Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
A Townie comes home
Townsman gives New England traditions a modern twist
While we normally don’t run out to a new restaurant the minute it opens, last Saturday we visited Townsman, one of Boston’s most anticipated openings. It’s generated significant buzz and for good reason—chef/owner Matt Jennings earned four James Beard nominations at his previous restaurant, Farmstead in Providence. But despite Farmstead’s success, Jennings connection to Boston (he grew up in Jamaica Plain and Wellesley) led him to close up shop in Rhode Island and start a new business back home.
Located on the corner of Essex and Kingston Streets, Townsman occupies the ground floor of Radian, a new 26-story residential development that overlooks the Greenway with unobstructed views to the Federal Reserve building and Dewey Square. The restaurant’s 4500 square-foot space activates the street on a heretofore lonely stretch between Chinatown and the Financial District.
Entering Townsman (look for the big “T”) you encounter a long, narrow space with concrete floors and large steel-framed windows. A striking tiled wall depicting a girl, a dog, and a bowl of tapioca begs for an explanation. Katlyn, the friendly maître D, told us that the image comes from one of the chef’s favorite vintage cookbooks. He thought it particularly appropriate since a woman from Boston is credited for “inventing” tapioca pudding in 1894. Of course we asked if we’d see a dessert featuring tapioca on the menu but unfortunately the answer was “no” (though when we later asked Jennings he told us it would be at some point).
The raw concrete, glass, and steel space is warmed up in the active bar area (“co-designed” by PDT barkeep Jim Meehan) with expertly constructed oak cabinetry. The lounge area against the windows includes clusters of overstuffed chairs, wooden tables, ottomans, and rugs to provide intimate conversation areas. At the end of the bar, an eye-catching taxidermied boar’s head references the charcuterie to come and adds personality to the space.
Just beyond, the crudo bar lends an interesting twist to Townsman’s food and drink offerings. Overseen by co-chef Brian Young (formerly of Post 390), it is Townsman’s version of a chef’s table. But don’t be fooled by its casual New England diner aesthetic—stools are available by reservation only. A small seating area directly opposite the crudo bar features dim lighting, lowered ceilings, and rich wood decor. It’s perhaps the most intimate corner of the restaurant.
The back of the restaurant opens up to a wide dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. It’s a broad space that feels vaguely Scandanavian. Traditional Windsor chairs painted bright red paint, tables featuring handmade walnut tops, and custom dishware by local potter Jeremy Ogusky all pay off Townsman’s update on “ye olde” style. But it seems as if the interior designer’s attention to detail waned a bit as you move through the restaurant to the dining room. While the dining room was attractive, on the whole it seemed a bit sparse and could use some more warmth.
Especially for an opening weekend, food and service were excellent. The meal started with an inventive use of a recycled syrup can which is used to both bake delicious brown bread and then function as the serving container for the butter. Over the course of the next three hours, our party tried many of the items coming from the open kitchen—highlights included Wild Oysters from Nova Scotia (some of the best we’ve ever had), Charcuterie (yes, the trend lives on), Curried Hot Crab Dip with spinach and coconut milk, Charred Octopus with smoked potato and blood orange, and ice cream made from candy cap mushrooms (it tastes a bit like maple syrup).
Townsman is a modern spin on New England classics—but while the food is executed confidently, at times the interior and branding seem a little off the mark. Our dining companions this week (a developer and an artist) agreed that creating a restaurant in a modern building is challenging. Townsman’s designers needed to overcome sterile, contemporary construction by adding texture, color, and graphics to create a unique space from scratch. We wonder if perhaps this is a work-in-progress and they’ll extend the aesthetic they executed well in the bar areas to the rest of the space in the coming months. We suggest warming it up with a few key improvements. For example, we think the use of wood paneling would turn the dining room’s many generic columns into a design asset. The statement wall—a smattering of pork illustrations—currently feels underdone. The wall needs to be filled with images to make a bold statement. Lastly, subtle window graphics could frame the view both from the inside and outside. Overall, the space needs the same combination of modern and historical elements that are so perfectly balanced in the food.
The same can be said for branding. While we love the name and appreciate the attempt to juxtapose traditional and modern, the large, decorative Victorian-style “T” (which we like) doesn’t really work with the condensed, sans serif “Townsman” typeface which seems more Miami than Boston. The website also fails to match the specialness of the menu. It’s as generic as it gets.
Though there’s always room for improvement, we think Townsman lives up to its name. Literally. The word “townsman,” meaning “native to a place,” is what “townie” is derived from. Unlike its slang variation, however, townsman suggests a sophisticated take on pride in one’s roots. It’s the perfect title for a restaurant that thoughtfully elevates the best of New England’s culinary traditions.
As far as we’re concerned, Townsman is a homecoming worth celebrating.