Chickened Out

As his bistro marks its 20th, Gordon Hamersley admits he’s getting a little tired of its signature offering.

The day before the first review of Hamersley’s Bistro ran in the Globe in 1987, Gordon Hamersley got a call from restaurant critic Bob Levey. “You’d better get a few more chickens,” he told the chef. Then Levey read aloud an excerpt from the write-up that would be printed the next day: Hamersley’s roast chicken transformed “this mundane main dish” with “confident flair.” The skin was crispy; the meat moist and infused with a “marvelous whiff of garlic and herbs.” It was, in a word, a “joy.” The following night, sure enough, sales of the chicken tripled. And they haven’t let up yet.

But as Hamersley’s celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, the chef really wishes you’d order something else. How about the rainbow trout with crab and pea salad? Or the curried zucchini soup, perhaps? “That chicken has taken on a life of his own,” Hamersley says, with a curmudgeonly edge. “Since 1987, we’ve been ‘the chicken restaurant.’”

He’s not kidding. On any given night, roast chicken makes up 20 to 30 percent of dinner orders—though when Hamersley doesn’t feel like cooking that many, he’s learned to split the poultry fans by offering a tantalizing duck or quail as well. “You have to be strategic,” he says. “It’s like dividing the Lutherans by introducing the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.”

Not that Hamersley harbors ill will toward his justly famous fowl, mind you. It does, after all, embody the philosophy of simple, straightforward bistro fare that’s made him a national name. Besides: Having chicken as your signature dish is, financially, a blessing. (Summer Shack’s Jasper White, by contrast, makes notoriously slim margins on his popular pan-roasted lobster with chervil.) “At two bucks a pound, you can’t beat chicken,” says Hamersley. “Every time I threaten to take it off the menu, my wife reminds me we have to pay for college.”

These days, it’s the halibut that’s starting to make Hamersley nervous. Served with roast clams, bacon, beans, and trumpet mushrooms, it’s endured three menu revisions. “We have regulars who come in four times a week and get it every time,” he says. “And whenever I try to take it off the menu, they look at me with these big puppy-dog eyes. Gourmet just called for the recipe. I’m terrified.”