How COJE Restaurants Put the Sizzle Back into Boston Dining
A decade after bursting onto Boston’s restaurant scene, the clubby COJE crew (think Yvonne’s, Mariel, and Lolita) has grown into the town’s best balancing act of serious food and fun. Now, as the city bounces back from a pandemic, can these tastemakers set the pace for a Roaring Twenties revival?
The next time you’re at Yvonne’s—and if you dine out in Boston, you’ve been to Yvonne’s—take a close look at the mahogany bar. Intricately hand-carved here in 1886, it’s a lingering vestige of Locke-Ober, Boston’s most legendary (and legendarily formal) fine-dining restaurant. Generations of Brahmins created memories at Locke-Ober over three-martini lunches and special-occasion dinners. When the gilded institution finally closed with a century-and-a-half-held sigh in 2012, it was after clinging to a strict dress code that lasted nearly until its dying breath: dinner jackets for gents; “appropriate” (as in sensible and elegant) attire for women—you know, once they were finally admitted inside Locke-Ober, which was originally only for men.
With all due respect, R.I.P. Today, no jackets are required at Yvonne’s, though style clearly still is. Just look at co-owner Chris Jamison, who is relaxing in a sleek black sweatshirt and similarly obsidian, distressed jeans when he joins me one November night in his chic restaurant’s library lounge. Fellow co-owner Mark Malatesta, meanwhile, shows off his brawny physique—the fruits of a strict daily gym routine—in a fitted, colorful floral shirt. Funny enough, the duo’s dissimilar fashion sense is an inverse reflection of their roles in COJE Management Group, the white-hot hospitality business these North Shore–raised buddies launched in Boston a little more than a decade ago: Malatesta typically toils behind the scenes on the unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts parts of the company, such as budgets and contracts. Jamison, on the other hand, tends to be the creative force, dreaming up high-concept and higher-energy venues while hitting the floor of their restaurants nightly as the face and host of their citywide party.
And boy, oh boy, what a party it is. The first time I visited Yvonne’s after its 2015 opening, billionaire sports and media magnate John Henry was enjoying dinner to my right while early-twenty-something gal pals chattered boisterously over cocktails to my left. Rarely did you see such worlds collide in Boston, where the choices at the time were mostly uptight fine dining, tacky-floored dive bars, or thumping nightclubs, with nothing in between.
“I think Yvonne’s was genre-bending,” Jamison says now, glancing around the busy, buzzy room and sipping on his usual drink, a tequila-spiked cocktail dubbed the “Grande Dame.” It’s an appropriate pick: Yvonne’s, after all, is named for the painting of a woman that hung throughout the years at Locke-Ober, where tradition had it that whenever Harvard’s football team lost to Yale, her exposed breasts were to be covered in mourning. When Jamison and Malatesta had the bold—no, brazen—idea to breathe new life into the hallowed space, they decided to replace her portrait in the chandeliered dining room with an unmistakably modern rendition, one of a number of cheeky paintings mounted on the walls. Mademoiselle Yvonne is still nude, but the golden goblet she once held aloft her head has been replaced by a smartphone snapping a saucy selfie.
That, in a nutshell, is the COJE M.O.: taking the bones of Old Boston—the legacy of fine dining, the stately infrastructure, the social-clubbiness—then cracking them and rearranging and redressing the pieces into something dramatically different, not to mention, well, unabashedly sexier. In other words, Jamison and Malatesta have created a space that embodies the upper strata of scenesters today. Thanks in large part to the booming tech and life sciences sectors, and VC-fueled startups, Boston is a more globally connected city right now than in the days when the Lowells only talked to the Cabots, and as a result, the home of the bean and the cod is, to be frank, a more cosmopolitan-feeling one, too. To be sure, Boston has seen other successful dining and nightlife impresarios before—Seth Greenberg and Patrick Lyons both come to mind—but this time it’s in response to the market and in step with the city’s metamorphosis into a so-called “New Boston,” one that COJE accelerates with each new opening (including their latest, the seductive French spot Coquette, which debuted in the Seaport in September). “We wanted to blur the lines between dining and nightlife” is how Jamison puts it.
Mission: well-accomplished. In a single whirlwind decade, the company he and Malatesta launched as twentysomethings has grown to seven—soon to be nine later this year—restaurants and bars that now rake in about $55 million in revenue annually. More important to the rest of us, the group has helped Boston begin to shed its sticky reputation as a politically progressive place with an oddly conservative, kneejerk aversion to decadence and indulgence.
Of course, all of that was before a certain global pandemic threatened to put the kibosh on the city’s nightlife. Now, as the hospitality industry attempts to rebound from devastating shutdowns and vaccinated guests venture back out on the town, there’s a lot riding—economically and culturally—on the hopes of a Roaring Twenties revival. If anyone can spark one in Boston, it’s the COJE crew. Still, big questions remain: What will it look like, and where will it take us? After all, we need to know what to wear.
It all started with a Snickers.
Long before his COJE group was selling Bostonians on the idea of fun finer dining in sexy spaces, Chris Jamison honed his entrepreneurial instincts by hawking candy bars to classmates. He grew up in Topsfield, a place famous for its sprawling New England country fair with a neon-lit Ferris wheel, bustling midway packed with carnival games, and displays of prize-winning, scale-tipping pumpkins. Jamison’s father was an anesthesiologist; his mother, meanwhile, encouraged her son’s business savvy by buying him boxes of Snickers so he could bring them to school to sell for a profit.
As a teenager, Jamison followed his older brother’s lead and worked in the raucous North Shore bar scene. “I looked up to him,” says Jamison, who started off by washing glasses and stocking bottles. “He was bartending at all the coolest places and I thought he had all the coolest friends.” Along the way, he met Mark Malatesta, another teenage restaurant worker in neighboring Hamilton, through mutual pals. They became fast friends, and stayed in touch after Malatesta went to UConn to compete as a track-and-field pole vaulter while Jamison bartended during a single year in college in Ohio.
Jamison’s enterprising attitude later took him to Florida, where he dabbled in real estate, but he was also feeling frustrated by his latest self-started venture: buying and selling distressed debt. He was keen on the notion of jumping back into hospitality—this time, though, he wanted to launch his own bars, not sling cocktails from behind them. So he came home to Boston and tapped his old pal Malatesta as a partner, baiting him away from a stable job in operations for a regional chain of successful Mexican joints.
At the time, Jamison says, the options for a smashing night out on the town in Boston were limited to Faneuil Hall beer bars, thumping Lansdowne Street nightclubs, and fancy restaurants such as Aujourd’hui, L’Espalier, and, of course, Locke-Ober. “There wasn’t anything in the middle,” Jamison says. In other cities, by contrast, “There was no tremendous barrier of delineation between the two. You had high-end restaurants that were buzzy and vibe-y and sexy and loud. That was something I had never seen in Boston.” Together, the duo developed a distinctive shared vision of bringing to the Hub swish restaurants for peers with similarly good taste, good jobs, and active social calendars: places you might find in Manhattan, Miami, or Vegas, where upscale dining and kinetic energy weren’t mutually exclusive. They started shopping the idea to investors.
They quickly discovered, though, that there was a lot of doubt about their direction for dining in Boston. Jamison will never forget the moment one major local player walked away from the table—literally, that is—after offering a deflating insult for the ambitious but inexperienced ingenues. “He said, ‘Show me where you put the TVs,’” says Jamison, who was displaying plans for what would eventually become his team’s first restaurant, Lolita, a sultry Mexican spot. “I told him we weren’t putting any TVs in.”
No TVs in a restaurant in Red Sox Nation? No TVs in a town that lives and dies by the Pats? “He stood up, put on his coat, and said, ‘I’m not giving money to somebody so stupid,’” Jamison says. The message was loud and clear: Giving provincial Boston an urbane makeover would not be easy.
Eventually, thanks to some startup cash from family members and by cobbling together loans from friends, Jamison and Malatesta managed to open Lolita in December 2010 for about $650,000. Today, that sum seems like next to nothing in Boston, where liquor licenses alone now run close to half a million dollars. But for two young, fledgling restaurateurs, it was a terrifying, if exhilarating, gamble.
It paid off, and the place was a hit straight out of the gate, in no small part thanks to the bordello-chic interior illuminated by vampish, scarlet-red lighting that shadowed corners for canoodling over button-loosening tequila drinks. Frisky little details, such as Pop Rocks–studded cotton candy that cute, sugary-sweet servers dropped off with every check, certainly didn’t hurt.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though: Buoyed by Lolita’s success, Jamison and Malatesta tried to follow it up with a similar, little-sister-like sequel, Red Lulu, in Salem in 2011. They closed it two years later, after settling a contract-related lawsuit with the building’s owner. They’re not keen to discuss it, other than to say that the legal fracas “cost us more money than we’d ever made at Lolita up to that point,” according to Jamison. “It had all the makings of derailing us, and a lot of people probably would have packed it up and lost their fire for this industry.”
Not this pair. They regrouped and set their sights on the Locke-Ober space, knowing full well they’d have to raise the stakes even higher in the kitchen. After all, positioning themselves as heirs to the city’s most famous fine-dining landmark was an audacious move—and a make-it-or-break-it moment if they were going to be taken seriously as restaurateurs. “We knew at that point in time we were ‘the Lolita Guys,’” Malatesta says. “Could we do a sexy Mexican restaurant? Sure. But could we take over one of the most famous restaurants in the history of Boston and make it work? I knew if we didn’t do that 110 percent, we were going to be eviscerated and that would be our last restaurant.”
Searching for a chef who could rise to the occasion, they followed a lead to Nantucket. There, Tom Berry—an alum of star chef Ming Tsai’s storied, white-tablecloth-draped Blue Ginger in Wellesley—was making waves as a partner in his own restaurant, the Proprietors Bar & Table. After one taste of Berry’s food, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: to serve as culinary director for a nascent restaurant group, and get in on the ground level of what they believed would become an empire. Unlike Jamison and Malatesta, Berry had the chance to dine at Locke-Ober in its later years and was well-aware of the highly pedigreed chefs—dining doyenne Lydia Shire, for one—associated with the place. “I knew it was pretty big shoes to fill,” Berry says. But would diners accept the new look, feel, and taste? “We were trying to reinvent a modern supper club and what a night of entertainment was going to look like,” Berry says. “There was definitely a lot of pressure.”
Despite its owners’ nerves, Yvonne’s opened in 2015 to raves (including a rare four-star review in Boston) for its celebratory, sharable global cuisine. Some dishes played tribute to its predecessor, such as Berry’s oyster-anchored spin on Locke-Ober’s signature lobster Savannah. Others were contemporary and playful, like the “crispy tater cubes,” a small mountain of edgier tots capped with a snow of shaved Gouda, beet-pickled egg, and curry-spiced mayo. Communal cocktails flowed out of antique tea sets. The place had a cheeky flashiness; it looked like a million bucks.
The COJE posse was suddenly on a roll, and new projects started coming fast and furious. Ruka, their Peruvian-Japanese “restobar” inside downtown’s Godfrey Hotel, began adorning sashimi and ceviche with flower petals and pouring cocktails in rainbow colors in 2016. An even bigger, splashier location of Lolita cannonballed into Fort Point the following year. In 2019, Mariel smuggled contemporized Cuban flavors into a former Financial District bank that had been reimagined to resemble a wealthy cigar magnate’s tropical estate. Later, Jamison and Malatesta turned Mariel’s basement into Underground, a subterranean lounge where guests descend for bottle service and live DJs after devouring spicy plantain dumplings and Key lime calamari upstairs.
The team was still on top of the world in March 2020, when I met them for an interview within the graffiti-covered walls of the recently opened Underground. We had no idea life as we knew it would come crashing down just days later. A global pandemic had found its way to Boston, and like a needle stabbed down on a spinning record, it brought the party to a screeching halt.
Fast-forward nearly 20 months: I’m at Coquette on a Thursday at 9:15 p.m., the most reasonable dinner reservation time I was able to score more than a week in advance. I couldn’t remember the last time a restaurant had been so booked up, but it’s clear that COJE’s latest hot spot—a flirty, coastal-French-inspired salle à manger in the Seaport—has already seduced the masses. The place is packed, even by pre-pandemic standards.
It’s a sight for sore eyes after the darkest days of COVID, which caused the permanent closing of nearly one-quarter of Bay State eateries by the end of 2020, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. None of the COJE operations were among the casualties. After the state-mandated shutdown of on-site dining that year, Jamison and Malatesta battened down the hatches. They were forced to lay off about 500 employees, using a rainy-day fund to offer severance packages until dining rooms were allowed to reopen. Jamison pushed loudly and publicly for more restaurant relief, even penning an open letter to Governor Charlie Baker and the state legislature in the Boston Business Journal. With grit, determination, and a couple million dollars in federal relief funds, he and the team got through it.
Now, COJE is back, the good times are ready to roll again, and Jamison and crew are on the bleeding edge of dining plus fun. “These guys are ahead of the curve, for sure,” says Boston chef-restaurateur and food-TV star Jason Santos, who knows a thing or two about sizzle as sous-chef to Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen. “It’s elegance meets nightlife. You go and have a quasi-fancy dinner at beautiful tables, then you’re ripping martinis at the bar after.”
All that said, this is not the first time that hospitality heavy hitters have tried, with varying degrees of success, to bring chef-driven dining and an incandescent atmosphere to the Hub. Local hot-spot moguls such as Patrick Lyons, whose ’80s and ’90s Lansdowne Street mega-clubs imbued some pizzazz into the city, and Seth Greenberg, who parlayed his former club-king status into now-veteran dining hits such as the modish French bistro Mistral, undeniably paved the way. How do they feel today about the COJE team? “They do a very good job,” Greenberg tells me. “Their spaces are very cool, they have beautiful design, their prices are not outrageous, and they’ve captured something and made it fun. It’s an event.” He sees Jamison and Malatesta’s spots as appealing to a more junior crowd than his own, but nonetheless acknowledges that “the COJE guys have been very successful. They’ve captured the essence of that young adult market.”
In this case, young adult might be a relative term. It’s true that Jamison, Malatesta, and the team’s other major players—Berry and director of operations Michael Adkins, an experienced showrunner of Hub hot spots—have perfected a formula for marrying upscale dining to fun and fizziness. But I’d argue that they also realized there was a majorly underserved market of well-heeled Boston professionals who, when they finally take a break from building the next billion-dollar unicorn, are as likely to dine out wearing a designer hoodie as a houndstooth suit, and want terrific food presented in glitzy trappings with the pulse of a party, not the stale air of their father’s boardroom.
Lyons and Greenberg weren’t the only ones trying to marry food and fun in Boston. I missed out on the top-notch tapas that chef Steve Johnson, a future James Beard Award nominee, turned out at Mercury Bar in the ’90s. But I remember aughties nitery Saint, a known play place for pro athletes, which courted Food & Wine Award–winning chef Rene Michelena to its kitchen for a while. The national foodie mag also honored Thomas John for his cooking at Mantra, a voguish French-Indian fusion restaurant that became a downtown disco after dinner.
All of these were closed before Yvonne’s opened its doors, yet COJE has kept pushing its magnified take on that tradition, even while much of Boston’s restaurant scene moved in distinctly different directions, such as small and twee farm-to-fork eateries where the music is never raised above a whisper lest it shatter the Mason jars or startle the locally sourced carrots. “When my friends come to town,” says Demetri Tsolakis, former general manager of Mantra and co-owner of the Seaport’s snazzy, Euro-vibe-y Committee, “I’m always taking them to one of the COJE restaurants to show them what Boston has become.”
When it comes to the future of COJE, meanwhile, its owners let me in on a few secrets before our drinks at Yvonne’s—I’m working on the rum-soaked, halcyon “ ’90s Kid,” for the record—run dry. For one thing, Jamison reveals, COJE will unveil a full-on nightclub—not a restaurant, he stresses—at an undisclosed location downtown in early spring. The team is also slated to open another Seaport restaurant, at the address that formerly housed Legal Sea Foods’s experimental Test Kitchen, later this year. And the Back Bay location of Lolita, which started it all, is about to unveil an expansion and facelift.
As for Yvonne’s? She’s doing just fine, looking hale and lively on a school night in a part of town where tumbleweeds blew through the streets just a short social-distancing era ago. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been because we deliver more than just a meal, and after everything we’ve been through, people are hungry for energy and intimacy,” says Jamison, sipping his drink while Malatesta soaks up the scene, including chic women at the bar across from stylishly dressed guys digging into dinner. He is wearing the only thing that really matters here: a big grin.