and memorable event, and are settling for an eminently forgettable (and more expensive) one. I think that I am justified in this opinion, because practically every party that has booked with us in the past has re-booked with us; some of those companies have done so several times.

  • Laura

    I live between back bay & fenway. in the past year we’ve lost 3-5 great little neighborhood spots and instead gained the ubiuitous Panera, 3 sad vacant spaces, and construction for a massive Berkelee School of Music dorm. Terrible.

  • Jane Ward

    About to write exactly what LDGourmet did. As someone who used to work with Chicago convention groups, I can tell you restaurant size matters when planning meals for attendees. Restaurants in the Seaport area are close to, and tailored for, that business. It’s huge: conventioneers walk out of their hotels and into restaurants that can accommodate their numbers. I think business out there and business downtown and in other smaller neighborhoods can and probably will peacefully co-exist. I’m also not sure rents out there will affect the rest of the city. The handwringing should maybe be turned to Boston’s ridiculous curfews, insane rents for small businesses, and encouraging an atmosphere of dining excitement. When you’re paying exorbitant rents, you are less likely to take risks. Personally, I find more fun and food innovation in the suburban chef-owned spots these days.

  • Taberna de Haro

    That was SO well put, Louisa. As a chef-owner/operator, I worry about this incessantly. Those enormous restaurants with their familiar names beckon the suburban diners like carnival lights. Hundreds of dollars later, they have blown their dining-out budget in one pricey go, and I know I won’t be seeing the likes of them in my Taberna for weeks. The impression becomes “Eating out is too expensive!” And the small restaurateur, the one you rightly fret over, never got the chance to strut her reasonably-priced, unique stuff! Thank you for offering concern to the local and humble restaurant owners among us!

  • Yup

    I guess I fail to see how this new wave of restaurant development is any different than past waves in Back Bay and the South End. Let’s not delude ourselves into imagining some euphoric past where Boston was home to a host of tiny, chef/owner spots. Places like Erbaluce are and always have been few and far between in Boston proper precisely because of those factors Louisa has cited: high rents and fickle demand. Generally, if you want that dining experience Cambridge is the place for you.
    What Boston does have (and what is largely responsible for putting it on the culinary map) are small to mid-sized, homegrown restaurant groups that, I would argue, often are able to both saddle up to the high rents and high risk of the city while also (mostly) putting out a quality product. No 9 Park & Sportello & The Butcher Shop, Toro & Coppa & Clio, Sel de la Terre & L’espalier, Post 390 & Harvest, Mistral & Sorellina, Radius & Tico, Rialto & Trade, and Cambridge’s Russell House Tavern & Grafton Street. These are places where you can go and have a great meal and experience and they are the places on which Boston’s reputation has been built. In any city, the Ocenaires and Legal Harborsides and Del Frisco’s are going to exist. So will the Erbaluces and Hungry Mothers and Bondirs. In truly vibrant and healthy dining city, all of these different types of places happily coexist serving different segments of the market and different evenings in people’s lives.
    To assume that they will cannibalize one another is to discount the growth in discernment and sophistication of the market that they serve. Boston diners are not what they were ten years ago; in the end, their patronage is what’s actually responsible for putting the city on the map.