Controlled Substance

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The East Coast Grill’s thin is in.

by Bruce Morgan
The Boston Phoenix, Section Two, February 10, 1987

There are towns in the American West with so little substance that you have the sense of not seeing them even as you see them. The East Coast Grill is like that in some ways; its thinness is its charm. A bright box of a room set amid the plebeian shops of Inman Square, Cambridge, this restaurant/bar is best known for barbecue and youthful flair. But the joint manages a nice trick of subverted scale, too: the old Texas-in-the-hat number. I think it’s worth visiting to see how neatly a hint of smoke, a high ceiling, and a squiggle of neon can evoke the kind of landscape the Lone Ranger never tired of roaming through.

Step right in, step right in. Eight stools at the bar, which is a nice long slab of marble. It’s bright as a phone booth in here (remember phone booths?), beneath lights that resemble Japanese umbrellas. Wall colors are muted and pale, like the hues of German cars in suburban driveways. The floor is ancient, intricate, black-and-white patterned tile. Wispy smoke wafts up from an open grill at the far end of the room: an overhead vent inhales it all. Small tables decorated with fresh flowers are packed into the place, and most are occupied. A female country singer I don’t recognize is keening in the upper register, her voice an accent in among the talk that bounces up form the tables.

Part of the interest in quaffing $3 beers at the East Coast Grill is the lesson in comparative economics that arrives with your frosted glass. For instance: how many Anchor Steams (at $2.75 apiece) would it take to pay for Joe Blow’s shoes to be repaired at the cobbler’s shop two doors down? Or to finance a haircut and a shave for this same gentleman in the barbershop next door? One? Two? One man’s idleness is another’s steel shank. The questions tend to pose themselves if you happen to be sitting at the bar and looking toward the street. It’s all plate glass that way, marked off with fanciful swirls of colored neon strung in a simple loop such as you might make to get a ballpoint going, and the natives shuffle by in the bluish light now and then; it can’t be helped. A bag lady catches me gazing in her direction, and I quickly glance away, into the mirror behind the bar. What’s wrong with that guy – hunched over his amber brew and looking abashed?

Glancing down toward the smoke-and-haze end of the bar, I notice a man and a woman sipping bright blue margaritas. This is their second or third round and they’re having fun; it looks like they’re drinking a swimming pool cup by cup. They lean together and laugh. A couple of pink swizzle sticks – little animal, camels, perhaps, are lying across the grain of the marble. I look back toward the street: the bag lady is gone. The guy in the mirror still has some kind of problem.

This place offers barbeque in three different regional styles – North Carolina, Missouri, and Texas. But its feel is all lifted from the Lone Star state. The room is not twangy and sociable enough to be an oupost of North Caroline; Missouri as a source would be require more barnyard cries and banging of furniture. No, Texas is the one. The suggestion of a dry, hard life enacted against the limitless horizon line is the dominant ether here. And this wider prospect seems to affect the people coming through the door. They sniff a breeziness at the threshold and relax accordingly – it’s like hitching up your pants and drawling after you’ve been watching Gunsmoke for a while. That nasal cowboy sound of Willie Nelson coming over the speakers doesn’t hurt any, either; Willie’s voice could curl a wagon track.

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Sometimes it seems a shame that we can’t take the vast open spaces of the West and the dense tenement life of the East and shuffle them together for a better hand. Then we could have a separate triple-decker for each ox canyon in Utah. And tumbleweed rolling between the houses in Somerville – heck, the houses would be so far apart that you could barely yell from one sagging back porch to the next. The general compulsiveness and moodiness of the East would dissipate among the purple sage; and the West would have something besides sand, crickets and a scouring wind to keep its poor, bare towns apart. Just one man’s idea for improving the national scene.

Once you’ve spent any time breathing that Western atmosphere, life back East seems thwarted, cramped and small. The land is so huge that it dissolves the walls; life becomes more transparent. It was in a club in Austin a few years ago when the band began to play, “Waltz Across Texas,” and the dancers had the high-stepping, airy look of people who might ust take the title to heart and continue out the door and down the road. This would never happen in Boston. The East Coast Grill is an odd name for a place whose tone and menu both originate elsewhere; the South and the West, to be precise.

This is a first-class spot for a cleansing mental ramble, out among the yuccas and the gnarled mesquite. It’s no good at all for eavesdropping, since the conversation starts low, clattering at table height, and roars upward like sprayed water or gunfire. So I’m pleased when a couple snakes in and grabs the two stools next to me. They are – what? Lovers? Roommates? Fellow Fulbright scholars? Mother and son? The less known the better. “Oh, I got lipstick all over your face,” the woman laughs, dabbing at the younger man with a napkin. She lives in the suburbs, he’s in med school; they are … friends. Turns out she expects scads of backyard tulips to bloom in the spring. Turns out they both order plates of barbecue to nibble at the bar.

The woman explains to her companion that she used to have a boyfriend who lived just a few blocks from here and that they used to frequent the place a lot. They had met in a very romantic way: he saw her on the street and left a scribbled note on the windshield of her car. It took her a whole year to realize that he was totally self-centered, and after that … the romance just faded away. She grows silent after telling this last part. Willie Nelson is singing a vinegary “Amazing Grace,” and I steal a glance in the woman’s direction, expecting to find her eyes moist with tears. But she is bent over her plate, shoveling in the Texas-style brisket. Hmm, dogies, that’s some eatin’…

There’s a nice lack of fussiness in this joint that would be fun to encounter more often. There’s a lack of detail and a lack of anguish, too. (Freud never wore cowboy boots.) Pardner, the East Coast could learn a lot from the East Coast Grill.

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