By Brian Samuels
I never wanted to live in Southie. When I first moved in with my partner, Eric, I was certain that this wasn’t the place for me. I talked so much trash about this town and how I wanted to get out and move to Cambridge or Somerville. There was no way that this could be my home, not for a foodie like me, at least.
But that was five years ago and as the area has changed and so have my views. Many folks would say that South Boston has “yuppified” and, while they would be right to make such a proclamation, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Until recently, there really wasn’t a reason for people to come to Southie. Now, you can’t deny that the area has a lot of character. Given that a number of South Boston’s residents have lived here for most of their lives, the neighborhood feels very quaint. Walking down the street, one will see folks riding their bikes, jogging around Castle Island or walking their dog around Thomas Park.
Despite all of its charm, though, there really wasn’t a lot to do in Southie—except drink, of course. Some of us, though, like to eat while we drink. And some of us like to eat good food ... fresh food ... food that doesn’t come from a box in the freezer.
With the development of more upscale apartments and condos in the area surrounding the Broadway T-station in South Boston (not surprising given its proximity to Downtown), other specialty shops started sprouting up. The insurgence of higher-end establishments began a few years ago with the opening of Franklin Southie, which is within spitting distance of Broadway.
Prior to Franklin, if you wanted to get a decent cocktail, you had to leave the neighborhood (this is definitely a beer drinkin’ kind of town). But walk through the doors and gander at their bar and you’ll see beautiful libations and classic martinis in the hands of men clad in suits, their ties loosened to make way for a cold one. And on a Sunday morning, you can find folks chowing down on hearty plates of omelets with slab bacon and a tall Bloody Mary, the perfect antidote to a night of heavy drinking.
Just around the corner from the train station, on A Street, is KO Pies, a tiny storefront that specializes in authentic Aussie meat pies. KO, which is owned and run by South Boston resident Sam Jackson, seems like an odd choice for the area’s predominantly Irish demographic. But when you pause for a moment and think about it, is there anything that would pair better with a beer than meat surrounded by a flakey crust?
What KO does is something that had not really been seen in the area: meat pies, chicken schnitzel sandwiches, sausage rolls. Not just bar food, but playful, creative and, most importantly, fresh.
“The idea was to replicate the sort of food that you would find in a similar-style establishment back home [in Australia]. Food that is fast, fresh, good value and made from scratch.” Jackson saw the location to be the perfect spot to start a business. “South Boston has been my home for the past five years and I have seen it develop and continue to embrace new ideas, whilst always keeping its traditions. It’s really close to the city, which is great for our catering and also easily accessible by public transport so almost anyone can get to it.”
Even further into Southie are two confectionaries: Sweet Tooth Bakery, with its massive sticky buns and bright pink boxes, and Blue Tierra Chocolates, where one can purchase boxes of handcrafted truffles and fresh French macaroons. Both work hard to make sure our teeth go rotten while our stomachs are happy. Before KO and Franklin, these were the places that made me excited to come home to Southie. I’d pick up a box of their delectable treats and carry it back to my apartment, doing my very best not to sneak a taste (inevitably, I always failed).
The opening of all these establishments was exhilarating, a burst of something new and different. And it was the first time I started to wonder to myself: “What’s next?”
That answer came out of nowhere one afternoon last December when Eric came home and announced that a new gourmet market had opened up around the corner from our apartment. If there was one thing we’d been discouraged by, it was the lack of a good grocery store in the neighborhood. Our local Stop and Shop is fine if I want to get some ingredients for a cake or pick up a few boxes of pasta, but I’m the kind of cook who likes to get products that are sourced locally and are of the highest quality. And, most importantly, I am a cheese addict.
American Provisions, which is prominently located on the corner of I Street and Broadway, is my savior. Shelves stocked with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, freezers packed with quarts of Batch ice cream (the crème de la crème of local ice cream), a constant supply of farm-fresh eggs (organic and cage free) and dairy (for a decadent treat, try the chocolate milk). Oh, yes, and the cheeses. It’s a rare occurrence when I leave the store without a container of burrata or a hunk of triple creme.
The shop is the brainchild of Matthew Thayer (of Quincy), Andy Fadous (who resides in Boston) and Southie resident and restaurateur Jason Owens. “We all worked in the restaurant industry together. Jason did a great job transforming the Biltmore and envisioned the same concept in South Boston for Local 149. The three of us thought it would be wonderful to spin that off and offer a market to complement the restaurants. There has always been a great appreciation for quality food and an understanding of what it means to know where your food comes from. A market was a great way to showcase local products and help educate a neighborhood that is diverse and ever-changing.”
Matt and Andy take pride in the relationships they have with their vendors, many of whom are local. In talking about their extensive cheese selection, they recalled how they started working with Robinson Farm in Hardwick, Massachusetts.
“The sons of the family that run the farm live on I Street in South Boston and approached us when we were building out the space. We got a knock on the door late one night, and at first we were hesitant to answer the door. Looking back, we’re glad we did. Their family and cheeses represent what we look for in our local purveyors. Honest, genuine and they make a terrific product. We not only love what they have to offer, but it’s important to us that we have a personal connection with them.”
It’s undeniable that everything they sell is of the highest quality, but it’s the warm environment that Matt and Andy have created that makes American Provisions the gem that it is. After my first few visits to the store, they began greeting me when I walked through the door as if we were long-time friends. If their products didn’t keep me coming back into their store (they do), their customer service sure would.
It almost feels like Jason Owens, is trying to take over Southie. A resident of 12 years, Owens opened a restaurant, Local 149, earlier this year deep in the heart of Southie on P Street, where the Old Farragut House, a much beloved bar, used to live. Disguised as a tavern, with the bar prominently displayed as you walk through the front door, the menu at Local 149 provides typical pub food, but made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. On the menu, one can find burgers, chicken patty sandwiches and pizzas. Look closer, however, and you’ll see some major differences from typical bar menus. The pickles, which you can get fried as one of Local’s “Bar Bites,” are made in house. The bacon on the Hawaiian pizza is cured in their kitchen and the same goes for a number of the meats and pâtes served on their charcuterie plate.
“We’re not looking to reinvent the food scene in South Boston. My goal is to create pub-friendly food with integrity by producing dishes that are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients and we try to make as many things from scratch as possible.”
And then there’s the beer. Pretty Things. Cape Ann. Berkshire Brewing Company. These aren’t names that are typically seen on tap at a Southie establishment. The folks at Local 149 seem to understand that there are other Massachusetts-based breweries besides Sam Adams and Harpoon (both of which, I should say, produce very good beer) and I was relieved to see that they were featured (on draft) on the menu. It reinforces the notion that the area is changing and that residents want options of other local microbrews, not just ones produced by the big boys.
It’s true that Owens may not be trying to reinvent the food and beer scene, but there’s no denying that he’s listening to what his patrons want: diversity in the grub they’re eating and booze they’re consuming.
When I talked to Sam Jackson at KO Pies, I asked him about the changes that have occurred in Southie and how he’s seen it develop.
“I think communities evolve over time and Southie is no different. It is great to have outstanding Indian food along with progressive American fare alongside the legendary roast beef sandwich joints and sub shops all here in South Boston. People all around the world seem to take food more seriously these days and eating foreign food isn’t particularly intimidating, especially when it is really good.”
Obvious demographic shifts have occurred in South Boston over the past five years. Shortly after I moved to the area, we began seeing more and more twenty-somethings, most of whom were overwhelmed by the exorbitant rental prices in the city. With this influx of younger residents, it’s not surprising that business owners see Southie as the ideal place to open up their shops.
It’s hard to say what direction the South Boston food scene is headed. There’s no doubt that as the neighborhood continues to change, so will the restaurants and bars. Will a five-star restaurant with a pre-fixe menu open up? Maybe. Maybe not. But when you have good food, a tall beer and a group of people to laugh with, that’s all you really needs to make you happy.
Brian Samuels is a Boston-based event and food photographer and writer. He is the creator of the food blog A Thought For Food, a collection of recipes, personal anecdotes and historical information pertaining to cooking. His work has been featured in Saveur, The Kitchn, Tastespotting and FoodGawker. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.