Staying power is rare in the restaurant business. Every week I note the closing of some joint that I duly recorded on my new-restaurants list but never managed to visit: it came and went too fast. I have no such excuse with the Waterfront Café, which has been quietly operating at the edge of the North End and haunting my to-try list since the turn of the 21st century. Leaving a Bruins game hungry recently, I finally had my chance and pounced — and as often happens, left a couple hours later thinking, "I should've gotten here sooner — there's a reason this place has stuck around."
That reason is an evergreen formula: super-casual ambience, cheap drinks, many TVs, and solid if unspectacular food. The versatile menu includes steamers, grilled meats, fried seafood, oven-baked subs, deli-style sandwiches, big burgers, and Italian-American entrées, pastas, and pizza. None of it is extraordinary, but some of it is really good, much better than I expect from most neighborhood watering holes. Steak tips ($11.99) boast a one-pound portion with a hint of sweet marinade, good char-grilled crust, the right interior temperature, and two fistsful of thin, crisp fries. Fish and chips ($14.99) feature two big haddock filets with an expert deep-frying job and another mountain of fries. Chicken parmigiana ($11.99) covers half a large plate, a giant breaded and fried cutlet amply coated with marinara and gooey mozzarella. (It seems uncharitable to complain that the accompanying ziti is stone cold.)
A better surprise is the pizza ($10.99, plus $1 per added topping, such as a generous covering of sliced meatballs), a very fine rendition of the medium-crust Italian-American style. At 18 inches across, it's slightly floppy but still substantially chewy and not too greasy, arriving scalding from the oven. It's a simple, impeccable accompaniment to big icy pitchers of beer ($15–$17), plonky red wines by the glass (like a 2006 Castelvecchio Chianti, $6), and simultaneous broadcasts of five different sports and hilariously seamy Mexican soap operas. (Skip the too-sweet cocktails, based on cordials and flavored vodkas, thanks to a limited license.) Service is brusque but friendly, and (unlike many North End restaurants) more concerned with its regulars than tourists. Unsung in the press and rarely mentioned by Chowhounds or Yelpers, the Waterfront abides, even as artier, flashier places drop like mayflies. Linger here over pitchers, pizza, and the game with a few friends and you'll see why.
The Waterfront Café, located at 450 Commercial Street, in Boston, is open Monday through Saturday, from 11 am to 1:30 am, and on Sunday, from 11 am to midnight. Call 617.523.4055.