True Bistro, a pioneering, award-winning vegan restaurant known for treating vegetables with a level of care and reverence comparable to beef in a high-end steakhouse, is shutting down after service on August 27. The restaurant announced the closure on Instagram, citing “skyrocketing” costs of labor and ingredient price increases as the reasons for the shutdown. “We just can’t see any way forward at this point,” the Instagram message reads.
The news was a shock to the restaurant’s fervent fanbase. Many people mourned the abrupt loss in the comments section on the post, struggling to square the news with the fact that the restaurant had just won a prestigious Best of Boston award for best vegan restaurant in the city earlier this summer. “What!?” one commenter wrote. “You got rated best vegan restaurant! Please reconsider — we love you so much.”
According to co-owner Linda Harrison, the restaurant had reached a financial breaking point. From the restaurant’s inception in 2010 through 2019, True Bistro had increased its sales every single year. “We were on a good trajectory,” Harrison says. “There was no reason to think that we wouldn’t just be going forward the way that we had been the last 10 years.”
Then, the pandemic hit. The ensuing dining room shutdowns were crippling for every restaurant in the city, but True Bistro didn’t make money off of takeout and delivery, either. “The food doesn’t travel well,” Harrison says.
As dining rooms opened back up, neither sales nor operational costs went back to pre-pandemic levels. The jaw-dropping increases in the cost of food and rising staff wages became extremely difficult to afford, and, simultaneously, True Bistro’s sales were down because not as many customers were visiting the restaurant. “I have no idea if other non-vegan upscale restaurants in Boston are struggling too,” Harrison says. “But it seems like people are just not looking for that type of [fine-dining] experience anymore.”
When True Bistro had gone through rough financial patches before, Harrison, an architect, had funneled her own money into the restaurant to keep it afloat. But she retired in May from her architecture career, she says, and it became too risky to keep funneling her savings into the restaurant.
The other option would have been to raise menu prices; but, in order to just break even, Harrison says that the restaurant would have had to raise menu prices across the board by 25 percent. On the current menu, a watermelon with smoked feta salad would have gone from $14 to $17.50; the fire-roasted pepper ravioli with corn would have gone from $25 to $31.25. Harrison worried that a price increase of that magnitude would alienate much of their loyal customer base, so ownership decided instead to close the restaurant.
Harrison and her husband, co-owner Michael Harrison, first launched True Bistro in 2010 to fill a gap in the city’s dining scene. The couple wondered why every other major city in the country seemingly had at least one fine-dining vegan destination, while Boston didn’t. For 13 years, under the guidance of chef and partner Stuart Reiter, the white-tablecloth restaurant served upscale dishes like crispy oyster mushrooms in guajillo chile sauce with a horseradish-dill aioli, and a popular Thai red curry with rice cakes. While other well-liked, vegan-friendly restaurants existed like Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge and Red Lentil in Watertown, True Bistro carved a different path as Boston’s fancy vegan destination, akin to famed vegetarian and vegan tasting menu spot Dirt Candy in New York City.
Boston’s dining community is already feeling the loss of the restaurant. In the wake of the closure announcement, True Bistro was so inundated with reservation requests that it has since stopped taking new reservations while it works through existing table bookings. “I think we had a good run,” Harrison says.