Last spring I wrote a piece for Boston’s Stuff@night magazine that sought, with the help of local chefs, to define the quintessential neighborhood place in an era of (IMHO) rampant misappropriation of the phrase. If it weren’t for a grandiose wine list—with bottles starting at $40-plus (there are maybe 1 or 2 exceptions) and the majority running much higher, it’s strikingly and shamefully disproportional to the menu pricewise—Black Pearl would fit the profile, at least as I sketch it, perfectly; as it is (and as I’ve said), it comes close enough for me to pop in at least a couple times a month. Here’s how:

Stylishly cozy digs. Though in their thoroughly adult ways both stand together against the family place, a neighborhood joint is not the same as a corner dive. When a round of white Russians, jukebox nostalgia, another round of white Russians and increasingly sloppy turns of pinball are on the agenda, the latter’s what matters (and Gennaro’s, for one, delivers). The former, meanwhile, possesses just enough pizzazz to put the gleam in (rather than a glaze over—see “white Russians”) the eyes of couples, but not so much that singles don’t feel comfortable too. Snug & dim, woody & moody, Black Pearl strikes the ideal balance.

Stylishly cozy eats, for that matter. As the setting goes, so goes the menu. If, on the entire spectrum of independently run restaurants, you’ve got corner dives at one end and five-star destinations on the other, than somewhere in the middle is a subspectrum of neighborhood places with, say bar-and-grills at one end and contemporary cafes/bistros on the other. In the kitchen is neither a celebrity chef-tyrant nor an ever-changing lineup of hash-slingers, but a real cook, putting heart and thought into a menu whose ratio of creativity to comfort is roughly 1:1.

Perhaps, then, the closest synonym to “neighborhood place” is “home away from home.” The food that emerges from its kitchen bears close resemblance to what you’d cook yourself given greater resources/better skills than you’ll ever actually have. If it bears no such resemblance, being too esoteric of ingredient and/or elaborate of preparation, it’s likely neither palate nor wallet are up for the challenge of regular visits. If it bears an exact resemblance to what you already can and often do cook at home, then the point of regular visits is what, exactly?

On that note: behold Black Pearl’s grilled romaine, a smart defamiliarization of the Caesar—one of the ultimate litmus tests of a kitchen’s integrity, being so easy to compromise. Here the warm greens add a nifty twist with a hint of bitter char; grilled bread topped with fine white anchovies and a roasted garlic clove puts plain old croutons to shame; and the dressing is all tang and twang, just as it should be.

Caesar

Stylishly cozy service to boot. They may well know your name, but they don’t take the liberty of using it too often. They ask all the right questions and offer all the right suggestions—and none of the wrong ones—effortlessly. You have neither to flag them down nor wave them away with the promise/threat to flag them down if need be. Enough said, really. It’s all about genuine goodwill on the one hand and no-nonsense discretion on the other.

To be continued…