Hungry young chefs are revitalizing the once-gritty South End.
When I moved to Boston's South End nearly two decades ago, the redbrick Victorian row houses were dilapidated, the streets were deserted and a hooker worked my corner.
Boston wasn't a great place to dine in those days, but South End choices were particularly poor. There were Eddie Cain's and Freddy Parker's, unassuming take-out joints; Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, established in 1930 and still serving its famous turkey hash today; and Nadia's, a Middle Eastern spot next door to a seedy saloon called the Franklin Café.
Fast-forward to the present. I'm perched on a bar stool at Tremont 647 (647 Tremont St.; 617-266-4600). Its 29-year-old chef and co-owner, Andy Husbands, has just informed me that I'm sitting in the former Eddie Cain's. I nearly choke on my Riesling. Thousands of fried chickens must have flown out of this very spot.
What would Eddie Cain, reportedly alive and well in Florida, make of this realignment of food fêng shui? Fried chicken has been replaced by $18 entrées like steamed Chilean sea bass topped with flakes of dried bonito that undulate from the heat of the fish. Instead of barbecued ribs, patrons devour pork momo dumplings, handmade by Tsering Dongshi, the Tibetan day chef. Husbands's Generation-X cooking is both serious and playful: his take on Tater Tots is Fontina stuffed and truffle scented. I wonder whether Mr. Cain would even recognize the old place, now decorated in warm yellows, softly lit and comfy. Hey, Eddie, you reading this? Visit Tremont 647's Web site at www.kitchencam.com to see a live video feed of the kitchen.
The South End's culinary transformation didn't happen overnight. When John Bellott and Tom Hall, attracted by the low rent and a clientele of young urban pioneers, opened Icarus in 1979, the restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall, not the upscale dining room it is today. Chris Douglass, the current chef and co-owner, who came on board in 1982, remembers when the South End looked like "a war zone," with burned-out row houses and potholed streets.
Since then, the neighborhood has been gentrified: in addition to Aleppo peppers and pita bread, the Syrian Grocery on Shawmut Avenue sells fresh mozzarella and Swiss chocolate to the yuppie condo owners who have replaced most of the longtime Lebanese residents. Young restaurateurs are vying for vacant storefronts, and parking spaces are as difficult to get as Saturday-night reservations. Hamersley's Bistro, one of the busiest South End restaurants, has earned a national reputation. Bob the Chef's, locally famous for soul food, now offers Cajun specialties and live jazz. Within a five-block radius of the Boston Center for the Arts, more than two dozen restaurants have sprung up, serving every kind of cuisine from Ethiopian to Brazilian.
This is the very area in which Karen Densmore and Corinna Mozo opened their French bistro, Truc (560 Tremont St.; 617-338-8070). I like chef Mozo's confident, unpretentious menu, with traditional dishes like friture of white- bait served in a cone fashioned from a page of Le Monde. Prices for main courses like steakfrites hover in the $20 range. The wine list is full of such interesting and affordable bottles as a 1996 Château de la Terrière Brouilly for $33. The walls of the dining room are so aggressively green that you'd think you were in the Emerald City with the Wizard of Oz. After a satisfying meal, I consider how lucky I am to live in the South End and, taking a cue from Dorothy, reflect, "There's no place like home."
My South End apartment has another advantage, a good view of the lights atop the old Hancock Building. They forecast the weather: steady blue for clear skies, flashing blue for cloudy, steady red for rain and flashing red for snow (or for rained-out Red Sox home games). From my bedroom window, I can also look down into La Bettola (480 Columbus Ave.; 617-236-5252), where the future seems bright for the chef, Rene Michelena. He was wooed away from Manhattan's Sign of the Dove last year.
The dining room with its faux stucco walls and real fireplace is a cozy setting for Michelena's cuisine, which combines ingredients from around the globe in unpredictable and delicious ways. The $41.50 three-course, prix-fixe dinner menu is the best buy. Roasted chicken with escarole stuffed under the skin comes with a mound of grits, sunshine yellow with turmeric. Pizza topped with foie gras, green apples, black walnuts and a drizzle of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar is almost too pretty to eat--as if that stops me.
Walking home past the corner where a lady of the night once strutted her stuff, I overhear a couple discussing tomorrow's dinner plans. How about Jae's or Aquitaine, the new wine bar from restaurateur Seth Woods? Delux or the Claremont Cafe? I glance up at the Hancock Building; the lights are shining steady blue.
Mat Schaffer is a Boston-based restaurant critic and food writer.