Opening one restaurant and having that restaurant become a success is difficult business. Opening multiple restaurants and having all of those restaurants become successes is harder still. But that’s exactly what the people behind State Park, Mamaleh’s, and Café du Pays — including co-owners John Kessen, Rachel Miller Munzer, Alon Munzer, Heather Mojer, Tyler Sundet, Rachel Sundet, and Evan Harrison — have managed to do.
If on paper, Mamaleh’s and State Park were as close to sure things as there are in the restaurant world — Who doesn’t like exceptional Jewish deli and a bar with a deep juke box, a pool table, and shuffleboard, after all? — then Café du Pays might have been less manifestly appealing. French-Canadian-inspired, homestyle cooking? In Cambridge?
Café du Pays also faced another challenge: It would have to live up to, and inevitably be compared with, the group’s original restaurant, the bygone and beloved Hungry Mother, which previously occupied Café du Pays’s space on Cardinal Medeiros Avenue.
I sat down with Kessen, Mojer, and chef Dan Amighi (formerly of La Brasa and Little Big Diner) and asked them about the impetus behind creating a French-Canadian restaurant. Much of it stems from Mojer’s roots in western Massachusetts. She grew up in Southbridge, a mill town that, like many in New England, saw an influx of French-Canadian labor in the latter half of the 19th century. Mojer and team wanted to take influence from that history but wanted to do so with a distinctly New England touch.
“We’re not pretending to be in Quebec or in Montreal,” says Mojer. “We’re believing in and living an experience where we’re here in Massachusetts with descendants of French Canada. That is our authenticity.”
“There are a lot of French Canadians who I joke have been living among us in secret for years,” says Kessen. “They are coming out of the woodwork, and they’re coming here and are excited to see these dishes.”
If you ever ate at Hungry Mother, the space won’t be unrecognizable — it’s still intimate and comfortable, and patrons can still see into the kitchen from the lower dining room. The paneling on the walls — and the bar, which has moved upstairs — is all crafted with wood the partners found at Nor’East Salvage in South Hampton, New Hampshire, and it gives the space its distinct homey feel. This all works to complement the kind of food they’re doing at Café du Pays.
“French-Canadian cooking is a home food,” says Mojer. “You can’t pay money for this food because it’s not available to be sold. You have to be in the home to try it.”
Café du Pays is quickly becoming a staple of the Kendall Square dining scene, but there was a time when its owners were unsure it would happen at all. After Hungry Mother shuttered on July 3, 2015, the group had exactly two years to open a new restaurant in the space; otherwise, they would have lost their commercial zoning license. During that same time period, they were also working to open Mamaleh’s. And inside the quirky corner space that would become Café du Pays, there were accessibility issues that needed to be addressed, and there was the whole issue of distinguishing the forthcoming restaurant from Hungry Mother.
“Hungry Mother was a beloved place for lots of people, both guests and employees,” says Kessen. “We set ourselves up for really high expectations. It’s different enough — we changed things enough in the interior — that it feels like a different space. It’s less restaurant-like and more home-feeling, which is part of its uniqueness and part of the thing we really love about the space in both iterations.”
“That experience is so important to your dining experience,” continues Kessen. “It’s not just the food, or just the drinks, or just the service. It’s everything that encompasses it. That’s how it was at Hungry Mother, and that’s what we’re striving for in this space.”
The space has evolved a lot over the years; it was built back in 1900. Before it was Hungry Mother, it was Kendall Cafe. Years before it was Kendall Cafe, it was a private club and bar frequented by factory workers who’d come in for a pint after their shifts had ended. It might have also once been a speakeasy.
“One summer a man came into Hungry Mother — a 75-year-old man — and he said, ‘My father owned this bar in the 1930s, and there was a trap door in the kitchen. Is that trap door still there?’ And I said, ‘No,’ and it looked like an eight year-old boy just sunk in disappointment,” says Kessen. “A bar in the 1930s with a trap door was a speakeasy. We would never have known that, and it’s so cool it has that history.”
And before the second floor dining room was a dining room or a bar or a club, it was a residence. No wonder it feels like one is seated at mémère’s dining room table while eating at Café du Pays, then.
Amighi is excited about Café du Pays’s sourcing, which he calls a labor of love.
“We look for the nicest things we can buy and the things we feel really good about,” he says. “That’s how it goes here.”
There are specials, and they’re dictated by whatever Amighi’s sources have available at a given time.
“Someone will call me up and say, ‘Hey, I have this. Do you want this?’ And it’s like, sure, absolutely I want that. And we have a couple of things that are made to change as time passes. Right now we have smelt on, but that’s just because there are tons of smelt coming out of Canada, and we can drop them in the fryer and they taste really nice. And the catch of the day is always changing because, you know, we’re in Boston, and we have access to fish that people all over the world are trying to use. Why just say, ‘We’re only going to serve halibut’? We can just wait and see what our sources have and serve really nice things all the time.”
There are also menu items at Café du Pays that are constants but that evolve with the seasons.
“The pea soup is one of my favorites,” says Kessen. “That’s one that changes throughout the year. It’s brothier in the summer and richer when it gets colder. And that’s really fun. There are a handful of dishes that are really classically French-Canadian, and that’s definitely one of them.”
The wine list at Café du Pays is a mix of French wines and wines from New England. And the wine doesn’t stop in the glass — at one point, the restaurant served a pig that Amighi’s friend had raised in Bethel, Vermont, that had been fed on the pomace of wine from La Garagista vineyards in Vermont. The pig was, of course, paired with wine from La Garagista.
A diner might need a reservation for dinner during peak hours at Café du Pays, but the bar is always first come, first served. And after dinner service ends around 10 p.m., the restaurant does poutine and bar service until midnight. Late-night boozing and poutine equal a recipe for success anywhere on planet earth.
Five months in, Café du Pays is still figuring itself out, and being in Hungry Mother’s old space means it’s got some big shoes to fill. But up to this point, it’s done a fine job.
Café du Pays is the Eater Boston Restaurant of the Year for 2017, and this story is part of a series of features on each of the 2017 winners. Read the rest here: