The crash of the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the late 1980s doomed Michael Dukakis’s presidential aspirations, but it put only a temporary chill on the expansion of fine dining, and perhaps reinforced the hobby cooks at home. (All statistics show that more and more American meals are eaten out, but Boston is also a leading center of the contrary movement toward making the remaining meals at home more fun and innovative — hobby cooking.) The period during which the only new restaurants were conservatively financed, Northern Italian, or branches of established groups must have been a period of intense thinking and planning for the next generation of chef-owners. When the high-tech boom of the 1990s opened things up again, there was an explosion of restaurants by former sous-chefs. These restaurants were defined more flexibly and with an emphasis on small plates, so they could be repositioned with the economic seasons as well as seasonal produce.
Boston’s culinary scene has always been somewhat resistant to national trends, and especially resistant to chain restaurants. But since 1966, Boston has given birth to national chains, and their special mark is high quality. Dunkin’ Donuts are for everyone, and the chain’s coffee beans are good enough to sell for home consumption. The original Bertucci’s and the remarkably skillful scaling up of Legal Sea Foods and Au Bon Pain follow this theme, as do the national chains that have won a foothold here: Trader Vic’s and Benihana, when they were fresh and stood for quality; McCormick & Schmick’s, a luxury chain; and top-quality steak houses. The successful and smaller local chains may move with economic cycles from seafood to Italian and back, but they always offer quality. I’d like to think that Phoenix food writers have helped rally the dining and cooking public around that principle, even as we sometimes vary in our support of a particular trend or establishment.
Robert Nadeau writes the weekly “Dining Out” column for the Boston Phoenix.
: Food Features
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