Success, Squared

Kendall Square wasn’t supposed to be the next big neighborhood success story. But the sudden restaurant boom in the shadow of MIT is no mere fluke.

By Erin Byers Murray | Boston Magazine |

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Dishes from, left to right: Catalyst (Michael Piazza), Area Four (Ekaterina Smirnova), Bondir (Keller + Keller), Kika Tapas (Anthony Tieuli), Abigail’s (Scott M. Lacey)

IF, BACK IN 2008, you’d asked restaurant-insider types to predict Boston’s next great eating neighborhood, most would have pointed in one direction: Fort Point Channel. After all, between the new Flour bakery, Sportello, Drink, and the restaurant project that would become Menton, chefs Barbara Lynch and Joanne Chang were blazing what seemed to be a white-hot trail to Southie.

Few, on the other hand, would have looked to Kendall Square, that once-desolate grid of new-construction office parks. But four years later, it’s Kendall that has sneaked up as the latest culinary Cinderella story, while Fort Point, long the up-and-comer, lies mostly fallow. In fact, Kendall has managed to steal the spotlight even as corporate backers remade that other Southie frontier, the Seaport, into a chain-y, neon-lit dining Disneyland. “Two or three years ago, I would have said, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’” says Nick Zappia, the owner of the Blue Room restaurant, a 20-year-old Kendall stalwart. Well, Zappia can certainly see it now. But how did it happen?

The past 18 months have seen several high-profile openings in Kendall and its environs. It all began with the debut of Bondir — Jason Bond’s tiny gem in a nearby corner of Cambridge called Area Four — which immediately drew the attention of critics and the interest of locals. That was followed a few months later by the buzzy opening of Lumière chef Michael Leviton’s coffee shop/eatery Area Four on Technology Square, and then by the launch of former Aujourd’hui chef William Kovel’s Catalyst, which sits steps away. Meanwhile, a host of smaller spots have filled storefronts from the Longfellow Bridge all the way to Central Square: Meadhall, a craft-beer bar serving pub fare; Fuji, a sushi restaurant; the petite bistro and raw bar Abigail’s; and the coffee shop Voltage (not to mention Firebrand Saints and Kika Tapas — more on them here).

At first glance, there’s no obvious change — no ­beneficial shift in liquor-license policy, sudden drop in commercial rents, or surge in hungry residents—that’s precipitated this boom, so observers of the dining scene have been caught off-guard. But on closer inspection, something did change in 2008, around the same time that Google ­unveiled its new Kendall headquarters.

“Kendall has attracted companies from the life sciences and information technology fields for decades. So much innovation has happened here for mankind. What hadn’t occurred was revitalization on the street level,” says Steve Marsh, managing director of real estate for the MIT Investment Management Company, which is putting the finishing touches on a proposal that would put another $700 million into developing the area. “Restaurants are one key mechanism where people can get together, enjoy themselves, and socialize.” As a result, one of the goals of MIT’s latest investment is to create a thriving dining scene.

A key component of the push is landlord participation, and so far property owners have bought into the idea of restaurant tenants. “The landlords have really figured it out,” says Michael Krupp, who runs Area Four with Leviton. Their space is managed by Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which handles several tech-centered properties around Kendall. “They sought us out and offered us a very favorable rate,” Krupp says. “They ­understand that they’ve got to spend money smartly to make more money.”

“Landlords are making it very attractive,” confirms Charlie Perkins, a real estate expert with the Boston Restaurant Group. Developers are usually willing to pay in order to help restaurants, he says, but they’re particularly loose with the purse strings in Kendall Square.