Before you go to a new restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened spots, as well as some of your favorites.
Latest up, we’re in South Boston at Gray’s Hall, a natural wine bar on a well-traveled corner of East Broadway. The spot, which debuted on New Year’s Eve 2019, was open just two-and-a-half months before restaurants shut down. But the Gray’s team regrouped and rode out the rest of 2020 serving the neighborhood on two patios, one on either side of the building. Dining alfresco is still an option, but now you can raise a glass inside — including at the 16-seat bar.
The restaurant is owned by business partners Matt Thayer and Andy Fadous, the duo behind American Provisions, the cheese and wine shop located directly next door. In 2019, they launched a second location of “AP” in Dorchester, then decided — in the same year — to open the wine bar. Thayer says it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
1. The original idea was to expand the cheese shop, not open a wine bar.
When the nail salon next door to the original American Provisions closed in early 2019, Thayer and Fadous jumped at the chance to lease the space. “We had been chirping in [the landlord’s] ear for years,” says Thayer. “We always imagined just blowing out a wall and making American Provisions bigger.”
But with the grocery business shifting around them — Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was on their minds — they rethought their plan. American Provisions’ sandwiches-to-go business was thriving, and so were wine sales; so the two decided a wine bar would be perfect next door. After all, both businesses could share the basement, already outfitted with a dish pit and workspace for the in-house pastry chef.
But before anything else, they had to transform the former manicure spot into a full-fledged restaurant. That’s where Meredith Thayer, of Thayer Design Studio, comes in.
2. The interior designer of their dreams turned out to be close at hand.
Matt Thayer says being married to an interior designer — in charge of her own full-service design firm — is a huge advantage. “I close my eyes and I can talk about how I want [a place] to feel,” he says. “She is really good at taking that and achieving that.”
The couple wanted to create a drinks environment with a relaxed, welcoming vibe. “We knew from the jump that we wanted that space to feel as though you were coming over to somebody’s house for dinner,” he says. “That was always the vision for this space.”
He still remembers the day they got the keys to the property. “I remember it was Meredith, Andy, and me,” he says. “We were giddy in this wide-open space. We knocked a hole in the drywall, and we’re like, ‘Holy crap, it’s all brick behind there!’ So the three of us were smashing that drywall, using some random instrument to poke holes in it.”
After a year-long, studs-out remodel, the drywall was gone, and the brick painted white. One wall serves as the backdrop for three tiers of open shelving for wine. Patrons sip and nosh beneath a collage-style gallery piece by local artist Kenji Nakayama, and at a counter along the window with a view to the street.
When you’re sitting on a comfy stool at the glossy L-shaped bar, you can’t miss the backbar’s green and white tile work. Follow that checkerboard pattern toward the back and you’ll see the semi-open kitchen. Just beyond that is a framed print — a whimsical illustration of a family at a table — done by Thayer’s late father.
And like almost everywhere else in Boston, the property comes with plenty of history.
3. Gray’s Hall is named for the meeting place of a 141-year-old civic association.
The wine bar gets its name from the original Gray’s Hall, a three-story building that once stood on that same corner property. On the front wall of the current building is a plaque stating that the hall was an early meeting place of the South Boston Citizens’ Association. Founded in 1880, the association — still in operation today — is the nation’s oldest neighborhood civic organization.
Thayer loved the idea of naming his bar after the historic gathering place — but he had to learn the story first. “What’s embarrassing is that we had no idea that the plaque was on the building,” he admits. (To be fair, the bronze marker — located between American Provisions’ takeout window and the wine bar’s entrance — is situated well above eye-level.) “I’d walk by it a thousand times,” he says. “I never had stopped to read the plaque until somebody pointed it out to us.”
In the Illustrated History of South Boston, first published in 1900, historian Charles Gillespie writes: “In matters where the welfare of the district is concerned, the association is ever on the alert.” However, “questions of politics, religion and liquor license” are left to other governing bodies. Furthermore, on the third Thursday of every month, after the meeting adjourns, “a sumptuous repast is served to those present.” We don’t know what those attendees ate; but we feel certain that what was served 100 years ago can’t hold a candle to the menu of modern-day Gray’s Hall.
4. There’s a reason why the burgers are served with steak knives.
If you’ve followed the career of chef Marcos Sanchez from his time at tapas-focused Tres Gatos to working as chef de cuisine at Tasting Counter, you’re certain to arrive with high expectations. Every item on the menu is a familiar dish at its most finessed. That goes for the fried clams, done Rhode Island-style, with marinara sauce and lemon-zest-seasoned aioli for dipping. Each whole-belly bivalve, dipped in a tempura-style batter, emerges puffed and golden from the fryer. (Some of the nuggets on your plate are actually cherry peppers in disguise, making the dish feel like a treasure hunt.) Be sure to get the creamy-cool burrata, drizzled with warm chile crisp, followed by a confit chicken leg, plated with grilled spring onions and macerated cherries. And there’s a reason why the outstanding burger arrives with a serrated knife.
“100% of the meal is intended to be shared, including our little flat-top burgers,” says Thayer. “They come with steak knives so people will cut them in half.”
He’s thrilled by everything coming out of the kitchen. “Marcos is so talented, he could do anything,” he says. “I’m slightly biased, but I think he’s the most underrated chef in the city.”
5. Dive in, the drinking is fine — thanks to a down-to-earth wine director.
Thayer also sings the praises of Mira Stella, formerly of Tres Gatos and seafood eatery Row 34. The Dorchester native is now Gray’s general manager and wine director.
“I knew I wanted Mira to work for me in some capacity,” he says. “I was at Row 34 one day with Meredith on her birthday, and we were standing three-deep at the bar. I saw Mira wade through the crowd with a bottle of wine. She saw my glass was half empty, knew what I was drinking, and splashed my glass — just filled it up. She kept it moving. And I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about.’ She left an impression.”
Both want everyone — from the neighbor down the street to the proprietor of a buzzy Somerville wine bar — to feel equally at home at Gray’s.
Stella has a knack for putting folks at ease when it comes to the ever-changing selection of small-producer wines. With a dozen by-the-glass pours and more than 30 bottles on offer nightly, she’s happy to help you navigate the list. And if you’re on the fence between a fizzy ribolla gialla from Friuli-Venezia Giulia and an orange verdelho blend from California’s Sierra Foothills, she’ll pour tastes of both to help you decide.
6. Get back to where you once belonged — at the bar inside.
As nice as it is to lounge on the patios, Thayer is thrilled to welcome people back inside. “It is so fun for us to re-open indoors,” he enthuses. “We’re a wine bar, right? That’s important for us. We really want the bar to be the focal piece of our space and the vibe we always talked about.”