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In Somerville, the Neighborhood Restaurant is a decades-old favorite for many

Posted by Your Town  May 12, 2011 09:05 AM

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In this photo from 2008, Manuel Borges of the Neighborhood restaurant mixes a batch of fermenting grapes on the restaurant patio with grapes that grow over the restaurant patio seating.

(File photo: Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe)

Kristenna Chase and Jim McGinis first walked into the Neighborhood Restaurant in Somerville's Union Square 27 years ago.

Taking a seat in the crowded one-room dining area, Chase ordered the marinated swordfish and fried eggs with Hollandaise special. McGinis had the homemade waffle with blackberry ice cream.

Six years later, Chase, 63, and McGinis, 64, moved directly across the street from the Neighborhood Restaurant. They say they still eat at least three times a week at the restaurant, and have eaten just about everything on the menu.

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For those less familiar with the menu, Shannon Souza is ready with straight answers.

Souza, 30, has been making a living waiting tables since she was 13. And when customers ask a question, she replies with a casual directness.

"I'd like a small. . . " a tall man in a navy blue blazer starts, then pauses.

"A small what?" the petite waitress in jeans and a hot pink sweatshirt asks.

"Meatloaf," he says.

"No soup?" she asks as she moves toward the register.

"Come with it?"

"Not if you get a small," she warns.

Souza started at the Neighborhood while attending Somerville High School. Now a resident of Saugus, she makes the 30-minute trek to be with what she refers to as her restaurant family.

One of two waitresses who oversees the restaurant's single cozy dining room, Souza works with a busser and food-runner, a kitchen staff of five women, and owner Manuel Borges.

"I work with and see this small group of people every day," she said. "Over the years, I really know who they are and what's going on in their lives. That's a family."

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As its name implies, the Neighborhood Restaurant is more than a place to eat. It's a place to be; a place with regulars and wait staff who know them by name.

"This is an informal place where everyone talks across the tables," Chase said, her long silver braid falling off her shoulder as she reaches for the tin bucket of creamer. "You get to know your neighbors and some strangers, and news is passed along. Every neighborhood has one or two places that are communication hubs-that's here."

The Neighborhood first opened as a bakery in 1983 under the management of Mario and Manuel Borges, a father-son partnership. The family's famous Portuguese sweet bread, an ode to its heritage, became a neighborhood favorite and the duo looked to expand, opening the basement for a larger kitchen and storage space.

Manuel Borges, now 90, moved to the United States with his wife 60 years ago, emigrating from Portugal, to start a family. Borges grew up in a kitchen, working at a hotel on the Portuguese island Santa Maria when he was 7 years old as a dish washer. Over a lifetime, he worked his way up to chef and eventually owner of the Copa Cobana in Azores, Portugal.

Passing his passion for cooking and serving others onto his sons, Mario and Mariel, was a honor for Borges, who still works in the Neighborhood's kitchen part time, cutting peppers, mixing sweet bread dough, and occasionally creating an inventive daily special.

"This restaurant is my life," he said.

In 2001, Mario Borges suffered from liver failure and quickly became too sick to continue working. Six months before he died, he turned the restaurant's management over to his sister, Sheila.

"Everything was a blur," she said. "All he wanted was for us to keep the restaurant in the family, to keep it going."

Ten years later, the Neighborhood Restaurant has continued to serve Portuguese-American cuisine to a line of customers that can stretch down the block on the weekends. Sheila Borges says about half of these patrons are regulars.

The specialties of the Neighborhood's chefs include linguisa, the classic Portuguese blood sausage, and traditional sweet bread with hard boiled eggs baked inside. The other house dishes, including more typical American offerings such as meatloaf, are served with two starches on the side, a traditional Portuguese practice.

Sheila Borges-Foley, 40, lives in a third-floor apartment above the restaurant. Her mother lives on the first floor, her brother Mariel on the second.

"It's like Brooklyn, where the business is home," she said, referring to the New York City borough. "That's us."

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Jim McGinis puts it simply.

"We've had a lot of food memories here," McGinis said.

His favorite is sardines drenched in garlic butter and served with fried potatoes and rice-that Portuguese standard of two starches. This is a chef's special usually featured in the summer and served outside in the grapevine-covered terrace. Chase prefers to cradle a mug of coffee at breakfast and order the No. 25: scrambled eggs with tomato and feta cheese.

Visiting at least three times each week, the couple usually sits at one of the smallest tables in the restaurant, in the front corner, next to the wall-sized window that peers out onto the street and provides a clear view of their house.

"We get to enjoy the food, the atmosphere, and feel part of the extended family here," McGinis said. "We watched Shannon graduate high school and Sheila have her baby. We see the family grow and we grow with it."

A veteran regular nick-named Old Marie, who died a few weeks ago at age 86, was considered everyone's favorite. When her former favorite café across the street, Sunny's, closed in the late '80s she found the Neighborhood. It was only a few days before she knew everyone who worked there and a couple of weeks before she knew its regular clientele and frequent visitors.

"She'd walk down from Prescott Street and talk to everyone," Chase said. "She knew what was going on in everyone's life and she truly cared. She was the epitome of this place."

And the place, she adds, is the epitome of the community around it.

"This place isn't just a business, it's a family and a contributing member of the community," Chase said, adding that the Neighborhood has made donations to multiple city-wide non-profit organizations.

After leading a group of first-time visitors on a historic tour of Somerville, Chase -- the city's Historical Society preservation planner -- made a final stop at the Neighborhood, where manager Sheila Borges-Foley stood outside in the terrace, making homemade waffles and Portuguese ice cream to order.

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An old photograph, encased in a large wooden frame, hangs on the wall next to the entrance of the Neighborhood. In black and white, Manuel Borges stands in the kitchen with his two sons, Mario and Mariel, the first few holes of their white smocks left unbuttoned and kitchen cloths draped over their shoulders. Mario holds a loaf of sweet bread the size of his head. Manuel smiles.

Below the image is just one line: "The Borges Family Welcomes You."

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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