Back when the old Navy Yard was operational, Charlestown's Hayes Square was a bustling hub of people and businesses. But over these last few decades, the neighborhood — which is just minutes from the Bunker Hill Monument — has been quiet. Now, a new wave of development is slowly picking up, with a church on the way to becoming a pharmacy, health clinic, and concert hall, and with a restaurant, The Brewer's Fork, opening in a former dry cleaners space.
Michael Cooney (Kingfish Hall, The Publick House) and John Paine (Les Zygomates, Moody's Delicatessen), who met while they were both working at Sorriso, have been talking about opening a restaurant for five years. They finally found the perfect space and are working towards an October opening for The Brewer's Fork, which will feature a casual menu of pizzas and small plates, lots of craft beers, and eventually, a patio.
[We start by flipping through renderings, with Cooney pointing out various aspects of the restaurant's design.]
Michael Cooney: We got the oven up in Skowhegan, Maine. It's a pure wood-fired oven, no gas assist or anything, and that will be what John will be cooking out of — anything that comes out hot will be coming out of the wood-fired oven. [The oven is scheduled to arrive today, September 15.]
For the outside patio, we have an 11-foot glass garage door that's coming in. That will be our access door for seating outside, and it'll also let us get a lot of light in in the wintertime. The patio will be a typical kind of beer garden patio. We should have about 68 seats total, we're hoping, including the bar, the high-tops, and the dining room, with about 24 on the outside patio. All depending on the occupancy that they give us.
What's the neighborhood like?
MC: There are some good spots over here — some good restaurants, good bars — but there's not too much. We've had a good response from folks who live here in Hayes Square, obviously a very old area. It was super active when the Navy Yard was very active, and then as that closed, this area got a little quieter. There's a school here and a school there, and then St. Catherine's church is here — that's sold, and developers are turning that into North End Health Clinic, which is part of the Partners group, and they're going to have a pharmacy, and then plans are drawn for the second floor of the church to have a concert hall. That should be great; that will bring a lot of people down.
And then our landlords are the McCarthy brothers, who own the liquor store next door. It's the oldest active running business in Charlestown, 125 years this year. There's a lot of history around here. We're definitely going for that been-here-a-long-time look, hence the beams and the brick walls and that sort of stuff.
Did you set out to find a spot in Charlestown specifically, or did this just happen to fit what you wanted?
MC: We looked all over for a long time, many different areas. We were trying to find something almost exactly like this — kind of a standalone building, a place that could have a patio...
John Paine: An outdoor area definitely was a big part. Remember that place in Southie we saw? Looked like an old mechanic's garage. That place would have been perfect, but they were tearing it down and building a 30-story building or something.
MC: Where we used to work, we had a lot of guys and gals that lived in Charlestown, and they'd always say, Check out Charlestown. There's nothing over there; we really could use you. I think it was actually on Craigslist that we saw this. John and I drove over, and it was a beat-up old dry cleaners. We thought it could be cool.
How long has this been in the works?
JP: How long have we been looking...five years?
MC: Probably. Trying to find a space that's so ugly only we'd love it.
JP: We'd just always talked. When you work together, it's how you meet your friends, my wife — those are the people you're around all the time. We had very congruent ideas of what we wanted, what we liked, what we thought was important, the way of running things, especially the way you treat employees and what you expect of employees and how you take care of customers, so that's really how we got together. We're complete opposites in every way.
The things that Michael's good at — everybody knows Michael, and I'm not good at that. I can go to Eastern Standard, and nobody would know who I am. But I'm good at the stuff Michael's not good at, so we kind of make a good pair that way. I think Michael's more of a dreamer and wants, you know, the $300 bar stools, and I'm like, No no no no no, we've gotta find some $10 bar stools. It's good because it's a lot of back and forth, and there's never any animosity. It's just a good balance where you push and pull against each other until you find the happy medium, and it seems to work out really well.
MC: So far, so good, really. It's worked out.
What can people expect to see on the menu?
MC: On the bar side, we're going to have 30 lines of all craft beer and a selection of bottled beer, and we'll definitely be doing a barrel-aging program. We have a pretty big basement downstairs, so we'll have good space for wine and beer to get creative with that sort of stuff. My wife will be helping out with the wine program; she works at Neptune. She knows her wine real well. She's going to do kind of a crafty wine selection, stuff you might not see on typical menus, some fun stuff there. And our license also allows for cordials. We'll plan to do brunch on Saturday and Sunday, so we'll do some fun creative cocktail stuff there. That's pretty much the beverage program as we see it. And then on the food side…
JP: We're going to have that huge wood-fired oven back there, and that's it. No fryolater, no grill, no saute — everything's going to be in there. It's going to be a combination of pizzas and small plates. We're not doing anything Italian or Neapolitan; we'll do something a little more rustic New England. I'm talking to somebody about getting flour from Western Massachusetts. I've got a friend up in New Hampshire who grows 100,000 pounds of organic heirloom tomatoes a year, so we're going to talk about getting those tomatoes for the sauce. It's going to be pretty much an ingredient-driven menu — I think my food's much better when I figure out what I have and make something out of that as opposed to coming up with a menu and trying to shoehorn everything into that menu.
There'll be a combination of cold things, raw things, and things that are roasted in the oven. I was just talking to Pat Woodbury down in Wellfleet the other day, and we'll probably do a cast iron pan, throw a bunch of Pat's clams in there, with some beer or wine or something, roast them in the oven — pretty simple stuff. We may do a few bigger plates, more of a typical entree size, but I think the main focus will be more on the pizza — a long fermentation for the dough — and those small plates. It'll be a good, fun place; you can come in and eat a lot of different things, and it should be reasonably priced and just a cool spot to go.
Did you know from the start that you wanted an oven like that, or how did you come across that particular oven?
JP: We researched a lot of ovens, and that just seemed to be kind of the cream of the crop, hence its price. Really expensive. It's going to be the main piece; it's the only thing we're using. We kind of felt when we pulled the trigger on it that it was worth the extra money, and we like the fact that it's mostly — except for the stones — constructed fairly locally. It's not something imported from Italy, not that there's anything wrong with that. it's just we're kind of hoping to do something a little more local.
What kind of a timeline are you looking at?
JP: We're really close. We have all sorts of gigantic flaming hoops that the city of Boston has made us jump through. We're finishing up sprinklers, which includes all sorts of ancillary parts on the outside of the building which cost a small fortune. They're going to finish doing a line for the sprinkler system out to the street; they'll start digging for that soon.
MC: Once the excavation starts, things should move forward fast, hopefully. That's why when people ask, we say October, and they're like, October 1? Nope...just one day in October. We tried hard to avoid [announcing a date], but once the word spreads, people in the industry know you're doing something.
Is there anything that has really surprised you about the process of opening a restaurant?
MC: In a good way, how helpful a lot of people have been. Everything from folks at City Hall to neighborhood people. We've spent a long time talking about it and trying to plan it and drawing up menus and doing different stuff, but to see a lot of the folks in the neighborhood that are just as — if not more — excited than we are to have a space that they are hoping is going to be fun and cool and good, that was surprising (in a good way).
JP: Yeah, I was surprised that we haven't had a single person who was a naysayer. I figured there's always someone who will say, Oh, this isn't a good neighborhood; there's no foot traffic. But everything I've heard has been positive. And dealing with the city, the people have been really helpful.
MC: The people have been great. The process with the city is what's so ass-backwards. But the people have been really helpful on many different levels.
The space is looking really cool already. It'll be interesting to see it all finished up.
JP: This was all wainscoting when we came in here, and we were thinking about keeping it, but it was really beat up, and we just took it all down. We didn't know this [brick wall made of giant bricks] was underneath. And we have the brick over there. Brick's always awesome.
MC: For us, it's important to have a history, a story about why we chose this place. With the oldest continuous running business right next door to us, it's great to be able to keep that old aesthetic.
JP: Obviously once the Navy Yard closed everything died down over here, but maybe it's coming back a little bit, especially with the church being sold.
MC: We're hoping to be kind of the cornerstone here in Hayes Square.
JP: It's going to make this area better. More people, more life going on down here, make it safer. It's just a cool little area. You get all that green from the park, and when you're going to sit outside in the beer garden, you've got two iconic Boston landmarks — the Tobin Bridge and the Bunker Hill Monument. It's like you're just sitting there under the Tobin Bridge, totally cool. Live music, good brunch — we just want to have a fun atmosphere, where it feels like a party or something.
MC: Hopefully people can feel comfortable and relaxed here. Those are the places we like to go — Toro, Neptune — good food, fun atmosphere, nothing really too pretentious about it. It is what it is. Good, educated staff. Great food and great beverages.