There aren’t many places like Delux Cafe in the South End anymore. Hell, there aren’t many places like it in Boston’s dining scene, period. As chain after chain and big restaurant group after big restaurant group chew up property (and drive up rents), it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small, independent operators to open — and then sustain — successful restaurant and bar businesses in this city.
In a neighborhood where a diner can drop $100 on lunch and where a drinker can spend more than $30 on two cocktails, Delux offers something Boston — and especially the South End — is sorely in need of: unpretentious food and cheap cans of Narragansett.
The space Delux occupies at 100 Chandler St. has been a bar for more than 50 years. Before Delux, it was Chez Joie; before Chez Joie, it was the Elbow Room; before the Elbow Room, it was Higgins Pub. Ownership has changed hands, the walls weren’t always covered with vinyl, and the kitchen wasn’t always turning out roasted half chickens, but for five decades it’s always been a space for locals to gather, have a cheap pint or two, and commiserate about whatever it is neighbors commiserate about.
The current owners, wife-and-husband duo Laura Hafner and Kyle Yanney, started out as neighborhood regulars.
“We were customers at Delux — we used to hang out there all the time,” Hafner told Eater. “We had our first date there, and the idea of it being sold and gutted was heartbreaking to us. So we bought the place.”
Along with making Delux her local, Hafner also worked at the restaurant — which was decidedly more of a bar than a restaurant in those days — once a week for 11 years before becoming its steward. She and her husband have watched as the neighborhood has changed around them. They’ve watched as friends have been priced out of their apartments — Hafner estimates that half of their neighbors have sold in the four years she and Yanney have been operating Delux. And all this means that they know exactly the kind of bar and restaurant they want to run.
“It’s a place where you can come and let your hair down,” said Hafner. “We attract an eclectic crowd, but we definitely have neighbors who come in to eat three or four times a week, too.”
Hafner and Yanney have their hands all over the restaurant. Hafner waits tables and bartends five nights a week, and Yanney takes care of all of the back-of-house operations.
“He’s a really mellow, quiet guy,” said Hafner of her partner. “He’s down in the basement doing all the prep work every day, making everything from scratch...I’m more of a front-of-the-house kind of person. I could burn toast; I’m more of a critic.”
At night, the diminutive kitchen adjacent the bar is managed by one cook, a man named Marco Mendoza who’s been there for 15 years. The space isn’t much bigger than a broom closet; there are surely many property owners living in South End brownstones who possess more space for their shoes than Mendoza has to turn out portions of impeccably roasted half chickens.
Sweeping menu changes are difficult to execute for restaurants with big production kitchens, and yet Delux pulls it off every six weeks. There are some constants — the half chicken, the burger, the quesadilla, the chips and salsa, and the grilled cheese, in some form, are always available — but if things stayed the same for too long, the regulars might get bored. And this is a bar and restaurant that exists, first and foremost, to serve its neighborhood.
If you’ve ever set foot in Delux, you’ll have noticed that it’s always decorated for Christmas (though like the menu, the lights change every couple months), and that the walls are lined with vintage albums. Delux’s former owner, Kevin Sheehan — with whom Hafner and Yanney are friends — defined the current look of Delux in the early-to-mid 1990s. The records were his idea. When he sold the space to his friends, he took his records. But Hafner and Yanney had some records of their own.
“We’re huge record collectors,” said Hafner. “We always had that in common with Kevin. Certain albums that he had on the wall, we owned too. So we put them in the exact same place. Like the Dwight Yoakam album.”
“I’m not sure if anyone ever noticed, though,” Hafner demurred.
The food changes to keep the neighbors fed well, and the Christmas lights change because Hafner likes a little variety. But unlike the rest of the South End, Delux doesn’t need to flip the record when side A finishes or change the record when side B finishes, content to listen to Dwight Yoakam over and over again.