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Jan 31, 2011 08:27 PM

Franklin Cafe: I DON'T GET IT

This is a rant.

I know Chowhound is supposed to be about steering people who love good (highbrow and lowbrow) food to places they will love, and I am all about that 100%. But as a corollary, hounds should try to steer fellow hounds away from places they find abominable.

To me, Franklin Cafe in the South End is one of them. I live four doors down from this place on Shawmut and desperately wanted to like this place (I know MC Slim JB and others hate this sentiment/phrase, but sometimes it is truly how one feels) because it could have been my tried and true neighborhood joint! The amount of love people gave them on these boards was striking even when I wasn't paying any particular attention. I was hopeful and excited. I tried their fried chicken. I tried their steak frites, their steak tartare, their mussels, their salmon, their cod, their old menu, their new menu... everything, and honestly, I cannot name a place that I dislike more in Boston.

Soups (every single one I tried) are too salty. Fries are greasy, not crispy at all. Steak tartare was just plain bad, like a cacophany of condiments with the perfunctory texture of raw beef. The butter sauce on their pan-roasted fish dishes ends up being a pool of unseasoned melted butter in which all the accompaniments drown. Mussels are cold, many of them unopened, shells cracked.

I have had so many consistently negative experiences and not a single positive one that it boggles my mind how many people love this place. I have been here over 10 times and I think I am done exchanging my hard-earned cash for a queasy sense of greasy fullness in my stomach. It honestly felt like a place that Gordon Ramsay would show up to do an episode of Kitchen Nightmares on. I really wanted to spit the food out of my mouth tonight (the rouille crostini), and I never feel that way, never. Although I feel a little conflicted and unsettled about starting a thread with such a negative vibe, I have held my tongue since the first time I went for fear that I was speaking prematurely -- I wanted to give the place a chance -- but now, at over $500 down in what I consider wasted money, I am still hungry at midnight for something that actually tastes good, and I've given up on this place. God, I hate myself for ranting like this, but I hate Franklin Cafe more. Good riddance.

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  1. thanks for the report. I feel the same way every time i try Franklin Southie (not South End). had hopes that Franklin South End, being their original, was better but now i don't feel bad crossing it off my list.

    1. Well, you can't attribute a string of that many bad experiences simply to bad luck.

      I think the Franklin South End has had its ups and downs in terms of consistency over the years (I've been going for at least 12), but I've never had a run that bad in terms of the food. I can see the criticism about oversalting, which I've run into more than once. Some of those dishes I don't think I've ever ordered (steak tartare), or not ordered in a long time (mussels). But I still have a much more favorable view of the food. I still dine there at least once a month, often more, and can't recall a recent stinker. (It's especially nice on a night with bad weather, when we can walk in and get seated quickly; tonight might be one such opportunity.)

      Current menu items I've found consistently good: grilled calamari, soy-marinated chicken livers, creste di gallo, pan-roasted chicken, the famous turkey meat loaf, corned beef. I've never had a bad rendition of grilled or pan-sauteed fish there; that is one of their strengths in my book, though I haven't tried the current menu's tempura-fried cod. They've gotten serious about gluten-free, and it's a pretty passable place for vegetarians.

      Maybe some folks are going in with exalted expectations of what is essentially an upscale comfort food place. Once upon a time, it was a godsend, one of a tiny handful of options outside of Chinatown to get good cocktails and something better than diner food or crappy pizza after 1am. That's not the case anymore, so maybe that halo has slipped a little, too. Not sure I would trek across town for it anymore, the way I did in the early days; the tide has risen for restaurant quality and late-night dining all over Boston.

      I ratcheted it down in my rotation for a couple of years because I was annoyed with a dropoff in cocktail quality that coincided with a quality uptick at nearby competitors: bad time to fall off on that score. Then they hired Joy Richard away from Tremont 647, and the program across the empire has been much stronger and more consistent since (Citizen is terrific, with a great whiskey list, good cheap wines on tap, that cool ice-ball gimmick, draft Fernet) though there are still individual bartenders at every location who aren't that great.

      Can't say I blame you for writing it off after that run. Hope I don't run into something similar there myself! I imagine fewer first-time visitors will be disappointed if they understand it belongs in the category of "neighborhood bars with above-average food at decent prices", small enough that the wait for a table can be annoying, and not some extraordinary fine-dining destination.

      1 Reply
      1. re: MC Slim JB

        Four things:
        (1) I always have a good meal at this place.
        (2) Overseasoning is the one food flaw that doesn't annoy my salt-addicted palate.
        (3) I've never had better grilled calamari in my life.
        (4) Yeah, you should probably move on. Too many other good places around for you to endure hand-wringing frustration!

      2. Thanks for the report - as someone who lives outside the South End, Franklin Cafe has become one of the mythical chowhound places that I read about that I am convinced I will never visit, though not for lack of trying. But your rant makes me feel less concerned about missing out.

        I did try again a couple of weeks ago - two hour wait.
        What about the place down the street - the Italian place - (not THAT Italian place) - the other one - Joe V's - I don't think I recall seeing anyone ever mention it - we ended up in Orinoco instead - Mike, I would put my $500 down there in a minute.

        Joe V's
        315 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

        10 Replies
        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          I was never a fan of Joe V's food, but it may have finally closed as of yesterday. The owner is relocating to Washington Square, Brookline, the old B&D location, to be called Jimmy's. Not sure if he's sticking to the same budget-priced, middlebrow Italian-American with sub-par pizza that he did in the South End.

          Joe V's
          315 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

          1. re: MC Slim JB

            I also have never been wowed by Franklin Cafe and always felt like I should give it another chance, that perhaps I wasn't ordering right, etc. I also live very close-by and have had a handful of "okay" meals there --I agree that the grilled calamari is excellent and the turkey meatloaf is delicious. Everything else, sorta meh, in my opinion, so I tend to go elsewhere (esp. because there is almost always a wait, and I personally don't think it merits that.)

            Re Joe V's --there was a time (back in the first year or so when it opened) when I actually liked this spot. It was a good place to have decent red-sauce fare -chicken parm was good;there was a delicious "iceberg wedge" salad; and pizza was tasty too. Long after we all stopped going there, I had friends in the 'hood who swore by their pizza for takeout.
            I have to say I'm surprised it stayed in business for as long as it did, as more spots opened in the 'hood and competition got a lot fiercer, Joe V's just kinda fell off the radar. It wasn't anything exceptional and there were far too many other spots (like Coppa, for example) that were, so I'm not surprised it's finally closing up shop.

            Joe V's
            315 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

            253 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

            1. re: twentyoystahs

              We routinely walk out of the Franklin if the wait is more than thirty minutes (the hosts are pretty accurate at predicting turnover, and no dessert helps), though we've gotten good at identifying likely windows of short waits, and are happy to take bar seats if they open up. There are so many more options within a few blocks than ten years ago.


              1. re: twentyoystahs

                i appreciate the cocktails and the minuscule wine mark-ups. that being said, last few visits, the menu was way too slanted to sweet on top of savory and there was seriously nothing i could imagine for dinner. last trip was nov/dec and something had a blueberry sauce? really??? i went hungry, which is stoopid.

                as much as i appreciate their ethos, it will be awhile before i go back. i can rely on non-sweet food with minimal mark-ups elsewhere.

              2. re: MC Slim JB

                Thanks for that - probably a good thing that we avoided it if they were about to close, reducing inventory, etc. Any word on what if anything is going into the vacated space?

                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                  I feel like I recently read something about another restaurant taking over the Joe V's space, but I'm blanking on the details. And it's possible I'm just confused. MC may have more info tho'....

                  Joe V's
                  315 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118

                  1. re: Bob Dobalina

                    Rumored in the Joe V's spot: a Japanese restaurant that sounds like a budget izakaya: snacks, yakitori, beer, sake. Depending on the pricing, that could be really cool; nothing remotely like that in the South End.


                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                    Oh boy, just what Brookline needs. Back in the summer, when I asked a person working on the place what was going in, he said, "A New York style of restaurant". Like I should be impressed.

                    1. re: CookieLee

                      you should be ... or would you rather have yet another "greek" pizza place

                2. I think it used to be is comfort food, but they did a better job before the big renovation.
                  Tried it twice afterwards and it was anywhere from ehhh to blechhh (dudes, did you guys find a huge sale on salt????)
                  Seems like a nice bar area for locals though...

                  1. Hmmm, I've had the total opposite experience. I hit it 2-3 times a year for 10+ years and have NEVER had a bad meal.

                    Heck and ranting is part of what chowhound is about. Share your bad experiences to save others the same.

                    To each his own. Gotta say I would not have given it nearly as many chances as you did...

                    What places in beantown do you like?

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      I'm glad you and others still enjoy it there and am surprised that we have had such diametrically opposed experiences. I kept on going back thinking that I probably didn't order the "right thing" the previous time I was there, and because their menu descriptions keep making things sound good. I'm weak. Plus it's so close to me that it's hard not to think I couldn't go there and at least get a decent steak frites or a bowl of soup that hits the spot when I'm exactly in that "slightly upscale comfort food" mood. After the fifth or sixth visit, I would stop in only for a drink but then eventually decide to order because I was hungry with a nice buzz setting in, amplifying my cravings for specific things they happened to have on their menu that night.

                      Places in Boston I like include Bergamot at the top of the list, and then after that Hungry Mother for their catfish entree, out of this world cornbread, pork plate, and a bunch of other things. I love the roast chicken at Union and ESK, where I sat once a week at the bar on post-call days as an intern during my first year in Boston and was introduced to all things offal. ESK was my first bone marrow, first baked raclette, first sweetbread, first real Manhattan, etc. Surprisingly, I did not like the roast chicken at Hamersley's, nor much of the other food there for the price, but I've only had two visits and I'm more than open to a third. For sushi, I like Toraya and Oga's in Natick the best, though if the nigiri at Oishii weren't so small and so freakin' expensive, I'd probably like Oishii even better because I think their sushi rice is technically better than all the others; plus their selection of non-standard fish (white sake, hamachi toro, botan ebi, multiple types of yellowtail, mackerel, uni, o-toro/toro/chu-toro all available on one night, etc.) is hard to beat. Ten Tables JP is hit or miss, but when they hit, its fantastic, especially if it's on a Tuesday night when they offer their $42 four-course with wine pairings. I go to Coppa quite a bit because it's right across the street, and really like almost all of their food, especially the pastas and their plain pizza. Gran Gusto and PICCO are my other favorites for pizza. I found Joe V's pizza too crackly-thin in a bad way (kinda like Upper Crust but worse). Flat Patties or Toro for burgers, B&G for a lobster roll/bisque or chowder and a really good $16 fish sandwich, ICOB for the actual oysters, Russell House Tavern and Union for brunch. I was never too enamored with No. 9 Park or even Craigie, though I've only visited each once and am eager to try again. Best tacos were at Taco Loco in Somerville. I spend a lot of time in Chinatown, especially at the sort-of-new Dumpling Cafe, Vin Sunh, Peach Farm, and Pho Pasteur. And of course Ken Ramen in Allston which I sorely miss.

                      I realize that most of these places are in a completely different category as Franklin Cafe, so I do not mean to make any sort of direct comparison. That said, value is value...

                      Can't wait to try Erbaluce, Trattoria Toscana, East Coast Grill, Rincon Limeno, and El Chalan based on recent threads. I'm also tempted to try the fried chicken at Kennedy's Fried Chicken on South Tremont every time I drive by. Meanwhile, I hope to dear God that the old Joe V's space will magically turn into a real yakitori joint.

                      1. re: Mike5966

                        I appreciate your negative review and additional explaination. Now I am craving EST's mussels! mmmmm

                        1. re: Mike5966

                          Hmmm, cool, thanks for the info.

                          I share your underwhelming impression of Hammersley's. Always felt it was pedestrian preparations at no so pedestrian prices.

                          Give Best Little Restaurant in Chinatown a go. Be sure to try the Pork and Long Bean Lettuce wrap and the garlic fried spare ribs. The Squab (pidgeon) is also amazing.

                          Happy hounding.

                          1. re: Mike5966

                            mike, agree w/ you completely about franklin and hammersley's, though lord knows it is a small bus(maybe just a sedan) that we are on . For your 'can't wait' list, i hope you will visit gargoyle's in davis sq. and evoo in kendall sq., and la verdad by kenmore sq. for fish tacos and carne asada tacos.

                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                              Haha, maybe even just the Indiana Jones motorcycle with little sidecars attached.

                              Hamersley's does seem to get a lot of praise on CH, and I do think it's great that the chef himself is in the kitchen every night. Unfortunately, despite the great service and the seriously warm, inviting, and convivial atmosphere of the main dining room, the food just didn't do it for me. The chicken was dry and moist simultaneously (very weird, like water-logged sawdust), too salty in some spots and bland in others... The skin was more charred than carmelized. The charring was unpleasant and very different from the "good char" on, say, a good pollo a la brasa even though these are two entirely different beasts. Tenderloin with foie gras was just kinda pasty and the gratin dauphinoise they came with was oily and burnt. They did have a version of frisee au lardons that was fantastic, but wasn't enough to make me happy about the meal overall. A few other non-chicken dishes I tasted there off others' plates I can't remember much about other than the fact that they were "alright." This is another example for me of a place that people seem to praise so unanimously that I keep wondering if I'm the weird one, or if as a fluke I had it on the only two or three bad nights they had in a year, only to be wowed like crazy on my next visit should I decide to go. Shrug, maybe I'll see you at their bar, haha.

                              I've had La Verdad when they had the old menu and liked it a lot, especially the tongue taco. They used to run a taco/tequila/beer special that was killer for starting an evening. I shall be back soon to try their new menu. Thanks for the other recommendations.

                              1. re: opinionatedchef

                                How many tortillas do they use on their tacos at La Verdad?

                                La Verdad
                                1 Lansdowne St, Boston, MA 02215

                                1. re: jgg13

                                  They're definitely using two now

                                  1. re: jgg13

                                    JGG, I don't know where beach gets their info, but it has always been one corn tortilla, including when we ate there last week and i posted about it on this thread:


                                    i also went to the CH Mexico board and found out from the posters there that both one and 2 corn tortilla tacos are found all over Mexico; neither can be called the norm, and the majority of respondents had experienced single more than double- at tacqerias in mexico:


                                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                                      I think jgg might have been joking. We're all pretty clear about your views about La Verdad's tacos / tortillas at this point. ;-)