Go West: Worcester Has Become a Goldmine of Good Eats
The second largest city in Massachusetts is getting big props for its newly thriving dining scene. Head west and check out this assortment of top-notch choices.
When deadhorse hill co-owner Sean Woods started renovating the space for the new Worcester restaurant and café, he stuck to the foundations. After hacking at the ceilings and walls of the 160-year-old space, Woods discovered the original ceilings of what was once the first floor of the Bay State House hotel: beautiful, black, ornate tin, hammered into tile patterns.
The restaurant’s dedication to the history of Worcester extends beyond the ceilings — the name harkens back to the hill on which the restaurant sits, that wore out the horses that traveled through early Worcester. Woods scavenged for the bar’s glassware at Massachusetts vintage markets and garage sales, and came up with an eclectic variety from gold-etched coupes to McDonald's happy meal cups. And even though the restaurant is only a month old, it’s drawing locals in droves. That may have something to do with the town, or it may have something to do with the owners — both Woods and co-owner and executive chef Jared Forman worked for Boston favorite Strip-T’s, and Forman is also a Gramercy Tavern alum.
Those are big names for central Massachusetts, especially Worcester, which has no real reputation for culinary excellence. Woods knows it.
"Initially, for me, there was no attraction," Woods admits. His fiancé’s company offered her a job in Worcester in 2009, and he followed her to central Massachusetts — commuting to Strip-T’s six days a week. But when Forman decided to leave Boston for New York, Woods grabbed him by the sleeve with a business idea.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, dude, check this out: This is where I live, and this could be the future of dining in that city.'" Woods recalls. "[Forman] said, 'This place is great!" and I go, "Right? There are all these good hole-in-the-walls that Worcesterites keep to themselves.'"
That’s no joke: Worcester hides its gems, but they’re coming out of the woodwork — by (the food critic's) chisel or otherwise.
Once a hub of machinery and now a hub of higher education and biotechnology, Worcester lives in the middle, and its best restaurants reflect that. You’ll find exceptional ramp bucatini on one side of town, and fantastic ugali on the other. Worcester is a town in constant transition, a haven for those deterred by the too-expensive suburbs of Boston, or those who’ve escaped war-torn countries and found comfort in factory jobs and restaurant work. Still, new money has poured into Worcester’s infrastructure, from the $565 million CitySquare mixed-purpose development downtown to the newly renovated Worcester train station. The redevelopment of New England’s second-largest city, which piqued the interest of the New York Times in January, has induced a surge of new, hype-y restaurants. The Hangover Pub, a bacon-happy watering hole, opened in April with food blog fanfare (including this one), and restaurant hotspot Shrewsbury Street continues to welcome new ventures along culinary avenue. But as redevelopment flows through Worcester, its pulse remains with the people who’ve maintained throughout. Its mom-and-pops and cheap eats thrive in the shadow of the big names. It is home to Middle Eastern restaurants and upscale pizza shops, breweries and dives. It’s a place where construction workers drink next to college students, with views of the hills, next to vacant lots, next to the soon-to-come big apartment building or restaurant or mall. To find a good meal, you just have to follow the locals, whomever they are.
Shrewsbury Street hosts a collection of tasty options that attract the city’s many college students and young professionals. When I ask Worcester natives for the most notable spots in the area, almost everyone references Food Network favorite Sweet Kitchen & Bar. Owner Alina Eisenhauer won the channel’s dessert competition show Sweet Genius in 2011, and she put her bakery’s “dosant” on the menu five years before Dominique Ansel launched his hype-inducing, ego-inflating cronut. But Sweet is far more than a dessert bar: In the evenings, the polished, high-ceiling space opens its painted-brick bar and serves Moroccan rib tips with yogurt mint sauce and harissa honey glaze. Wine and beer pairings run parallel to the snacks and starters, and like many of the restaurants in Worcester, identifying Sweet’s one particular country of origin is impossible — Portuguese chicken appears next to chicken-and-waffles. Half of the menu’s second page is just dedicated to listing all the local farms used to stock the restaurant, including New Braintree's B&B and Walker farms.
But a restaurant like Eisenhauer’s really stands out because of its desserts, like the individual key lime tart. The custardy citrusy pastry comes in an alarming shade of olive, but the shortbread crust and tangy filling distract from the almost artificial color. A chocolatey almond tart is luxuriously rich, like most of the desserts here. If cupcakes are still your thing, feel free to grab one from the case — they range from the traditional to the boozy (check out the margarita cake).
Next door, Volturno Pizza Napoletana (pictured above) respects the hyper-meticulous guidelines of traditional Neapolitan pizza, from the 900-degree wood-burning oven to the certified pizzioli making them. Although the kitchen also churns out sandwiches, salads and a decent pan-seared ribeye, this spot is all about the ‘za. Sure, you can find the classics here, but the head-turners are where it’s at: The cavoletti (Italian for Brussels sprouts) uses maple to bring out the smokiness of pancetta, and the capocolla uses a drizzle of hazelnut-infused honey to tame the spicy pork shoulder and chili paste. But the standout at Voltorno is easily the pistachio pie, which uses a base of pistachio pesto to pair with fennel sausage and a blanket of mozz. Every pie comes dotted with the char of the crazy-hot oven, and the chewy, soft, almost pillowy crust. These are not crispy flatbread crusts — be ready to cradle your slices, which often go limp near the center.
For the thirstier in the crowd, Wormtown Brewery — a Worcester-based company — has only kept its outpost on Shrewsbury for a little over a year, but the taproom is a veritable hotspot for college student and suits. A flight of tangy summer beers is an easy crowd-pleaser, like the brewery’s most popular beer, the Be Hoppy IPA. You can spot Be Hoppy on several menus around the city, if you haven’t already tasted it in Boston and beyond. One place you can experience Wormtown in a different way is next door, at Sweet — Eisenhauer uses the spent grain from the brewery for her sandwich bread and burger buns.
"The synergy between the restaurants here and the brewery is just great," Eisenhauer says of the Shrewsbury restaurants as she preps for the dinner rush. “It’s not competition; it’s more like one big family.”
Worcester’s restaurant scene would be nothing without its ethnic food, the often underappreciated corners of Worcester’s culinary world with histories of loyal customers. Fatima’s Cafe is only a little over a year old, but it fits this bill unlike almost any other restaurant in the city. The African restaurant sits in a somewhat random corner of Northern Worcester, a barren storefront with very little in its glass case, a handful of tables and only one server. But trust me, Omar Issa is all you need.
Issa, the co-owner of Fatima’s, will sit you down in the window and give you a full-on explanation of every dish on the menu, including its country of origin and how certain spices arrived there. He recommends the ugali, a cornmeal porridge he serves with sautéed collard greens, onions and peppers. "They call it, 'poor man’s meal,' but it’s the healthiest of them all," Issa tells us. "Sometimes we say, 'It’s the meal to the next paycheck.'"
Much of the food at Fatima’s could "get you to the next paycheck" — Dishes rarely pass the $15 mark, excluding a $20 Anjero Platter (a collection of stews with flatbread) that’s meant to be shared as an entrée. Although the eating is cheap, it feels plentiful and prosperous, which may have more to do with Issa and his generous spirit. Along with the ugali, chapatti and an assortment of stews, Issa forces us to try all of the samosas on the menu, and even one off the menu — a flaky pastry pocket filled with soft, spicy lentils that appear yellow with turmeric. The beef samosas, although a bit bland, pop with the flavor of a housemade green chili hot sauce.
"Everything here is made right here," Issa says. "My wife, Fatima, she makes it, but she does not try it. She knows. She watched her mother make it, it’s something that’s passed from one generation to another generation. It’s just by observing, and looking, that’s how it’s all done. No measurements, nothing. They take pride in that."
It’s hard to tell which of the stews pairs with the chapatti he delivers, or the ugali he described, but it doesn’t really matter: every vegetable tastes delicious with either. The sukuma, the sautéed collards intended for the ugali, is light and refined, and the cauliflower and eggplant stew maintains a jam-like consistency. Issa remains nearby to answer questions, discussing the way spice traveled down from India to places like Kenya or Ethiopia. We nod, and jam more vegetables into our mouths.
When you walk into BirchTree Bread Company, the sheer space of the bakery hits you almost as quickly as the smell of cinnamon and leavened loaves. BirchTree sits on the second floor of the Crompton building, and the expansive dining room includes large pew-like benches which sit opposite couches under exposed beams painted tan. Baristas pour Acoustic Java of Worcester (a local small-batch coffee roaster), and local products line the walls, including bottles of Pittsfield’s Fire Cider and Worcester’s Dr. Gonzo Garlicmash. A borderline-twee chalkboard displays a list of toasts, sandwiches and soups (today's is a borscht).
Owner Robert Fecteau trained as a chef at Boston’s Four Seasons, as well as various restaurants around central Massachusetts, before he decided to learn artisan baking. He worked as an intern and apprentice at bakeries throughout California before coming back to Massachusetts and opening BirchTree. That’s no surprise, since the bakery feels utterly Californian, from the long haired ethereal servers to the sea salt sprinkled toasts.
The toast in question is the coriander raisin, a thick slab of chewy bread with a swipe of gritty house-made peanut butter and slices of banana. The sea salt is a surprisingly sophisticated finish for a classic busy-morning breakfast. Whole coriander seeds spotted next to golden and traditional raisins in the bread add a unique twist to this comfort food favorite.
Most of BirchTree’s dishes play on childhood favorites with a touch of ingenuity: various grilled cheese sandwiches include a swipe of apple mostarda or membrillo (quince paste). The corned beef and kraut, almost a Reuben, upgrades the traditional Swiss for Green Mountain Gruyere and ditches Thousand Island in favor of whole grain mustard. And the various toasts, echoing to the $4 toast outrage of 2013, serve loaded slabs of bread closer to open-faced sandwiches. Britt’s Toast, which changes periodically (today it’s The Odyssey: spinach, feta and garlic cream cheese, and a lemon almond tapenade), is often a sure bet for a tasty breakfast.
But when Chef Forman picks the bread for deadhorse (other than the brioche they bake in-house) he goes for the closer Crust bakery down the street. Slices of a country loaf come before each meal, served with whipped butter. If it lasts, it can sop up the addictive remnants of the chutney or lemon syrup to come. The deadhorse menu features pages dedicated to inventive cocktails, tasty snacks and large-format centerpieces, including a designated "huge" rib-eye. The charred asparagus appetizer comes with chutney, boondi and bright candied white asparagus, leaving traces of ginger and lemon syrup on the plate and palate.
Look up from your plate. You’re in Worcester, Massachusetts. There are millennials drinking mezcal at the bar, and suits tearing into too much fried chicken. It almost doesn’t make sense for the setting.
But that’s why it does.
deadhorse hill - 281 Main St., Worcester, 774.420.7107, deadhorsehill.com
Sweet Kitchen & Bar - 72 Shrewsbury St., Worcester, 508-373-2248, sweetworcester.com
Volturno Pizza Napoletana - 72 Shrewsbury St., Worcester, 508.756.8658, volturnopizza.com
Wormtown Brewery - 72 Shrewsbury St. (sensing a pattern here?), Worcester, 774.239.1555, wormtownbrewery.com
Fatima’s Cafe - 43 W. Boylston St., Worcester, 508.762.9797, fatimascafe.com
BirchTree Bread Company - 138 Green St.,Worcester, 774.243.6944, birchtreebreadcompany.com