Top of Mind: Lydia Shire, Extended Version

Boston‘s J. L. Johnson: When we talk about dining in Boston, the thing that’s been in all the papers, and that I’m sure you’ve discussed with other chefs—or maybe not, maybe it’s overblown—is how the economy is affecting the restaurant scene here?

[sidebar]Lydia Shire: Oh, I think it’s affected restaurants, some more so than others. For instance, I would say that Scampo, here, has been least affected, but that’s because we’re a new kid on the block. …My other restaurant, Locke-Ober, is definitely battling the effects of the location it’s in, Downtown Crossing, and the fact that a large part of our customer base is the businessmen downtown. The Financial District. Many of the financial institutions have reined in their spending, so we see it at Locke-Ober in banquet sales, etc.

…But, all in all, I’m at Locke-Ober the same amount that I’m here [at Scampo]. When people come into Locke-Ober, they’re there for a reason—because they have great memories of the space. It means something to them that this grand Boston institution has been kept alive.

To me, having multiple restaurants is like having children: They’re all different but you love them equally. Sometimes one might hit a bump in the road, but usually they all come back. So we have some plans for Locke-Ober to help it over its bump right now.

JLJ: The lunches at Locke-Ober haven’t come back yet, have they?

LS: Not yet. We just went through Restaurant Week for two weeks, lunch and dinner. Every lunch was over 120 people each day. So the people are out there and they want to come, but they want more value. They can’t be hit with a big check at the end. …So, yes, we’re thinking about redoing a new kind of menu, doing some improvements in the dining room, putting in a new floor. It’s going to be really very exciting for us.

…Locke-Ober is close to what’s important in Boston history. I just could never even imagine that restaurant closing— especially, I would say, not on my watch. It’s just too great and grand an institution.

JLJ: How’s Blue Sky doing?

LS: Blue Sky is really a special restaurant…it’s a beautiful restaurant. I designed it myself, which I’m very proud of. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone who has walked into the space and has not fallen in love with it.

Blue Sky is just fun. Again, I would call it another child. It’s more New England food: lots of lobster on the menu, lots of seafood. We did chicken livers last fall and people loved them. It’s just a quirky kind of thing that you don’t see on menus anymore.

Comfort food.

LS: Yeah, exactly. You know, this recession time, as everybody is calling it, challenges chefs to become a little more creative. We have all these fancy ingredients that we know we can use to wow people at any moment. But how to wow them for $15 or $16 instead of $30 or $40? It’s actually a good challenge.

JLJ: When you were cooking in L.A., you were exposed to a completely different set of diners from the ones you find here. Is there anything that you especially connect with—in terms of the people who are sitting at your tables, or their tastes, or the critics we have here—in Boston?

LS: First of all, I see Bostonians as real eaters. We have four distinct seasons. It’s not like being out in California, when the sun is out almost all year long and people really wouldn’t really want to eat a cassoulet or a beef stew or something like that. People want their skinless, boneless chicken breast. They eat asparagus at Christmas time, things that drive me crazy, but not so in Boston. We’re much more, as I said, real eaters.

…Bostonians are very savvy. They’re smart, they’re experimental; they want to try what you have, if they trust you. And I think, at this point in my life, most people trust me that the dish will be good.