Drinks Before Dinner

liquor licensesThe Foundry on Elm. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

When Stephen Mackey became president and CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce in 1995, the nation was in the midst of an urban resurgence and the city wanted a piece of it. 

As he saw it, Somerville had three big advantages: It was the most densely populated city in New England, it was closer to downtown Boston than most other parts of that city, and it was right in the middle of the “brainpower triangle” of Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. 

There were a lot of things Somerville needed to catch the rising wave of urban living, among them improved transit and building its commercial tax base. But first of all, says Mackey, the city needed a hook.

“We looked at Boston and it was the political and economic capital; we looked at Cambridge and it was the life sciences capital,” says Mackey. “We decided we’re going to offer dining and night life.”

The city had foundations to build upon, including the Somerville Theater, Johnny D’s, and Redbones. But once he started doing what chamber chiefs do—networking with his members, finding out the lay of the land—Mackey made an interesting discovery: A lot of the city’s restaurants were dry, and not by choice.

“We had little boutique restaurants with food from all over the world,” he says. “Each of them seemed to have a wine or beer or something that goes with the cuisine, and they couldn’t really be taken seriously by food critics unless they could serve something to complement the food.”

The problem was that many of those restaurants didn’t have a liquor license. That’s because the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission restricted the number of licenses that were issued in a city, and they only became available if a restaurant holding one failed or its owner sold the license.

“They were very rare and expensive, costing $50,000-plus at the time,” Mackey says. “We worked on it for a year to come up with a compromise.”

So he did the other thing chamber chiefs do, and started working on public policy. The chamber’s Dining and Nightlife Group asked the city to take to the legislature a proposal for a new type of beer and wine license, one a boutique restaurant could pay for annually and that reverted to the city if it closed; that prevented the speculation and price gouging that was common with permanent licenses. It took a year for the city to get it to the legislature, but it did pass.

Then, Mackey says, the city had to change its own stripes regarding late-night closing time. Somerville had a closing hour of midnight or 1 a.m., while Boston and Cambridge stayed open until 2 a.m.

The city resisted the later closing time, arguing that, after one restaurant or bar closed, customers would go to another to have a few last drinks. The chamber had to convince city officials that drinking culture was changing—people weren’t going out until later at night, and they were staying in one spot for four or five hours instead of barhopping. The fact that Somerville restaurants closed earlier meant people who were making evening plans would simply opt for a Harvard Square or Boston restaurant, instead.

“We also lobbied to allow full-service sidewalk cafes” and street events, says Mackey. “The argument was, ‘We don’t want public drinking,’ but people don’t go to sidewalk cafes to pound down the beers. It’s more genteel, a date or a business meeting, more casual.”

Mackey’s foray into policy-shaping back in the 1990s certainly laid the groundwork, but it’s not the only factor that helped grow Somerville’s restaurant scene. Evelyn Battinelli, executive director and trustee of the Somerville Museum, says the 1980s expansion of the Red Line also deserves a good share of the credit for helping drive Somerville’s resurgence, in night life and otherwise.

“That was the beginning of the change,” says Battinelli. “A lot of people thought the Red Line coming through was going to be adverse to the city. It turns out that businesses moved into Davis Square: One was Redbones, another was McIntyre and Moore, a bookstore that stayed open to 11 o’clock at night.”

In addition, she says, you started seeing people with name tags for different conferences who were in the city on business. When The Burren opened, that drew in students. Both of those groups brought their appetites with them, and restaurants opened in response. Among those, she says, were Joey Crugnale’s Bertucci’s Pizza and Bocce (the original location of the chain,) Steve Herrell’s ice cream parlor, and The Foundry, an offshoot of The Independent in Union Square.

“There are some others in Ball Square and of course Union Square has wonderful ethnic restaurants—Machu Picchu is one of them,” Battinelli says. “In East Somerville you have Mt. Vernon. I think they opened sometime in the 1930s. And you have another little hidden gem over there, Vinnie’s By Night. It started as a little sandwich shop in the front, then he went on to open the back room and started a little restaurant.”

Mackey remains pleased with the extent to which the push to open up Somerville to more and better restaurants succeeded. And while he’s not of a mind to speculate on what might be missing—“I’m not in the industry,” he demurs—he does try to be aware of what local restaurateurs say they need to ensure continued success.

“The thing that helps is complementary activity,” says Mackey. “A lot of people will think about going to a square with a couple of good restaurants, but if you have a theater, a place to bowl, to get ice cream or a cup of coffee—if you have these other things to do in addition to eating, it helps the dining scene.” 

We’ll drink to that!

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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