The Red Fez, rehabilitated
- MC Slim JB Nov 17, 2006 01:53 AM
I was long a fan of the "refreshed" Red Fez as it reopened in the South End a few years ago, modernized, Westernized, and tarted up after a long hiatus. It was an outstanding bar, had a great patio, and did fine Middle Eastern and North African food, though clearly a gussied-up and much more expensive version than its cheap, divey predecessor of twenty years ago. We would regularly make pleasant meals of a handful of hot and cold mezze a the bar, which had very fine bartenders who were also good servers. It had occasional live music, good recorded music and a buzzing crowd of revelers on weekend nights, and a decent brunch. Oh, and it had the only free restaurant parking in the South End: imagine!
But I stopped going regularly probably late last year. I had a couple of disappointing rounds of cocktails in its once rock-solid bar, and a couple of meals that were less than transporting. Then I heard a slew of rumors: wholesale front-of-house firings, busboys pressed into service as bartenders with predictable results, a pending sale of the building so it could be razed for luxury condos.
I gave it another shot recently, and I'm glad I did. We had a very solid meal in the dining room (too big a group to sit at the bar as I prefer). Cocktails were still $11, birdbath-sized, and very well made, an improvement from my last couple of rounds here months ago. More important, our mezze parade was very solid, from the complimentary garlicky, thin bean dip (no more EVOO sprinkled with sumac and sesame seeds), to many of my old favorites. Sanbusak (phyllo turnovers with spinach and feta) are now burekitas, with more of a wonton-like wrapper, but still very tasty, with some red bell pepper added. Muhammara was excellent, as were lamb meatballs, merguez in phyllo (also in a new configuration, still ground up but in a big turnover instead of small open-faced tarts), grilled asparagus heavily dressed with cheese and grilled peppers, and baked kibbe (not my historical favorite -- baked kibbe sounds like "cooked sushi" to me -- but improved this time with a good yogurt dressing). A lot of new faces on the staff, but solid, friendly service.
I am hopeful that my past experience of a drop-off was a blip, that the rumors were unreliable, and that this place will again be a steady, comparatively budget-friendly standby in the South End. In a crowded market with so many new places, it's tough to give venues that have slipped a second chance. I'll keep posting about it; I would love to be able to report that the Fez is keeping up the good work.
Those rumors do seem to have gone unfounded; perhaps disaster was averted. The history of the place is so cool; and I always got the sense that its revitalization a few years back was something of a labor of love (although in all honesty I have no memory of how that sense developed). At any rate, glad to hear it--sounds like the food might be even better than before.
I remember those birdbath cocktails but they were a bargain $9 last Sept. (05). When did they go to $11? Did the menu prices go up?
I had a very similar experience to MC. It was great and fun, and then there was a period around the time of the rumors that it was going to close where the place was ABYSMAL. About two weeks ago friends of mine went to the SOWA First Friday and they wanted to go to the Red Fez to finish up the night. I tried to refuse, but got dragged there. We had a great time and the food and drinks were back to their old selves! Amazing turnaround.
Thanks to friends who are South End realtors, or active in the various South End neighborhood associations, I have a decent grapevine on restaurant openings, expansions, license changes, pending sales, etc. in the neighborhood. I haven't heard that "Red Fez will close and be razed" rumor for a while now. I've been back a couple of times since that Nov '06 report above, and it still seems back on track.