"I’ve been working here for 10 years," he says, grinning as he spins to grab a small glass of orange juice before heading to a table. Shaina, another server who is also in charge of the wait list outside, yells over the noise of the dining room as she enters the servers station. "It’s crazy isn’t it?" This is Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery, and Sunday morning is their busiest breakfast service of the week.
Although it’s surrounded by new restaurants, new residents, and (supposedly) a forthcoming MBTA stop, Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery is decidedly old-school. It’s cash only, the specials are handwritten, the dishes are homemade and simple. Eating here feels like having breakfast in a family’s home partly because of the size of the dining room and partly because it’s decorated with family pictures. The pictures are of the Borges family, who opened this restaurant in 1983 and have been operating it ever since.
"If someone had never been here before, I would say that it’s just a simple mom-and-pop restaurant, and we want you to be comfortable and never mistreated," says Sheila Borges. Sheila’s father and brother opened this restaurant together, and after they passed away, Sheila took over managing the business. She’s in a lot of the black-and-white pictures hanging in the dining room, and on weekdays you can find her here, running bowls of cream of wheat and cups of coffee to tables.
"We want people to leave full," she laughs. She’s not kidding. Neighborhood Restaurant is known for serving large portions in addition to the delicious cream of wheat or seasonal fruit, orange juice, and coffee that are included with each meal. It’s an extension of her father’s commitment to providing guests with a lot of food at a good value, which "is a cultural thing," Sheila says. Her father moved to the United States from Portugal, where meals are robust. "When you sit down in a Portuguese family, you eat, eat, eat," she says.
Her family’s Portuguese background is found in some of the dishes as well. The Portuguese breakfast plate comes with blood sausage and cod cakes, and many of the egg dishes come with a choice of bacon or linguiça, a Portuguese smoked pork sausage.
The dish that gets the most attention is the cream of wheat that comes with each meal. "We all make it," she says, pointing to her staff. "We have to refill a five-gallon container of it about three or four times every day." That’s 15 to 20 gallons of cream of wheat every single day. "Triple that amount during the summer when the patio is open," she adds. Every meal also comes with homemade wheat, white, or sweet bread, which is also made in-house. Her father and brother originally opened Neighborhood Restaurant as a Portuguese bakery but realized they could do more with the space. "So, they started making eggs too and became a restaurant," Sheila explains. "That’s why ‘bakery’ is in the name."
One of the most striking things about Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery is the fact that they give so much away at no extra cost to the diner. Who would fault them if they charged a 50-cent cream of wheat up-charge or one dollar for coffee? It’s not about that, Sheila says. "It’s not about greed or money; it’s about family and pride." Every Saturday and Sunday, the staff puts free coffee outside of the restaurant for diners to drink while they wait to be seated. She says the idea of giving comes from her brother Mario, who was always giving to other people. The city of Somerville gave the name "Mario Borges Square" to the corner of Union Square where Neighborhood is located because "he was always helping people." Mario Borges’ son is the restaurant’s current head chef.
This 40-ish seat dining room will easily see 200 people for Sunday breakfast service, and the six-person staff moves at lightning speed, delivering dishes to tables and setting up tables for parties waiting to be seated. In the basement kitchen, a four-person crew works to cook every breakfast order. Sheila hopes the restaurant is still doing the same thing, in the same building, 20 years from now. "I just hope we’re still here doing what we do and people keep coming," she says looking out the window at Union Square.