As early as two years ago, you could walk down Broadway in South Boston and count the fine-dining establishments by the mile. From there you could whittle down the list to a handful of spots worth your time, money, and appetite.
When I moved to Southie in 2010, Franklin Southie was the only place I’d return to for a stiff cocktail and a semblance of bistro cuisine. Eager to explore my particular stretch of the neighborhood (excluding Fort Point and the Waterfront), I wrote down the standbys the locals suggested. One by one — Amrheins, Salsa’s, Cafe Porto Bello, the Playwright, the long-gone St. Alphonzo’s (replaced by Aussie chef Sam Jackson’s terrific KO Catering and Pies) — I checked them off. Meh. They were fine, but far from exceptional.
Now you happen upon a more upscale eatery every other block in South Boston, and most of them are solid. Local 149 has one of the more adventurous menus in town. The Paramount routinely has a full house. The crowds that initially clogged Moko have thinned, probably because diners realized how mediocre the sushi was. An outpost of Stephanie’s is coming next year, likely on the heels of a new Foodie’s supermarket. Clearly change is afoot.
Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant doesn’t really look like any of its neighbors along Broadway. Even its facade stands out. Sandwiched between illuminated signs for a CVS and South Boston Chinese Restaurant, Lincoln’s name is painted on the brick building in bold white letters framed by lights. It’s more of a marquee.
And that’s exactly what Lincoln is at the moment. It’s the star attraction in a neighborhood hungry for something besides another sports bar serving limp quesadillas.
It’s as much a restaurant and watering hole as it is a nightspot. The space is cavernous
but handsome with high tin ceilings, tile floors, exposed wood beams and piping, and a soundtrack hip enough to veer from Frank Sinatra to R.E.M. With a 300-capacity crowd routinely jamming the house, sometimes snaking out the door in a long line you’d see outside a club, chances are the servers aren’t going to know your name here.
It’s also the broadest microcosm of Southie’s young and the restless. They’re all here: women in Lululemon attire discussing where they should get mimosas after Pilates tomorrow (“Or maybe we should do White Russians instead?”); college bros nursing PBRs and pints of Guinness at the bar with their eyes fixed on one of the six overhead television screens locked on a sports channel; professionals still in their peacoats ordering cocktails with names like Southie of the Border and checking out the pretty young thing who just walked through the door.
The consensus is that Lincoln’s heavy traffic is part and parcel of its newness. It opened in early October and has been slammed ever since. The wait for a table isn’t too unreasonable, though: 45 minutes for a party of four, 30 for three, and none at all for a single seat at the bar. The food, too, arrives promptly.
On one particular visit, two Southie residents join me. They’ve been here before and wonder aloud if this could be their new local hangout. “Would you come here all the time?” one asks the other.
“Would you come here all the time?”
“I can’t hear you!”
It’s extremely loud, with no soundproofing in sight. For that very reason my Southie companions decide they’ll stick with Franklin Southie. (For an intimate setting — and killer goulash — head to Cafe Polonia, a Polish restaurant in nearby Andrew Square that’s still the ’hood’s best-kept secret.)
Given the scene, it’s a nice surprise to learn Lincoln’s food, by chef Nicholas Dixon (formerly of Lucky’s Lounge and Harvard Gardens), is not an afterthought. You come here for comfort: wood-fired pizzas, pastas, hearty sandwiches. There’s little middle ground on this menu. The dishes either dance on the palate (grilled shrimp sauced with lemon, butter, and garlic) or they land like an anvil (a greasy steak sandwich that makes you wonder how much butter went on each slice of bread).
As we unwrap wool scarves on a brisk Wednesday night, the gnocchi Bolognese — in a creamy red sauce, thick with short rib and flecked with basil — is exactly what we want, with sourdough bread for skimming the plate.
The star dish is the buttermilk fried chicken, three pieces of succulent flesh that ooze juices when you try to cut off a piece. About the skin: I wish it were sold as candy. It shares the plate with a dense biscuit coated with honey and a rectangular skillet, maybe 3 by 5 inches, of baked mac and cheese; both sides are rich enough that a few bites suffice.
The bruschetta is generous enough to constitute an entree, crispy bread layered with silky burrata, tomatoes, and prosciutto. Even lighter are grilled fish tacos, which come in four little flour tortillas, the warm tuna fillets not exactly spicy as advertised but still packing a punch from pickled onions, avocado, and lime.
Pizzas are supposedly a hit, but not with our table. We get one with meatballs and then squint to spot a few crumbles of meat scattered on every other slice. An arugula salad is refreshingly simple, worth noting since you can rarely get a salad in Southie that’s not drenched in dressing.
A chunky cut of tuna crusted with peppercorn — most of them whole — tastes purely of pepper, enough to make you reach for a glass of water before you start coughing.
Desserts, too, are still coming into their own. Along with the usual suspects (a brownie sundae, seasonal cheesecake), a Nutella flatbread piques our interest. Then we realize it’s essentially baked pizza dough with a thin smear of the chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Finally, on a third and final visit, Lincoln’s charms set in. Alone at the bar with the Lincoln burger — wood-grilled, smothered with caramelized onions and bacon aioli — I surveyed the scene with the Continental (St. Germaine, Aperol, Prosecco — up). Other bar patrons lean in to chat, and even the bartender seems indifferent to the hustle and bustle around her. Just as I put on my coat, she poses a question that makes me think this place knows its value is as much about the food as serving its community.
“What was your name again?”
Devra First is on leave. Beginning today, restaurants in Dining Out will be reviewed by a rotating team of Globe staffers.