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New England Regional | Tastes and Tables

Urbane Yet Casual

Boston’s Audubon Circle offers terrific food in relaxed environs.

March-April 2012

Minimalist décor that is both restful and dynamic allows the food to shine.

Minimalist décor that is both restful and dynamic allows the food to shine.

Photograph courtesy of Audubon Circle

Exterior of Audubon Circle

Exterior of Audubon Circle

Photograph courtesy of Audubon Circle

Audubon Circle, named for its location at the quiet end of Kenmore Square, is a comfortable mix: a spacious bar/restaurant with great food in an intimately lit, minimalist setting that is all the more inviting thanks to the friendly warmth of its staff.

The kitchen is open all day, and prices range from $6 to $22, making it accessible to most appetites and wallets. Audubon fits a nice niche, carrying neither the burdens of a big night out in a chef-owned restaurant, nor the unpleasantries of many late-night Boston pubs (intoxicated louts and menus dominated by chicken wings). “We were trying to create a bar and grill where you could have drinks with friends, and, if you decided to stay for dinner, the food was really good,” says co-owner Matthew Curtis, of the restaurant’s founding in 1996. “We think the bar scene can add a little vitality to the dining room.” 

Hence the open-space concept: Audubon is a long rectangular room with high ceilings and an elegantly curved bar that occupies most of one wall. Spareness rules. The décor includes paneled walls, subdued art, and simple black tables. There’s plenty of space to walk among the tables and up to the bar, where all key ingredients, like visually distracting liquor bottles, are stashed away in tall cabinets. Curtis once installed prominently branded beer-tap handles “to add a little color to the place,” but patrons told him he’d ruined the atmosphere, so he took them out.

Curtis and his business partner, Chris Lutes, opened their first restaurant, Miracle of Science, on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge near MIT in 1991. At the ages of 25 and 30, respectively, it was a place they and their brainy friends liked to hang out. They have since become mature restaurateurs, with two more places in Harvard Square: Tory Row and Cambridge 1. 

The food at Audubon is an eclectic mix, with appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and full entrées. There is an Asian, vegetarian influence, but we also enjoyed the juiciest cheeseburger, with bacon, lettuce, and tomato ($11), that we’d had in years. 

The steamed vegetable dumplings ($9) were hot, soft, and succulent. Their dipping sauce, a thick Worcestershire-type, proved just as good for the New England crab cakes ($11), which were properly crunchy and loaded with meat. The grilled shrimp appetizer ($9), with a citrus sauce, was a little limp, but the chunky tomato, cucumber, and fresh mozzarella salad ($11), dressed in a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette with focaccia croutons, made up for that.

Entrées include a $22 rib-eye steak that looked enticing, but we opted for the pan-seared salmon ($18). Perfectly cooked, with a slightly peppery herb coating, it came with spaetzle, a German-style pasta that had the pleasing texture of dense pieces of popcorn. Brussels sprouts on the side added an earthy green bite. The only dessert, chèvre cheesecake with Oreo crumb crust ($8), was as light and creamy as we hoped. 

Dishes aren’t fussy, and the menu rarely changes. “We care about fabulous food and the experience of being at Audubon,” notes Curtis, “but we aren’t chefs and we’re not highly dependent on one individual chef, unlike other restaurants.” This mix of high quality and low-key ambiance adds to Audubon’s appeal for locals of all ages (although late in the evening, the louder bar atmosphere may dominate). And the fact that the kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. makes it easy to pop in anytime for a relaxed meal amid relaxed people.

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