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In Somerville, Mass., New Union Square Stop is a Go

The Washington Post - Travel - June 5, 2022

By Liza Weisstuch
June 3, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
The new union square green line T station is in operation
The Union Square T station, which opened March 21, is the first new stop of the Green Line Extension, which has brought a wave of development to the neighborhood. (Shutterstock)

Mark Bowers is the brewmaster at Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, Mass. On a Tuesday evening in May, as the brewery’s weekly session of high-intensity trivia wrapped up, he told me about the time he helped re-create a mid-19th-century beer based on yeast regrown from an antique bottle of brew produced in 1850 at Bunker Hill Breweries, a long-defunct facility once in historic Charlestown. He also provided what amounted to a mini-dissertation in the art of capturing wild yeast. Then he told me he has a PhD in chemistry and worked for a medical technology company for decades.

This seemed like the most appropriate way to drink beer in this precise location, about one mile northeast of Harvard Square and about one mile northwest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The brewery and taproom serve as the anchor for Aeronaut Brewing Co.’s Foods Hub, which also houses Carolicious, a small arepas purveyor, and Somerville Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. In the evenings, bars are sold by the honor system. (Take one, run your card, enjoy.) Some are made with hops from Aeronaut.

The building is an old envelope factory on the outskirts of Union Square, a longtime working-class neighborhood once home to large Portuguese and Italian immigrant communities. Today it sits at the center of the “brain triangle,” as the area is known because of the abundant surrounding universities and biotech companies. But when I lived in neighboring Cambridge in the early aughts, Union Square wasn’t quite so prestigious.The closest T station, as the subway system here is called, was 1.2 miles away. And to catch a bus there was an exercise in determination and luck.

But that all changed on March 21, when a Green Line trolley rolled into the new Union Square T station, marking it open for business, four years after the project broke ground. It’s the first new stop of the $2.29 billion Green Line Extension (GLX). Another five new stops are planned, which will extend the train further into public-transportation-starved neighborhoods in Somerville and into Medford, home of Tufts University.

With the shiny new Union Square station has come a wave of excitement around the neighborhood, which prides itself on its entrepreneurship, commitment to community and quirkiness.(How else to explain the Fluff Festival, an annual celebration of the marshmallow spread invented here that draws an astounding 20,000 or so people?) And considering that the extension has been a topic of discussion since the early 1990s, there’s been plenty of time to prepare.

And it’s paid off. Union Square is already drawing traffic. I met an older Swedish couple at my hotel who had been to Boston many times, but didn’t even hear of the neighborhood until their niece, a Harvard student, recommended they stayacross the Charles River in Somerville this trip. I also chatted with a leather-jacket-clad programmer at Backbar, anationally recognized cocktail bar situated down a dark hallway in a circa-1920s Ford dealership. (A small engraved plaque by the door indicates that you’re in the right place.) As he nursed an elaborate rum drink, he told me that he’d lived near Fenway Park, about three miles away, for a decade and never visited. Now that it’s a train ride away, he anticipates being a regular.

There’s also a new hotel. Aeronaut Brewery is about a five-minute walk through a zigzag of short streets to Cambria Hotel Boston Somerville. The sleek new building, with a crenelated exterior and dark-wood-paneled, modern, minimalist lobby, opened in April and sits on a parcel that had long been an empty lot. It’s a beacon of modernism next to a little retail strip composed of a wings joint, a UPS store and a Dunkin’. Of course. (The Boston-accented Dunkin’ jokes that pervade pop culture are, in fact, not a joke. You can hardly walk 10 blocks in any direction without encountering one, which I report based on years of living in the area.)

The hotel is about a 15-minute amble along Somerville Avenue to the nucleus of Union Square. The stretch includes an outpost of the no-frills regional chain grocer Market Basket and a smattering of businesses that capture Union Square’s indie sensibility. There are also buildings that remind you that you’re in a global tech hub. See: Greentown Labs, North America’s biggest “climatetech” start-up incubator, as it dubs itself.

The beating core of Union Square is a starburst-shaped junction of five streets. (No discussion of Boston and its surrounds can be had without mentioning that the historic area was designed for horses and buggies. Grids were a nonstarter.) On a morning stroll through that heart of the square, I walked past the Independent, a tavern-like restaurant with a popular bar. Jess Willis, the owner, was tending to the flowers on the patio. She started as a server in 2001, the year it opened, and bought the place in 2019. She got the original job, she said, because she got lost on her way to a job interview elsewhere, a fitting story for a neighborhood easy to get turned around in.

Look north from the restaurant and you can spot the English-castle-style granite fort on Prospect Hill, a national historic park where George Washington is said to have raised the Grand Union flag for the first time, in 1776. Look east, out the front door, and you spot a cluster of cranes next to the new T station. It’s the site of 10-50 Prospect Street, which will be a 450-unit apartment and lab-space complex. It’s the first of many buildings that will make up USQ, a revitalization project that will extend over 15 acres and ultimately encompass about 1.2 million square feet of new lab and office space, 1,000 residences (20 percent of which are affordable units), retail, arts space, three parks and a hotel. As part of the project, US2, the development company, worked with the city of Somerville to create bike lanes and upgrade pedestrian paths.

That night, on a local friend’s recommendation, I had dinner at Juliet, a beautiful airy eatery that features an open kitchen. It debuted in 2016, funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised just over $40,000. The owners are planning a move to next door and raised $137,514 the same way. It will more than double the size. Will Deeks, the culinary director who was working the line the night I visited,suggested the pappardelle, a perennial favorite made with chuck roll, a lesser-known cut of beef that’s especially flavorful when braised.

Open kitchens are the norm around here, which makes sense, considering how many locals I chatted with who spoke of Union Square’s intense communal vibe. Why sequester chefs behind closed doors when you could get to know them as you would a bartender? At Celeste, I met Doña Yessi, who was preparing the house ceviche in front of me at the counter. She learned the piquant recipe from co-owner JuanMa Calderón, a Peruvian indie filmmaker who learned it from his mother. She traveled to Somerville to train the staff when the restaurant opened in 2018. The jewel box space can seat 24, which is the same number that JuanMa and his wife, co-owner Maria, could fit in their home when they threw dinner parties. Those events inspired this venture, Maria told me.

Another evening, at Field & Vine, a plate of grilled spiced carrots and local oysters arrived as Mark Holmes, chef de cuisine, told me how cooking in New England is radically different from cooking at his last restaurant in Texas, where seasonality is not a driving force. The restaurant, which shares a building with Backbar, has a fairy-tale-forest vibe to it, with bulky branches and vines wrapped around exposed pipework. Down a small alley from the center of Union Square, it is characteristic of the neighborhood, which contains many alleys and narrow pathways, which can deliver surprises.

Even Bow Market, a complex with a bustling courtyard dotted with firepits, kind of sneaks up on you. It’s down an alley, with discreet signage. Any evening, though, you can follow your ears to the lively buzz of chatter. The market, which opened in 2018 in a horseshoe-shaped complex built in the 1920s for car storage, is a hub of small businesses. There’s Remnant Brewing, a taproom by night and coffeehouse by day, a vegetarian takeout eatery called Saus, and Hot Box, which purveys North Shore roast beef sandwiches, a regional specialty. Shops offer a global assortment of goods, such as colorful arts and crafts from Adorn Me Africa, minimalist home goods from Crane & Turtle and natural wine and books from Wild Child.

But one place that is not hidden a bit is the Neighborhood Restaurant. The Portuguese eatery is a cornerstone of the neighborhood, with significant waits each weekend. The vast patio is covered by trellises that grow heavy with grapes in the warm weather. Sheila Borges-Foley’s late father, a Portuguese immigrant, used to tend to the vines and use the grapes to make wine that he served on the down-low to regulars. These days, she uses the fruit for jam.

Sheila’s brother opened the place in 1980 as a bakery, and her father, a career cook, joined him and transformed it into a restaurant in 1985. On a Sunday morning, picnic tables were jammed with groups of students, families with toddlers, and senior citizens, all chatting over big plates of pancakes, waffles and omelets.

And bowls of porridge. Papas, as it’s known to Portuguese people, is an age-old tradition. Sheila regularly has to assure skeptics that there’s no butter in the recipe. It’s creamy because it’s slow-churned overnight, just as her father made it.

Sheila paused and looked around, a content hostess. She lives in her family home, over the restaurant. “No one lives in the building where their family lived for generations anymore. We have all that history, and it’s still here,” she told me. “It’s really nice when you open your door and there are people enjoying themselves in the backyard. I open the window and hear people chatting. The forks hitting the plates make that dinging sound, and up there, it sounds like music.”

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