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Travel to Boston

 
 

Boston District: South End

21 October 2015

Words: Adrian Mourby / Images: Kate Tadman-Mourby

Thirty years ago you would only go to South End if you had no other choice. Cut off from central Boston by ‘The Zone’ – a gangland area where visitors were unwelcome – this Victorian suburb had fallen on hard times.

South End was created after the American Civil War when huge areas of Boston Bay were filled in and the fashionable ‘Back Bay’ area to the north of Tremont Avenue was brought into being. South End lay on the other side of Tremont and was always the poor relation. Small-scale industrialisation followed, then came the commercial stagnation of the 20th century. There simply wasn’t the money to pull Southie’s buildings down. As a result its gracious old houses and commercial blocks were left mostly intact. So when the process of gentrification began in the 1990s, South End had all the raw material for a trendy shopping and restaurant neighbourhood.

In recent years Southie’s long rows of red brick terraces and parks have blossomed with design shops, pet parlours, delis, restaurants and arts venues. Former tenements now change hands for millions of dollars.

TORO TAPAS

Founded in an old piano factory in 2005, Toro Tapas is the brainchild of two celebrated chefs, Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, who wanted to create an out-of-the-way restaurant that people would discover. It was a brave move to come to South End even 11 years ago, but Toro Tapas’ very liberal take on Spanish cuisine took off almost immediately. The place is packed and noisy every night.

Disarmingly, Jamie admits that he has no idea why his compact roadside restaurant is so popular: “If I knew I would bottle it and make a fortune.” Toro opens at 6pm (5.30 at weekends) and you need to be there early to get a table. Expect Spanish dishes like paella but also deliciously sweet corn on the cob, octopus, “hamburguesas” and hamachi. There’s quite a strong sense of Spain meets Japan at Toro Tapas. As one waiter told me: “The menu is basically whatever Jamie feels like making.”

1704 Washington Street

Tel: +1 617 536 4300

toro-restaurant.com/boston

LEKKER HOME

Lekker means “yummy” in Dutch, but Natalie Van Dijk Carpenter, who founded this design store in 2003. prefers to translate it as “approachable”. Based in a modern block on Washington Avenue, Lekker imports tables, sofas, dishes, cushions and lamps from more than 50 designers across Europe as well as in Japan and America.

Its style is modern but warm, with none of the starkness of some contemporary designers or the disposability of IKEA. Lekker Home products are made to last, like the teak and oak tables from Belgium, which have become something of a Boston classic, or the Japanese ceramic tableware, the brushed stainless steel Italian cutlery and the Scrimshaw whale, lobster and octopus trays from New England. According to manager Katie Kavanagh, students who came in 12 years ago just to buy a candle are now earning well and furnishing their entire homes from Lekker.

1313 Washington Street

Tel: +1 617 542 6464

lekkerhome.com

FORMAGGIO KITCHEN - SOUTH END

Formaggio was one of the first new enterprises to give South End a chance. An offshoot of a much larger delicatessen in Cambridge, it opened here on the last day of 1999. Although Formaggio carries a wide selection of wines and coffee, herbs and spices, hams and jams, it’s for cheese that the shop is best known.

There are more than 100 in stock at any one time, all selected by David Robinson, Formaggio’s dedicated cheese buyer. He visits every producer individually, even the Frenchman on a hillside with just 60 goats. The store’s import licence means that it’s able to import quickly, ensuring freshness. Its Poilâne bread is Fedexed overnight from Paris every Wednesday and is on the shelves by Thursday afternoon.

Formaggio has the look of a small European deli. Stock is piled high and there’ll usually be one or two customers who have called in for a cup of $1.50 coffee at the counter.

268 Shawmut Avenue

Tel: +1 617 350 6996

southendformaggio.com

THE BUTCHER SHOP

Celebrity chef Barbara Lynch’s latest venture on Restaurant Row – the most popular part of Tremont Street as far as Boston diners are concerned – is The Butcher Shop, which sits just opposite Barbara’s seafood outlet, B&G Oysters. Inside, the restaurant is stripped-back brick, brushed steel and dark wood.

Customers sit at high brasserie-style tables, at the grey soapstone bar, or cluster round a huge wooden butcher’s block on which meat master classes are held at weekends. Specialities of the house include steak tartare, a signature burger, Wagyu Denver steak, and the house pasta with meaty Bolognese sauce. There’s also an ambitious range of ten artisanal cheeses.

The house red came from an Austrian vintner called Herr Heinrich, who was so impressed by his meal that he declared his intention to create a unique wine just for Barbara Lynch. Butcher’s open till midnight but evening bookings are essential.

552 Tremont Street

Tel: +1 617 423 4800

thebutchershopboston.com

PATCH NYC

For adorable objects that you don’t need but absolutely must have, there’s nowhere better than Patch NYC, a store founded in New York by two designers, John Ross and Don Carney. Three years ago they moved to a gated courtyard enclave in South End that’s home to several artists. The new Patch store sells a cornucopia of items: pillows and postcards, scarves and lamps, jewellery, ceramic playing cards, and some very expensive Italian candles.

John and Don design 40 per cent of the range themselves and import the rest. Don has a penchant for reworking Victoriana and Day Of The Dead imagery. The store rarely opens before midday and doesn’t advertise its existence. According to John, almost all their customers come from word of mouth recommendations. “People coming to Boston seem to know about us.” Patch also runs a gallery on the opposite side of the courtyard hosting regular exhibitions of art they like.

46 Waltham Street

Tel: +1 617 426 0592

patchnyc.com

MICHELE MERCALDO JEWELRY

Michele Mercaldo was the first jeweller to move into South End in the 1990s and she transferred to premises in tree-lined Shawmut Avenue in 2004. Michelle works at the back of this spacious shop with her three assistants, creating a range of silver and gold rings, bracelets and necklaces and also resetting heirloom jewellery.

As a designer she has a particular enthusiasm for the lustrous silvery-white metal palladium, and her work sells for anything from $60 to $12,000. She also showcases work by other jewellers she likes, many of them her former assistants. New artwork is displayed on the walls with a fresh artist exhibiting every three months.

At the same time that the interior of the shop is rethought, the window display is also changed. This tends to be a work of art in its own right. At the time we visited it was in the form of a bamboo grove.

276 Shawmut Avenue

Tel:+1 617 350 7909

michelemercaldo.com

WALLY’S CAFE JAZZ CLUB

The oldest continuously operating Jazz cafe in America, Wally’s was founded in 1947 by Joseph “Wally” Walcott, a Barbadian immigrant who lived to the ripe old age of 100 before passing the cafe on to his three sons, Frank, Lloyd and Paul. Rooted in South End’s Afro-American community (as a student Martin Luther King lived just a few doors away), Wally’s was nevertheless the first New England jazz club to offer a platform to racially integrated groups. Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Art Blakey all performed here and today Wally’s takes its role as Boston’s unofficial jazz academy very seriously.

It’s open 365 days a year and the first few hours are always given over to students. There’s no cover charge but a bucket is passed around this narrow ground floor bar for the musicians. Get there between 9.30 and 10pm for the best guest acts and make sure you carry photo-ID to prove your age.

427 Massachusetts Avenue

Tel:+1 617 424 1408

wallyscafe.com

BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS

Even in the dangerous 1960s the BCA was always there on Tremont Street, occupying Cyclorama, a 19th century domed building designed to hold a vast 400-foot, 360-degree reconstruction of the Battle Of Gettysburg. That canvas is now in the Gettysburg Museum And Visitor Center and the stunning circular exhibition space left behind is now BCA’s main event venue. The rest of the complex consists of three theatres, the white-box Mills Art Gallery, and the Beehive jazz venue.

The centre is also home to Boston Ballet and four theatre companies. Next door, in a 2004 extension, the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion contains two further theatres. It was built on the site of Boston’s National Theatre, which in its time presented the shows by Sammy Davis Jr and Duke Ellington. The centre opens daily at noon and, needless to say, with all that space there is always something playing or on display at BCA.

539 Tremont Street

Tel:+1 617 426 5000

bcaonline.org

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