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Developers Think They Have A Recipe For Success Following Durgin-Park, L'Espalier Closings

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Clam chowder was ladled out for the last time Saturday night at Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant known for providing service with a scowl for 192 years.

Developers Think They Have A Recipe For Success Following Durgin-Park, L'Espalier Closings
Durgin-Park closed Jan. 12 after 192 years in business.

Durgin-Park had been around long enough to outlast several generations of Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall tenants. The restaurant most recently attracted tourists looking for a place to grab New England cuisine while walking the Freedom Trail, but it began its life when the surrounding neighborhood was filled with food purveyors that were later exiled to Widett Circle.

Quincy Market traded its industrial past for a retail-laden future, and, somewhere along the line, Durgin-Park servers began to “entertain” guests with tongue-in-cheek surly behavior. Its closing is the latest in an ongoing evaporation of some of Boston’s most familiar restaurants. 

L’Espalier, known for tasting menus that could take a major bite out of one’s checking account, shuttered on New Year’s Eve after 40 years in business. Pre-theater favorite Erbaluce also gave its final curtain call on New Year’s Eve. 

The ongoing loss of legendary Boston restaurants raises the question: What kind of dining can Boston stomach, and how much influence do developers have going forward in what concepts even see the light of day?  

“Landlords are being asked to provide all-time high tenant improvement allowances and often have a hard time making back their investment,” National Development Managing Partner Ted Tye said. “Therefore, smart landlords are very vested in making sure that restaurant concepts are viable, operators are capable and restaurants are properly capitalized.”

National Development turned the former Boston Herald headquarters in the South End into Ink Block, a mixed-use development that has turned Harrison Avenue near the Massachusetts Turnpike into the neighborhood’s latest restaurant row with places like Bar Mezzana and Lion’s Tail. While he claims the city’s restaurant business is stronger than ever, Tye said the market is less interested in fine dining and more in experiential elements that offer a quality product at all price points.

Developers Think They Have A Recipe For Success Following Durgin-Park, L'Espalier Closings
L'Espalier ended its 40-year run in Back Bay on New Year's Eve.

Given the market’s changing appetite and developers playing a bigger role in build-outs, Tye said it makes sense for firms like his own to have a bigger influence in what goes into a project. 

“In essence, the landlord is a partner in the restaurant by virtue of its investment,” he added. “Restaurants play a major role in branding new and old projects, so the concept is important.”

The right restaurant concept can help draw business to the overall development. Restaurateur Brian O’Donnell, who is part of the ownership team at Lion’s Tail, said his company has worked with National Development to market its bar as well as Ink Block as a whole. They’ve partnered with CorePower Yoga, another Ink Block tenant, and held classes in the bar, hosted dinners for nearby gallery owners and use local products from the SoWa Open Market on the Lion’s Tail menu. 

“Developers and landlords are able to directly seek out proven operators of the specific concepts they want in their development,” O’Donnell said. “I think like anything, the relationship between restaurant tenants and landlords or developers has to be a true partnership. Everyone has the same goal — to make the business successful.”

Following A Changing Palate

Developers Think They Have A Recipe For Success Following Durgin-Park, L'Espalier Closings
Locke-Ober, pictured here in 2009, has since given way to Yvonne's, a "modern supper club" aimed at younger diners

Boston’s most upscale restaurants have taken the biggest beating over the years, and operators have adjusted their strategies to appeal to the city’s evolving palate. 

Locke-Ober closed after 137 years in business in 2012 and was transformed into Y’vonne’s, a “modern supper club” that pays homage to its historic predecessor in décor, but has an American menu aimed more at wooing Instagrammers than the suit-and-tie crowd. 

The 100-year-old Oak Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza was reconfigured into Oak Long Bar and Kitchen, still home to the same coffered ceilings and marble slabs that have decorated the space for over a century, but now known more for cocktails than jacketed waiters. 

Even one of Boston’s most successful chefs, Barbara Lynch, has been candid about needing to shy away from pricey tasting menus at Menton, the critically acclaimed French restaurant she opened in Fort Point at the height of the Great Recession.

Samuels & Associates is aware of the shift in restaurant demand, and the firm keeps that in mind with its tenant placemaking in Fenway. The developer is credited with turning the Fenway neighborhood from a sports-and-students district into a vibrant district for dining and retail

Foodies flock each night to celebrity chef Tiffani Faison’s multiple Fenway venues, like Sweet Cheeks, a barbecue restaurant, and Tiger Mama, which serves Southeast Asian. Time Out Market, a food hall with 15 eateries by local restaurateurs like Craigie on Main’s Tony Maws and O Ya’s Tim and Nancy Cushman, is close to opening at Samuels’ redeveloped 401 Park. The developer says its arrival comes after reading the pulse of what neighbors were craving.

Developers Think They Have A Recipe For Success Following Durgin-Park, L'Espalier Closings
Rendering of Time Out Market in Boston

“We’ve been very thoughtful about the kind of tenants we bring into our spaces,” Samuels & Associates Executive Vice President Peter Sougarides said. “Yes, we look at their concepts, but we like to take a more holistic view to make sure that the restaurant or retail store fits in with the broader character of the neighborhood.”

Tye doesn't think fine dining is dead in Boston. But he doesn’t expect it to exist on a wide scale like it did when Back Bay was littered with members-only social clubs and lunch at the old Ritz (now the Taj Boston) was the apex of New England gastronomy. Instead, he points to Bar Mezzana at Ink Block as striking the right chord for Boston fine dining. 

The coastal Italian restaurant by chef Colin Lynch has a bright dining room and modern furniture that isn’t in line with what one would have seen in places like L’Espalier or Locke-Ober. But while Boston seems to shun its dining past, it flocks to places like Bar Mezzana, and the team has since added a new tiki bar and restaurant, called Shore Leave, across the street at 345 Harrison Ave.

“There are restaurants that have taken the idea of providing amazing food at higher price points, but in more comfortable settings,” Tye said. “That is the right fine dining template for the future.”