The great debate comparing the restaurant scenes of Boston and this little town down south called New York City rages on with a contribution from The Regal Beagle chef Michael Navarrete. Navarrete has a foot in both worlds as he splits his time between the two cities, plus he's cooked in San Francisco, another locale that invariably enters the conversation, as in "Whah, whah, whah, San Francisco blah, blah blah!" Here's Navarrette's take on things.
For starters, describe the overall nature of the two cities as a restaurant cities. Obviously New York is New York. There's not a debate about whether or not it's the restaurant capital of the world: of course it is. But it's also the media capital of the world, the fashion capital of the world. You have what, ten million people there? [About eight million.] So obviously when you compare the two cities you have to take that into account. And when I look at the restaurant culture, yeah, sure, it has more good restaurants. It also has more streetlights, manhole covers and everything else.
But when I start to break things down and look at access to different restaurants, price points, even variety. It's easier for me to go out and get a meal in Boston a lot of times than it is in New York. If I want to get a decent piece of pizza in New York, I have to go 60 blocks and go across town from where we live. Here, I live in East Boston: I can walk five minutes to Santarpio's. And I think the whole thing where New York is a food mecca where every single restaurant is just this gem waiting to be discovered is just completely overblown. You look at Boston, and it just doesn't get the national media that New York gets.
So Boston maybe doesn't get the same recognition, but pound for pound is as good or better? Well, yeah. If you compare two boxers, you're not going to compare the punching power of a heavyweight fighter to the punching power of a welterweight fighter. You're not going to say, well, Mike Tyson punched harder than Sugar Ray Leonard so therefore he's a better boxer. It's what's in all their skill, the entire skill set. Who was faster, who had a better win-loss record, who fought better fighters. And when you start factoring in all those things - when you start comparing Boston to Denver or Houston or cities of comparable size - then it's a totally different conversation.
Boston has an embarrassment of riches in the food scene compared to a lot of cities this size. People are comparing us to Seattle; well, I can't really think of any nationally known Seattle chefs. If you say Boston doesn't have an Eric Ripert, neither does any other city in America. So that's not really a fair comparison. What he does he could do in probably three other cities in the world.
That being said, do you think there are any gaps or missing pieces in the Boston restaurant scene? I will say that New York is much more quick to embrace a new trend. It seems like you can open up a restaurant in New York that is considered new or experimental, and by experimental I don't mean experimental food, but for instance there's this place called Parm that does retro Italian-American food. It's cool, it's fun, it's in a trendy neighborhood. That I think you would have a hard time doing in Boston, because there's a limited population. There's only so many people every night going out to dinner. I think New York strictly on size, population size and the amount of people who are out on business or whatever every day, people are willing to take more changes. We eat out more in New York than here because our apartment in New York, I can take a shower, answer the front door and cook eggs all at the same time. It's tiny. People do eat out more because no one wants to cook in their apartment; it's the size of a shoebox.
But I think Boston embraces its homegrown talent really well, and I think the chef community is incredibly tight-knit. Everybody knows everybody and everybody eats at everybody else's restaurants, because we all want to support local people.
There's been some backlash against the tight-knit factor, that maybe it's a blessing and a curse because everybody's on the same page. Do you think that's an issue? Well I think what you're starting to see in Boston - and it's exciting - is the reintroduction of what New England or what Boston cookery is. You go to any region in America fifty years ago and they were serving regional food. If you went to a restaurant in Boston, probably even 25 years ago, you were probably going to get brown bread in your bread basket. And now the only place I can think of to get brown bread is in a supermarket in a can. Cities eventually develop their own style. You go to San Francisco, you know you're eating in a San Francisco restaurant. When you're in Rome you eat Roman food and when you're in Paris you eat Parisian food. I don't think reintroducing or rediscovering regional food is a bad thing. I think it's great. I think it reinforces Boston's identity.
Where else do you like to go in Boston? I think Hungry Mother is phenomenal. Oleana is a restaurant that you could put in any city anywhere in the world and it would rise to the top. Obviously Coppa, Toro, and then there are some hidden gems that Boston has that people kind of forget about. Meridian Market in East Boston does great Italian American food, some of the best I've ever had, and it's very rarely covered or written about. The great pizza debate: everyone seems to forget about Picco. Picco is serving some of the best pizza in the country. And Hamersley's. I'll always look to Hamersley's as being one of the greatest restaurants in the country.
In all fairness, where do you like to go in New York? Like I said, Parm I really like a lot. Cannibal is really great: it's like a butcher shop/bistro. I went there with some friends and everyone was talking about how great of concept that was, and at the time when I was there I was like yeah, this is awesome, I wish more people would do this. And then I get back home and realized, you know what, it is a great concept: Barbara Lynch did it like seven years ago [The Butcher Shop]. There's another one right around the corner from Cannibal called El Paso that I really like.
Any closing thoughts on Boston v. New York? It's like living in a really beautiful house that just happens to be next to a gargantuan mansion. The mansion may not be as nice, it may not be as comfortable, it may not be as well-appointed, but people are going to notice that first.
Right. Kansas City isn't constantly comparing itself to New York. Yeah, exactly. New York is kind of the big bully on the block that everyone in the Northeast has to deal with. Look at Philly; they're even closer. When was the last time you heard anyone say anything about Philly that wasn't Rocky related?