BY TARA TAFT
Waitstaff surround our table, presenting dishes and clearing them with grace. The dinner is plated beautifully, the food fresh and expertly prepared. The setting: a mansion on a cliff in Beverly overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The restaurant: La Chanterelle, owned by Endicott College and run by its culinary arts students at the Misselwood Estate.
The restaurant is not visible from the street. There is no big sign. I had never heard of the restaurant before but discovered La Chanterelle when I attended a special event at Misselwood Estate.
I was curious. What other hidden restaurants are there in the Greater Boston area? And if they are truly hidden, how do I find them? I began asking friends and acquaintances if they knew of any “hidden restaurants.” I stumbled upon websites and blogs that tout their own discoveries of hidden restaurants, and I asked myself: What makes a restaurant hidden? If a restaurant is on Yelp or Trip Advisor, is it really hidden?
As I researched, my definition of “hidden” expanded and morphed. I discovered restaurants hidden behind high school walls, in museums, college dining halls, malls, breweries, fish markets, farmers markets and even in a prison. I discovered popups and speakeasies, instructional kitchens and restaurants hidden in plain sight. They’re easy to find—if you know where to look.
For the next year, I will be exploring the Greater Boston area, including Worcester, looking for hidden restaurants. Some will be more well known than others, some will be more hidden than others, but for Edible Boston readers, all will be local and serve local food, at least in some form or another.
MY DEFINITION Hidden restaurant: An out of sight, not readily apparent, or concealed business establishment selling local and seasonal meals or refreshments.
PART 1: HIDDEN RESTAURANTS IN SCHOOLS All around the Greater Boston and Worcester area, teenagers wearing chef hats and aprons plan, prep, cook, plate and serve meals to the public, creatively and inexpensively. They are learning the trade of culinary arts, and they are practicing their trade on whomever is interested in dining in a restaurant hidden on a school campus.
On my quest for hidden restaurants in schools, I searched for those school restaurants which source local food, at least in some way. There are over 75 technical or vocational high schools in Massachusetts, about 35 of them in the five counties around Boston that Edible Boston covers; many have restaurants open to the public. There are community colleges as well with their own culinary arts programs and operating restaurants, but for this article I focused on high schools. I found locally sourced food at high school restaurants in Danvers, Fitchburg, Framingham, Marlborough and Somerville.
MOUNTAIN ROOM RESTAURANT,
MONTACHUSETT REGIONAL VOCATIONAL SCHOOL, FITCHBURG
It’s a Tuesday at noon and most of the Mountain Room Restaurant’s tables are full. The restaurant serves 105 to 110 diners regularly, but on this sunny day in May, the students will serve 118 diners in the one and a half hours they are open. Forty of those diners, including me, will choose one of today’s specials: a seafood risotto .
The creamy risotto is topped with sautéed and tender sea scallops, shrimp, baby clams and lobster, fresh peas and pea tendrils, and drizzled with parsley oil, all made by the students. My daughter, who accompanies me on this adventure, chooses the cauliflower salad made with lettuce, steamed cauliflower, feta cheese and fresh salsa. The price for the seafood risotto is $10.95; the salad is $5.95. Other choices on the menu include steak, pasta and a panino. Desserts include a strawberry rhubarb tart, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse and carrot cake in addition to the brownies and pastries available to take home.
“We’re pretty fussy about the food we buy because we’re training students,” says Mike Banks, chef and cooking instructor for Montachusett Regional Vocational School (aka Monty Tech)’s culinary arts program. Banks buys the restaurant’s eggs from Johnson and Sons Poultry Farm in Westminster, its milk from Sunny Knolls Farm in Ashburnham, its fish from Foley Fish in Boston and West Boylston Seafood. Banks works with Lynn Stromberg of Lettuce Be Local, a local food hub for Central Massachusetts, to buy locally grown produce whenever possible. Today’s chicken and waffle special includes maple syrup from nearby Hollis Hills Farm.
The restaurant’s loyal clientele is mostly local and includes a fair amount of parents. Mike says that some people come in here almost every day. “Without the support of the community, we wouldn’t be able to run the restaurant as we do.”
IF YOU GO: Drive around back behind the school’s auditorium to find the restaurant’s own entrance. Reservations are not needed. School year hours: Monday–Friday, 11:30am–1pm.
EAST SIDE ROOM, KEEFE TECHNICAL SCHOOL, FRAMINGHAM
When baked scrod was taken off the menu, many of the East Side Room’s regular customers marched into the kitchen to complain, says Amy Snyder, Keefe Tech’s Culinary Arts Pastry Chef. So back on the menu it went. The Framingham school’s restaurant sources its scrod from Captain Marden’s Seafood in Wellesley, and Snyder says when Captain Marden himself came to visit, he asked for the recipe. When I visited East Side Room last May, I knew what I had to order.
On that day, roasted golden beets and creamy mashed potatoes accompany the flaky and moist baked scrod. My friend orders the pork chops, served with a chunky applesauce as well as the mashed potatoes and beets. Included in our lunch is a choice of a simple dinner salad or the soup of the day (a creamy onion soup). All this for only $8.95 each.
According to Snyder, the restaurant’s menu changes weekly to take advantage of what’s in season. Keefe Tech’s culinary arts teachers, Snyder, plus Peter LeCasse and Marie Stefanini, are working to include more local products into the restaurant’s menu as they incorporate more sustainable cooking into its curriculum. The school’s horticulture program grows lettuce as well as herbs for the restaurant in a greenhouse and in newly built raised beds located right outside the dining room.
LeCasse introduces the students to interesting vegetables and interesting grains, Snyder says, and brings in vegetables from his own garden and from a nearby organic farm. Last spring he taught students how to cure meats, and after taking a class in cheese making, he taught the students how to make ricotta and mozzarella.
“I’m teaching the basics because they need that,” Snyder says and adds that she’s teaching the kids how to taste and how to season. In 2016, the students won Best Dessert at Taste of Metrowest. “A lot of what we teach is common sense, work ethics and food service experience,” Snyder says.
IF YOU GO: The restaurant is located to the far right of the school complex. Reservations are accepted for 11:30am only. School year hours: Tuesday–Friday, 11:30am–12:30pm
MAPLE STREET BISTRO & CAFE: ESSEX TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL, DANVERS
The first time I call Maple Street Bistro to make reservations, I’m out of luck. It’s only 10am, but reservations are full. The next week, I call right at 9, but the line is busy. I hang up and call again. This time, I am able to reserve a table for two at 11am.
Light and airy, the restaurant’s circular windowed room is inviting. Though the restaurant has only just opened, it is buzzing. I am seated and shown a menu by a sophomore wearing a chef’s hat. He brings me water and a basket of bread while my friend and I peruse the menu. I order the Fresh Berry Spinach Salad ($5.95); my friend orders the Santa Fe Grilled Chicken Taco Salad ($4.95). Both are fresh, flavorful and plentiful. Other specials that day include Surf and Turf (sirloin tips and shrimp scampi served with macaroni and cheese, onion rings and sautéed vegetables) and Chicken Parmesan (served with cavatappi pasta and sautéed spring vegetables) each for $6.50.
According to Paula Cloutman, one of the school’s four culinary arts instructors, the restaurant works closely with local food vendors, including Marini Farm of Ipswich and Wilson Farms of Lexington, as well as with the school’s Sustainable Horticulture Program, to source local and seasonal food whenever possible.
Down the hall from the restaurant, the Maple Street Café offers coffee along with freshly baked goods, including artisan breads, specialty cakes, savory items and take away prepared foods and catering services. The day I visit, the Café offers Chicken Pot Pie Soup, Ham & Cheese Croissants, banana and zucchini breads and an assortment of cookies.
IF YOU GO: Entrance is through the school’s main door. Be sure to bring an ID, you will need to sign in at the security desk to obtain a temporary badge. Bistro hours: Tuesday–Friday 11am–12:45pm. Café hours: 10:30am–12:30pm.
HIGHLANDER CAFE: SOMERVILLE HIGH SCHOOL, SOMERVILLE
When I visit Highlander Cafe at Somerville High School in late May, the restaurant is already closed for the season but the kitchen is still open for takeout. I order a chicken calzone and one of several “shake salads” from the To Go menu to share with my friend, and we eat in the dining room facing Highland Ave. I shake my salad in its plastic container then enjoy the seasonal combination of quinoa, arugula, feta, strawberries and beets dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. The chicken calzone is served with marinara sauce, its chicken moist, its pastry chewy, its tomato sauce flavorful. The cost is $5 for each.
Jeff Stuart, chef instructor and culinary arts teacher, shares menus with me from past weeks when the 100-seat restaurant was open, and I know I’ll be back. There is a New England menu with Bacon-Blue Cheese Burgers, Lobster, Fish and Chips and Pumpkin Whoopie Pies. A Southern menu includes Fried Green Tomatoes, Gumbo, Catfish Po’Boys, Fried Chicken and Waffles, Shrimp and Grits and Peach Cobbler. A Latin menu includes Churrasco (flank steak) with Cilantro-Avocado Chimichurri, Quipes, Queso Fundido Empanadas with Guava Jam and Passion Fruit Flan.
“Our menus are very eclectic,” Stuart says. When brainstorming ideas for the menu, he tells the students to think about something their grandmother used to make. The menus are also based on what is available each season with food sourced from several local farms and orchards around New England, including Stonefield Farm in Acton, Lookout Orchards in Natick and Box Mill Farms in Stow. The students grow their own herbs onsite, including parsley, rosemary, basil and thyme.
“We give them as much real world experience as possible,” Stuart says. “I don’t pay the kids, but it’s just about as real world as you can get.”
IF YOU GO: The entrance to the restaurant is through the high school’s atrium entrance to the right of the main building. The restaurant is then to the right and down the hall. Orders for takeout can be made online. School year hours: Wednesday–Friday, 11am–1pm.
EPICUREAN RESTAURANT: ASSABET VALLEY REGIONAL VOCATIONAL SCHOOL, MARLBORO
If you’ve ever attended Ag Day at the State House, you’ve likely tasted food prepared by high school students from Marlboro. Each April for the past five years, the culinary arts students of Assabet Valley Regional Vocational School have prepared Ag Day’s “Taste of Massachusetts” lunch with product from about 40 Massachusetts farms.
After the event, the students continue using local ingredients to serve dining patrons at the Epicurean Restaurant in Marlboro. “We try using as many of the local farms around us as we can,” Margo Wilson, lead culinary arts instructor, says, telling me they source food from local businesses like Rota Spring Farm in Sterling, Verrill Farm in Concord, West Boylston Seafood, The Country Hen in Hubbardston and Berbarian Farm in Northborough. Wilson tells me the school is building a hydroponic greenhouse which will support the culinary arts program. “The kids get to see where their food is coming from,” she says.
When I dine at the Epicurean Restaurant, it’s a Thursday, Buffet Day. After a young woman takes my drink order, I’m directed to help myself to the buffet. For $ 9 (including tax), I have several choices. There are hot dishes (including lasagna, Cajun tilapia, Buffalo chicken wings, rice pilaf, carrots and broccoli). There is a salad bar (complete with tuna, macaroni, potato and coleslaw salads), soup (today’s is lentil with bacon and corn), freshly made rolls and desserts (including banana cake, apple pie, and chocolate chip cookies). According to one of my servers, Friday’s menu is a la carte and includes prime rib and seafood.
“The kids run with the menu,” says Jessica Bengtson, pastry instructor, and the restaurant is regularly filled with parents, teachers and local residents. According to Bengtson, the restaurant’s Easter Brunch buffet, which includes an omelet station and serves 400 plus diners, sells out in just three days.
IF YOU GO: The restaurant is easy to find but be sure to make reservations and bring a big appetite. School year hours: Wednesday–Friday, 11am–1pm.
All restaurants are open through the school year, from mid September through May (and sometimes into June) but closed during school vacations and for the occasional field trip. Call or check their website before going, as the days and times vary. Expect to make reservations and to pay cash. Tips are accepted but left in a box or basket near the cashier. Some school restaurants sell baked goods to go and some offer catering services. If you have allergies, you may want to call ahead and speak with one of the instructors to determine if the students can accommodate your dietary restrictions.
Assabet Valley Regional Vocational School
Essex Technical High School
Keefe Technical School
Montachusett Regional Vocational School
Somerville High School
Tara Taft loves to explore new and especially hidden places. She is author of a travel memoir, The Tucker—Tyler Adventure, and is a frequent contributor to Edible Boston. When she’s not writing, you can find her riding her bike to a local farmers market or baking something gluten free. She can be reached at email@example.com.