Tanám, a pioneering Filipinx American restaurant in Somerville’s Bow Market, will serve its last meal January 14.
Chef and owner Ellie Tiglao announced the closure on Instagram at the start of the new year. The restaurant — which, when it launched in 2019, hinged on shared dinners combined with storytelling in a small, communal space — had to upend its entire business model when the pandemic hit. Operational issues compounded over the past three years, from loss of customers to staff shortages, burnout, and the soaring cost of goods, and Tanám was never able to fully recover.
“Tanám’s heart was always the narrative (a way of presenting coursed storytelling through food and beverage), and climbing out of these challenges made it hard to get back to what excited all of us most about what was possible at Tanám,” Tiglao says.
Filipinx restaurants in and around Boston are rare, and Tanám was hailed nationally as a trailblazer for putting a wider spotlight on the cuisine in the city. Tiglao first started Tanám as a pop-up series nine years ago, bringing customers together around rare-in-Boston dishes like tidtad, made with seared sweetbreads and blood curd, from the Philippine province of Pampanga.
The restaurant moved into Bow Market in January 2019, debuting a prix fixe menu where customers and staff gathered around a communal table and participated in a story-filled kamayan, or Filipinx feast eaten by hand. Tiglao also used the restaurant to challenge the brutal status quo of front-of-house and back-of-house operations, including low staff wages and poor treatment. Staff mingled and sat with customers, sharing stories and talking about the food as each course was presented, in what Tiglao called a narrative style of dining that aimed to equalize the power dynamics between employees and customers. Tiglao also ran Tanám as a worker cooperative, offering employees the option to become part-owners after an extensive training process.
It was immediately met with critical acclaim. Tanám was Eater Boston’s best new restaurant of the year in 2019. It also received a positive two-and-a-half star review from Boston Globe restaurant critic Devra First, who grappled in the review with how it felt reductive to assign stars to a restaurant that was doing much more than putting forth an “exhilarating” meal, including questioning accepted standards about how customers and staff act towards each other in a restaurant.
Tanám went on to be nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for best new restaurant in America in 2020. (The awards ceremony was canceled that year.) In 2022, Tanám was invited to cook at the James Beard awards ceremony in Chicago; the team put together a meal centered around ‘What is Filipinx American?’
“I believe Tanám used its megaphone effectively to question business as usual and brought a sense of humanity and connection that wasn’t offered in other spaces,” Tiglao says. “We sought out opportunities to elevate the voices of people who are not usually heard. By beginning the conversation, I believe Tanám should be considered a success.”
As Tanám winds down, Tiglao hopes that both diners and restaurant operators will find something to take away from Tanám’s trailblazing run. She hopes that more restaurant owners and managers will do away with inconsistent, last-minute scheduling practices that foster job insecurity, and build relationships with staff that celebrate their interests and strengths “outside of what they were hired to do,” Tiglao says.
Diners are equally responsible for the way that restaurants are run, according to Tiglao. She encourages customers to engage with staffers while dining out, like sharing their own names when servers say theirs at the start of a meal. The bar is an especially comfortable place to start conversations with staff, she says. The action brings more respect to the customer-staff relationship, instead of diminishing one person in favor of another. Tiglao suggests this could impact how negative conversations happen; i.e., customers speaking to, not berating, a staffer when they have concerns about their experience, or choosing to initiate a conversation first before leaving a negative review.
Money talks, too. Choosing to support restaurant operators who are open to talking about staff wages and treatment — and who are bringing something new to Boston’s dining scene — will create more of the same, Tiglao says. “Consider the places you see invested in the craft of food and beverage. Seek out independent operators who don’t have a restaurant group breathing down their neck to create more profit. I believe those places will be more invested in running their businesses in a more sustainable way.”
That includes Boston’s own small but growing Filipinx food scene, including Aldrin Agas of Kuya’s Cooking, Filipinx-inspired ice cream from Rowena Sy-Santos, and Jeffrey Almendras of Johnny Boy Eats, who have all participated in Tanám’s biennial Piyesta Pinoy, an outdoor pig roast at Bow Market. Other local Filipinx food businesses to support include Foodega, Adobo Republic, and Bright Light, according to Tiglao.
The chef has no immediate plans for her own next act. For now, she’ll be focused on completing the restaurant’s last week of service. Customers can order to-go kamayan boxes or do private indoor dining with advanced reservation only. Walk-ins won’t be accepted.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Tiglao says. “It’s an active, uncomfortable process. It is messy. There are lots of learnings to take from Tanám’s time open, but ‘it doesn’t work’ is stagnation, regression, a lack of imagination. Take what works for you, and leave the rest.”