Cannibalizing Our Restaurant Community

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In May, Peter Meade, the president of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was crowing with delight as he clicked through his PowerPoint of architectural renderings of approved, “shovel-ready” projects. Standing before several hundred Boston-area restaurateurs, he declared, “From the Fenway to the Waterfront, from Downtown Crossing to Dudley Square, Boston is the most exciting city in America!”

Meade didn’t give an exact number, but a good estimate of building projects already under way forecasts an increase of approximately 1,000 new restaurant seats in Boston over the next several years. Meade was exultant. I was, frankly, a little depressed.

I am a proud, born-and-bred daughter of Boston and a longtime cheerleader for our local restaurant community. I worry, however, that by building large, expensive restaurants, we are cannibalizing the Hub’s culinary exceptionalism and putting at risk the fabulous chef-owner culture that put us on the map as one of America’s great dining cities.

The big chains come into town and pay exorbitant square-foot rates that screw up the whole market.

Charlie Perkins, Boston Restaurant Group

Over the last three years, over 4,000 new restaurant “seats” have been added in Boston. Most of the new capacity is in the Seaport and waterfront areas and favors large, mostly upscale chains, with several hundred seats for diners at each location. All this should be great for Boston, right? Great for Boston’s amazing community of culinary professionals, right?

But the net effect may be exactly the opposite. It may make Boston much less affordable for the talented local chefs who scrape together every last cent to open a kitchen or bistro of their own.

Boston is an expensive place to do business. The rents are high, the current cost of a liquor license is upwards of $200,000, and as anyone knows who has ever dined in metro Boston, parking can be a riff on Russian roulette.

Charlie Perkins, president of the Boston Restaurant Group, laments, “Big restaurant spaces make eminent sense for the landlord, but they suck the oxygen out of the South End, the North End and Newbury Street. The big chains come into town and pay exorbitant square-foot rates that screw up the whole market.”

The economics are simple: more seats, more competition. I asked Peter Meade, “Where will all the bodies come from?” His answer: “The suburbs.”

Hmm. Another problem. The suburbs are building up a healthy inventory of restaurant seats of their own. In upscale malls in Lynnfield, Hingham and Dedham, new dining options are springing up like nutrient-rich dandelions.

Almost all the new spaces in Boston or in the ’burbs favor larger restaurants, big chains with established concepts and owners who can more easily get financing for expensive leases and costly build-outs. And they are not only hogging all of the diners, they sop up the top-tier servers, bartenders and cooks who follow the money and migrate to the newest hottest spot. The house is betting against the independent chef-owners.

This isn’t an idle, anti-growth concern. I too can barely hold myself back from marching through the front door as soon as I hear about any new restaurant opening. I want them all to succeed. But when the flurry of upscale bistros opened in the South End a few years back, there was a whooshing sound through the eateries of Harvard Square. And in 2011, as the Seaport District came alive, a new windstorm rattled the cozy little bars and bistros in the South End, the Back Bay and the Fenway. All the things that make the Seaport a blissful destination for suburbanites — an exit right off the expressway, oceans of underground parking, not to mention the waterfront view — put the more urban, older dining districts of Boston at a relative disadvantage.

So, is all this growth good for Boston’s culinary scene? A decided maybe. Will it make Boston a better dining city in the long run? Doubtful.

Click here to listen to Louisa Kasdon on WBUR's Radio Boston.

This program aired on August 10, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.