In 1991, as Gloria Polizzotti Greis and her husband, Michael, were hunting for a house in Needham, their real estate agent dropped some unexpected news.
"One thing he mentioned was, 'If you want to eat out, you have to go out of town,' " recalled Polizzotti Greis, now executive director of the Needham Historical Society.
That's changed, and recently. With three stylish restaurants opening on Great Plain Avenue within a year, and with the expansion of another, Needham's main drag has become a culinary hot spot.
This new restaurant row is home to seven locally owned establishments that include Thai, Indian, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisines. Five of the restaurants are owned by Massachusetts natives. Yet the sudden birth of a dining district in Needham raises questions, like whether a town with less than 30,000 residents can sustain about 30 eateries - and whether there is enough parking.
The National Restaurant Association reports that food and drink sales may reach $558 billion for this year. Now, as this suburb is going for its share, quintessentially Needham stores, like a button supplier, coffee shop, and trophy business, have been supplanted by sophisticated restaurants.
"I think everyone's mildly fascinated," said Polizzotti Greis, 48. "When we first came here, Chinese and Italian were exotic as it got."
Clif Holbrook, a retired letter carrier who has spent all of his 62 years in Needham, said Howard Johnson's, where the Ground Round now sits on the Newton-Needham border, was a favorite hangout in the 1950s.
"Needham is now going to more gourmet-type places, more upscale," said Holbrook, who goes out to dinner about once a month. "It changed from my youth, where I came from a blue-collar family."
Newton resident Robert Friedman and his wife walked into the Village Fish, one of the town's new upscale eateries, on Jan. 12. The restaurant, after being in Brookline Village for 22 years, opened in Needham before Thanksgiving and has become a sensation. Friedman said he eats out in Needham once a month.
"Newton needs tons of work. Newton's terrible," said Friedman, a physician, commenting on his city's restaurants.
Greg Jacobs, who co-owns the Village Fish with his wife, Kate, closed the Brookline location last June to move to their hometown.
"You can't beat the commute," said Jacobs, 43. When they first opened in Brookline, he said, "our customers were single. Then they got married and moved out to the suburbs. It's like, 'We went to Brookline on our first date and now we're married with our 12-year-old living in Needham.' "
Yet not every restaurateur in Needham has met with great success. Keith Bernhard and Jodi Geiser closed Apocrypha on Chapel Street - an easy stroll from Great Plain - in December, 10 months after opening their high-end establishment. At Apocrypha, entrees ranged from $27 to $42, featuring such offerings as rabbit and pheasant. When asked why his restaurant closed, Bernhard declined comment.
Janya Arakputtanan, who operates the year-old Rice Barn with her husband, Thomas Keefe, and sister, Ladda Arakputhanun, is trying to lure customers with no trans fat, no-MSG Thai cooking. Arakputtanan said she has come up against some tough, preconceived notions.
"It's not cheap Thai food," said Arakputtanan. "Some customers say your restaurant should be in Boston and not Needham."
Some of the new establishments appear to be thriving. At a recent Friday lunch hour, Sweet Basil, which expanded on Great Plain Avenue last year, was at capacity - with a waiting list.
"People like to eat like I've never seen in Needham," said chef-owner Dave Becker, 32, of West Roxbury.
However, even success comes with challenges.
"The only thing we can tell Needham is to get plenty of parking," said Russ Malone, the city clerk in Waltham, which is recognized as a densely populated restaurant haven. In fact, Sweet Basil opens only half of its seating during lunch per agreement with the town, an effort to curb parking issues, said Becker.
Needham officials are waiting for word on a grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development "to see how to better manage the spaces that exist," said Joyce G. Moss, Needham's economic development specialist.
"Businesses are not thrilled to find restaurants have gobbled up their parking," she said.
Christopher B. Leinberger, an expert on strategic planning for suburban centers and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said structured parking is necessary for downtown growth.
"Restaurants take some of the highest parking ratios," said Leinberger.
The concentration of restaurants also brings competitive pressures - "vying for the same wallet share," said Jeff Kaye, chef-owner of Fava, a Great Plain Avenue restaurant that he has operated for seven years with his wife, Maryellen. Even with different menus and price points, said Kaye, "competition is stiff."
One other factor that might limit the growth of Needham's restaurant district is the lack of other entertainment offerings.
"It's unfortunate because there's no really big draw to Needham other than the restaurants and Harvey's Hardware," said Kaye.
Moss said she would like to see retailers work together to turn a night of dining out into a shopping experience as well. However, at Crosby Jewelers on Highland Avenue, across the street from half a dozen eateries, owner Alfred Turco said, "It's very hard for a small business to stay open at night because they don't have the help."
Before Needham Cinema - on Great Plain Avenue - closed in 1989, Turco's father and uncle, John and Rosario, kept Crosby open until 9 p.m. on Fridays to catch the movie crowd. Today, Turco said, it's unlikely he'll be able to do the same for restaurant-goers.
Paul A. Good, founder of the Needham Community Revitalization Trust Fund, is looking to boost the town's culinary profile beyond town and neighboring Dover and Wellesley through a website, NeedhamRestaurants.com. Good said the site will be running once he determines a cost-effective method to advertise the eateries.
"You can't divide the pie too small," said Good. "We need to become known as the new mecca for great restaurants."
Stone Hearth Pizza Co. co-owners Jonathan Schwarz and Christopher Robbins were scouting locations in Wellesley, Newton, Chestnut Hill, Hingham, and Andover for their third restaurant before they found their spot in Needham. Yet after it opened last April, the restaurant found itself in a saturated pizza market, especially with the Dec. 11 opening of Sweet Tomato on Chestnut Street. Within walking distance, customers can get their fix at six pizzerias.
Asked whether Needham can support its restaurants, Schwarz said, "Talk to me in a year."