Robert Whitcomb: But forget the Yankee pot roast

At least the Union Oyster House, near City Hall, in Boston, is still open, at it has been since 1826.

At least the Union Oyster House, near City Hall, in Boston, is still open, at it has been since 1826.

Despite the city’s prosperity, lots of Boston restaurants have been closing recently. But then, lots of restaurants close every year as new ones pop up. Indeed, while the Internet continues to kill brick-and-mortar stores, our busier (but to what end?) lives, smaller families and swelling numbers of retirees and single people mean that restaurants are occupying more and more of what had been stores.

Durgin-Park and L’Espalier are but two of the long-established eateries that have closed, along with several highly regarded but much newer places, such as Cultivar and Erbaluce.

Since most Boston nonchain restaurants are closely held, it’s usually hard to find out all the reasons that they’re closing. But don’t underestimate chef-and-owner exhaustion. Food preparation and presentation are intense – with numerous stringent health regulations, the need to constantly revise menus and coping with unpredictable and sometimes obnoxious customers. It’s a tough, tough business, at the mercy of changing demographics and consumer tastes and the regional economy. That last profoundly affects rents. Boston’s multi-year boom has let landlords extravagantly jack up rents, driving many eateries from their long-established venues.

Consider the huge changes in cuisine preferences, especially from heavy “New England cuisine,’’ such as Yankee pot roast, to a plethora of lighter dishes, often of Mediterranean and Asian origin. This diversification is particularly intense in increasingly internationalized and “sophisticated’’ cities such as Boston.

A few decades ago, if you wanted Chinese food, you pretty much had to go to, well, Chinatown. If you wanted Greek food there was Athens Olympia and ….?

Back into the ’70s, Boston had far fewer fancy restaurants than now. I’d guess that the long-closed Locke-Ober and Maison Robert were the snobbiest. How exotic they seemed. Serving cold soup (vichyssoise) of all things! That the dining room at the old Ritz-Carlton Hotel served unsalted butter was memorable, too.

My own precious memory is of Dini’s Sea Grille (1926-1990), near the State House. Delicious food and filled with deal-making politicians.

With today’s richer, bigger and more globalist Boston, there are plenty of first-class establishments, representing a range of cuisines from every continent except Antarctica.

It used to be fairly easy to choose a restaurant in Boston based on its reputation, the ethnic food you favored and so on. Now it’s tough because there are so many good ones.

But I wish that Boston had a higher number of reliable, friendly, locally owned, non-fast-food places with their own unique neighborhood atmospheres that middle-income people can afford to frequently patronize -- inexpensive cafes that let people linger with their coffee, pastries and sandwiches – like Starbucks but cheaper and less standardized! With rents in Boston so high, many people are forced to live in apartments that aren’t much bigger than walk-in closets. They need more “third places’’ where they can meet friends, write an unpublishable novel or just watch the world go by.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of New England Diary.