It seems like most restaurants opening in the suburbs west of Boston these days are either a pub or a tavern, but they hardly resemble the smoke-filled watering holes of yore.
Out went the cigarettes, in came the families with children. And thanks to shifting culinary tastes, customers are demanding good food — whether that means healthier menu choices, local and organic ingredients, or creative offerings that go beyond chicken wings and nachos.
The Local, in Newton, has been so successful with items like fried pickles and “Prime Burger Sourced By ‘The Godfather Of Meat’ John Dewar” that it is expanding this year to additional locations in Wellesley and Wayland. In Lexington, the Vine Brook Tavern opened in November with a three-course children’s menu timed to keep the little ones entertained so parents can enjoy their porcini-crusted meat loaf and a ginger margarita. And in Waltham, a former Piccadilly Pub is getting overhauled and will open soon as the Copper House Tavern, promising a contemporary twist on American favorites.
Twenty years ago grills became hip, then bistros and trattorias, but now the buzzword is tavern, according to Charlie Perkins, owner of the Boston Restaurant Group, a commercial real estate company that specializes in selling and appraising restaurants.
“What the customer wants today: good food, good service, comfortable atmosphere, and affordable prices,” he said.
While that does not sound so different than a wish list from decades past, the customer has become much more discerning about exactly what those qualities mean, according to local restaurant owners.
Until fairly recently, suburbanites had a choice of either fine dining or a national chain, said the Local’s owner, Frank Santo.
“There was nothing in between,” he said. “You either had to go way up or way down.”
And while the statewide smoking ban that went into effect in 2004 reversed centuries of tradition, it also ushered in a new family-friendly atmosphere at the neighborhood tavern.
“I know people on my end of the business thought it was going to hurt us, but I think it’s done nothing but help the restaurant business,” said Santo. “It just didn’t make sense to pay attention to the food when the place was filled with smoke, and no one could taste the food anyway.”
Santo said he does get the occasional customer asking why the Local does not offer nachos, but diners these days are more concerned about where their food comes from — is that burger made of grass-fed beef?
You can still get away with nachos, said Greg Coughlin, who hopes to open his Copper House Tavern in Waltham by the middle of next month, but they better be something special.
Although he has not finalized the menu yet, Coughlin said, he will borrow some of the approach in use at his other restaurant, Olde Magoun’s Saloon in Somerville. There they serve a quesadilla with tandoori chicken on naan bread.
“It’s a quesadilla but it’s not a quesadilla,” said Coughlin. “We’re playing with the food because at the end of the day, it’s supposed to be fun and entertaining for people to go out.”
The food is still American but with a nod to the country’s heritage as multicultural melting pot, which gives chefs room to maneuver.
Marcus Palmer, co-owner of Vine Brook Tavern in Lexington, which took over the former site of a Vinny Testa’s, said he thinks of his food as American, but then notes that his chef was born in Mexico and makes a mean lobster taco.
“American food to me is safer both short-term and long-term because the base you’re speaking to is much larger,” said Palmer.
Tavern and pub are essentially synonyms for bar, but an unscientific survey of restaurant owners says both have become more food-centered.
Still, today’s tavern or pub (owners seem to prefer “gastropub”) was made possible not just by new demand for culinary skills, but also by the establishment’s ancestral roots in libations, which in the early 21st century means a craving for craft beers.
“Ten or 15 years ago, everybody was happy with Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Light, and now we see a craft-beer phase,” said Santo. “That’s in response to the customer wanting a better product. People are willing to pay what they pay for a glass of wine, they’re willing to pay for a glass of beer now, and I think that translates to food as well.”
The smoking ban was also a huge boost to business, said Terry O’Reilly, co-owner of Terry O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, which replaced Sabra in Newton Centre last year.
“You just simply wouldn’t have your kids in a bar because the reality was you would have a lot of people smoking,” he said.
Now that the door has opened to children, restaurants are experimenting with ways to attract them in droves.
Palmer’s Vine Brook Tavern has a three-course menu for children, with kids getting their appetizer right away and dessert timed with the parents’ entrees so that the younger set stays busy and entertained, he said.
The Local does not have a children’s menu, but does not need one to be family friendly, according to owner Santo.
“What we do have is an approachable menu,” he said. “Kids aren’t that happy with the frozen pizza some restaurants are serving.”
And now more than ever, for busy dual-income parents, eating out is more necessity than luxury, said Santo.
“Working parents weren’t satisfied with takeout pizza and Chinese food,” he said. “They wanted something they could feel comfortable serving their families.”