I've been asked to write again. And when enough people you respect ask you to do something as mundane as put your thoughts to paper... err... blog, well, it gets to the point where it's insulting to say no. Add to this a confluence of significant events and one develops that most hallowed of motivations --- self service. :-)
If you guessed that I'm writing to plug my 'hood, I say to you, bingo. And no, I'm not moving.
A walk down Central Square today is not the same as it was 3, 4, even 5 years ago. Most of our store fronts are full:
Convenience Store - check, actually, I've got 2
Pharmacy - check, right across the street. Friendly people, very nice
Ice-cream parlor - check
Barbershop, with enough glowing neon to scorch your retinas - check.
Fashion forward clothing store - check (very fashion, very forward)
Travel agency - check, again, I've got 2, and no, I don't know why
Jewelry Store -check
Karate Studio - check, feeeeeel the burn!
Art Therapy Center - check (RAW!), absolutely amazing place
Insurance Agency - check
Dunkin Donuts - ooooohhhhhhh yeeeeeeaaaaahhhh, check (I am a DD man)
And last but not least..... wait for it.....
Snazzy Wine Bar!! - CHECK-UH-MUNDO!! - Hellooooo Turbine Wine Bar!!
If it crossed your mind that I'm writing while drunk... you are incorrect. I was drunk about 3 hours ago while doing my taxes, but now am perfectly sober.
All of this urban goodness is within one block or closer (Turbine is in my building).
There is a renewed sense of optimism here in the center, and given the enthusiasm I have for Turbine, you'd be forgiven if you incorrectly guessed an impending assault of Turbine kudos amassing to bludgeon your senses so you and your hordes embark upon a pilgrimage to submit burnt Benjamins and consume much vino at the alter of Joanna the goddess of bar-tending. That comes later. No, the change in the air actually started about 3 blocks from here; in a place that fell under the relentless grind of capitalism not once, but twice. I am of course referring to what is now the Blue Ox.
The address of 191 Oxford St. was first home to the pioneering soul Oxford St. Grill (OSG). OSG was the child of Lowell Grey. His vision was an establishment offering excellent Germain Cuisine in a fine dining atmosphere. Lowell succeeded. One of my grandfather's being German, I especially loved this idea. OSG was a very nice place. White tablecloths, gentle manner, sophisticated libations, good vibe, music and atmosphere. We hoodies loved it. The food was great, it provided an inviting and civilized place, and most importantly it had a FULL BAR! It was a place for us locals to meet, greet, and get plastered on a school night and stumble back home, stopping at the Hess for smokes and Doritos in route (Sean).
OSG folded I guess after about a year. The reasons are numerous, and I'm sure only a handful are genuine, but they are only important to those interested in such things like those plotting to succeed where OSG failed. What matters to me, though, is the precedent OSG established and the legacy it left to the residents. The former is that a fine establishment with amenities to match does have a following, however small, in of all places Downtown Lynn. The latter, is that it provided a common ground for residents to gather, banter, bubble, boil, and brawl -- really get to know each other, before escorting wounded comrades to our respective front doors in this gritty pocket of North Shore. Like all agreeable social activities, it was addictive and longed for, whether you knew you longed for it or not, and eventually... missed. The closing of OSG was solemn and quiet. Befitting a pioneer. And with a deep breath... I really don't have much more to say about it. We must give OSG it's due, but I would genuinely lament it's passing more if it weren't for one important item of note, the emergence... of the Downtown Bistro.
John Moore moved into OSG's old space. He made a few changes: used paper tops on the tables, added carpet, changed the menu to add more modest priced offerings, and he changed the overall vibe of the place to something more casual. I loved the place. The staff at Bistro were smart, funny, affable and just really fun and pleasant. They were a crew that appeared to enjoy working together and they certainly made my time there enjoyable and memorable. Upon initial opening the old crew from OSG reappeared and so did some new ones. We had great times there. It really was a great hangout after a hard day or week of work. The place had a good vibe and if you were in a bad mood when you got there we and the staff made sure you were all smiles or at least completely pain free before you left. Bistro was a fabulous place, but it too couldn't, didn't financially survive. It too closed after about a year. Why did Bistro close? I don't know. Some same it was a lack of marketing, and you know there really was very very little marketing by the Bistro. Compared to Blue Ox, both establishments had a famine of marketing. Is this the prime contributor. I don't know. But, I can same it is a key differentiator between Ox and its predecessors.
An important item to note is that both OSG and Bistro has the same chef, David Fitzgerald. He is a talented, gifted, and affable professional. His cuisine is superb, and most importantly, he's always striving to improve, try new things, make things work, exciting. The quality of food was definitely not a contributor to the demise of the two businesses. David moved to Ecco Lounge in East Boston. It's a nice place. The food is familiar to me, but mostly different. It's Italian "Tapas." Unfortunately I haven't been by in quite some time. Be sure to stop in, ask for Dave, say hi, and tell him I'm thinking of him, and hopes he comes back to the hood soon.
But I digress..
Along with the closing of Bistro came the first hint of the recessions. Gulu-Gulu closed it doors in Lynn, and many of the shop fronts emptied. Residents sold and left, divorced and left, rented out their place and left, or just left. The first winter came, and all was quiet. I honestly wondered if I made a mistake moving here.
Even with all the departures the reality is most of us remained. What's astonishing, however, is more residents moved in. Even more astonishingly, the newcomers were just like us: mildly screwed up, demanding, fun loving, quirky, and optimistic about the future of downtown.
The Bistro space stayed closed for quite some time, but from the onset of its closure there was talk of its impending purchase. Then the rumors started flying about the star power of a particular chef and his street cred. It helped that he too was from the area. I don't remember, or want to dig up, all the details, but suffice it to say renovations began and shortly after the Blue Ox was born.
The Ox as we and just about everyone calls it started marketing itself even before its renovations were complete:
"We are a casual neighborhood restaurant that strives to be inviting, relaxing, and value-oriented. Our dining room and bar offers an approachable American style menu with a twist, warm and family-friendly décor, and exceptional service filled with personality."The interior was expanded into the adjacent space, required a wall tear-down, the lighting changed, the bar top upgraded to granite, the carpet ripped up (YAY), and different art. The menu is familiar, or better stated as familiarly written. Since the central idea is to provide cuisine that is instantly recognizable by the locals. Where as OSG and Bistro tried to offer something complete new, Ox provides things that everyone recognizes, or at least has names and descriptions that everyone recognizes. Ox word smiths each plate name and description so as to not scare anyone away. Human beings, myself included, tend to fear the unfamiliar. How many of you have steered clear of restaurants in foreign countries just because you didn't recognize anything in writing? I bet just about all of you have, if not as adults at least as children. Well, here's the realty of our area, it's full of old people, and old people like the familiar. The founders of Ox seem to have a better sense for their predominate customer base and have marketed themselves accordingly. Some will argue that some of Ox's dishes have "fancy" proper names elsewhere and the menu is portraying it as something else. Like it's false advertising. So what? They're not selling drugs they're selling food. What Ox is doing is good business, and, most importantly, it's working.
I've eaten about 5 times at Ox. Every night I've gone it's been packed, which is terrific. Unfortunately for me it's not my kind of crowd. Good people, just not my kind of people, which are, you know weird and damaged. No, Ox folks (Oxen?) are mainstream people who are not as weird but more damaged... but we can debate this later. I didn't care for the food at Ox. Don't get me wrong, it's good, it was just inconsistent and not up to the quality I was expecting. You should NOT read this as food at Ox is bad. You should read this as Marcus didn't like the food at Ox. You should go yourself and check it out. The way I figure, that place is packed.... so the odds are it must be my palate. In the overall scheme of things I'd rather have a packed place that is not to my palate than no place at all, because it benefits the neighborhood and that's more important than my individual needs. Luckily, I have Turbine...
(Next time, new entry: "Turbine")