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 |

Why? Because it typically costs around $300 per square foot to build out a restaurant space in the Boston area, far more than many aspiring restaurateurs can afford. So landlords courting restaurant tenants often offer financial breaks, commonly by discounting rent. But more and more, the incentives are in the form of up-front cash, which can be used for HVAC upgrades, bathrooms, and other infrastructure that’s needed to get a restaurant started. The going rate for these “tenant improvement” funds, if they’re offered at all, is around $50 per square foot, Perkins says. In Kendall, though, it’s now much more. Though Kovel won’t say how much, if anything, he received for Catalyst, Perkins believes “that particular landlord was giving out as much as $100 per square foot in [tenant improvement] money.” For 4,000 square feet of dining and kitchen space, for example, that would be $400,000 toward a brand-new custom build.

For Gary Strack, owner of the artsy-techy Firebrand Saints, that type of developer support was the main attraction. “They were very hands-on from the beginning,” he says about Marsh and the landlords at One Broadway.

Blue Room owner Nick Zappia credits city planners for the improvements, too. “The city of Cambridge, in their zoning controls, have mandated that new buildings have to have street or retail presence,” he says. “They’ve done a good job holding landlords to that.”

Of course, some of Kendall’s newfound allure is simply its proximity to the river — and the population on the other side of it. Just ask Alexis Gelburd-Kimler, the former general manager of the South End’s Aquitaine, who, along with former Aquitaine chef Matthew Gaudet, plans this spring to open the French spot West Bridge in the same complex that houses the Blue Room. Gelburd-Kimler says her regulars used to “joke that they’ll have to get out their passports to come to the new space. But then they’d hear ‘Kendall’ and say, ‘Oh, that’s just over the Longfellow.’”

For the pre-boom Kendall restaurateurs who are seeing their neighborhood spring to life, the change is welcome, if a bit unnerving. In response to the uptick in competition, Zappia recruited chef Robert Grant of the Butcher Shop and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Las Vegas to take over the Blue Room’s kitchen — and made several cosmetic changes to his space in the past year. “I wouldn’t say [the influx] made me nervous, but it definitely inspired us to go a new direction,” he says, adding “If you weren’t part of the conversation, you could easily be overlooked.”

Zappia says the buzz about the newcomers has resulted in more filled seats for everyone. “In private-party business, we’ve just had our best holiday season in five years,” he says. And eateries that came to Kendall way before the boom, like Peter McCarthy’s relocated Evoo and the adjacent outpost of pizza spot Za, were packed on recent weekend nights. Could those subsidies from MIT and landlords lead to oversaturation? Perhaps. But if that happens, it’s a good bet that there’ll be plenty of room for aspiring restaurateurs in Fort Point.