As Seaport’s menu evolves, Barking Crab anchors tradition

Printed from:

BOSTON – Entering South Boston’s Seaport District from the Evelyn Moakley Bridge, the red and yellow awnings of the Barking Crab restaurant stand out from the sleek Envoy Hotel behind it. A red crane pops out beyond the hotel, rising from yet another Fan Pier construction site. Cranes have become a common sight over the past decade, as have new competitors for the Crab.

When it opened in May 1994, the Crab offered outdoor seating under its canvas tent. Within a few years it expanded into the adjacent Neptune Lobster and Seafood Market, providing a more traditional setting for diners. With the addition of a wood stove, the dining room stays open year-round.

As far as Seaport competition, there weren’t that many restaurants in the neighborhood in those early days. Jimbo’s Fish Shanty sold fried seafood, Jimmy’s Harborside served a classic menu (since replaced by the upscale Legal Harborside on Liberty Wharf), the No Name provided a no-frills setting on the Fish Pier. And then there was the undisputed king of the neighborhood, Anthony’s Pier 4, where valets parked cars on the pier and diners had to look respectable.

“If you didn’t have a jacket, they would hand one to you,” said Alex Blake, the Crab’s director of operations.

But Anthony’s is gone, making way for development that has already consumed acres of parking lots, pier space and industrial buildings. The Crab has witnessed decades of transformation in its corner of what became known as Boston’s Innovation District.

“So many people forget that people were here first,” – Alex Blake

Blake noted that the changes really took off with the construction of the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse, which opened in 1998 on the curve of Fan Pier across Northern Avenue, and the Seaport Hotel, which opened the same year a half-mile away by the Seaport World Trade Center. Later came the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in 2004 and in 2006, the landmark Institute of Contemporary Art perched at the water’s edge near the foot of Pier 4.

With the development came new restaurants, including Legal Seafood’s Legal Test Kitchen in 2005 and the chain’s flagship, Legal Harborside, across Northern Avenue. Blake said that these establishments have served as a foundation for the area’s restaurant community as it evolved into what it is today.

“So many people forget that people were here first,” Blake said.

The Barking Crab during the summertime (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)
« of 22 »

As towers rose for new corporate neighbors like Vertex Pharmaceuticals and the Seaport Hotel, companies like LogMeIn renovated existing brick buildings while General Electric plans to both renovate and build at its Necco Street site, farther back along Fort Point Channel from the Crab. But as Blake observed, in much of her restaurant’s immediate vicinity there was little other than surface parking lots.

“We had a long view all the way down to the Seaport Center with parking all the way down,” said Blake. Acres of parking, in fact.

Owned for years by Frank McCourt’s family company, the developer used two dozen acres of parking lots to back financing for his purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. When he moved to Southern California, an era of cheap parking near downtown began to fade away.

“We had a long view all the way down to the Seaport Center with parking all the way down,” said Blake. Acres of parking, in fact.

After McCourt collected $86 million in government payments for using his acreage as a staging area for Big Dig construction work, he converted the land to parking lots used by thousands of commuters, according to a article. In 2006, the former Dodgers owner Fox Entertainment Group took possession of the property and sold it to another developer for almost $204 million. The sale marked the start of a massive new phase of development.

“We had a long view all the way down to the Seaport Center with parking all the way down,” – Alex Blake.

With construction popping up in every corner of the Seaport District today, the addition of new restaurants is creating some challenges.

“It was a wasteland down there 10 years ago,” said Susan Holaday, the editor and publisher of Foodservice East, a trade publication for the northeast food-service industry. “Great people from the suburbs love the access to the waterfront and restaurants at the seaport but people who live here I’m not sure if they are really thrilled about it.”

Because so many restaurants have opened in the area, Holaday said the competition created means managers always need to be on the top of their game. One bad Yelp review can spell disaster. But she said the increased number of venues has drawn consumers away from traditional hot spots in Back Bay, the North End and the South End.

“The Back Bay used to be the only place people went out,” Holaday said. “Now there are just so many choices.”

“It was a wasteland down there 10 years ago,” – Susan Holaday

More are on the way.

By Chloe, a New York fast-casual vegan restaurant, plans to debut its first Boston location this summer in the newly built PricewaterhouseCoopers building.

New development and the feeling of the Seaport District of being “a city within a city” drew the Greenwich Village eatery to the new location, according to Samantha Wasser, a co-partner and the venue’s creative director. The restaurant aims to draw in a younger crowd among those working and living in the area.

Among restaurants that have already moved into the Seaport District, 75 on Liberty Wharf run by longtime Hampshire House proprietor Tom Kershaw serves upscale New England and American fare at the foot of the Fish Pier. President and Executive Chef Markus Ripperger says he is super excited to be part of a developing area.

“There have been so many changes in the last three years,” he said. “The neighborhood is growing.”

He sees a mix of customers coming into the restaurant, including both younger folks and empty-nesters that have moved into the city.

“There was one stop sign between here and the Central Artery and it was on the other side of the Northern Avenue Bridge,” – Dan Kenary

To Frank Zanti of Yankee Lobster Co., which moved to a Northern Avenue corner a few blocks away more than 15 years ago, says he never foresaw the changes that were to come. He relocated his lobster wholesale business from Commercial Street in the North End, and it expanded into a restaurant as well as a market.

“At the time, we put the small restaurant in as an after-thought,” Zanti said. “Not what it is today.”

The clientele has changed too. Once mostly blue-collar workers from the Fish Pier, the business now serves an eclectic group of business professionals, South Boston residents and tourists.

“Everything has changed for us,” said Zanti, who has had to keep the restaurant up to speed with trends and cultural changes that have reshaped the neighborhood.

“It’s been nice to see it change knowing that we will be here a long time – well, hopefully forever,” Zanti said. He has more projects in the works as well, but none that will divorce the operation from its roots.

Next door, the Harpoon Brewery has served as another anchor in the district, arriving in 1987 at its Northern Avenue corner closer to the still-industrial part of the district, near the Boston Design Center and the cruise ship wharf.

“There was one stop sign between here and the Central Artery and it was on the other side of the Northern Avenue Bridge,” said Dan Kenary, one of Harpoon’s founders. He said the initial reason for moving into the area was the easy access to highways, shipping facilities and downtown Boston.

Kenary says he hopes to see the area remain mixed-use, so businesses with industrial jobs and the fishing industry remain while more residential development occurs.

“It’s a 24-hour neighborhood but it still has a way to go to become a good 24-hour neighborhood,” Kenary said, noting the need for more retailers and a grocery store.

Hidden behind commercial buildings, the lunchcounter at Pete’s has served breakfast and lunch to truckers, fishermen and industrial workers for more than 40 years in the district.

“Now I get more office workers than manufacturing,” Tony Barros, Pete’s owner. He said there hasn’t been much development in his neck of the district, which is much closer to the heart of South Boston than Downtown. So the development that’s occurred closer to Fan Pier hasn’t directly affected his business.

“I think it is the next to change,” he said. “And it’s going to be changing.”

At the other end of the district, the Crab’s Matt White, says he thinks the next wave will be more residential than commercial, as people start moving into the neighborhood at least partly to avoid the daily commuting struggle. White, the channel-side restaurant’s general manager, said his staff tell him it can take as much as 45 minutes to get to work from the Back Bay, for instance.

As more people move into residences being constructed in the district, it will develop more of a neighborhood feel, he said.

“It’s transitioning, but as far as livability, it’s a little off kilter,” he added about the area’s current makeup, noting the absence of retailers like CVS and a supermarket.

But as the district is transformed, Blake said the Crab has become a fixture in the Fort Point community.

“We’ve changed with the times but without losing our identity,” she said.