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A Tale of True Dining

By Dan S. Aibel

It's a Harvard cliché that undergrads don't get the most out of their surroundings. The Radcliffe Yard doesn't get as much traffic as it ought to. Houghton library's rare books aren't thumbed through as regularly as they might be. And then there's Billings & Stover Apothecaries which, in a perfect world, would have been too much competition for Starbucks to handle.

But even aside from these local gems, there's one nationally renowned resource in town that students haven't been exploiting.

Yes, I'm talking about Rialto, the highly touted restaurant, housed just a few steps behind the Kennedy School in the Charles Hotel. Prospective first-years wouldn't know it from the flood of information they receive before arriving in Cambridge, but one of the Northeast's top restaurants is far closer to the Yard than the nearest McDonald's.

And placing Rialto in the elite of the elite isn't a stretch: Zagat's guide rates only one Boston restaurant higher; critic diva Ruth Reichl of the New York Times proclaims, "[Rialto] clearly knows what it is doing.... This is the sort of food that makes eating in Boston so exciting"; chef Jody Adams is a winner of the James Beard award for best chef in New England.

There is, of course, a good reason that the restaurant isn't teeming with undergrads. In November, the Times put the cost of the average dinner for two, including wine, at $120.

Still, all this adds up to more than a bit of intrigue on my part, so I dial up the restaurant to arrange for a visit. And on Saturday afternoon I make the three-minute walk over to the Charles Hotel to link up with Kate Tazoy, a manager at Rialto who's agreed to let me shadow her for a couple of hours.

I find Kate and she starts to tell me about Rialto's hectic schedule, which keeps the dinner-only restaurant active 20 out of every 24 hours. Making our way into the cramped kitchen, the place is as busy as Kate made it sound. Nearly two dozen people are scaling, chopping, peeling and performing similar tasks. Large cauldron-like pots are steaming and trays full of uncooked food are being shuttled back and forth. No matter where I stand, I seem to get in the way, but everyone is cordial and way too busy to ask questions about the young guy not wearing an apron.

Kate introduces me to chef Jody Adams herself, who looks to be in her late thirties. "Nobody touch your hair," Ms. Adams jokes to her staff when she learns that I'm from The Crimson. "Nobody curse." I ask about the restaurant's reputation as a haven for health-conscious diners, and she agrees that there are opportunities on the menu for healthy eating but stresses that nutrition isn't her only concern. "We don't shy away from fat," she maintains, and I realize I may have inadvertently questioned her creative integrity. "We use butter, we use cream, duck fat."

At 4:30 everyone sits down for the family meal, the only food many members of the staff will eat until after midnight. Afterward, I'm able to track Kate down again, and I ask her about the decision not to institute a dress-code. "We want people to be as comfortable wearing jeans and a T-shirt as they are in a tuxedo," she explains. At the same time, she acknowledges that Rialto's regulars are more likely to be dressed in the latter than the former. "The average age of the clientele is late forties," Kate estimates. On the other hand, "a lot of guys from the Hasty Pudding" come in from time to time.

I ask her if there's anything more of a Harvard angle and she says that the only time the school has a real impact is during graduation, which typically sells out in 90 minutes. Aside from that--and regulars like W. E. B. DuBois Professor for the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Professor of Afro-American Studies Cornel R. West '74--the restaurant and the University don't have much to do with each other.

I try to thank Ms. Adams and say goodbye, but she insists that I come back later, to see restaurant going full blast. "We might even give you something to eat," she says, playfully.

(Back at Kirkland, I skip the General Wong's chicken, the Indian-style potatoes and the tofu Thai noodles, and go straight for cereal.) When I return to Rialto at seven o'clock, the Pearl Jam that was playing earlier has given way to the sounds of a big band. And, in a way that reminds me of that scene in "The Shining," the place has been completely transformed. The bar is packed and the lively dining room gives off a warm glow. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen everyone's still busy at work, including Ms. Adams. Her hair is now up in a chopstick.

For a good half hour I watch her negotiate the kitchen the same way a good editor works a newsroom: She offers input, answers questions and helps with the more tedious tasks. Most importantly, she takes a good hard look, at everything before it goes to press. Or, in this case, to the dining room. And more than once she does some editing--one dish is too dry, something else is too rare, and a third entree is just plain "bad."

Finally she asks me what I would like to eat, making good on her promise to let me sample the goods. I'm non-committal, so she prods, "Do you eat clams?" "Yes," I lie, and she puts in the order.

Clams, I'm afraid to report, have found themselves a new predator.

Dan S. Aibel '98 is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Behind the scenes at Cambridge's best restaurant.

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