Ahead of the Beat
As Patrick Lyons prepares to open the doors to two new Back Bay restaurants, the social mogul reflects on the evolution of the city’s dining and nightlife scene.
Patrick Lyons is standing in the vast construction site that will soon become his latest property, an $8 million mega-restaurant in the Hynes Convention Center called Towne Stove and Spirits, scheduled to open next month.
He’s knee-deep in wiring and drywall and architectural renderings, fielding questions from the contractor, juggling two cell phones. Amid this swirl of activity, he’s weighing whether to divulge a small detail about, of all things, a cocktail.
It’s not the formula — classic martini — but the price, which, in its modesty, amounts to a de-escalation in the cocktail arms race. In his view, the era of the $17 drink is over. People have become too smart to overpay for four ounces of liquor. And Lyons knows that aggressive pricing on his part may well force his competitors to dock their own drinks accordingly, so he doesn’t want to show his hand.
“When’s this story running?” he asks.
He shakes his head. “No. I can’t. Because if I announce it, they’ll beat us to the game.”
I put down my pen. He smiles, like a kid just released from detention, and names his price.
Alas, the actual revelation inspires a bit of “Yeah, so?” Cheap drinks? This is a shocker? But to Lyons, this detail is as critical to Towne’s success as the location (an oasis in the dining desert of outer Boylston) or the size (360 seats) or the star executive chefs (Lydia Shire and Jasper White). For Patrick Lyons, business is all about the details. Get them right and you win; get them wrong, you lose. And for more than 30 years, he’s gotten most of the details right.
Lyons has made it his job to observe Boston at close range — to understand what Bostonians want, and when they want it. It’s how he’s built his empire, the Lyons Group, an entertainment investment/advisory firm that includes 29 restaurants, lounges, and bars — places like Scampo, Summer Shack, the Bleacher Bar, and Ultra 88, the would-be South Beach nightclub at Mohegan Sun. This month, even before he sends Towne out of the gate, his team will open yet another property, a casual bar and café called the Back Bay Social Club, just across the street.
Despite his outsized ambitions and famous friends — the Farrelly brothers named a character after him in Fever Pitch — Lyons tries to maintain a low profile. In his early days of running nightclubs, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he courted the press. But he hasn’t done that for years. He’d rather observe the scene than front it.
There is one thing he’s happy to promote: Boston itself. The Buffalo, New York, native loves this city with the zeal of a convert, and he can talk for hours about the changes the past three decades have wrought. “Boston is coming into its own now,” he says. “Give me another 650,000-population place that can thumb their noses at the Yankees. We’re that feisty little brother who grows up to kick your butt.”
Ever since he arrived in 1976, he’s studied our quirks and habits, our changing mores and fashions. “I’ve had a front-row view of Boston for the past 30 years,” he says. “When I came here, I was an interested observer. I had a voracious appetite for all things Boston.”
He still does, and he still refers to himself as an outsider. And when Lyons talks about his adopted home, he sounds more like a particularly enthusiastic anthropologist than a restaurateur. His memory contains decades’ worth of anecdotes and ephemera, all neatly filed and ready for the recall. All of which is why a trip down memory lane with Lyons offers a natural history of Boston’s iconic nightlife — and an astute assessment of who we are as a city today.
THE ERA: The mid-to-late ’70s
A.K.A. The Wild West
THE MAJOR VENUES: 15 Lansdowne, the Mad Hatter, the Kenmore Club, Jason’s, K-
THE PLAYERS: Neighborhood kids, college kids, disco-lovers
THE SCENE: The Boston that Lyons encountered in 1976 was a town of Balkanized neighborhoods and very little nightlife. “You could count the number of restaurants where people went out for a fine dining experience on one hand,” he says. There were plenty of bars but just a handful of nightclubs, including 15 Lansdowne, where Ian Schrager learned his trade before moving to New York to open Studio 54.
Instead, everyone’s idea of a good time was to head to the Mad Hatter for “Drink and Drown” Wednesdays. This was still a time when kids from Southie stayed in Southie, and Charlestown hadn’t seen a single condo conversion; a time when Saturday Night Fever became a phenomenon, as did the desire to get out and shake your groove thing.
THE LESSON: If you build it, they will come. “Boston was a bare landscape then, and subject to all kinds of possibilities,” Lyons says. “All we needed to do was look around at the world and see what was happening, and then interpret it for Boston.”
THE ERA: Early ’80s
A.K.A. The Emerging Market
THE MAJOR VENUES: Metro, Spit, the Rathskeller, Lucifer’s
THE PLAYERS: College kids, punk rockers, New Wavers
THE SCENE: By 1978, Lyons was managing the club at 15 Lansdowne, renamed Boston-Boston. The next year, he opened the punk-rock club Spit in an adjoining space. There, U2 and Madonna played early gigs, and everyone wore spandex and shredded clothing. “Spit was my favorite club of all time,” Lyons says. “It was wild and fantastic.” Boston-Boston soon morphed into Metro and kept the audience bopping.
The Lyons Group was a growing force. By the beginning of the ’80s, its market in Boston was still made up of two tribes. “If you were a disco customer, you listened to Kiss 108 and went to Metro,” he says. “If you were a rocker, you listened to ’BCN and went to Spit.”
But punk was giving way to New Wave, and disco was being displaced by club music. Boston’s social structure was changing, too. “All the kids who had grown up in the neighborhoods — the ethnic Irish, Italians, Greeks — they were going away to college,” he says. “And we knew this because we always saw a spike in business the night before Thanksgiving, when they would come home and meet their friends at the clubs.”
THE LESSON: As you grow, your audience subdivides. “You have to know more about a lot more people today — how to make them happy and how not to disappoint them. And the punishment is much more swift if you fail.”
THE ERA: The mid-to-late ’80s
A.K.A.The Dawn of the Yuppie
THE MAJOR VENUES: Metro, Spit, Narcissus, the Channel, Jasper’s, Michela’s, Olives
THE PLAYERS: Preppies, gentrifiers, suburbanites
THE SCENE: As the kids left the neighborhoods, so did their parents, who fled the city for suburban comfort. In their place came the young professionals, Lyons says. “Back Bay had been college dorms and some offbeat institutional uses. You went to the South End at your own peril…. So those became magnets for developers. With that gentrification, you saw people’s demand for different and varied entertainment.”
Spit and Metro would eventually become Axis and Avalon, and the disco and rock crowds were now ever-splintering groups. Radio gave way to MTV. Restaurants were on the rise. White and Shire were bringing a new level of fine dining to Boston, and Michela Larson, Gordon Hamersley, Todd English, and David Kinkead were right on their heels.
“All of a sudden people were saying, ‘I want to go out for Italian. I want to go out for Chinese. Let’s go have Thai.’ So now you’re not eating because you want sustenance — you’re going out to socialize with friends,” Lyons says. “I decided I needed to know the restaurant business.”
THE LESSON: Urban renewal depends on a thriving leisure economy. “If a city can’t offer cosmopolitan experiences, it’s not going to attract people.”
THE ERA: The ’90s
A.K.A. The Second Gilded Age
The major venuesThe Paradise, Axis, Avalon, Roxy, M-80, Sonsie, Biba, Armani Café, Blue Ginger, Clio, No. 9 Park, Radius
THE PLAYERS: Euros, foodies, dot-commers
THE SCENE: Lyons first learned the food business when he brought the Hard Rock Café to Boston in 1989. Then, with partners from that venture, he launched Fynn’s on Newbury, in the space that now holds the Capital Grille. Fynn’s failed, a fact about which Lyons still holds some bitterness. “They tacked up a Capital Grille sign, and because of our fantastic interior and vibe it becomes a chain,” he says. “They woke up on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.”
Lyons and longtime business partner Ed Sparks opened Sonsie just a few doors down from the Capital Grille, and it soon became the hottest scene in town. One key to Sonsie’s success was its popularity with the Euro crowd — those moneyed foreign students who flooded the city during this time. “The international clientele represented a major movement,” he says. “Where the American kids would buy a Bud, these kids would buy a bottle of Dom.”
At that time, Boston boasted three Armani stores on Newbury Street alone, not to mention a cottage industry of professional “minders” hired by nervous Saudi princes or Venezuelan oligarchs to keep an eye on Junior. Lyons’s clubs, like Axis and M-80, were hopping, having popularized the European tradition of bottle service. Native Bostonians may have resented this ostentatious display of wealth, but it was hard to argue with the fact that the city suddenly seemed much more glamorous.
Meanwhile, the late-’90s dot-com boom meant the rest of Boston was living large, at least relative to the recession that preceded it. More restaurants opened, confident that they’d land an expense-account clientele. Barbara Lynch, Ming Tsai, and Ken Oringer moved to the fore. It was a second Gilded Age.
And then the dot-com bubble burst.
THE LESSON: Boston had a bigger taste for glamour than anyone had imagined. “But,” Lyons notes, “it was glamorous on someone else’s terms” — which means the pendulum was bound to swing back.
THE ERA: The Aughts
A.K.A. Bust, Boom, Bust
THE MAJOR VENUES: Scampo, Game On, the Bleacher Bar, Abe & Louie’s, Gaslight
THE PLAYERS: The corporate-card class, nesting urbanites, prodigal suburbanites, sports fans
THE SCENE: “They left so fast,” Lyons says now of the international crowd that split town after 9/11. “I’m not talking weeks or months. I’m talking hours.” All that excess, gone in days. The city was too preoccupied with larger concerns to pay much attention, but Lyons noticed. “Nothing rushed into the vacuum they created,” he says. “We came back to who we were as Bostonians. We went back to drinking Bud.”
Meanwhile, Lyons continued to extract himself from the club business and devote his time to bars and restaurants. “At the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to make a great hamburger than it is to take a 200,000-square-foot black room and make that vital,” he says. As Boston became a title town, he found a thriving market in sports-themed bars like Game On and the Bleacher Bar.
He opened his four Summer Shacks with White, then La Verdad with Oringer, and Scampo with Shire. He closed Avalon and Axis and ultimately leased the space to the new House of Blues, which opened in 2009.
As the stock market recovered in the middle of the decade, Boston’s luxury shops and restaurants bounced back. “We did have our own little bit of wretched excess as we approached 2007. There was a lot of gluttony,” he says. At the same time, midprice restaurants like Petit Robert Bistro and Rocca began to multiply. Baby boomers started to move back into town. And young urban couples were deciding to raise their own children in the city, thus creating a new generation of neighborhood types.
The next recession (the one we’re barely out of) changed everything again. “The marketplace took a hard turn,” Lyons says. “It forcedus to say, ‘Wait, let’s really think about what people want,’ and we believe there’s a need for creative culinary expression by masters at reasonable prices.”
THE LESSON: “Boston is like a rubber band. It’s always going to snap back to what it is: political, tribal, local.”
THE ERA: Today
A.K.A. The New Austerity
LYONS’S VENUES: Towne, the Back Bay Social Club
THE PLAYERS: Everyone
THE SCENE: And so Towne will open with two floors, great views, and a menu that’ll cover wide swaths of flavor territory in the way that only Shire can. It’ll be bold and ambitious and a little bit of everything, because the goal is to lure both tourists and locals.
Bostonians today aren’t intimidated by fine dining, and aren’t impressed by $40 entrées. “It’s not so much that people don’t have money to spend. They just don’t feel comfortable spending for show. It’s not cool to go in and have a display of conspicuous consumption,” he says.
Thus, the challenge for his business now is to offer solid value to a more sophisticated audience. In the decades that Lyons has lived here, he’s seen the city shed its parochialism, then embrace all things gourmet and grand. Now it boasts a mature market — one in which diners demand high quality, regardless of price point. “You have to be on your game,” he says. “People now have tools like Yelp and Chowhound. Their habits are dictated by social media, and they know about exotic foods and wines. These things used to be a big mystery.”
This makes the stakes even higher, and the work even harder. Lyons has no illusions about coasting on previous success. The next phase is as great a challenge as he’s ever faced — which is why he’s sweating every detail.