Two troubled corners revitalized by Michele D. Maniscalco
MySouthEnd.com ContributorWednesday Dec 26, 2012 As the door closes on 2012, two new doors open as Estelle’s brings Southern cuisine to the previously revolving-door property at Massachusetts Avenue and Tremont Street opposite Parish Cafe, while Pathways to Wellness, a non-profit, holistic health-care center currently located at the South End Community Health Center, 1601 Washington Street, prepares to move to the long-vacant ground-level space at the corner of Washington and West Newton Streets. Prior to becoming home to Estelle’s, the Tremont and Massachusetts Avenue property has hosted a video store, two or three pizza shops and a bakery during the last 12 years. Thirty-five West Newton, seemingly a prime business location with its views of Blackstone and Franklin Squares, has stood empty for years, and an attempt some years ago by the owners of Stella to develop it as an eatery failed due to conflict between the neighbors and Stella’s owners over noise, trash and late-night hours.
Called one of Eater.com’s 10 most anticipated fall 2012 openings, Estelle’s debuted on Saturday, December 1. So far, Executive Chef Eric Gburski, formerly of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, reported, "We’re doing very well. We are happy to be at this corner. We had a great first week and our second week is awesome as well." The restaurant’s name may sound familiar as it recalls the now-defunct restaurant and nightspot that hosted a lively schedule of entertainment, political and community functions in its heyday at Tremont and Camden Streets. The new Estelle’s, owned by Gordon Wilcox of the Wilcox Hospitality Group (Bukowski’s Boston and Cambridge, Parish Café) and chef Brian Poe of the Tip Tap Room and Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, is not a direct descendant of the previous Estelle’s, but there is a connection. "It’s not a revival but an homage to it," Gburski explained. "Gordon Wilcox was a big fan of Estelle’s and he knows the family that owned it. When we decided to open this restaurant with a Southern concept, the family decided to gift us the name. One of the other owners is Brian Poe and he’s from Georgia, and a lot of the influence was his grandmother’s recipes." On a recent visit, the smooth and not-too-sweet chocolate peanut butter pie earned high praise, while Stevie Ray Vaughan’s "Pride and Joy" and Booker T and the MG’s classic, "Green Onions", played at a comfortable volume, setting a laid-back tone and prompting a customer to compliment the host on the music.
South End resident and realtor Courtney Trautman expressed both personal and professional excitement for newcomer Estelle’s. As a diner, Trautman enthused, "I can’t wait to try Estelle’s. I hear it offers Southern food, which I love, and don’t think is available in other restaurants in the South End." Putting on his real-estate hat, Trautman continued, "With housing prices rising, I see more people looking at and buying condos on the western side of Mass Ave. because they get more bang for their buck. I’m excited to see a sit-down restaurant opening to serve the new residents to this part of Boston." A neighbor of the restaurant gave it a ringing endorsement, saying, "I did go to Estelle’s, last night in fact. It was great; simple, yet flavorful Southern comfort food, very friendly staff and relaxing atmosphere. This is a really welcome addition the neighborhood. I plan to go back often."
At Pathways to Wellness, hopes are running high for the group’s future in its new and prominent location. Pathways Executive Director Demie Stathoplos explained, "We think it’s a great use and at the (Blackstone-Franklin Squares Neighborhood Association) meeting we went to, a lot of people were very supportive." While Stathoplos repeatedly expressed gratitude to the SECHC for sharing its space with Pathways, she sees advantages and opportunities in the new space. "We’ll be able to expand our schedule. Right now we are in SECHC, and a lot of people don’t even know we’re here. We will be much more visible to community." In addition, increased visibility and the possibility of new clients strengthen the non-profit center’s ability to provide sliding-scale services for veterans, people with HIV/AIDS and others in need. Pathways to Wellness clients who can afford to pay full price help subsidize the low-cost service programs. Stathoplos elaborated, "Our Share the Care model means that if you come in and take care of yourself by getting a service, you are taking care of other people. In 2012, we covered about 85 per cent of our expenses through fees for service."
Pathways’s new lease at 35 West Newton is the culmination of a long and difficult search. Stathoplos said in a phone interview, "We knew quite a while ago that our lease with SECHC would end in December, 2012. They have been expanding their services, and they need the space. We started searching two years ago. We looked in Jamaica Plain, Downtown Crossing, the South End, and it’s been a challenge because the price of property is high and we need about 3,000 square feet. Some landlords said they didn’t want a longtime lease. One landlord said they only wanted a two year lease with us." Pathways to Wellness’s new landlord at 35 West Newton is the non-profit Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation. Although the West Newton corner property is smaller than Pathways had hoped, the organization was pleasantly surprised. "We initially thought the place we are going to was 1,875 square feet, but then we learned there is a lower level. The location is absolutely perfect because it is a block away from where we are now."
Pathways’s plans to renovate the space include building a bathroom and a kitchenette for staff use. "There are some restrictions based on how the space is laid out," Stathoplos said. "We’ve worked very hard to work with the space to get as much of our functionality in there as possible. We’ll have the same range of services, but in a way we will be available to serve customers better because we will be able to be open on Sundays."
Hearing of the 35 West Newton Street rental, Trautman said, "I’m happy the long vacant storefront at the corner of Washington and West Newton Street will soon be occupied. While I would have loved to see a neighborhood eatery in the space, I understand Pathways to Wellness is a successful South End business that needs more space to expand their business. It will be great to see activity on a corner that has been empty for years. I am hopeful that Pathways will work to make their windows welcoming and attractive to passersby."
Other residents were disappointed that the location will not be home to a restaurant. A local artist said, "I would certainly prefer a restaurant there. I think everyone else would as well. It’s a very special and unique location, situated on the corner of Washington Street overlooking two of the city’s largest garden squares. I mean, you can’t find a better location for a restaurant space in Boston." Referring to the acrimony over the Stella owners’ restaurant proposal, the artist said, "Residents need to balance self Interest with the greater good of the community. These knee jerk reactions by abutters could impact a community for decades." Addressing the safety advantages of having a restaurant bring after dark traffic to the area, the artist continued, "We’ve had recent gun violence in those parks; a fatal shooting this year, in fact. A restaurant open at night adds many more eyes and ears to that corner. Of course, I’m sure (Pathways) will be a great tenant. As wonderful as Pathways to Wellness may be, and they certainly do sound like a great company, it’s simply not the best use of that space."
Early indications point to success for Estelle’s, and when it reopens at its new location, Pathways to Wellness will enjoy added exposure to the community. The new year bodes well for these businesses and the new vitality they will bring to their respective locations.
Estelle’s is open 5:00 PM-2:00 AM seven days a week for dinner, and Saturday and Sunday for brunch from 11:00 AM-3:00 PM. They can be reached at 857/250-3999 or at www.estellesboston.com
For more information on Pathways to Wellness, call 617/859-3036 or visit www.pathwaysboston.org