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Terrible Service, mediocre food at Franklin Cafe, and other thoughts

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I finally made it to Franklin Cafe last night. Is this really a place that people would still recommend? It fit into every negative stereotype I have for Boston's dining scene--mediocre food, indifferent food service, poor treatment of guests, and terrible wine service.

We arrived shortly before 6:00, as we were heading to the theater at 8:00. Although there were 4 tables still open, they wouldn't seat us until our 2 friends arrived, who were parking their car just down the street. OK, I get that they don't want to seat "incomplete" parties, but they really weren't nice about it. Our friends arrived a few minutes later, and we got a seat in the very dark room. Our waitress was arrived, and I can only describe her as surly. She never smiled once, answered all questions with one word answers, and did absolutely NOTHING to enhance our experience. The best I can say about her, she brought our food.

We had a bottle of the Rosenblum Zinfandel, which was very good, but was plopped down with four not-very-good wine glasses, which were quickly filled (clank on the edge of each glass). The pumpkin curry bisque was very good, but I would have prefered a dollop of creme fraiche instead of the pumkin seeds in the middle, which gave it an unpleasant crunch. The arugula and beet salad was OK, but the slivered beets were almost unnoticeable (and couldn't be seen in the very dim light of the restaurant.) The steak frites was mediocre, a fair strip of meat, overcooked and tasting mostly of the char of the grill. The fries were excellent, as was the port wine demi-glace, the only good things I had. My DC had the grilled flounder, served with farro and peas, which was pretty good, but dry. There's no dessert menu at all (why?), so our unhelpful waitress asked us if we wanted coffee or tea, again without a smile. At this point, the place was filled, and loud. We paid (and overtipped her, IMHO, but it wasn't my choice).

Why do places like this thrive in Boston? Are our standards really that low? Or did I just have a bad experience?

So, my list of restaurants in Boston that I think are really worth going to now includes Ten Tables and, uh, well, that's it.

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  1. The Franklin Cafe is a bar that serves food. I personally enjoy most of the menu and think the prices are reasonable for the neighborhood. The wine list has some fair values, though I wish the by-the-glass wines were better. Cocktail quality varies with the bartender, but is generally decent. It's a relatively rare place that serves food late.

    It sounds to me like most of your expectations (quality stemware, solicitous service, quiet atmosphere) are for a different kind of place, more of a mid-level to high-end fine dining restaurant. I don't blame any restaurant for not seating incomplete parties, ever; patrons shouldn't even ask. No one seems to crack on the many North End places that don't serve dessert, which is clearly about increasing turns in a place with limited table seating.

    Maybe the Franklin needs a service attitude adjustment given the much greater range of options the neighborhood now offers -- it's pretty clear that it doesn't draw the nightly crowds it once did -- but at the end of the day it's still a loud, dark bar with food, which is what it always has been. I value it for what it is.

    7 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      MC Slim JB,

      You're one of my go-to reviewers, and I appreciate the feedback. I *thought* I'd appreciate the Franklin for what I *hoped* it would be--a friendly, moderately-priced place that took its food and customers seriously, even though it's a "loud, dark bar with food." But alas, it's a loud, dark bar with food (and an attitude), and I doubt I'd ever go back.

      But what of my quest for a moderately-priced place that takes its food seriously? These places are a dime a dozen in San Franciso, my old haunt. I know this is a recurring refrain, but is there really nothing here like that other than Ten Tables?

      1. re: winedude

        Well, you have my sympathy; it must be tough to move from San Fran to Boston. They're just not in the same league as restaurant towns, in my view. I think lot of it has to do with the relative passion and seriousness of the dining-out audience; people just seem to care more there. Boston still has it better than many, many places in North America, but SF is a special place.

        For Boston, Ten Tables sets the bar pretty high; I've called it one of the very best values of any restaurant in town, a fine dining restaurant disguised as a bistro. No doubt its size contributes to its high quality and consistency.

        I actually consider the Franklin and its ilk (bars with above-average food for a bar) to be one of our strengths, maybe because I like that kind of casual, affordable dining. (Highland Kitchen might be my favorite new entry in this category.) But they're really about a whole package, not generally about extraordinary food. The places that I think seem exceptional of their class include Hungry Mother, Trattoria Toscana and Benatti (though it's relatively expensive); they seem really chef-driven and clear-eyed in their approach.

        I think we do okay on modest, purely regional cooking; I've really enjoyed Gran Gusto, Angela's Cafe, Gitlo's, Taberna de Haro (for years now), Best Little, Hanmaru (hope that one comes back). Rincon Limeno, those kinds of places. It's a good time to be a serious cocktail lover in this city; I couldn't believe how hard it was to find a proper old-school cocktail in L.A. recently, a city seven or eight times our size.

        If I could afford them more often, I'd give more business to places like O Ya and Uni, which do fine things with luxury ingredients. But below that level, you've got to pick your spots pretty carefully; so many other menus look awfully alike these days, with little to distinguish them.

      2. re: MC Slim JB

        seriously... mc slim gives the franklin way too much credit. but, it is more than a bar that serves food SLIM. come on.

        first off... for the chowhound praise, the question "Why do places like this thrive in Boston? Are our standards really that low?" is perfect.

        the franklin cafe gets way toooooo much positive press.

        the only redeeming quality other than having dennis, is the fact that they serve late. but they do that with such regret (as the staff and service suggests)...
        "but at the end of the day it's still a loud, dark bar with food"
        if that were the case, i'd be happy paying 16 bucks for steak frites, and not 16 bucks for smoked mozzarella with fig jam. what "bar" serves this kind of food??
        slim, you have to convince me in other ways.... this aint no "dark bar with food"
        and if it is, i'm going to the waltham tavern.... ha

        1. re: bowmore36

          Wow...I'm confused...what's your point?

          1. re: bowmore36

            For better or worse, the Waltham Tavern is long gone, and it never served food anyway. I miss it for certain reasons. It was a slice of an old South End that is never coming back.

            As for the Franklin, I've long been one of its defenders even though I think it isn't what is used to be, partly because the crowd has changed. Many of the sort of folks that once made it a cool hangout have moved on for various reasons.

            But the real Chowhound question, what I think you're getting at, is whether a bar can serve above-average food and still be thought of mainly as a bar. Me, I think there are plenty of bars that aspire to above-average food the way the Franklin does, that don't have to serve wings and nachos to be considered a bar. I think Boston has moved past that: consider Silvertone, Audubon Circle, Washington Square Tavern, Coda, Garden at the Cellar, River Gods, dbar, downstairs at Marliave, Deep Ellum, The Alchemist, Miracle of Science, Highland Kitchen, on and on.

            I still love the Franklin, though I agree the service ought to be friendlier these days. But arguing that their food is too fancy for a bar seems kind of reactionary to me. It overlooks one of the strengths of our dining scene: we have a bunch of places that are first and foremost bars that happen to serve food that is better than you've been accustomed to expect in a bar.

            1. re: MC Slim JB

              Based on my very limited experiences (once each, since I didn't like them much, to varying degrees) with Franklin, Silvertone and River Gods, I wouldn't say the food or drink rises above basic bar level in quality. Maybe they're striving to serve a different type of food, but I'd prefer decent nachos to bland zucchini stips topped with unmelted cheese (Franklin) or oh-so-salty pizza on crust that's too cracker-crisp to eat (River Gods), and the cocktails I've had at Silvertone and Franklin were not good. Of the three, I prefer River Gods because of the boho-kitch atmosphere and one good cocktail I had there.

              Although I haven't been to Garden at the Cellar yet, my impression is that food is the focus, and the heavy drinking happens downstairs at the Cellar. I also thought of Highland Kitchen and Marliave as more chef-driven operations, too, rather than bars that also serve food. And that's just fine with me. Plunk me down in a funky gastrobar with very good food and even better cocktails (like the B-Side, only more reasonably-priced), and I'm happy. I wish I saw the Boston gastropub scene thriving as others do.

              1. re: pollystyrene

                I really love Rivergods but my opinion could be tainted because I live so close to it. I can't tell you if its a destination pub. But I can tell you I've never had the pizza there. The other food has been really delicious particularly their soups of the day, the skewers, and the God Salad. And I also find the burger outstanding. I would encourage you to try again (but also steer clear of the steak tips- not good).

        2. This is a low key neighborhood joint. If you are commenting on the quality of the wineglasses then Franklin Cafe is CLEARLY not for you. I am sure that plenty of other places in the South End will be happy to take your money for the kind of meal you enjoy.

          This is also a place where you can seldom count on a table at 6:00, and I would never go if I had a 8:00pm theater ticket unless I got there, with my full party, by 5:30. It is not tourist-friendly, they don't fawn over the clientele, or discuss the quaint farm where the greens were delicately coddled before they were driven to the table in a Toyota Prius.

          I have always thought the the Franklin had some of the best FOOD at any price point in the South End and have, year after year, had good-to-remarkable meals there. It is what it is, and, not to beat a dead horse, but if you are commenting on the quality of the wine glasses, you are definitely missing the point.

          9 Replies
          1. re: StriperGuy

            Do you really think it's unfair to expect decent wine glasses when you're paying North of $40 for a bottle of wine? I don't. They have wines over $80, and they're going to serve them in a 50cent stem? I guess I was naive to expect it, but the place does not look like a cheap joint, and I wasn't buying a house chiant, and wine glasses (and good beer glasses, and cocktail glasses) *do* make a difference.

            I also wasn't really complaining about them not seating an incompete party. That I understand, as I've seen plenty of abuses of that. But it somehow seemed to get us off on the wrong foot, and we were never made to feel comfortable again.

            I'm really not trying to be a pain about this, just sharing my experience. Perhaps I'm not the target audience (though there were a lot of folks who looked like me eating there), but I expected much more, and won't be going back.

            MC Slim JB, thanks very much for the suggestions. Trattoria Toscana has been on my to-go list for a while, and after the Red Sox are done (hopefully after the victory parade), I'll venture into that neighborhood for chow.

            I really want to try Gran Gusto as well. It seems like just what I'd like. What about the places in Central Square (Rendezvous and/or Central Kitchen)? I went to Salts many years ago, and liked it a lot, but I haven't been latery. And I'm hoping to try Craigie St. Bistrot after it moves.

            There are a couple of great places in Providence, BTW, if you ever get down that way. Chez Pascal is the equal or better than anywhere I've eaten in Boston (except for L'Espalier, which is a whole 'nother thing.)

            1. re: winedude

              My list is by no means exhaustive, and I'm definitely a big fan of Rendezvous. I've been up and down on Central Kitchen over the years, but my last couple of meals there were excellent. Salts is still terrific, though it does get you into that $30+ entree territory.

              1. re: winedude

                If you're heading over the river anyway, you might want to give Blue Room in Kendall Square a try. Friendly service, cozy atmosphere and good food with innovative touches and a commitment to local produce.

                Gargoyles also generally impresses, with a chef who tries harder than most to push the culinary envelope. It doesn't always succeed, IMO, but I really appreciate a chef who is even trying.

                1. re: Chris VR

                  Thanks for reminding me of a couple of other places that I like. I went to the Blue Room once, and liked it, and I've been meaning to go back. Gargoyles and Evoo are actually my two other favorite places, and your description is apt--the chefs do appear to be trying harder than most.

                  I also really miss Eat, which I thought did a lot of things right, and I was sorry to see it close.

                  I guess it's just obvious that my expectations for Franklin were wrong, as I was hoping for something more like Gargoyles, with a neighborhood vibe, inventive food, reasonably priced entrees, and affable (not obsequious) service. That's clearly not Franklin. Does that describe anywhere in the South End? Is Tremont 647 still any good?

                  1. re: winedude

                    I had a good experience recently at the newly-expanded South End Buttery; I thought it was friendly, solid, and reasonable, a promising early visit. They're kind of doing an eclectic-bistro thing: salads, lots of seafood, some pastas, a number of pretty healthy options.

                    Orinoco definitely meets a lot of your criteria, though traditional Venezuelan food doesn't float everyone's boat. I like the place a lot, though small size and no reservations mean long waits at peak times. Nice patio on a comparatively quiet South End side street; that would be worth checking out while the weather is good.

                    Petit Robert Bistro (South End) is more enjoyable now that it takes reservations. Service is French (i.e., more workmanlike than friendly), but the traditional bistro fare here is very reliable if hardly innovative.

                    I like Tremont 647 mostly as a bar- and patio-dining experience. Very strong bartending these days, and more consistent food than in recent years (the boss is no longer distracted by side ventures). The food doesn't always wow me, and like a lot of South End places, it doesn't feel much like a neighborhood joint Thursday to Sunday.

                    I'm back again firmly in the Hamersley's camp after some years where I thought it wasn't all that (mainly for the prices). It is glorified bistro fare, yes, but I haven't had a dish that was less than really, really sharp and satisfying on my last few visits. The salads in particular are stunning, not something I often say. Not cheap, but it feels like a good value in its price class (most apps under $15, most entrees under $30).

                    (I too was a huge fan of Eat (actually "eat").

                    1. re: winedude

                      Man, I miss Eat too.That place was great.

                      1. re: winedude

                        I am also a fan of Ten Tables and consider it one of the best values & delicious meals in all of Boston. And you're right, there aren't a whole lot of places like it around here.

                        There really aren't a whole lot of other spots in the South End that are casual, bistro-like neighborhood spots with excellent food..I've never had a bad meal at Gaslight but it doesn't feel particularly "neighbohood-y" to me and certainly doesn't have that "small, cozy" feel like Ten Tables or even the Franklin. The Franklin is ok but to be honest it's never been a destination spot for me either --and I'm also right around the corner. Their turkey meatloaf is AMAZING but it's pretty much the only reason to go there, imo.

                        That being said, I have heard great things about Garden at the Cellar in Harvard Square, and I am dying to get to Hungry Mother. Both of these places have passionate chef/staff and are apparently reasonably priced - plus the benefit of locally sourced food in a casual environment....

                        1. re: winedude

                          Adoring Ten Tables as I do, here are a couple of places that remind me of your list of its attributes (with a neighborhood vibe, inventive food, reasonably priced entrees, and affable service):

                          Union: superior service and great American cuisine.
                          Grotto: super rich, cozy, affordable Italalian
                          Gargoyles: inventive and surprising as well as tasty and wonderful.
                          West Side Lounge: low-lit American comfort food.
                          EVOO: Mid-range American Bistro with a focus on local produce.
                          Garden at the Cellar: American bistro and darn good. Be aware that wait times are often quite long (an hour at 7pm this past Saturday, but that seems almost given to me).
                          Green Street Grille: New Yankee cooking plus some of the best bartending on this side of the river.
                          Baraka Cafe: when you feel like Tunisian, this is the place to go. Probably one of my favorites in Boston metro. No liquor license.
                          Hungry Mother: while I'm not particularly taken with Southern cuisine in general (I know, I know, shoot me now), it is good for what it is.

                          Other ideas: dBar, Ashmont Grille, Trattoria Toscona, the list goes on.

                          1. re: gini

                            I feel your pain, winedude. I hail from Providence, where there are plenty of boites/bistros that are putting out (mostly) good food and, importantly, serving it up amiably (Broadway Bistro, Nick's at Night, Julian's, Loie Fuller, Everyman Bistro, Red Stripe, et al).

                            But enough of the plug for Providence...places in town (in addition to gini's excellent suggestions) might also include Highland Kitchen and the Independent, both in Somerville. Don't know if you like to eat in bars, but we almost always get good food and honest service in them. We recently had a nice meal at Precinct in Somerville...the veggie Shepherd's Pie accompanied by sparkling rose is going to be my autumn Friday-night-don't-wanna-cook-go-to-dish.

                  2. i have always enjoyed the franklin's food and cocktails and found it to be a good value. their wines by-the-glass selection has always sucked, but many of the bottles on their list are suspiciously fairly priced compared to other restaurants. it's not a high-end restaurant by any means. i would maybe categorize it under "gastropub" instead. my one complaint (other than the by-the-glass selection) about the franklin, and the reason why they have gone on and off my "no list" over the years, is their service. as long as your whole party is there, you have no substitution requests, and you don't get the surly waitress then your experience there will be seamless. otherwise, be prepared to be annoyed. the franklin used to be more of a hot spot and getting a table in under 45 minutes would be next to impossible. business is not quite as hopping these days, but they still carry their "you're lucky to be eating here" attitude. and it's not just the waitstaff either. the chef is one of those chefs that refuses to change anything on a dish. one example: i was craving their steak frites, but that night the steak came with chive mashed potatoes (which i've had before and don't care for). there was a fish and chips also on the menu so i asked if i could get the fries from that with my steak instead and the chef refused because "it ruined the integrity of the dish". really?!? the only thing he would sub it for was sauteed greens (apparently higher in integrity). being a server myself i was stunned because it wasn't like i was asking for something totally off the wall. in fact i was asking for something they served all the time. and it's not like they serve haute cuisine either. the franklin is at the end of my street, but i can't remember the last time i was there. i used to go more when i worked in the restaurant biz because they served food late, but now that i don't have to eat my dinners at midnight anymore i tend to go to pops or gaslight for my moderately-priced meals out. i love the dark feel and funky music though and really wish they could pull it all together!

                    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one. The last post in the thread has my comments about a recent visit to the Franklin.

                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/554983

                      1. Given your inflexible attitude, I don't think you're going to like Gran Gusto either. They're not into obsequious fawning either and can be a little gruff even.

                        Don't forget Franklin is a neighborhood place and the neighborhood is the South End, not Weston. It's not going to have "smooth jazz" in the background. That said, no excuse for that rude service (although, we only have one side of the story here). Luckily, I've only had decent service at Franklin.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Alcachofa

                          His attitude didn't seem that inflexible. I'd think that if I told someone the other two were parking, they'd cut me some slack. And if not, not be a dick about it. As far as glassware goes, I feel his pain. There's nothing worse than those tiny little glasses which I bet if they spent $.25 more, they could get something bigger and better. That said, it's dark so you just have to deal with it and luckily, I've always had perfectly fine service and good food. Not that I've gone that many times. I think he had a bad service experience which made everything worse whereas a great server would have lessened some of the other problems.

                          1. re: Joanie

                            Actually Joanie most places that employ the "no seating incomplete parties" policy are so used to people using that little white lie about parking friends that they really do insist on seeing the whites of all the guests' eyes. I don't like the policy, but it's not unusual.

                            I'm taking the OP at his word -- the surly service set off a bad experience and it wasn't recoverable. That's a shame -- I hate when a nice evening out is ruined by something like that.

                            If winedude wants to try other places in this range, I'd second Hungry Mother, Rendezvous, Gargoyles, and of course Ten Tables. I agree that Gran Gusto's service might be a little too familiar. How's the service at Garden at the Cellar?

                            1. re: yumyum

                              I only went once, early on a weeknight, but had really great service at Garden at the Cellar. All 3 of us loved our meal and the price point there too.

                              1. re: SEH

                                Thanks -- I really need to get over there.

                              2. re: yumyum

                                I sat at the bar at Garden at the Cellar for dinner and the bartender was very friendly and informative about the menu. Food was delicious. service was prompt but not rushed. I'm looking forward to going back.

                          2. Side question:

                            Was it the Richard Sauret Zin you had? If so, was it still $35 like they have on their website? That really would be a good deal, 50-cent stems or not.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: finlero

                              Yes, that's the wine we had, a Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel, from the Richard Sauret Vineyard. It was, I believe, $36, but a very good value on an excellent wine, even in 50 cent stems.

                              1. re: winedude

                                The Franklin very rarely disappoints me because I understand what it is. A bar/restaurant that serves consistent food till 1:00 am 7 days a week; has a diverse, city crowd; still buzzing after all these years. But, most importantly ,they mark their bottled wine list up $12 over wholesale! Being a wine guy, I do agree wine glasses are important, but inexspensive good bottles trump Riedel glasses everytime...

                                1. re: flyer1

                                  Precisely.

                            2. Hi Hounds, just a quick reminder that we're here to criticize the chow, not the hound. We love the diversity of comments on food and restaurants, but comments on hounds are off topic for our board. Tastes and preferences can be vary, and we don't expect everyone to agree on everything. Please disagree in a friendly and and tolerant way, so that we don't stifle honest dissenting opinions. No restaurant (not even a board favorite like the Franklin Cafe) is all things to all people. Thanks!

                              1. I went a week or so ago to the Franklin, alone and sat immediately at the bar(Wednesday 7:30ish) the bartender was very kind and I enjoyed every aspect of the meal which was the grilled garlic calamari w/ white beans for a starter; tuna steak w/ black pepper and mashed potatoes for main course and 1/2 bottle of Gigondas.(+ good bread and hummus) the bill was $50 which is very fair for such tasty food and wine :) This has almost always been my experience here.

                                1. I too have been to the Franklin many times and have always had a positive experience there. I have never had snobby service. Have I loved everything I have ever had there? No. But the quality and consistency has always made me satisfied. My partner always gets the steak frites and has never been diappointed. It's a great value and a great portion. I always get something different and have almost always been satisfied. We tend to go on the early side when we go so it's not as much of a scene. I have had salmon, tilapia, different pastas, calamari, lots of different appetizers and have always been happy there. Just wanted to throw in my 2 cents.