Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brewery Relocation Plan and Train Station Renovation Are Latest Milestones in Downtown's Renaissance

It's been a heady few weeks of positive developments in downtown Framingham as the calendar edges toward the end of 2014.

 First, after more than a year of anticipation and extensive renovations, the Deluxe Depot Diner opened last week in the historic former train station at the intersection of Waverly Street and Concord Street, in a nineteenth century gem of a building designed by noted architect H.H. Richardson,

The restaurant, which seats 220 patrons, is the third one owned by the husband and wife team of Don and Daryl Levy, who also run similar businesses in Newton and Watertown. One of their claims to fame is serving hearty breakfasts all day, but there is also an extensive lunch and dinner menu as well as a full bar. The interior design is a stunner, incorporating both original aspects of the building structure with Victorian-influenced "steampunk" fixtures. Initial reviews have been quite positive, with many people remarking that this is the kind of eatery that will bring them downtown regularly.

 Then, this week, came the long-rumored announcement from Jack's Abby Brewing, the South Side craft brewery that has grown meteorically in just three years, that they will be relocating to a much larger facility in one of the former Dennison Manufacturing buildings downtown on Clinton Street, just a short distance from their present location on Morton Street.

The brewery, which has won numerous awards for its beers, will grow from its current 12,000 square foot home to 67,000 square feet, including a 5,000 square foot restaurant. Construction will begin next spring with an anticipated opening by the end of 2015.

 The significance of this announcement and its positive impact on downtown Framingham can't be underestimated. First, it will mean that a major manufacturing facility bringing several dozen new jobs will be operating in the heart of downtown. Jack's Abby estimates that they will hire about 25 new employees for the new facility, doubling their present head count. Second, the addition of a restaurant serving up to 24 of the brewery's beers on draft will become a magnet for bringing people downtown for a pint, dinner, or both.

Just step into the tap room at the current brewery on a Friday night or Saturday to see the demand for their products as people line up to buy growlers of beer or hang out for a while, working their way through a sampler of the brewery's offerings or a pint of their favorite brew. And, as a big craft beer fan, having visited microbreweries and brewpubs all over North America for twenty-plus years, I can tell you that they are often bellwether businesses that have infused new vitality into many small towns and big cities alike, and attract additional businesses in the food, beverage, and entertainment industries.

2015 should be an interesting year in Framingham as dynamic businesses like the Deluxe Depot Diner and Jack's Abby Brewing continue to attract more people downtown.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Framingham's Italian Culture Lives On in Tripoli

When I moved to Framingham fifteen years ago, I knew very few people in town. I grew up in a close-knit, heavily Italian-American neighborhood in Quincy, Massachusetts, and when I was a child, a lot of people in my neighborhood spoke Italian, and for some it was their first language. In Framingham I got used to hearing people speaking Spanish, Portuguese, and sometimes Russian, but not Italian.

Then one day at the supermarket I passed a middle-aged woman in one of the aisles speaking to what appeared to be her very elderly mother in Italian. I was so excited I walked up to them and told them in Italian how good it was to hear the language again. I think I startled them with my exuberance but we chatted for a minute, and probably told each other where our families were from in Italy, because no matter where in the world you meet someone with Italian roots, that's the first thing you talk about.

So began my search for Framingham's Italian-American culture. Most of it is centered in Tripoli, the south side neighborhood astride Waverly Street (Route 135) at the edge of downtown, near the Ashland line. The area began to fill with Italian immigrants in the 1880s during the huge immigration wave that brought so many Italians to the United States over the next twenty or thirty years. A large Italian-American community grew and thrived there, but as the old generation passed on and the newer generations assimilated and moved out, the community shrank and other newcomers took their place.

So what are the remaining institutions of Tripoli's Italian past, where you can step back in time a bit, and experience a taste of Boston's North End or New York City's Little Italy (also both greatly diminished) in Framingham? Not surprisingly, given the emphasis Italians put on what they eat, they're mostly food-centric.

La Cantina at 911 Waverly Street is still going strong after over sixty years as one of Framingham's favorite and most beloved Italian restaurants. They also have a product line of salad dressings and pasta sauces marketed under the Fanny label (named after Fanny Mencoboni, who started the restaurant with her husband Leo) that is sold in supermarkets all over New England. Within the past few years they completed a major renovation and expansion so clearly their offerings of traditional fare like chicken or eggplant parmigiana, fettucine alfredo, and sausage and peppers has a loyal following.

The Waverly Market, at 684 Waverly Street, is a family owned and operated Italian food store that opened in 1929. They are renowned for their homemade porchetta, sausages, meatballs, sauce, and pasta, as well as the many food items they stock that are imported from Italy. They also have takeout sandwiches, soups, and salads as well as cappuccino.  The store has been featured on Boston area television shows like Chronicle and The Phantom Gourmet and has been run by three consecutive generations of the Stefanini family.

The Framingham Baking Company at 840 Waverly Street has been producing baked goods for the community since 1917. While you can certainly get the expected items like Italian bread, biscotti, and pizzelle, they offer a veritable global array of items ranging from croissants to challah to Portuguese sweet bread. What many people flock there for are their famous sheet pizzas, which have fueled many a family gathering in town.

The Columbus Club at 11 Fountain Street is a social-fraternal organization that has been a cornerstone of the Framingham Italian-American community since it was founded in 1908. But you don't have to be a member to experience this century-plus marvel. One of the best-kept secrets in town is the fact that they serve lunch to the public Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. This fact is not even included on their web site, curiously, though they do some print advertising once in a while.

Just walk in the side door to the lower level of the building and you'll find yourself in a lively room full of postal workers, trades people, and assorted townies in the know, chatting away as they dig into hearty plates of pasta with meatballs and sausages, soups, sandwiches, as well as daily specials like chicken parmigiana (Saturday is tripe day), all at very low prices. They also have an all-you-can-eat dinner Tuesday nights from 5 to 7 p.m. - soup, salad, garlic bread, two types of pasta, meatballs, and dessert and coffee, incredibly, for only $7.00.

The genesis for this blog post was a recent discussion on the Framingham Downtown Renaissance Facebook page when someone said downtown Framingham needed some places where you could buy homemade, old family recipe items like sausages and bread. As I pointed out, in Tripoli you still can, and have been able to, for about a century, thanks to Framingham's Italian American community.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

MetroFest Showcases Framingham's Premier Outdoor Venue

Combine twenty-five food trucks serving innovative and delicious fare, a lineup of fantastic bands, a comfortable venue, and perfect early autumn weather, and you've got MetroFest 2014, held yesterday at Bowditch Field, the town's athletic and cultural complex.

The event, a production of the MetroWest Tourism & Visitors Bureau, was another great example of how the new Bowditch Field can host thousands of people for a variety of purposes beyond football games and graduation ceremonies, and further solidify Framingham as the cultural and entertainment center of MetroWest.

Most of the several thousand people in attendance were there primarily to dig in to the food, which ranged from barbecue to seafood, to new twists on familiar fare like hot dogs and burgers, as well as Vietnamese, Jamaican, Greek, and French cuisine (even a truck dedicated to bacon dishes), as well as artisanal ice cream, cupcakes, and whoopie pies for a sweet finish. And unlike many of the reviews I read on Yelp about food truck festivals held in other Boston area locations, Bowditch was a comfortable setting.

The over two dozen trucks were situated in two grassy areas within the complex, with plenty of room for picnicking on the lawn and bathrooms nearby. The lines for some trucks did get long as the afternoon wore on, perhaps 15-20 minutes, but nothing like the hour-long waits in baking parking lots I'd read about at other events. And with the music stages set up on the other side of the stadium, you could enjoy food and conversation in a relatively quiet environment.

One drawback of Bowditch is the lack of sufficient parking, but the shuttle that ran from free satellite parking lots at nearby schools and the juvenile courthouse were efficient and added a bit of a festive element as people chatted and  clambered on and off the buses at either end of the short trip.

The event also had a remarkably diverse crowd - young families, students, as well as seniors, and everyone else in between - good food being the great equalizer that it is. Overall it was both a nice opportunity for Framingham residents to enjoy an afternoon of food and music at the town's premier outdoor venue, as well as show people from other towns and cities what Framingham has to offer. Here's hoping MetroFest becomes an annual tradition.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Downtown Dining Scene Gets National Recognition

Earlier in the year I wondered if downtown Framingham was poised to be recognized as a unique dining destination due to its diverse offering of various ethnic cuisines. Wonder no longer, as, a well-known web media company that focuses on metropolitan life, has named it as one of the sixteen best ethnic eating enclaves in the United States, along with major cities like Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

The article cited south Framingham's "Little Brazil" for its concentration of Brazilian eateries and food stores, putting it in the same category as Little Havana in Miami, Persian Square in LA, and Little Ethiopia in DC. That the town of Framingham with under 70,000 residents was recognized in the same breath as major cities with populations up into the millions is amazing.

The profusion of Brazilian businesses downtown in the past couple of decades, to the consternation of some life-long residents, inarguably has played a major role in its rebirth. And remember that a rising tide lifts all boats. Alongside the Brazilian establishments downtown there are now also many other ethnic restaurants, serving Vietnamese, Colombian, Salvadoran, Mexican, Italian, and other cuisines, along with plenty of places you can get traditional American fare as well. And let's not forget our award-winning craft brewery, Jack's Abby Brewing, that with its new tap room is bringing more people downtown than ever.What may be ho-hum or of little interest to some locals can be seen as exotic and attractive to people from out of town. More than one Framingham resident has told me that when out of town family and friends visit they are delighted to try ethnic places downtown that don't exist where they live.

And to put the icing on the proverbial cake, a few days after the article was published, the Boston Globe's Cheap Eats column featured Pupusas y Tacos Dona Sofia, downtown's beloved Salvadoran/Mexican comfort food haven.

The secret is out; downtown Framingham is now on the map as a dining destination. Rather than lament what downtown used to be, let's embrace and capitalize on the strengths inherent in what it has become. With our support of its businesses and institutions we can help bring about an even more dynamic and exciting future for us all.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Significance of Framingham High School's Rating by US News & World Report

By now, many town residents have heard that the US News & World Report's Best High Schools study ranked Framingham High School as number 25 in the state of Massachusetts. And don't forget that Massachusetts has the best-ranked schools of any state in the nation. Just ask anyone you know who lives in a state with poor public education, where thousands of middle class families pay for private high schools just to ensure their children get a decent, not necessary superior education - and you'll realize how lucky we are in the Bay State.

It's interesting to look a bit beyond Framingham's ranking to understand the real significance of it. The top of the list for the 352 high schools in Massachusetts is populated with some of the usual suspects - affluent towns without much economic or racial diversity and public exam schools like Boston Latin. Charter schools are also increasingly showing up high in the rankings; the Advanced Science & Math Academy in Marlborough, which draws students from Framingham, was ranked number two in the state.

Curiously enough, some of Framingham's more affluent neighbors scored lower than The Ham. Wayland came in at number 28, and Lincoln-Sudbury Regional came in at number 45. Natick was not ranked for some reason, but came in lower than Framingham on the college readiness score.

No doubt there are many who would rightly argue that measuring a school on just four criteria (college readiness, math and English proficiency, and student/teacher ratio) does not tell the whole story. Many of the schools that ranked lower than Framingham are well-known for their excellence, but with the vagaries of limited statistical measures some are going to fare better than others.

It's actually somewhat surprising that Framingham is ranked so high. We are a very diverse town - economically, racially, and linguistically - and with that diversity comes a set of challenges that some of our more affluent neighbors don't have. Buying a home (since they tend to have a small stock of rental housing) in those towns is widely believed (and no doubt true) to be a ticket to an excellent school system, but it effectively excludes a majority of people. Any town that is made up of mostly high-achieving, well-educated, affluent people certainly has a leg up on communities with broader demographics. Framingham, however, in the best American tradition, offers an excellent education to children from modest backgrounds, and an opportunity to move up the socio-economic ladder.

Having a child who graduated from FHS in 2011 I can readily attest to the quality of the education she received. The US News & World Report overview for Framingham noted that the Advanced Placement coursework and exam participation rate is 49% (the same as Wayland's, despite Framingham having a student body that is 27% economically disadvantaged, vs. Wayland's 7%). When my daughter brought home the AP course listing I was stunned - it was as large as some college course catalogs. She took a fair amount of AP classes at FHS and was very well-prepared to do college-level work. She is now a junior at UMass-Amherst (another excellent public institution) and a member of a national honor fraternity.

Kudos to Framingham High School - both the educators who work so tirelessly to achieve a level of excellence - and our students - who show the rest of the state and the country that great education results can come out of all sorts of communities.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marathon Redemption at the 6 Mile Moment

A year after the tragic bombings that marred the 2013 Boston Marathon, the final redemption in my mind was the wonder of the race today from my vantage point in downtown Framingham. It was a perfect spring day - blue skies, cool in the early morning, then warming up as the sun rose higher. The crowd was huge, as was the field of runners, all bound to prove that last year's attack on the most storied marathon in the world not only wasn't going to keep people away, it was going to dramatically boost attendance and participation.

Yes, there was a lot more security present, from more Framingham police officers to military police to a State Police SWAT team, and a flyover by Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. But it did not feel foreboding or oppressive, and all of the officers were smiling and talking with spectators while keeping the course safe for everyone.

Kudos to Holli Andrews, Executive Director of the Framingham Downtown Renaissance for helping make it feel more like a community street party than ever. The branding of the event as the "6 Mile Moment" - commemorating the town's location on the 26 mile race route, complete with prominent signage - gave it a celebratory feel, as a live rock band serenaded the runners from a stage next to the train station. A hundred yards to the west, Access Framingham cable TV was broadcasting the race live with a trio of commentators, including recently-retired selectman Dennis Giombetti.

And downtown's diverse array of restaurants no doubt got a boost in business from some of the hundreds of hungry spectators as lunch time approached. Donia Sofia Pupusas Y Tacos, a few steps away on Concord Street, and my favorite for Salvadoran and Mexican comfort food, had every table filled with people eating and watching the race on a big-screen TV, erupting in cheers and applause as the male and female winners were announced.

So if your past marathon Mondays have been spent at home watching the race on TV, next year come downtown and join the party and have your own 6 Mile Moment.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Destination Downtown Dining District in 2014?

Is downtown Framingham poised to become a destination dining district of its own in 2014? Some might debate that it already is. To add to the existing diversity of eateries, the owners of Pho Dakao, a Vietnamese restaurant in Worcester, will be opening a Framingham location at the location of the former Limey's pub and Sampan restaurant at 101 Concord Street this month. And the splendid, historical train station on Waverly Street also has a new future as a restaurant. The Deluxe Station Diner, with existing locations in Newton and Watertown, plans to renovate and open the building as its third location this year.
While some may say that the downtown Framingham dining scene is a sea of Brazilian establishments, on closer inspection it is much more. Pupusas Y Tacos Dona Sophia at 40 Concord Street offers authentic Central American/Salvadoran cuisine and has over forty reviews on Yelp, one of the premier restaurant review sites, from diners not only from Framingham and Metrowest but from Boston and beyond, including one visitor from Chicago. And a few minutes walk away at 66 Hollis Street, Pueblito Paisa Colombia gets high marks as well for its take on traditional Colombian cuisine.
And while the profusion of Brazilian food may seem like no big deal to those of us who live locally, it's an interesting and exotic alternative to people from outside of eastern Massachusetts. My wife and I took her parents, who live in Pennsylvania, to The Tropical Café at 85 Hollis Street for dinner and they loved both the food and the atmosphere, which really makes you feel like you're in a faraway locale, with Brazilian music playing in the background and the chatter of people speaking in Portuguese.  And unlike some of the other more spartan Brazilian storefront eateries, The Tropical Café has a full liquor license.
For more traditional American food, downtown stalwarts like The Chicken Bone at 358 Waverly Street and Eagles All-American Grill at 55 Park Street have a loyal and steady clientele, and newcomer Frescafe at 82 Concord Street is earning fans for its eclectic take on typical breakfast and lunch offerings.  
Framingham has, arguably, with the exception of Waltham's fabulous Moody and Main Street restaurant district - another area that has made ethnic variety its selling point, which we should also aspire to do - the most diverse downtown dining scene between Worcester and Boston. Here's hoping with the new additions to downtown's restaurant offerings we'll move a bit closer to that goal in 2014.