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.

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Where to Eat 2012

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.

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.