With innumerable new establishments and favorite old haunts as well dotting the landscape, it helps to have a expert connect the dots on Greater Boston’s ever-growing food map. Lizzie Bell and Sam Schlussel of Off The Beaten Path food tours are up for the job, as the couple has been mining and exploring the food scene around here for more than a decade. Now they’re taking friends and strangers along with them on their dining adventures, including on a special chocolate tour that runs through Valentine’s Day. We asked Lizzie all about their startup operation and this latest taste quest.
What’s unique about your walking tours? What do they all have in common regardless of which tour it is?
Our walking food tours operate in neighborhoods of Boston with the hottest food scenes, regardless of how “touristy” the area is. For example, we don’t operate in the timeless North End or South End or Beacon Hill neighborhoods of Boston, because many tourists only go to these places and miss some really cool areas off the beaten path like Somerville’s Davis Square or Union Square, or even Harvard Square in Cambridge. We also guarantee a friendly, knowledgeable guide and will take groups as small as two guests out on the town. Since we love to eat, we are typically generous with our tasting samples, so come hungry. And you may even get to try your hand at candlepin bowling on our Davis Square tour. Whenever possible, we try to introduce guests to the owners of these businesses—in a place like Davis Square, many of the owners are in the shops every day and love chatting with guests and answering their questions, which is really unique.
You’ve been at it for about a year now. What have you learned and how have you tweaked your tours as a result?
Unfortunately, it took longer to get set up than we had hoped, so we started our tours last July and sort of missed the busy summer season. But we’ve learned a lot and listened to the feedback of our guests and customers. We think of the tours as a labor of love because they’re not super profitable, but we are extremely proud of them. We really hope that guests will tip our guides because they live on these gratuities, since we pay for the food from the guest fees.
How do you decide when to start a new tour? What’s the qualifier?
We are reliant on finding awesome guides with the enthusiasm, availability, reliability, and interest. Please apply if you’re interested. We are actually working on a Jamaica Plain food tour to debut this spring, which is something we wanted to do from the start but couldn’t find the right partners. We have our eyes on neighborhoods all over Massachusetts and even theme tours in the same places.
How do you plan/map out a food tour? How much do you take your own tastes into account?
We’ve found that some people can think expansively and get what we’re doing, and some businesses—even ones we love and thought would be on board—just don’t get it and flat-out refuse to host our group. So we start broadly with a wide list of businesses, reach out to each one multiple times individually, and narrow our list down to businesses that offer great food, have a cool story, and are located in a historically relevant area or building. We also joined the local business groups like the Harvard Square Business Association, and we’re all about promoting neighborhood causes and happenings on our blog and social channels. We also have options available for vegans, vegetarians, and even “health freaks” because the food we serve is high-quality and diverse.
How does the new Harvard Square Chocolate Tour work?
We have two guides, Liz and Molly, who are taking groups of up to 20 around the area. The guides have strong knowledge about the area, live in Cambridge, and know a lot about chocolate. Guests meet at a central meeting spot and are given hand warmers to keep themselves toasty on the walk around the square, which takes 90 minutes total.
We’ll then visit five to six local spots with the best and most interesting chocolate, and sample at each place while learning the history of the area as well as the food. The chocolate we eat is varied and delicious, and you’re guaranteed to learn a lot along the way. It’s a great Valentine’s Day experience—and we even have two evening tours running on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 pm in case you want to do an after-dinner chocolate walking adventure or date night.
Even though Somerville and Cambridge are getting hotter and hotter, and more expensive, there have been great eats there for some time. What would this tour have looked like 10 years ago?
Funny enough, we’ve been living in the area for over 10 years, so we have thought a lot about this question. In fact, on our Davis Square tour we stop at some places like Oat Shop, Spindler Confections, Opa Greek Yeeros, Curio Spice, and Q’s Nuts that were not around 10 years ago. On the Harvard Square tour, I could have seen us stopping at places like Hidden Sweets, Herrell’s ice cream store, Finagle a Bagel for their delicious chocolate chip bagels, and even the Greenhouse Diner, which honestly had the best huge slice of chocolate cake around that I miss so much.
What’s one of your best bits of local history that you love to drop on people on any of your tours?
One fact that’s pretty awesome is that Mary from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” lived in Somerville. We tell her story from the poem on the tour. Did you know Boston was actually the candy capital of the world? We have so many amazing firsts in Boston, from the first sugar refinery, to the home of Baker’s chocolate, to the first American candy machine, which was a synthesis for NECCO (New England Candy Company). Our tours are packed with insights, and we also have a blog that we update weekly with some interesting facts and tidbits about these neighborhoods.
You’ve been living in the area for some time. What are some Somerville-Cambridge restaurants that you truly miss?
My parents grew up and lived in Harvard Square, and they are always telling me how much they miss places like the Tasty, Nornie B’s, Elsa’s, and the like. The closing of restaurants is just part of life. I remember going to college and eating at the Greenhouse in Harvard Square and hanging out at Au Bon Pain and Finale, which are both closed now but offered a really fun place to people-watch and relax. I used to love eating at Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge—they had the best sweet potato ricotta pizza I’ve ever had! I miss the Blue Room’s brunch in Kendall Square—it was all you can eat and truly epic! Journeyman in Somerville was so creative and interesting. And the Elephant Walk in Cambridge had delicious wonton shrimp dumplings that I adored. The Ames Street Deli was a cool spot in Cambridge. I loved Hungry Mother. Oh, this is making me sad. Come back to us!
Are there any whole categories of eats that you see getting pushed out of the area as higher-end restaurants move in?
For me, I love a good coffee shop lounge with those comfy eclectic couches that turns into a Nashville-style music hall at night and can host neighborhood groups. I stare longingly at big vacancies in the neighborhood like that open spot right on Elm Street where the Family Dollar used to be in Davis Square, and wonder—can we have a big mixed-use space come in? I’m thinking a spot like Tryst or Busboys and Poets in DC or the Listening Room Cafe in Nashville. I’m worried that every square inch of these places needs to be taken over by more efficient real estate like medical offices, but honestly we just need places to lounge and connect and gather and discuss and meet and create, which are hard to find these days. Diesel, for example, is wonderful but expensive, closes early, and is packed to the brim constantly, but is one of the only spots we have to grab a coffee at an independent cafe. It’s my dream to help a place like that open and flourish—hopefully one day. Hey, if you know an investor, call me.
What’s something that you have learned from somebody on one of your tours?
I’d say we are always pleasantly surprised when people who have lived in the area for over five years have never visited many of the places that we take them, which makes us so proud. Also, you’re never too old to candlepin bowl! We had a guest recently get a strike even though she hadn’t bowled since second grade and was in her 60s. We honestly meet the coolest people, and we have the best jobs in our opinion. We are naturally curious and constantly learning and love what we do.
The Harvard Square Chocolate Tour runs on Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7pm, and Sundays at 7pm; groups may also schedule a private tour off schedule. Check out offthebeatenpathfoodtours.com for more info or email [email protected]