You might say this isn’t the best time to be a venerable old restaurant in Boston. The elder statesmen of the city’s restaurant class might have decades of history on their side, but it’s the newbies that are getting all the buzz. This is the age of Asian gastropubs, modern supper clubs, and elaborate cocktails. To be sure, formal establishments with jacket-clad clientele poring over steak- and lobster-heavy menus aren’t facing extinction. But remaining relevant is another matter. At the moment there’s a preference for nostalgia over tradition, a need to witness trailblazing cooking techniques, and an ongoing demand for artistically presented small plates. To put a fine point on it, consider that the city’s trendiest destination, Yvonne’s, opened in the space vacated by that long-time bastion of upscale Boston dining, the Locke-Ober.
As restaurants go, the Palm isn’t exactly a Boston institution. It’s part of a New York-based international steakhouse chain that enjoyed a 15-year run in the Back Bay before closing in 2011 and reopening 2 years later in the Financial District. But the Palm’s Manhattan roots stretch back an impressive 90 years. Surviving that long in the crowded New York restaurant market is a serious accomplishment, and the Palm has been expanding to other cities since the early 1970s.
But about five years back, the Palm chain underwent a brand refresh. And while I don’t know the rationale behind that move, I can hazard a guess that it had something to do with the factors I mentioned above. Some long-running restaurants are able to forever retain a sense of grandeur and mystique, but most have to contend with all manner of trends and fads. And even the most renowned can lose their luster.
Yet the Palm endures. In an effort to appeal to a younger generation of diners while not alienating longtime customers, the chain broadened and diversified its menu, reviving traditional dishes and introducing new ones. Visually, nearly everything about the brand refresh is meant to echo the Palm’s golden years as a destination for fine dining. The interior of the 8,300-square-foot Boston location feels palatial, with massive marble pillars reaching up to lofty ceilings. The aesthetic is timeless – dark hardwood floors, crisp white tablecloths, and leather booths. The servers look sharp, decked out in black uniforms, and low lighting sets the mood for an elegant night.
And lest the mood get too serious, the cartoons and caricatures that grace the Palm’s walls keep things a little light. A signature feature of every Palm restaurant, the drawings are part of a tradition that dates back to the original location, which didn’t have much money for decorating when it first opened in 1926. But the restaurant was near a print syndication company that sold comic strips and cartoons to newspapers. Artists who stopped in for a drink and a bite would sometimes be allowed to pay their tab by creating a portrait on the wall. The walls in Boston are adorned with reproductions of original cartoons from the New York restaurant, along with portraits of celebrities, local politicians, and athletes.
Of course, a $45 steak is still a $45 steak, which might prompt that coveted younger generation of diners to keep the Palm at arm’s length. But the bar menu is another story. The offerings are surprisingly varied, and a portion of them are half-price between 5 and 7 p.m. (except Saturday). House-made potato chips with garlic and parmesan cheese are crunchy and addictive. A lobster roll is generously proportioned, as is the jumbo crab cake (from the appetizer menu).
But the snacks aren’t the only reason to sit at the bar. The Palm’s cocktail offerings are contemporary and imaginative, qualities one rarely finds in the beverage program of a restaurant chain. Led by renowned bartender Julie Re, the drink list balances tried-and-true classics with a selection of original cocktails.
The Maker’s Apricot Sage combines Maker’s Mark bourbon with limoncello, fresh lemon juice, apricot jam, and sage leaves. Sweet, sour, and herbal, it’s a vibrant and well-rounded drink.
When asked to recommend something, Julie steers me to the 1926 Cocktail. A nod to the year that the original Palm opened its doors, it’s a crisp, herbal cocktail made with Ultimat vodka, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, apple juice, and lemon juice.
Showing that it’s not out of step with current trends, the Palm offers an aged cocktail – a seasonal barrel-aged Manhattan. The aging process gives this timeless libation some additional complexity and a subtle smoky flavor. Tiny shards of ice add a little texture, but also some unwanted dilution.
The Old Fashioned, meanwhile, is refreshingly simple and nothing short of excellent. Its traditional preparation, with Woodford Reserve bourbon, Angostura bitters, an orange slice, and a sugar cube, is entirely befitting of an old-school restaurant.
But for me, the drink that stands out the most is the Palm’s take on the Cobbler. This mix of Zacapa rum, Dry Sack sherry, and lemon juice is exceptional. It’s a simple drink that allows the rum’s sweetness and sherry’s prominent nutty notes to shine. (On a side note, “Dry Sack” might be the worst brand name in the entire liquor industry.)
And while I’ve only been to the Palm once, I can confidently declare that that no visit is complete without an order of their warm doughnuts. I wasn’t even hungry by the time these bad boys arrived in their paper bag, but my lack of appetite didn’t keep me from stuffing my face. Dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with raspberry and chocolate sauces, these delicious doughnut holes are worthy of a little indulgence, even if you have to loosen your belt while awaiting the bill.
Scanning Boston’s restaurant landscape, it would be easy to overlook the Palm. It’s part of a chain, and its Financial District address might suggest a largely corporate clientele. But there’s more to it than that. The lively bar area puts to rest any notion that such an establishment is by definition stiff or stale, and even a night of bar snacks and cocktails offers a glimpse of the formula that’s kept this brand alive for nearly a century. Because no matter what’s popular at a given moment, excellent food and impeccable service never go out of style.
Address: 1 International Place, Boston
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