The Beehive, a three-month-old club/restaurant in the South End, is a good place to stand in line. There's almost always a long one stretching from the door onto the brick sidewalk in front of the Boston Center for the Arts. On a recent Thursday night, the queue is kept in check by an impressively tattooed gatekeeper. Among the people in it: a group of jazzbos speaking several different languages and wearing colorful, improbable outfits; a family whose hotel sent them; a super-glam woman with tiny dreads and giant hoop earrings; and a couple of tube-topped girls with glossy ponytails who appear to have escaped the sorority house for the evening. The people-watching is fine, and at 9 p.m. the night is still young -- the Beehive serves food and live jazz till 1.
But is it a good place to eat? The venue's co-owners include Darryl Settles of Bob's Southern Bistro and Jack Bardy of Pho Republique, both places beloved neighborhood hangouts where the food is good enough, but not as good as the vibe. The Beehive scores high in that last department. With its exposed brick walls, crystal chandeliers, red velvet curtains, and low lighting, it would be a fantastic place to stage "La Boheme." There are plenty of bohemian types here, but also plenty of backward-ballcap sporters. (On weeknights the place seems to skew more toward the former, on weekends the latter.) There are two levels: ground and subterranean. Upstairs, a nose-ringed girl and a boy in a vintage T drink at the bar next to two middle-age women wearing loafers. Downstairs, five men in blue suits edge in on five 40-something blondes -- girls' night out is about to screech to a halt. On the small stage, a trio splits the difference between jazz and jam, while a girl in a sundress does the hippie dance by her lonesome. Everyone seems comfortable here, and it's one of the most racially diverse crowds in Boston. The Beehive has created a scene that's not too scene-y.
But it doesn't seem like a scene set for fine dining, and it's not. The casual plates look like they are turned out by a cook rather than a chef. That's a surprise, as it's a chef who creates them -- Adam Halberg, formerly of Via Matta. When roasted grouper with a simple succotash is brought to the table, a friend tells his wife, "That looks like something you would make." It's not the trendy fare you might expect. Amid the hubbub of the club, there's something charming about the food's hominess. It fits the feeling of ease.
"The food isn't meant to be complicated," Halberg says by phone. "It's meant to satisfy."
The best edible evocation of that spirit is the bohemian platter, a generous affair that includes salami, pickles, scattered hunks of pecorino, string cheese, assorted olives, a slice of tortilla espanola, and a bunch of grapes roasted to bring out their winey flavor. There are some bland fried squash blossoms, too, but they're easy to ignore among all the vibrant flavors. The platter is almost enough to fill three hungry people. Between slugs of an earthy cabernet blend from Lebanon (next to a bottle from Israel on the wine list -- the Beehive "everyone coexists happily here" ethos in action again) or a bittersweet Beehive Royale (Belle de Brillet plus Angostura bitters? It works!), it's the perfect thing to nibble as you listen to music and holler at friends. Beware: The Beehive's acoustics will leave you hoarse by the end of the night.
A dish called sloppy lasagna lets the usual version hang loose -- it's a pile of wide, tender noodles mixed with ricotta, sausage, and tomato sauce. It's simple and satisfying, as is the grilled pork chop with greens and horseradish, or the cheeseburger, served on an oddly flaky roll but with ribbons of fried potatoes that best most frites. Yes, you probably could have made most of these dishes yourself (not those amazing potatoes, though). But if you were at home cooking, you wouldn't be out at a club, now would you?
The casual approach fails in some cases. An initial spoonful of gazpacho is zingy and full of tomato flavor, but the second mouthful reveals a hidden berg of sour cream in the soup. The lurking blob is impossible to avoid -- it would be good to mention it on the menu, or preferably to serve the gazpacho without it. A tomato salad with basil and Greek yogurt is fine, but the tomatoes are on the mealy side; in a salad showcasing them, they should be perfect. Calamari, veering toward rubbery but nicely fried, is served with what the menu terms "spicy avocado." This time the blob is a menacing green, unattractive and not a bit spicy.
Dessert is unmemorable -- it doesn't appear on the menu, but the server comes around to offer baklava or blueberry cobbler. Eh, if you must. There's always ice cream down the street at Picco.
Early on, the Beehive was slammed online for its food; Halberg says they were aware of the problems and fixed them. At any rate, the food here is currently good enough, if not as good as the vibe. The servers have as little attitude as the dishes. One night ours has pigtails, sweat socks pulled to her knees, and a ready, goofy smile; on another, a waitress seems drunk or in need of insulin -- she weaves about the room and strikes up conversations with other people in the middle of taking our order. Her loopiness is amusing, or maybe that's the Beehive Royales talking.
Or maybe the Beehive just puts you in a good mood. At the Benetton ad of a table next to us, the people seem to be having a ball. They're yelling and laughing and looking pretty, and occasionally taking bites of their food. The Beehive experience is social first, musical second, and culinary third. You don't come here just to eat, but you'll be happy to eat while you're here.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org