Restaurants in the New Year: Smaller is Safer

By Corby Kummer
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It's never good news when a restaurant closes. But it was particularly sad to read this morning in the Boston Globe that Rocca, a very large restaurant in the city's South End neighborhood, suddenly shut after New Year's Eve. Shocking, too: I'd just been there last week, at a large birthday gathering—it was the kind of place friends and family relied on for special-occasion gatherings, because the owners, Michela Larson, Gary Sullivan, and Karen Haskell, were such longtime supporters of the city and community. (Larson, a friend, was instrumental in founding Community Servings, a group serving home-delivered meals to critically ill people, which I've long been involved with.) There were few other tables filled that night, it's true—but it was also the first night after the blizzard that covered us and virtually incapacitated New York City, so that didn't seem surprising.

One possible national lesson from a sad local loss is that in the current economy, even a celebrity chef can't keep a very large restaurant open.

Apart from a sense of personal loss, I'm also surprised because the relatively new chef, Tiffany Faison, probably has the highest national-TV profile of any Boston chef, with the exception of longtime star and Food Channel contributor Ming Tsai. She's a repeat participant in "Top Chef," including in the current season, and thus a media celeb (here she is giving happiness tips to Self, which unfortunately she'll need). TV visibility is usually the surest route in the food world to commercial success. And it will doubtless help Faison raise money for the restaurant of her own she has wanted to open, as she told my colleague Devra First.

So, one possible national lesson from a sad local loss is that in the current economy—and even if Massachusetts is recovering faster from the recession than other states—even a celebrity chef can't keep a very large restaurant open. (First and I disagreed about the food: she hailed Faison's arrival with a three-star review the Globe titled "A star is born"; I was much more restrained in my Boston Magazine review, though I was interested in Faison's experiments.) And Rocca had a very large dining room, in a former factory building that had sat vacant for 80 years; the restaurant itself helped revive the area, which is full of converted factories and warehouses.

Another is that large restaurants are tough for independent restaurateurs to keep open, period. Last month the equally large, and extremely stylish Ginger Park, just a five-minute walk from Rocca in the same neighborhood, closed another place with a chef, Patricia Yeo, committed to Boston and making innovative food. The room, designed by the celebrity (and now feuding, entertaining Globe article here) architectural partners Nader Tehrani and Ponce de Leon of Office dA, always drew gasps, even if it was so cool that people restrained themselves. And I'm completely with First on her love of the duck meatballs and dan dan mein—Patricia Yeo's small plates were a standby, and boy will I miss them. I'll hope to see Yeo and those plates in some (smaller) space soon: I was heartened, and unsurprised, to read her saying that she has found Boston much more hospitable to women chefs than New York City, where she made her name.

When I left Rocca last week, Gary Sullivan, working the host stand as he or Larson usually did, asked my plans for New Year's. The greatest luxury, I said, was getting to stay home (and shop for new wines, cheese, and Gulf seafood, as I wrote about—and got right back into my annual moscato d'Asti craving). "I've worked New Year's Eve every year in restaurants since I was a teenager," he told me. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself." I know what I hope he and Larson will do, and soon: open another restaurant.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/01/restaurants-in-the-new-year-smaller-is-safer/68845/