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Worcester’s Top 17 Food and Restaurant Stories of 2017

Simjang will open in 2017 on Shrewsbury Street, in former Sweet location.

In 2017, Worcester’s restaurant scene welcomed a number of newcomers to the table in our proverbial dining room, which continues to grow at a rapid rate. Ramen bowls, butcher blocks, Szechuan sandwiches, and wine wars all found their welcome here. Still, a few of our biggest breaks bid so long (and in one case, good riddance) to members of the culinary community. Here are the top 17 Mass Foodies stories of 2017:

    1. Sweet ClosesTelevision darling, Alina Eisenhauer announced Sweet Kitchen and Bar’s last day of service in July. The closing marked a new beginning for Eisenhauer who has turned her attention to consulting, private events, and the growth of her YouTube channel.
    2. Broth: The minds behind The Hangover Pub launched a new concept in October called Broth. The adjacent space marked an entry point for ramen in Worcester, toting approachable bowls inspired by American traditions like Thanksgiving. Executive Chef Michael Arrastia explained to Mass Foodies that the inspiration for Broth came during a visit to momofuku, citing his admiration for Chef David Chang.
    3. simjang: Upon Sweet’s exit, the deadhorse hill team unveiled their plans for a new concept at 72 Shrewsbury Street called simjang – a concept dedicated to Korean culture and cuisine. Mass Foodies was awarded the first look inside, where internationally renowned artist Arlin Graff was hard at work on a heartfelt custom mural. Executive Chef Jared Forman gleaned plenty of experience in his three years working for Chef David Chang at momofuku noodle bar and momofuku Ssäm Bar. You can kiss 2017 goodbye and needle deadhorse employees for the simjang scoop as they recreate an original menu from the historic Bay State House hotel on New Year’s Eve.
    4. The Queen’s Cups Relocates to the Canal District: The Canal District erupted with excitement last January when The Queen’s Cups announced that it would be moving to Worcester. Since then, the previous home of Bucky’s Garage has been overtaken with cupcakes, pupcakes, and Mass Foodies’ personal favorite – Matildas. Perhaps the biggest success story of all is that owner Renee King has established 56 Water Street as a wifi-free-zone where friends and neighbors gather regularly to share in one another’s company. Unimaginable!
    5. Nonna’s & STEAM on Ice: In February, Niche Hospitality Group outlined its fast-casual bundle for the Worcester Ice Center as an integral piece of Cliff Rucker’s community hockey vision. A year later, Nonna’s Pizza & Pasta and STEAM Energy Cafe have officially opened their doors (and their parking lots) to the Canal District neighborhood.
    6. Sonoma Checks Into The BeechwoodSonoma Restaurant surprised everyone in May when chef/owner Bill Brady announced that he would be relocating his highly regarded Princeton establishment to the four diamond Beechwood Hotel in Worcester. For Brady, the shift meant a departure from his role at Worcester Technical School in order to keep up with the demands of a full service restaurant.
    7. KummerspeckAll eyes were on Rachel Coit and Matt Mahoney, proprietors of Kummerspeck. Kummerspeck, which translates from German as “grief bacon,” opened in August after a series of local pop ups. The Water Street eatery serves up reimagined comfort food as well as the adventurous offerings of a classic butchershop. Both chefs cut their teeth in Boston’s dining scene, working for famed chef/restaurateur, Barbara Lynch. Coit, former Sportello sous Chef, and Mahoney, former ButcherShop chef de cuisine, eased into the central Mass dining scene with stints at BT’s Smokehouse and Armsby Abbey.
    8. The Rice TruckTeri Goulette first worked her way into our hearts with one of the region’s most popular food trailers, Say Cheese! August marked the purchase of Goulette’s first official food truck, The Rice Truck, inspired by her mother’s famous fried rice recipe.
    9. Sushi Miyazawa: Chef and Owner Norihiko “Nori” Tsukuda boasts 30 years of sushi experience, including his time training with the chef to the Emperor of Japan. In July, Mass Foodies was introduced to Sushi Miyazawa’s modest decor as well as its modest prices. The Chandler Street space seats just 20 customers at a time and allows patrons to BYOB.
    10. Rogers Leaves Niche for Food Hub: It seemed Chef Rogers was everywhere in 2017. As the Executive Chef de Cuisine of Niche Hospitality Group, Rogers forged relationships in countless facets of the community. In many ways, Rogers’ announcement in March that he had accepted a position as Kitchen Operations Manager of the Worcester Regional Food Hub came as no surprise. Given his staunch commitment to the city of Worcester, it was only a matter of time before his humanitarian nature led him down the path to public service.
The Usual on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA
The Usual on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA
    1. The Usual, The Chameleon, and The Conviction: Someone else exited Worcester’s restaurant scene on the very same day as Chef Rogers, albeit less gracefully. Owner of now defunct establishments, The Blackstone Tap and The Usual, Kevin A. Perry was arrested and charged in connection with using the proceeds of drug sales to purchase and renovate nine properties in Worcester County, including both restaurants. Soon after, The Usual became The Chameleon, which we found shuttered in November. This week, we learned U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman granted government control for sale of both properties. Here’s hoping 2018 brings a fresh start.
    2. Worcester Wine Festival: In October, Worcester’s Inaugural Wine Festival drew over 1,300 attendees to festivities that included a grand tasting, brunches, paired dinners, and educational seminars. Mass Foodies is already looking forward to another round of wine events in 2018 from September 4th-9th.
    3. Mama Roux: Jonathan Demoga’s custom food trailer, Mama Roux, took up residency in The Dive Bar’s beer garden in May. Demoga gained his expertise in southern cuisine while working for the famed Brennan Family of New Orleans. Mama Roux has already built a cult following around its Szechuan Hot Chicken Sandwich which is very particular in its use of Regal Crown Pickles, an artisan pickle producer based in Worcester. The coveted sandwich is made with buttermilk fried free-range organic chicken thighs, doused with szechuan spiced chili oil, and served on a Martin’s potato roll.
    4. JosephineIn November, The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts announced that Chris Rassias of Holden had signed a lease to open Josephine, a new restaurant anticipated to launch before the close of their spring season. Rassias shared with Mass Foodies that the concept would be inspired by the traditional aesthetic of 1920’s theater.
    5. Farewell to Chef Evangelous: In December, Armsby Abbey owner Sherri Sadowski wrote a heartfelt goodbye to longtime Executive Chef Damian Evangelous who will be moving to California with his wife Lauren (Revelry Coffee) in February. Executive Sous Chef Sean Dacey will assume his role as the new head of Armsby Abbey’s kitchen.
Valentino's opening in May on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA
Valentino’s opening in May on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA
  1. Valentino’s: In April we had hope that the dormant former home of Cafe Dolce would find a rebirth with the ushering in of Valentino’s Press and Pour. While “press and pour” connotes morning for most, Valentino’s hours are geared toward afternoon and evening customers with the exception of Sunday brunch. If Cafe Dolce could make it work in the aughts, we’re sure they will too, but the coffee program absolutely needs sprucing.
  2. Bootlegger’s Folds to Living Earth: We weren’t surprised when we learned in September that Bootlegger’s Prohibition Pub would be closing in favor of a Living Earth expansion. The Chandler Street sign reading, “SECRET ENTRANCE AROUND BACK,” was a little on the nose. Regardless, Mass Foodies is crazy for all-natural, wholesome shopping and as far as we’re concerned, Living Earth is a Worcester institution.
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Madame Rhubarb And Worcester’s War on Alcohol

Worcester Police Department patrolling Harrington Corner—looking up Pleasant Street—during Prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)

“Twenty-eight federal prohibition agents led by John Hall, prohibition enforcement director for Worcester county, and part of the Worcester liquor squad under Sergt, Joseph P. Murphy, working independent of each other, yesterday staged the greatest series of raids Worcester has seen in months. More than a dozen alleged ‘speakeasies’ were busted by the federal agents, while up to a late hour last night, six places had been raided by local police. Liquor and utensils of all varieties, seized by both squads, was estimated to be worth more than $3000,” published the Worcester Daily Telegram on January 8, 1928.

The war on alcohol had reached Worcester and inevitably sparked a debate among the residents, politicians and visitors, alike, creating a strict line between “sides” during the prohibition era. So, with a history of secrecy, debauchery, and lawlessness, how did this era of necessity shape the industry opening the doors to modern day pop-culture speakeasies like, 67 Orange Street in NYC, Backbar and Bogie’s Place in Boston, and Bootlegger’s in Worcester.

According to Roy Rosenzweig, author of Eight Hours for What We Will, saloonkeeping was the most accessible means of upward social mobility for immigrants in Worcester prior to the prohibition laws. More than three-quarters of Worcester’s Irish immigrants who had become small proprietors by 1900 were engaged in some aspect of the liquor trade. As the desire for saloonkeeping grew favorable among immigrants, the era of drunkenness emerged and catapulted Worcester into an era of crime, abuse and gender isolation. In flow with the series of events happening across the states, drunkenness began to surge outrage and destroy families. Often the result of liquor consumption, women and children were abused and mistreated within families. And while women, not to be implied as non-consumers of liquor, were “forbidden by police regulation to patronize the bar-rooms,” leaving them at home with the children and without a husband.

Bay State House, where deadhorse hill currently resides, was once the subject of one of Worcester's bootlegger's raids during prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)
Bay State House, where deadhorse hill currently resides, was once the subject of one of Worcester’s bootlegger’s raids during prohibition. (Collection of Worcester Historical Museum)

At a time in where labor workers dominated the working industry in Worcester, drunkenness impacted the everyday man. Employers began to see the destroying elements of liquor consumption and its heavily weighted influence on worker production. As production declined, employers began taking a stand against drunkenness and between the family abuse and lack of stable labor workers, Worcester voted to become a “dry” city on January, 15, 1920.

But Worcester was ready for the prohibition era.

While public drunkenness was an offense that accounted for approximately 60 percent of all arrests in Worcester over a span of 8 years, the ideals of saloonkeeping were never deemed undesirable. Instead, the saloon patrons operated outside of, if not against, the formal legal system.

“You see, Vernon Hotel was the most popular speakeasy in Worcester and remains to be the only speakeasy in Worcester today,” says Bob Largess, owner of Hotel Vernon. Owned by two brothers, Frank “Bossy” McGady and Beaven McGady, in the 1920s, the Hotel Vernon is a booming piece of Worcester’s prohibition history. Maintained on the forefront as an Inn, Hotel Vernon served as a speakeasy to those who knew how to get in. Serving ales and liquor during the dry era, Hotel Vernon was simply the place to be. The area, once known as Green Island, was titled “Worcester’s second downtown.”

“During the prohibition era, if you were in the know, then you knew about the Hotel Vernon’s speakeasy. You knew that the sight of Babe Ruth drinking was part of the Hotel Vernon way. It was, at no point, out of the ordinary,” says Largess. Hotel Vernon was built in 1901 and served as the heart of Vernon Square. “This was an area that prided itself on the sense of community. Everyone knew everyone and everyone looked out for everyone. The speakeasy was a home away from home for many during the prohibition era.”

“There were plenty of raids happening in Worcester during the speakeasy era but Hotel Vernon was not one of them,” said Largess. “Not to say this was the reason, but Bossy McGady was a state trooper at the time he co-owned Hotel Vernon.”

With a family history, strongly tied to the speakeasies, bosses and the prohibition era, Largess is a piece of walking history. “The prohibition era in Worcester was something else. My family owned a speakeasy on Accommodation Street and it heavily impacted the way my family lived for generations to come,” he says. “My mother, because she is a woman, was never allowed inside the speakeasy. To this day, when I ask questions, she simply says she doesn’t know much about the family speakeasy because she wasn’t allowed in. This was during a time in where women were prohibited from saloons and had little rights but I always wonder if she claims to not know anything because that’s just the speakeasy way of life.”

The original speakeasy still exists at the Hotel Vernon (via free 48)
The original speakeasy still exists at the Hotel Vernon (via free 48)

“Speakeasies weren’t openly talked about during the prohibition, for obvious reasons. At Hotel Vernon, to get in, you had to know how. You see, McGady put up doors around the inside of the first floor of the hotel to maintain secrecy. Walking in from the front, it seemed like a normal inn, but through the right door, it became the best-known secret,” says Largess. “To get in, you had to knock on the right door and say, ‘I’m looking for the yacht club’ and when asked, ‘who sent you? you had to reply, ‘Madame Rhubarb’.”

Madame Rhubarb, a rarity for this era, was a Polish chambermaid and quickly became one of the most recognizable faces of Hotel Vernon. In the most recent years, Madame Rhubarb passed away and her ashes might be making their way to Hotel Vernon for permanent residency.

“While Hotel Vernon was reaping in the benefits of the prohibition era and creating mixology with the first ever Cape Cod drink, Worcester was in a constant uproar over the prohibition laws, whether they were for or against them,” says Largess. “The exclusivity of speakeasies made them appealing and the freedom of drinking when you want, was also appealing.”

Today, for restaurants and bars to compete, many are turning to the “freedom” that speakeasies offered—at least in concept. “I knew that I wanted to recreate a speakeasy,” says Celeste Zack, co-owner of Bootleggers Prohibition Pub and whose family has been in Worcester since the 1920s and owned the space previously occupied by her father’s EVO. “We want Bootleggers Prohibition Pub to be a transformative experience into Worcester’s old city history.” While the restaurant blends small portions of influence of Italian and Asian flavors, and boasts a modern vibe, the homage to 1920s living is not lost.

Bootleggers Prohibition Pub on Chandler Street in Worcester, MA
Today, Bootleggers Prohibition Pub is cashing in on the concept in its Chandler Street restaurant.

As Zack’s decision to recreate the speakeasy became final, Chef Al Maykel III began to work on his craft. “I sat in the basement for 24 hours after my sister gave me the prohibition theme for the restaurant and became fully focused on creating a menu that offered a peek into the well-known era,” says Chef Maykel III. Bootleggers Prohibition Pub is all about embracing the past and with drinks like The Old Fashioned, French 77 and Moonshine and instilling the exclusive feel that prohibition is known to give.

“Whatever your personal attitude may be toward prohibition, it is the foremost question before America today. Educators and great industries are agreed that for the common weal of America prohibition must stay, and if it is to stay it must be enforced,” wrote the Worcester Division of Allied Forces of Prohibition in an ad in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on January 2, 1932. Only two years later, on November 4, 1934, Worcester voted to officiate liquor licenses and make saloonkeeping a legal business.