Is Boston Experiencing a Restaurant Bubble?

I imagine there are people who might want me shot on sight for even asking that question. Certainly several folks would snort “Blasphemy!” and turn their backs to deride me to their dining companions. Even I think the idea is worthy of a skeptical “Perish the thought!” After all where do I spend all my social time? Where do all my friends work? Yet, I think it’s naive not to ask the question.

I’m not an economist. I’m not sure I could explain to someone what an economic bubble is. And it is possible that any restaurant is such a fragile enterprise that it is a bubble all by itself, regardless of the economic climate. Still, the general principle of a ‘bubble’ seems to be a market enterprise (and in our hypermedia driven world a trend and fame enterprise as well) that increases in popularity/market share so fast and so broadly that its user base cannot support it. Return on investment cannot be met, and a severe and sudden contraction occurs. Something like putting all the proverbial eggs in one basket. When some clumsy kid drops the basket, many many of the eggs break.

Why would I think this is happening in Boston? Curiously, it started with voting for the James Beard Awards.

I am capable of blind fanatical support, but I also care a lot about what’s happening in all those ‘houses’ I love so much. So I took my ballot seriously and took some time with it. I read the qualifications for each category in which I nominated someone and that was where I started to see a trend. I would think of someone or someplace fabulous to nominate and would find out either A) that x-place had not been around long enough yet, or B) x-place/person won that award 10 years ago. This little observational sample is hardly exhaustive but it would seem we have an incredible group of ‘young lions’ on the restaurant scene in Boston and some venerable giants. We haven’t much in the way of that awesome, consistent, sleeper restaurant that’s been open for 8 years.

Okay fine, both giants and awesome consistent sleepers come from young lions. But none of these new places will grow into those other categories if the market is constantly jumping up and down and yelling “Hey look over here!” It’s a butts-in-seats vs. operating costs issue. And if we keep making new restaurants but we’re not making new people to come into them, sooner or later there is going to be a contraction.

It’s not the end of the world. And, it may actually be the all-the-time status of the restaurant industry, only now we have a catchy label for it. Further, I actually think there’s no solution. To get a little ‘Disney Ending’ for a moment, I think the restaurant industry is one of the last bastions of the motivated dreamer. Sure, like every other market sector there are plenty of corporate players, but there are still more of the determined idealists opening corner vegan hookah pubs even if they only last a few months.

So why bring it up? Because I’m going to miss my favorite upstart when it closes. Because I get attached. Because I like good things to last. Because all the new restaurants seed more and more food bloggers and food opinionists and what happens to us when that house of cards collapses?

In June I sat next to Servio Garcia, the co-owner and GM of Bergamot. I told him about my friends who were opening a restaurant in Union Square (Casa B, opened 12/15). He offered, not only his own wisdom, but optimism and inclusivity. He assured me that the cake was big enough for all comers. I think about that conversation a lot as I watch a constant stream of ‘new’ and ‘best new’ and ‘new favorite’ arrive. It’s like living in the pilot of a reality tv show. Who’s going to make it?

So what should you do? Vote for the James Beard Awards. It actually is fun (Just don’t take it as seriously as I did). And here on your home turf, by all means give the newcomers a fair shot, but vote with your dollars for, not only your favorite places, but the places that are truly good –to your person and your palate. There are some solid young ‘uns on the Boston scene and I’d like to see them grow up into venerable giants (or at least awesome, consistent, sleepers), wouldn’t you?




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