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Comedian Tom Cotter on Coolidge Corner, Cold Tea, and the 'Cash Cowloon'

Welcome back to Comedian Confidential, in which Boston comics (or those with Boston roots) discuss their favorite restaurants and more.
Comedian Tom Cotter grew up in Rhode Island and lived in Brookline in the 1990s, performing around the city and meeting other comics, including Kerri Louise, who is now his wife. Currently based in New York, Cotter performs internationally and has appeared on a number of television shows, including America's Got Talent, where he was the first comedian to reach the finals. Cotter has a Boston show on New Year's Eve at the Wilbur Theatre at 7:30pm.

Recently he took some time to chat with Eater about his restaurant memories from his years in Brookline, from late-night "cold tea" in Chinatown to brunch at the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse. He also offered up enthusiastic support of Providence's dining scene, recounted a list of foods that have been thrown at him over the years, mourned the recent passing of Hilltop Steak House, and more.

When did you live in the Boston area, and where exactly were you?
I lived in Brookline in the 1990s in a few different locations, one on Beacon, one in Coolidge Corner, and one right on the cusp of Brookline and Allston. I loved it—that was a good chapter of my life.

What do you remember about the restaurant scene from back then?
At the time, there was a place there called the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse, which was a sports bar. There were, like, four comics who lived right near me — Greg Fitzsimmons was one, and Al Ducharme, and the young lady who became my wife was another, Kerri Louise. We used to always meet up at Coolidge Corner Clubhouse, definitely for Sunday brunch but also during the week for their lunch specials. We worked at night, so we had our days free. Then, late at night after gigs, when we'd gravitate back towards our neighborhood, we'd end up there, although that was more drinking than eating. We had a lot of fun at that place. I don't even know if it still exists.

It does.
Great place.

Any other favorite spots from those days?
There was a Chinese restaurant right there, but the name is now escaping me. Chinese food was always a big staple for us. We would end up going to Chinatown after our gigs, because most of our gigs were down in the Combat Zone at Nick's Comedy Stop or the Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall, and then we would gravitate over to Chinatown for food and cold tea. Remember cold tea?

I think that's a little before my time, but I've heard tales.
Cold tea is when they give you a tea pot that's full of beer because it's after 1am, so they can't serve alcohol, so some of these places — which shall remain nameless — would bring over this "cold tea," and it was just crappy beer, but at that hour of the night, you didn't care. You were already hammered. You would just sit there and pour beer out of a little teapot and eat your wontons and your dumplings, and it was a lot of fun.

We were struggling, up-and-coming comedians at the time, so we didn't have tons of money. When we did splurge, we'd go to a place like Union Oyster House or Durgin Park. We would work in restaurants, too. We'd work at the Kowloon on Route 1 in Saugus, and that was back when it was the heyday, so they called it the "Cash Cowloon" because there was always a line of people outside. And they didn't pay a whole lot, but you got to eat free, and we would go just for the meal. I mean, it was unbelievable.

That strip in Saugus — Hilltop Steak House just closed recently.
No! Did it really?

Yeah, a couple weekends ago, they were auctioning off all the memorabilia, equipment, everything. It closed a few weeks before that.
Wow, Rachel. You just stomped on my buzz. When I was a little kid — I grew up in Rhode Island — that's how we would go up to our ski house. We had a ski house up in North Conway, New Hampshire, and we would always drive up Route 1. The big treat was for us to stop and eat, and Hilltop was a staple. I remember in the 90s, someone decapitated one of the [fibreglass] cows on the front lawn, and there was a big to-do in the news. That was the busiest restaurant — that was its claim to fame — the busiest restaurant on the East Coast or something. But the competition just got absurd.

The other one was The Ship. My dad would fly in, and we would drive up from Providence and pick him up at Logan. We had six kids in the family, so it was never an easy ordeal. They'd load us all in the station wagon and go hit that ship restaurant a little further up Route 1, clearly for the ambiance, because I don't remember the food being all that tremendous, but just being in a ship and eating was amazing.

Where do you eat nowadays when you come to Boston? Do you get here often?
I was just in town for Comics Come Home, which was at the Agganis Arena at BU, and we went to an afterparty at a bar over by Fenway on Lansdowne. I forget the name, but it was a sports name, oddly enough. It was pretty good. I've eaten at The Capital Grille, and I really enjoy that, because I'm a carnivore. I love red meat. But the last couple of times I was up there, I did room service at the hotels I was in. I think that's all I can remember. In New York City, you can get any kind of food you want at any hour of the day. I ate at a German-Chinese restaurant the other night. I had the sweet and sour kraut; it was very good. And...sorry, that was a weak joke. that's not a real place?

Ah, too bad. I'd give it a try. So, do you try to seek out restaurants when you're here on tour, or is it room service more often than not?
Well, I remember years ago the Boston Globe food critic said that when he wants a really good meal, he drives 50 miles south of Boston to Providence because Providence — at the time and still to this day — has Johnson & Wales, which is a great culinary institution. It used to be Johnson & Wales College, but now it's Johnson & Wales University, because they're a little full of themselves. But it's really become acclaimed, and a lot of great chefs are from the area. Providence was doing fusion I think before anyone else was because we had a huge Southeast Asian population and a giant Italian population, so they were merging these cultures and these cuisines before fusion became really fashionable in the rest of the country.

The pizza in Rhode Island is unbelievable. My family all lives around Providence, so although I may do a breakfast in the hotel room, I usually go down to visit my three sisters, who all live nearby. We go out to eat there quite often, and there's a Capital Grille there too, which I love. And Caserta Pizza is a staple down there. Your readers may not care about Providence, but Providence's culinary achievements are many, I would say.

Have you been to the Red Fez in Providence?
I've heard of it, but I haven't been there. Where is it?

Oh, my Providence geography is terrible. It might be near part of WaterFire, which probably doesn't help at all...
Have you been to WaterFire? You have to go. Talk about cuisine, they have all these...almost roach coaches, but little kiosks, little carts along the way. Just really incredible food. A lot of people get nervous about buying their meat on the street, but I don't have an issue with that, buying a gyro or shawarma or anything along the way. It's really great food along, and you just do the walk along the fire. Providence has really come around, and that's one of the things we've been hanging our hat on lately, WaterFire. It's such a festival and really a culinary treat. Your nostrils just go crazy. You have to eat because it smells so good down there.

Has anything particularly bizarre or embarrassing happened to you in a restaurant?
Oh yeah, this is one of those times when we were on our way up to New Hampshire, six kids in a Winnebago. Along the way, we stopped at a diner. It had all these little booths in a row, and my sister was sitting at the end of the booth and took the ketchup. The way we would shake ketchup at home is we would just put the lid on and shake it really hard. But the lid wasn't on the ketchup, and she went to shake it, and it splattered all the way down on everybody's shoulder who was sitting at the end of their booth. All the way down the row. It looked like a crime scene. My dad was unbelievably mortified, and my mom was trying to clean people up with club soda. My dad was taking down numbers so he could pay for their dry cleaning bills, and it was just the most humiliating thing in the world. The waitresses had already wanted nothing to do with us before it happened because as six kids, we were loud; we took over the restaurant. The lecture my sister got in the car on the way home was just brutal.

And I've been on stage in restaurants and had food thrown at me. If you're going to buy food, not eat it, and throw it on stage, you must really hate the comic. If you just spent money on a nice piece of meat or something, and you're so compelled to throw it at the comedian, then wow.

Are we talking salads here? Tomatoes? Or have people thrown actual pieces of steak at you?
I've had countless ice cubes thrown at me; I've had beverages thrown at me; I've literally been hit by a tomato. They always say that it was a cherry tomato, not a huge tomato, but in the olden days, people would throw rotten tomatoes. I've been hit with a chicken bone. I've been doing this for 25 years; I've been hit with a lot of stuff on stage. Yeah, not good.

Is there any type of food you've discovered elsewhere that you wish you could get more of, or a better version, here on the East Coast?
Thai. I'm a big Thai food guy. When I'm out in LA, there's Thai food everywhere, Thai restaurants aplenty. And I know there are some in New York, especially, and I'm sure Boston, as a metro area, has more than some other places, but I'll be on the road in, like, Kansas, and I can't find Thai food to save my life. That is my new favorite cuisine; I just love Thai food.

When I'm on the road I try to eat semi-healthy; I don't eat at McDonald's or Burger King or Taco Bell or any of those places. But — and this will make you roll your eyes — at least at Subway or Chipotle, I can pick what's going in, see it made, and then I know what I'm consuming, and I feel better about myself. But when a corporation or someone hires me for a gig, they'll sometimes take me out to a nice place.

The best steak I've ever had in my life was at Peter Luger in New York — although I love The Capital Grille. Peter Luger is renowned and just ridiculous. We go a couple times a year, and it's just one of these great old places. They don't take credit cards, just cash. The waiters make a fortune, and they just seem like they're off the boat from Russia, like a week ago, because they hardly speak English. And they're surly. They kind of come over and tell you what you're going to get, and it's just amazing. And then they bring the steak to you on a platter, and they tilt it so all the grease goes to the bottom, and you're compelled to dip your meat in the grease; it's just horrible. You can feel your arteries closing while you're eating it, but God, it's so good — if you're a carnivore. And I am.

That sounds fantastic. Do you want to say something about your upcoming show?
I'm at the Wilbur Theatre on the 31st, New Year's Eve, and I'm there with my bride. We guarantee that people will laugh, even if we have to follow them home and tickle them. They will laugh that night. We will have a lot of fun. My wife's even funnier than I am. We love coming back to our roots; all my old Boston pals come out. I just love coming home.

Any parting food thoughts to share?
Buffalo wings. Since when do bison fly? And chicken fingers. When was the last time you saw a chicken sporting fingers? If chickens had fingers, they'd be hitchhiking. They wouldn't cross the road. Sorry. That's all I have. Those are my food jokes.

Cotter performs this Tuesday, December 31st, 2013, at 7:30pm at the Wilbur Theatre. Buy tickets and learn more here.
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