Haute Plates

The debate about where to go to dinner has become an unpleasant nightly
ritual for Seth Lieberman and his wife, Julie. The Jamaica Plain couple
loves restaurants and dines out as often as four times a week. But most
nights they just can't find what they're looking for. They could go to
Hamersley's Bistro—at least jeans are acceptable there—but the bill
would be $75 a head, minimum. They could have pizza, but that's hardly
a real meal. Or they could go to the local Thai place—again. “It's
frustrating because we go through the litany of choices,” Lieberman
says, “and nothing is really appealing for an average day.”

What Lieberman wants is a ristro. No, not bistro; that term was long
ago stolen by highfalutin French restaurants—and even some American and
Italian places—that want to give the illusion of being reasonable. A
RISTRO—Relaxed, Inexpensive, Seriously Tasty, Reasonably priced
Oasis—is an entirely different animal: a simple, casual watering hole
where you can get good food for a good price any night of the week.

But ristros are scarce in Boston. The issue isn't finding good food—you
only have to taste Barbara Lynch's pillowy gnocchi stuffed with prunes
and topped with seared foie gras to know that this city holds its own
against the gastronomic capitals of San Francisco, Chicago, and even
New York. It's that great taste comes at a price. At No. 9 Park, the
gnocchi costs $17, and it isn't even the most expensive appetizer on
the list. Entrée prices hover at around $35. It's the same thing all
over town: At top restaurants including Radius, Clio, Pigalle, Spire,
and Excelsior, you'd be hard-pressed to spend less than $200 for
two—and that's without an expensive bottle of wine.

Just why it's so difficult to open ristros is a mystery to most diners.
We're all eating out more—this year, the National Restaurant
Association predicts, diners in Massachusetts will spend $11 billion at
restaurants—so surely chefs are raking it in. Right?

Hardly. Scarce real estate, intense competition, pricey liquor
licenses, and what local chefs call the “blue-collar” dining culture
(more on that later) have made it almost impossible to turn a profit at
the sub-$20 price point. “A good midlevel restaurant is the hardest
thing to do,” says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who has worked
on projects including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New
York and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. “Restaurant cities evolve. And
great midpriced restaurants are always the last to arrive.”

Sound the starting gun. In April, Jacky Robert, of Maison Robert fame,
opened Petit Robert Bistro in Kenmore Square (“The Price Is Right,”
page 259). All entrées are less than $20. Last month Pigalle's Marc
Orfaly opened the doors at MarcO, a North End trattoria with entrées
for around $20. And this month Icarus's Chris Douglass christens
Ashmont Grill, his comfortably priced paean to comfort food, in
Dorchester. If ristros are the sign of a great restaurant town, Boston
is about to enter the big leagues.

Why now? To understand, you have to first appreciate why offering good
food at reasonable prices has historically been so hard. Boston, after
all, is not New York, a city with innumerable small properties that
enjoy all-day food traffic. Here, there are only a few locations, like
the always-packed Abe & Louie's on Boylston Street, that guarantee
solid lunch and dinner business—a must for the ristro restaurateur, who
relies on volume to turn a profit. Everyone else is relegated to short,
intense periods of business. The Financial District gets the power
lunchers, for example, while the South End and Back Bay seduce the
dinner crowds. Chris Douglass of Icarus estimates that although he's
open seven nights a week, he makes half his revenue on Fridays and
Saturdays between 6 and 10 p.m.

With the costs of food, staff, china, and linens relatively fixed, one
of the few variables is rent. Here, too, Boston poses challenges. Chefs
and restaurant investors generally look for spaces of around 1,500
square feet, a size that puts them in direct competition for locations
with Starbucks and sandwich chains like Au Bon Pain. The demand for
these spaces leaves chefs little bargaining power. “Before you flip a
burger, you have to sign the right deal,” says Michael Conlon,
principal partner of Eat Drink Laugh Restaurant Group, which owns,
among others, the Paramount and the 21st Amendment on Beacon Hill.

Just how dangerous the wrong deal can be is illustrated by one of
Boston's most famous flameouts, Salamander, which opened to much
fanfare in Trinity Place in December 2000. The deal was signed just
before the dot-com bubble burst, and the pricey build-out—including a
private dining room with Internet hookups and video conferencing, and a
state-of-the-art kitchen—took longer than planned, delaying the
opening. “We were several months behind in paying rent and
administrative fees before we sold our first chicken,” Jim Smith,
Salamander's co-owner, told the Globe after the restaurant filed for
bankruptcy in 2002. The space remained empty for three years. (A new
restaurant is finally slated to open there this fall.)

Another problem is the limited availability of liquor licenses, which
the city has capped at 650. A year ago there were more licenses than
buyers, says restaurant broker Charlie Perkins, and licenses to sell
beer, wine, and liquor went for between $80,000 and $100,000 apiece.
Today the going rate is closer to $225,000 in most parts of Boston and
between $300,000 and $325,000 in the Back Bay—an untenable cost for
chefs using personal loans and credit cards to get their businesses off
the ground.

Finally, chefs say that although Bostonians love to complain about the
lack of reasonably priced restaurants, the local dining culture itself
has encouraged high- and very low-priced restaurants, but little in
between. Off the record, chefs call wealthy diners “parochial,”
“bourgeois,” “blue-collar,” or “meat-and-potatoes” types who believe
that good food should be reserved for special occasions and are
otherwise happy to gobble a slice of pizza and down a Bud. “Rich people
in Boston want what's new and what's happening and they're not afraid
to pay for it. That, or they want Tim's [Bar and Grill],” says
Pigalle's Orfaly. “Where does that leave the middle restaurant?”

Until now it's left ristros squarely on the sidelines. But as more
chefs have entered the fine-dining market, competition has intensified.
“It's become harder and harder to attract people,” says Douglass.
“There are only so many people who can really spring for it. And very
few people who can spring for it often.”

Moreover, those who can spring for it increasingly don't want to. In
recent years, a new, global class of diners—mostly thirty- and
fortysomething urbanites with sophisticated palates—has emerged. And
they want ristros. The revolt has even spread to France. In the past
year, three top chefs have turned down stars awarded by that bible of
gastronomy, the Michelin guide, in an effort to refocus on simpler,
more casual food.

That's the idea behind Petit Robert Bistro, the ristro poster child.
It's packed most of the day with everyone from the former president of
Boston University to students and bus drivers. The business plan is
simple: offer French food, cooked to order, at bargain-basement prices.
“We don't want to be Clio,” says Loic Le Garrec, Petit Robert's
co-owner. “We want to be the place you come three times a week.”

So far, so good. On an average weeknight, Petit Robert serves 100
people; on the weekend, that rises to as many as 180, according to Le
Garrec. He and Robert hoped to bring in $800,000 the first year, enough
to just about break even. At the current rate, they'll clear $2 million.

Petit Robert has succeeded in doing what everyone else said could not
be done. It got a great deal on rent from a seller who needed a deal,
and fast. The location buzzes with students, residents, and Red Sox
fans from morning till night. Most important, Robert, who took out a
second mortgage on his home to open the restaurant, has remained
disciplined about his spending. He has a tiny staff. He uses less
expensive cuts of meat—flank steak instead of sirloin, for
example—keeping food costs at around 25 percent, well below the
industry standard of 32 percent. And he wasted no time in opening his
doors. He took possession of the property, which came with a beer and
wine license, on March 3 and started serving on April 1. “What makes us
successful is the price,” says Robert. “It's a question of tolerance:
When you pay less, you accept more.”

That's certainly true for Seth Lieberman. “What I'm really looking for
is a comfortable experience,” he says. “It might have great wine but
bad service, or less-than-beautiful décor but amazing food. The
important thing is that we have a good time. And that it's worth the