Tiffani Faison knows the question that popped into many peoples’ minds when news broke that she’d close her beloved Fenway restaurant, Tiger Mama, at the end of October. Just where’s the disco elephant statue by the host stand going?
“Oh my god, I got so many emails about that,” Faison laughs, sitting at the bar of another of her Fenway venues, Fool’s Errand, days before Tiger Mama’s final service. “Someone from Maine reached out and was like, ‘We will adopt her and give her a home and a new name.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think she’s a country girl. She’s gonna stay with me.’ She might find a way into the next restaurant, but she’s not going anywhere. She might live in my tiny apartment for a bit.”
Really, though, the closure of the popular restaurant after a six-year run did come as a surprise. Sure, the James Beard-nominated chef is bringing a new restaurant to the space next year, and Boylston Street is still home to her other restaurants under Big Heart Hospitality: homey barbecue spot Sweet Cheeks Q, upscale Italian restaurant Orfano, and the snug Fool’s Errand snack bar. Then there are three spots on the way in High Street Place when the long-delayed downtown Boston food hall opens in March 2022. But people seemed to take this closure personally, posting tributes on Instagram during the completely booked final week of service and sending Faison I just heard the news-type condolences.
“It’s put me in a really grateful space,” she says of the outreach. “And also this space of knowing what the next incarnation is and being like, do we need to tweak it?” There may be “whispers” of Tiger in the space’s next form, she says. “I have a very specific idea of what [the new restaurant] should be, and it’s like ‘Well, can we make some space for this?’”
For now, Faison is keeping mum on plans for her new project but reiterates that closing Tiger Mama wasn’t due to one monolithic factor. “There’s no one reason, but for me it’s just turning a page on a specific time in my life,” she says.
Beside personal changes, she’s seen shifts in the neighborhood, both throughout the pandemic and in the years since she opened her first restaurant, Sweet Cheeks, which is celebrating its 10th birthday this month. In Sweet Cheeks’ early days, Faison parked her Subaru where the Pierce Boston luxury apartments now stand — back in the pre-high-rise days when it had been an eyesore building with a D’Angelo’s, a parking lot, and a dumpster. “I remember someone coming out and being like, ‘Chef, the dumpster’s on fire next to your car.’ So it was a literal dumpster fire.”
Jokes aside, Fenway isn’t what it used to be. “It’s changed in good ways and bad ways. Like, we’ve lost [gay nightclub] Machine. I would love to see us have a gay bar that functions all the time. I would love to see us have a queer space, because it was so driven by that for so long — like the Fens and Machine, and there were other spaces here — and to lose that entirely it’s really sad,” she says. “This was an arts community. It was queer. It was a really affordable place to live. We have that first part still, but the other two not so much.”
Certainly, her restaurants helped draw new audiences to Fenway, and she’s thankful that there are tons more people living and working in the area. The increased bustle had her thinking, for a while, that the neighborhood could even flourish separately from Fenway Park, but a year-and-a-half absence of sports fans during the pandemic proved a cold wake-up call. “We saw that is 100 percent not the case,” she says with a laugh. “When we took the baseball crowds away during lockdown, we watched that completely change the game for us financially.”
What hasn’t changed much in 10 years, though, is the Sweet Cheeks menu, “creative to a point but ... really about consistency,” Faison says, in contrast to what she says she was doing prior: “I was this very sort of ‘look at me, look at me’ chef; look at all the food I can make and how incredible it is and how creative I am. Sweet Cheeks was this moment that taught me that it was not about me at all.”
Beside stalwart Sweet Cheeks, though, her other spots are getting a revamp. Orfano opened just six months before the pandemic, hibernated for a while, and then briefly reopened with a more laidback feel this past summer before temporarily closing again. Ahead of Orfano’s planned November 19 reopening, Faison and her team are tinkering with the menu — adding a few new dishes, switching up the pasta program a bit, and returning Orfano to its refined roots, complete with a martini cart. Brunch is on the way, eventually, though the focus now is on a strong reopening.
Snack bar Fool’s Errand opened in summer 2018 and, during the pandemic, pivoted to private dining and pop-up events like wine and sweets shops, demos, and queer bar nights. Faison says she plans to keep the space “flexible,” noting that it keeps things fun.
And fun is something Faison’s restaurants embrace, from the “sneaky chile mayo” in Tiger Mama’s irresistible Le Tigre fried rice to the giant portrait of Lady Gaga slurping spaghetti in Orfano. “We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” she says. Faison’s team is infusing these elements of playfulness throughout her forthcoming High Street Place ventures: Tenderoni’s, Dive Bar, and the recently announced Bubble Bath.
Tenderoni’s is a kitchen-meets-kitsch spin on late ’70s and ’80s pizza and grinder shops. She and the team have been heading to High Street every few months to test recipes and have landed on a crust she describes as “a mashup between Pizza Hut and a really great more Sicilian-style crust.” The pies are cooked in 3-foot-long rectangular pans so each slice sports a burnt-cheese spotted crust. The vibe will be casual, where diners can feel relaxed enough to hunker down with a grinder at the Ms. Pac-Man machine.
Faison says that Dive Bar, meanwhile, will focus on “things I love from the South and things I love from the North, and I don’t want to put too fine of a point on that,” she says, adding that diners can expect a raw bar and her take on a classic lobster roll, among other options.
At the mention of Bubble Bath, she effervesces. “It’s gorgeous,” she says. The Champagne-focused wine bar, with a Moët & Chandon Champagne vending machine and lockers available for wine and spirit storage, will serve a rotating selection of popcorn and hot dogs. The Champagnes and white wines are iced in “literally a child’s baptismal that I found in an antique shop,” Faison says. “We’re either gonna all burn in hell, or it’s gonna work out. There’s no in-between.”
It’d be easy to think that Bubble Bath was inspired by this almost-celebratory time we’re in now that the vaccine is widely available and more people are going to restaurants again. Faison, however, had actually been walking through the forthcoming restaurant back in March 2020 ahead of the food hall’s original planned opening, when everyone realized things weren’t going back to normal any time soon. Even now as the world opens back up, Faison, like every restaurant owner, is still navigating the delays and demands of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including staffing and supply chain issues.
But now she’s going out more after many months bouncing mostly between work and home. She’s hitting up places like Peach Garden, Sarma, Ilona, and Saltie Girl again, and Tawakal Halal Cafe when she’s in East Boston by the airport — because beside opening four restaurants at once, she also flies down to Knoxville for a couple of weeks at a time to join the judging panel for the Food Network series Chopped. Slowly, things are looking up, and it might just be time to break out the bubbly.
“Champagne feels really indulgent, but it also feels really celebratory, so I think being able to come down to High Street Place when that area populates itself again will feel naturally jubilant,” she says. “Like we’re through this in some way. I hope we experience that with our guests. I have every confidence that we will.”