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.

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.

  • Joani

    Amazing article. I knew Pat back in 1979, when I was there for the summer and then later when I returned in 1980′s to live and attend school. While there I worked with his brother, Mike, handing out promotional items for RJ Reynolds. Pat, and even Mike, always amazed me with their keen business sense. Kudo’s to them. Pat is your reading this, I think you are one of the brightest most observant business men I know.