East Cambridge Toodle-Oo

First Street Cafe

1 Canal Park, Cambridge


IF you've ever taken the number 69 bus as far as it goes, you know that all of Cambridge is not like Harvard Square. While the Square may be a haven for academics and latter-day hippies, other parts of Cambridge offer shelter to ethnic groups and industry.

This distinction is fast disappearing, however, as the rest of Cambridge begins to emulate the Harvard Square miracle. And this month, a new restaurant called the First Street Cafe became yet another example of just how quickly this change is taking place.


Until recently, the East Cambridge neighborhood where First Street is located had little to offer the middle class--unless they were lawyers in court there. The waterfront area was the province of factories, like Borden's candy plant, and stores more like Wool-worth's than Bloomingdales. But Cambridge can't stand to be behind the times. And it's catching up with other cities at a furious pace.

Revitalization is quickly becoming a motif of the modern American metropolis. City after city is trying to rejuvenate decayed downtown and waterfront areas. Skyscrapers rise like phoenixes where factories and tenement houses once stood. In Baltimore, a decrepit harborplace was turned into a yuppie shopping and eating complex in just a few years. New York's waterfront suffered a similar facelift with the creation of South Street Seaport, a shopping plaza akin to Faneuil Hall. And the trend has spread to East Cambridge.

True, traces of an earlier era persist in the Lechmere area. The smell of chocolate and peppermint and coconut bits still assaults the senses in front of Borden's plant, and the Lechmere department store still sells cheap TVs. But these businesses now share the space with upscale office buildings and chic restaurants.

TAKE the First Street Cafe as an example. It's a new restaurant with a Southwestern twist. Its windows offer a scenic view of the Charles River. It's also right next door to the Lechmere department store. But the restaurant's owners fail to see the contradiction.

Owned by Bob Brody, the executive chef at the Sheraton Harbor Island in San Diego, and local lawyer Bob Fucillo, who will be the restaurant's general manager, the First Street Cafe promises to be a respectable addition to nouvelle American dining in this area. It features a take-out counter, a bar and even seating in the building's interior courtyard--and all this in thorougly upscale surroundings. This is a restaurant that definitely caters to the new crowd along the Cambridge waterfront.

"With the new shopping mall and surge in new housing in construction," says Fucillo, "I believe this area of Cambridge is ripe for the kind of cuisine and service First Street will provide. At some point we will be able to offer home delivery of almost all of our menu items."

What Fucillo means is that the right kind of people are starting to take over the area and that when these people finally arrive, the restaurant will be able to offer them the convenience of home delivery. But that hasn't happened yet. Many of the people who live and work in this are now probably can't even afford to eat at First Street, let alone solicit delivery.

Even the restaurant's "gala grand opening celebration" Wednesday night hinted at this hypocrisy. The opening was a benefit to help the Genesis Fund, a program that helps treat children with birth defects, mental retardation or genetic diseases. Turning a restaurant opening into a benefit is quite a clever thing to do. It's a fantastic PR stunt. It's sure to be praised in every review as a generous act, giving the place a good name. And it also draws attention away from the food. People who read about the First Street Cafe will be eager to try it for its social conscience alone. After all, the restaurant's good intentions with regard to charity probably apply to the food, as well.

NOT that the food at the First Street Cafe is bad. Judging by this week's reception, it will probably be quite good. Green tomato salsa was pleasantly tongue-tingling, the ripe tomato salsa delicately flavored with cumin. A ginger and sesame spiced chicken salad crunched with bean sprouts. The squid in the calamari risotto salad was tender, though the rice itself was overcooked. But while crab quesadillas might be an innovative idea, they turned to be both greasy and cold.

Of course, it is not quite fair to judge a restaurant based on the food served at a reception because only certain dishes are prepared, and these are often prepared ahead. First Street's affair featured appetizers and salads, leaving behind such interesting menu items as griddled calamari steak sandwich and sauteed beef and peppers with Southeast Asian spices on Japanese noodles--an unusual, if dubious-sounding, creation.

But the quality of the food at the First Street Cafe seems beside the point. The point is that here is a brand-new restaurant in a brand-new building that is claiming to be charitable while, in fact, it is part of a revitalization effort that might threaten the livelihood of many.

As more and more restaurants like the First Street Cafe or Michela's make homes for themselves in East Cambridge, they will inevitably force out the mom and pop stores and the Borden factory. The city will be prettier, no doubt, but will it be better?