For all the whining that we do about how politicians seemingly get away with doing whatever the hell they want in Somerville, creatively speaking, we admire the somewhat similar outlaw spirit in many of the chefs and restaurateurs who have found refuge for their unique styles there. With Taste of Somerville, one of the region’s most exceptional and accessible smorgasbords, coming up on June 14, we peppered three of our favorite personalities who will be participating with five questions apiece:
- What drew you to opening/working in Somerville as opposed to Boston or Cambridge? Is it easier or more difficult to operate compared to other cities in the area? (WHY SOMERVILLE?)
- How has the city’s dining landscape changed in the years you’ve been there? (WHAT’S CHANGED?)
- What are some of the most appealing parts of dining in Somerville from a guest’s standpoint? (WHAT APPEALS?)
- Somerville has traditionally been filled with neighborhood spots and a lot of diversity, but has branched out into some more refined dining style places. Can the two co-exist? (ON COEXISTENCE)
- What does serving at an event like Taste of Somerville mean to you? Do you get to serve guests you might not otherwise encounter? (TOS)
Josh Lewin of Juliet
I live here. That’s reason number one. I actually moved to Somerville by accident. Long story, but I thought I moved to Cambridge, and to be honest, I wasn’t that excited about it. Turns out I moved to Somerville—six years ago? seven?—and fell in love with it immediately. Juliet, in Union Square, is my first restaurant, so I’ve never operated a business elsewhere. I’ve run restaurant kitchens for others, but I don’t have a lot to compare it to as an owner. The city is obviously supportive of and and interested in small business, and restaurants specifically. The mayor is a regular guest, and his office recently attended an event related to our progressive profit-sharing business model. More than a little bit, Somerville is interested in our success. Working on Beacon Hill we used to have politicians come by all the time, but we were just another restaurant convenient to the office. Somerville knows who we are, what we are about, and has an interest in seeing us succeed.
Well, it seems like every third new restaurant is opening in Somerville. And a new luxury condo building at the same rate. It’s the wild west a little bit, with a lot of prospecting going on. The number of options has increased substantially since the time I moved here, or even just in the past 14 months since Juliet has been open.
Variety. There is so much here from buzzy new “American” restaurants ranging from casual cafe to super fine dining, to a wide range of ethnic cuisines that you don’t see as much of in the downtown Boston area, or even Cambridge, each of which [from Union Square] we are like 10 minutes from. Then creativity. Rent prices are going up, steadily, but there is still a lot of room here for experimentation compared to Boston where rents and other overheads are really prohibitive, kind of stifling much innovation except for larger companies and deeper pockets. You have a lot of choice here in Somerville, from people that have interesting things to contribute, and without menu prices that are by necessity overly prohibitive.
I’ve been kind of head-down tunnel vision in Union Square since Juliet opened so hopefully I’m not being naive about the city as a whole. But we certainly co-exist here. One of our favorite places is J & J restaurant at the corner of Washington Street and McGrath Highway. There’s also Buk Kyung, a Korean spot across the street from Juliet that remembers Katrina’s order every time she runs over for staff meal, and a great Pakistani restaurant stuck in the back of a convenience store off Bow Street. There are great places that we love to frequent and we know our guests do as well. Some of them in turn like to visit Juliet.
Somerville is a big place, with lots of people, and lots of options. We don’t have a lot of time outside of working in the restaurant [which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner] but we believe in community outreach. We aren’t afraid to head to Boston, but we place a lot of value on getting out to Somerville-specific events or supporting Somerville-specific causes. We have a lot of people still to meet here and introduce them to Juliet. Taste of Somerville is a perfect opportunity for that. When we participated last year we still barely knew which end was up at our brand new restaurant. We are excited to come back this year with a little more focus.
Shayne Nunes of Foundry on Elm
I was drawn to this restaurant by convenience of location and eagerness to learn. I personally think that Somerville has the potential and is on the way up to being one of Boston’s hot spots for dining out. I myself know of at least 10 great restaurants that have opened up in the past few years of me working here—Highland Kitchen, Sarma, Five Horses, Daddy Jones, Kirkland Tap and Trotter, Bronwyn, just to name a few. I feel as though with all of the new things happening in Somerville it adds a lot of travel value to the city with a lot more people traffic especially in the square areas. With that said, I think it has the potential to be right on par business-wise [with] Boston and Cambridge.
The biggest addition to the city would definitely be Assembly Row, which is home to one of our sister restaurants, River Bar, and also numerous other restaurants and shopping centers. I have also heard rumors of a new MBTA line to run through Union Square under construction … it could be a huge opportunity for restaurants already operating in that area, and restaurants thinking about opening in that area.
Convenience for people that live in the area, little traffic, easy parking, variety of trendy diverse restaurants, less wait times, no cover charges, great public transportation.
The two can most definitely exist. Depending on what people are looking for, the time of day, the amount of money people can afford to dine out with, are just a few pointers to mention that make the diversity in Somerville really special. The mix-up of different cuisines, price points, and concept really leave the possibilities endless, and sometime even frustrating when trying to decide where to go, especially with larger groups of people. Refined and even fine dining is great, but $40 surf and turfs don’t appeal to everybody during lunchtime. Dave’s Fresh Pasta may be the better option. Get the Cubano on baguette!
Taste of Somerville is great because it really gives restaurants the opportunity to show people what they’ve got. Especially restaurants that people might overlook or didn’t even know were there. Saloon is kind of hidden in Davis Square, giving it a cool speakeasy vibe. This same advantage can potentially be a disadvantage if people don’t know how to get in. Which is why I am bringing the heat to this year’s Taste of Somerville, stay tuned for Saloon’s brisket tostadas!
JJ Gonson of ONCE Somerville / Cuisine en Locale
We started in Cambridge, which was also a great place to work, but there really weren’t any spaces for us to expand into, even though they would have liked to stay there. We moved to Somerville first into a shared-use space on Somerville Ave, and then when we found the former Anthony’s space we knew we had found our forever kitchen home. We love the artsy vibe of Somerville. It suits us perfectly, and we would like to think that we are partly responsible for bringing a little wonderful weirdness to our growing corner of the sky.
Many many many restaurants have opened here in the past six years. So many that there is an inspector dedicated just to them! It’s an exciting time in the Somerville food scene.
Somerville is creative and different from Boston, which can be stuffier.
Somerville has been a place for all different things for a long time. Even the established restaurants of Somerville were new once. I think that Somerville natives are always interested in what is happening.
We love to be able to touch a lot of people who have not heard of us yet. The Somerville audience loves that we are using only local ingredients and it’s fun to see how they react to our food and philosophy.
TASTE OF SOMERVILLE IN THE PARK. WED 6.14. TUFTS PARK, SOMERVILLE. 5PM/$50-75. TASTEOFSOMERVILLE.ORG