Chef Barbara Lynch made her name as the erudite bad girl behind a small kingdom of restaurants, including Sportello and No. 9 Park. But with her latest venture—the city’s most ambitious upscale restaurant in years—she may be picking the battle of her life.
Lynch built her restaurant empire on bold moves, and in a few weeks she’ll make perhaps her biggest gamble yet by opening a fine-dining venue in Fort Point Channel.
Lynch’s dominion already includes four restaurants, one bar, a cookbook store/demonstration kitchen, and a catering company. Her food is homey Italian with French influences, haute restaurant flair, and a New Englander’s appreciation of the sea and its fruits. Critics have waxed orgasmic over her crispy duck, chestnut bisque, and vanilla bread pudding, and in particular her house-made pasta. In one of her most popular creations, she takes a regional Italian dessert, prune gnocchi, and remakes it into a memorably savory dish by adding foie gras and vin santo glaze. By serving some of the city’s most sophisticated (and pricey) food and drink in some of its most sophisticated rooms, Lynch, 45, has won some of the dining world’s greatest accolades, from a James Beard Award to the Food & Wine title of Best New Chef.
Her cozy-fancy flagship restaurant, No. 9 Park, is located in Beacon Hill, but the rest of her realm exists in two geographic clusters. Around a single intersection in the South End, she has B&G Oysters, an upscale raw bar/seafood joint; the Butcher Shop, a wine bar meets charcuterie; and Stir, which contains a lovingly assembled wall of cookbooks overlooking a central island/oven where classes are taught. More recently, in a former industrial building in Fort Point Channel, she opened Sportello, an Italo-contemporary riff on a lunch counter; downstairs is the bar Drink, which offers vintage cocktails in a sleek, modern space. The new restaurant, Menton, will share a building with Sportello and Drink and, if Lynch succeeds, will be one of the few truly fine-dining venues remaining in Boston, along with L’Espalier, Radius, and Clio.
Because Lynch has consistently earned praise and made her own name, her supporters are willing to curb even their own skepticism about the viability of the venture. “She feels there are enough people in Boston to support fine dining, even after I pointed out to her that the Four Seasons couldn’t support fine dining,” says Arnold Hiatt, the former CEO of Stride Rite and one of about 26 of Lynch’s original investors. Hiatt is talking about Aujourd’hui, which closed in June. “She may see a world that other people may not fully understand. She’s been right so far.” Young Park, the developer of FP3, the wharfside condo complex where Lynch has leased 15,000 square feet for Sportello, Drink, and the new restaurant, says, “I’m a great believer in her instincts.”
Lynch deploys those instincts down to the minutest level. One recent Thursday she stood in the raw space that would become Menton. She was dressed in a thoroughly black ensemble that matched her thoroughly black hair: black clogs, black scarf, black button-down shirt, black jeans beneath a black skirt printed with a subtle pattern of skulls.
Colin Lynch (no relation), her companywide executive chef, and Eli Feldman, the operations director, helped spread out samples of Garnier-Thiebaut linen, Spiegelau crystal, and Ercuis silverware on a carpenter’s worktable, in order to winnow the selection.
Lynch pulled a grubby, crumpled cloth napkin from a cardboard box and laid it out for comparison. “This is from Eric Ripert’s restaurant in DC, Westend,” she said. She had been in Washington the week before, for a conference, and had eaten at the famed Le Bernardin chef’s bistro in the Ritz-Carlton. “I took it,” she said of the napkin, with an only mildly sheepish laugh. “I wanted to compare the sizes.”
She and Feldman and Colin Lynch spent the next half hour arranging various configurations of plates and bowls and wineglasses and flatware on the makeshift dining table. Though the restaurant was still coming into focus, some decisions had been made. There would be two dining options: a four-course tasting menu and a seven-course tasting menu. Diners would begin the meal with an amuse-bouche and end with mignardises (bite-size desserts). There would be more space between the tables in the 62-seat dining room than at, say, No. 9 Park. Beyond that, Lynch was still researching and thinking, trying to define what fine dining should be and how her new restaurant would surpass the L’Espaliers and Clios and Radii of the world.
Lynch and her executives kept working on the table composition—some glasses were too clunky, a bowl was too small—but they had already begun to favor a minimalist place setting of water glass, bread plate, butter knife.
“I kind of love it,” Lynch said, standing back to look at their progress. “I really love it. I love the ‘less is more.'”