The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
Back in the Before Times, on any day of the work week, Kendall Square restaurants would be humming.
Eavesdropping on the next table might mean listening to a venture capital deal go down or overhearing a tech team analyze an algorithm over a round of beers. Kendall’s restaurant mix was largely local, and a little funky. It has never been a bona fide dining destination, but restaurants thrived as overflow hubs where the titans of innovation could break bread. Sure, it was tough to get a table, and it may have felt a bit insular at times, but the degree of difficulty was part of the draw.
“I’d always joke with my staff: ‘You need a passport to come to Cambridge if you live in Boston,’” said William Kovel, the chef-owner of Catalyst restaurant, a haven for the square’s business clientele for the last decade. “We don’t see traffic from Boston unless it’s a work thing.”
Now of course, the whole “work thing” is another thing entirely. Many of Kendall’s restaurants didn’t survive the pandemic, and those that did relied on steady catering orders from the deep-pocketed tenants in the towers above their spaces. But it’s tough to run a successful business when your neighbors have packed up shop or your tables sit empty on key days of the week while people work from home.
“Fridays used to be our busiest day; it’s now probably the slowest,” said Steve “Nookie” Postal of Commonwealth on Broad Canal Way. “Mondays are 50 percent of what they used to be, and Fridays are 70 percent of what the occupancy would be pre-COVID. ... It’s not as attractive an area for a restaurant operator as it was. You’re so heavily dependent on the office economy.”
And for the non-office eater, Kendall always felt a little off the map. “We all exist in these pockets, people have to sort of be willing to be a little adventurous to get to us,” said Rachel Miller Munzer, co-owner of Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, State Park, and Vincent’s Corner Grocery.
But now, as new development projects sprout in the square, which is widely known as the center of the life sciences universe, they’re poised to recalibrate the area’s dining scene. Kendall boosters are hoping the creation of more ground-floor retail, coupled with the arrival of more cultural attractions, will help stitch together some of its core, perhaps even drawing more folks from across the Charles and beyond.
Andrew Holden is already seeing it at Shy Bird, his bustling comfort food hub at One Broadway. Housed in a former office lobby, its sprawling 16-hour patio has activated one of Kendall’s most high-profile corners, injecting a sense of vibrancy to the neighborhood that’s drawing in crowds from beyond the scope of Kendall. He’s now seeing guests stroll across the Longfellow Bridge from Beacon Hill or the West End for a night out.
“It’s really connected this part of the city and downtown nicely,” he said.
It’s one of a string of new arrivals that developers hope will serve more of the square’s growing residential population and generate more foot traffic to support the restaurants already open. The three-story taco and tequila bar Mex opened in Tech Square this past winter, and Ripple Cafe, a Dorchester coffee shop, will soon open its second storefront in Kendall. The American pub Locke Bar & Kitchen is coming to Broad Canal Way early next year. There’s chatter about the arrival of a food hall into the square, as well.
And early next year, the beer and oyster bar Row 34 will be setting up shop. Shore Gregory, its managing partner, sees parallels between Kendall and Fort Point, the site where it first opened in 2013.
Both neighborhoods had an established persona and residential community that was poised to be transformed by the arrival of new development, he said, and the restaurant served as a “gravitational center” for the neighborhood and its inhabitants. “Each has gone through some aspect of significant transition,” he said. “And the tension that surrounds that can be a good place for our restaurant.”
That tension can be good for established players, too. Sumiao Chen, whose eponymous Chinese restaurant on Third Street will celebrate its fifth anniversary this July, is bullish on what’s ahead for the food scene. Her business partners were nervous about opening in Kendall. “We were surrounded by parking lots and too few houses,” she recalled, “but now we have Facebook across the street and Google next door.”
And she’s bounced back from the pandemic, with revenues that outpace her 2019 first-quarter numbers by 25 percent (in May alone she pulled in $640,000, a huge jump from the $450,000 during that month in 2019).
“Frankly, we can use this kind of dynamic in Kendall,” Chen said. “I’m pretty confident whatever changes will be positive to us.”
Read more about Kendall Square and explore the full On the Street series.