By Maggie Cassidy
When workers closed up shop at El Pelon Taqueria on the night of Jan. 5, there were virtually no signs that the restaurant had suffered a devastating fire just over a year earlier, in December 2007. Since reopening in February 2008, they had reincarnated their famous walls of photos displaying about 70 snapshots of customers proudly wearing their El Pelon T-shirts — which show a mustachioed man underneath the restaurant’s name — in locations around the world.
There were other mementoes, too, tacked up on the walls: Mexican baseball shirts, folk art, gifts from customers. And there were the customers themselves: tourists, passersby, and, in large part, local Fenway residents who stopped in for the $4 burritos or popular $5 fish tacos.
The following morning, the beloved taqueria was gone. El Pelon was one of seven businesses – six restaurants and a dry cleaner – destroyed in a four-alarm fire early Jan. 6. The blaze gutted the building, causing an estimated $5 million in damage and leaving 71 workers unemployed.
The Boston Fire Department later declared the cause an electrical short circuit in Thornton’s Fenway Grille. But as with several other Boston neighborhood restaurants destroyed by flames in recent years, the damage on Peterborough Street extended beyond fire reports and insurance claims. The neighborhood lost its informal community center — its “heart,” neighbors said.
Joyce Foster, president of the Fenway Community Development Corporation’s board of trustees, said the eateries on so-called Restaurant Row – Thornton’s, El Pelon, Rod Dee Thai Cuisine, Greek Isles, Sorento’s Italian Gourmet, and Umi Japanese Restaurant — mirrored the diversity of the neighborhood they had served for years. Some of them, like Sorento’s, had been there for more than two decades.
Beyond being popular places to eat, they were “part of the fabric of the Fenway community,” Foster said, and their disappearance “represents a major tear in the fabric. It’s heartbreaking.”
Fenway residents say that without a formal neighborhood center, the small, locally owned food joints played an important role in their community. Restaurant Row drew customers from beyond the Fenway area, but “of course it’s the neighborhood people who are most affected, because you can’t help but have all these feelings every time you pass,” said Gloria Platt, one of many Peterborough Senior Center members who frequented the restaurants. “Nothing’s there except a big old bunch of boards.”
Younger generations, too, had affection for the restaurants, whose colorful awnings overlooked chairs and picnic tables on their patios out front. In the first few weeks after the fire, Restaurant Row’s destruction was at the top of 28-year-old Liz Koch’s conversations with old classmates – the news spreading to friends as far away as California. Like many college students, Koch, who lived on Park Drive for six years before graduating from Northeastern five years ago, had an affinity for El Pelon, but she said the appeal of all the restaurants was their connection to the Fenway area.
“It was one of those neighborhood things that nobody else knew about. It belonged to the neighborhood,” she said. “I had this pang of sadness when I saw that headline” about the fire, “and the picture was gut-wrenching.”
A group of students from McKinley Preparatory High School, located across the street from the restaurants, even wrote a song to express their feelings about the fire, later posting it as a slideshow video on YouTube.
Jim Hoben, who opened El Pelon in 1998 and sports the same mustache shown on its T-shirts, said January’s early-morning blaze had devastated his workers.
“We miss being a business,” he told a crowd of local supporters at a community meeting Feb. 23. “I don’t think I ever realized how much” the restaurant’s workers “enjoy doing what they do until now.”
And neighbors can hold a special regard for such familiar faces, and their establishments. Robert J. Sampson, professor and chairman of Harvard’s Department of Sociology, said community restaurants fall into a group called “third places” -— places outside home and work, like pubs and bookstores. Third places have served an important function throughout history, he said, by providing “a common ground for people of all different backgrounds to come together.”
“One of the reasons the old show ‘Cheers’ was popular was because it evoked that sense of place where ‘everyone knows your name,’ where there’s a community of sorts, those they see on a regular basis,” Sampson said. “Even in large urban areas, one of the reasons third places are important is because you can form an identity or attachment, even if you don’t know them in a very personal way.”
Losing the restaurants is like “losing a part of the community,” said Sampson. “It’s understandable that some of the more popular restaurants that have burned would cause a certain anxiety.”
Allston residents know what Sampson is talking about. The neighborhood favorite Grecian Yearning Restaurant, destroyed by a four-alarm fire last June, offered Allston’s large college student population affordable all-day breakfasts in an inviting, low-key environment.
It was a place where everybody knew your name — or at least your face, said owner Nicholas Katsarikas, who opened the restaurant after emigrating from Greece in the ’70s. He said the place thrived on the friendly atmosphere he and his wife created.
“It was nothing really special; we didn’t have chandeliers,” Katsarikas said. “It was just a simple, simple place, but that was what the college kids like. . . . It was their place – that was our goal all the time.”
Similarly, neighbors had long considered the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant, destroyed in August 2007 by a blaze that killed two firefighters, the best of the few Chinese food restaurants in West Roxbury, largely because of the friendly mom-and-pop-style service that would deliver in all kinds of weather. And Jamaica Plain residents learned the tragedy of losing a community restaurant when El Oriental de Cuba, a neighborhood gathering place, was destroyed by a firebomb in July 2005, shutting down the restaurant for more than a year.
“That’s the way everybody sees it — it’s like a community place,” said Edgar Figueroa, 35, who was born and raised in the area. “It’s not just a place you go eat. You see everybody, everybody’s together.”
With the economy failing and the cost of opening a restaurant soaring, restaurants struggle to rebound from fires. In West Roxbury, former Tai Ho owner Jean Li last spring gave up trying to rebuild, according to her lawyer, Carolyn Conway, who said Li didn’t have the money to start over. This spring, pizza chain the Upper Crust is slated to fill the space with its 14th shop.
Satisfying building codes can also be a hurdle. More than 30 years of new regulations have been passed since Katsarikas opened the Grecian, and he said he can’t afford to bring the building up to code.
Although he hopes to reopen in Allston, he doesn’t know if he will return to the Harvard Avenue location, which remains covered in plywood, now decorated with dozens of comments scribbled in marker by well-wishers.
Nobel Garcia, however, is one of the lucky ones. He triumphantly reopened JP’s El Oriental in November 2006 amid a crowd of neighbors, politicians, servicemen, and other community supporters.
“We went through 14 months of real, real hell, but the community kicked in, the city of Boston kicked in,” Garcia said. “Everybody from everywhere came out in throngs. The neighborhood came back to life again.”
With the future cloudy for the Fenway restaurants, community members seem to agree on one thing: The neighborhood is not the same without them.
“Everyone I’ve talked to – neighbors and strangers alike – seems stunned that the restaurants are gone, and people are only now coming to grips with the idea of not having them around,” said Steve Wolf, a longtime Fenway resident and CDC board member. “Those privately owned businesses, with no conscious intent to function as the heart of the West Fens, had become just that.”