Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why are Cambridge's Restaurants Better than Boston's?

Harvard Square
I guess the assertion itself is fairly debatable (before I moved across the river and learned to cook I would have found the idea preposterous - not so much now though)... but even if we set quality aside, certainly the generalization that there are more "hip, new, and exciting" restaurants popping up in Cambridge, while Boston seems more inclined towards corporate restaurant groups, rings true to me. So why is this? The Globe argues it's regulation and licensing. For one, liquor licenses are a lot more expensive in Boston apparently, but there are other factors as well:
It’s simply a more comfortable environment in which to take risks. For one thing, as Bond points out, it’s less expensive. Perkins says restaurant rents in Cambridge average $30 to $40 per square foot, which jumps to $75 per square foot in Harvard Square. In Boston, the average is $40 to $50 per square foot, but it can go much higher. "Back Bay has gotten so expensive," he says. "We just sold a restaurant that rents for $100 a square foot. They don’t take any prisoners." Restaurants in Cambridge also tend to be smaller.

Navigating Boston’s licensing board and neighborhood associations can be tricky, Perkins says. "You’ve got Newbury Street, which wants trash pickup seven days a week. Bay Village is really tough; they’re not going to allow another liquor license in there. In Boston, for fast food you need a 36A permit for takeout. You don’t have that in Cambridge. There are codes all over. Outsiders avoid Boston because of the zoning and permitting; they’re a real toothache. We don’t welcome new people coming in. It’s easier in Cambridge."

Miller Munzer finds Cambridge a good environment for small operators. "There’s a different feel over here. There’s bureaucracy here as well, but in some ways the attitude is a little better. Cambridge just has more of a culture of independent businesses."

Kovel agrees. "Cambridge has been great," he says. "It’s a lot more business-friendly and is really embracing restaurants." When he applied for Catalyst’s liquor license, the members of the License Commission were encouraging. "They said, ‘This is great. We can’t wait to come in. We used to go to Aujourd’hui.’ We all had a laugh. They’re excited and willing to support you."
It's not really that surprising that having so much more expenses, paperwork, and local licensing boards to navigate tilts Boston development towards corporate groups with deep pockets and extensive staffs... whereas Cambridge has conditions more amenable to independent start-ups. Most people would naturally assume that the latter situation is the better one (I'd certainly rather try a new restaurant from a new chef than a high quality national chain), but new restaurants are prone to failure, often need 6 months to get their act and menu together, etc... while a another Legal Seafood is a known quantity and virtually guaranteed to succeed... so it's not hard to see why Boston would favor that, but it's definitely not going to lead to an exciting dining scene.