North End Restaurant Closes on Memories

Christina Griffin
4/25/2019

A sign and stickers are the only remaining mark of a once popular North End bar and restaurant. Photo by Christina Griffin.

John Hauck emerges from his office. He passes three men at the bar hollering about a referee call in a televised football game. The noise begins to escalate, so he reclines on one of the bright red couches in the back dining room of the restaurant he’s owned for nearly twenty years—The Living Room. It’s quiet.

This is the last quiet Thursday afternoon inside The Living Room. The North End restaurant and bar would shut on decades of memories on Saturday, Jan. 19. According to The Boston Globe, The Living Room is one of five long-standing Boston restaurants that closed its doors between December 2018 and January 2019.

“The market is oversaturated with restaurants,” Hauck said, “and the landlords are getting top dollar right now. The demand hasn’t ceased in the restaurant business, but you’ll see more going under.”

The closing Boston restaurants hold memories for people; some good, some bad. For Hauck, memories at The Living Room are good.

Hauck scans the back dining room and remembers the scores of others who made The Living Room their second home, who made the place their living room. A look at the bar immediately recalls decades of memories naming martinis after Tuesday night trivia, of rubbing elbows at the bar with professional baseball players who stopped by.

Closing was not John Hauck’s plan. The restaurant was supposed to be a family legacy.

Hauck’s son, John Bryant Hauck, is now the general manager of The Living Room. JB first saw The Living Room as a young sixth grader after a long day of school: the back formal dining room, the martini bar framed by the large aquarium and the tall windows overlooking the harbor.

 Hauck and his son will continue working together after The Living Room closes. Photo by Christina Griffin.

Once JB was old enough, Hauck let his son work as a busboy. Hauck fired him five times in one night.

JB reclines on the plush red couch in the back dining room with his dad. JB recalls the Bruins team partying at the bar, watching the Patriots win the Super Bowl, and even the archenemy Yankees grabbing drinks after playing in the city.

The Living Room lasted over twenty years, but The Living Room could not survive a 34% rent increase over 16 months.

The Living Room is located inside the North End’s historic Mercantile Mall, a building that boasts housing, restaurants, shopping and even a children’s day care center. The stores line the streets and four stories of housing units sit above the shops.

In 2015, Mercantile Mall was sold to Belveron Partners, a private investment firm with offices in San Francisco, Boston and Jersey City, New Jersey. Its focus is on “preserving affordable and workforce housing across the United States,” according to its website.

Belveron Partners purchased Mercantile Mall in 2015. Hauck said, “I don’t know how they owned it, I didn’t even know it was for sale.”

After almost 20 years as a tenant, Hauck and his family were blindsided by the purchase.

The Living Room was the last restaurant remaining in Mercantile Mall. Since Belveron Partners purchased the property, the building boasts a UPS Store, Bike Shop, a Child Care Center, and housing. Photo by Christina Griffin.

When Beleveron Partners was buying the building in 2015, Hauck was negotiating a five-year lease for the Living Room. While Hauck and his family had two more years left to their current lease, they wanted to secure a five-year option to repair and update the restaurant. Without the five-year lease, they could not justify pouring money into the property.

Belveron Partners balked. Instead, the new owners slowly increased The Living Room’s rent. Within sixteen months, The Living Room’s cost of rent had gone up 34% and Belveron Partners was only offering month-to-month leasing contracts.

Hauck and his family decided the only option was to close the restaurant. In over thirty years in the restaurant industry, Hauck has never heard of a restaurant closing because of rising rent costs. According to Hauck, restaurants usually close due to health code violations, thefts or losing profit.

John Hauck does not know what Belveron Partners plans to do with 101 Atlantic Avenue. Belveron Partners did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As Hauck nurses a glass of water and memories, a Zac Brown Band song begins to replace the harsh shouts of the men watching the game and the murmurs of the married couple in the corner.

“Stayed there till they forced us out….”

There’s a married couple sitting on bright red couches across from the men at the bar, still arguing over the referee’s call. The couple admires a setting sun over the Boston harbor through The Living Room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The two of them are sipping cocktails from the bar and munching on chicken taquitos from the kitchen.

The married couple tells John the two met here many years ago. The couple squeezed hands and grinned as they told Hauck the story amidst the cotton candy pinks and sky blues of the setting sun behind them.

The married couple reminds Hauck of the countless wedding receptions The Living Room has hosted in the back dining area.

The scene takes Hauck back in time, to the first restaurant he owned in the space, Atlantic 101. Atlantic 101 was one of the only seafood restaurants in the area at the time. It was a white tablecloth restaurant, complete with an oyster shucking bar and some of the freshest seafood in town.

“Atlantic 101, so good that they named an ocean after us!” Hauck chuckled.

In 2003, Hauck hosted meetings with some of his regular customers. Seafood restaurants were invading the downtown area and Hauck wanted to stand out. He wanted to rebrand his restaurant.

“We had some focus group meetings with people in the neighborhood, and we talked to people about what they thought was missing. We talked to people about what they liked about Atlantic 101, what they didn’t like,” said Hauck.

Hauck’s customers told him they liked the piano, entertainment, and the location. What Hauck didn’t realize until then, was North End residents needed a hosting space when friends or family came over.

So, he rebranded the restaurant to the Living Room in 2003 to give North End residents a spacious living room for meeting their guests—as a result of what Hauck’s customers told him. The name of the restaurant aimed to extend space for the neighborhood’s small apartments.

“We also found that the apartments in the North End were small, people were looking to bring friends over, but due to the smallness of the apartments they didn’t have a lot of room to entertain. So, we came up with the idea, why don’t we make this a living room?” said Hauck.

John Hauck transformed white tablecloths into bright red and purple plush couches. The oyster shucking bar which stood in front of the aquarium began housing an espresso machine and desserts plated over ice.

This bar hosted an oyster shucking station, a dessert display, an espresso machine and a martini bar. It was always framed by an aquarium in the center of the back wall. Photo by Christina Griffin.

The aquarium is the only legacy from Atlantic 101— the aquarium is the glue holding the restaurants’ past and present together.

A grand piano sits across from the aquarium overlooking the bar. The space is filled with bright red and purple couches. There’s coffee tables and floor-to-ceiling draperies. Cocktail tables are postured by the bar against the windows.

Sliding French doors separate the back dining room. The lighting is dim back here. One side of the back dining room boasts white linen tablecloths. The other side is all plush couches and square tables, which is where Hauck and JB have their seats for the afternoon. There’s a perfect dichotomy between cozy and formal, a juxtaposition of Hauck’s two restaurants contained in this very space.

The oyster-shucking-bar-turned-dessert-bar eventually became a martini bar. Cara Fitzpatrick used to work down the street from The Living Room. After winning a round of trivia one Tuesday night a few years ago, her team was awarded the opportunity to name a martini. The snowball martini was formed.

“A bunch of friends of mine got pregnant off of the snowball martini,” Fitzpatrick laughs.

Fitzpatrick used to come with her friend Keith Beers during the week. The two thought of Hanover Street as a spot for tourists. The Living Room was for locals.

“This was, like, our bar. These are our seats,” Fitzpatrick said.

The two are situated at one end of the bar at a high-top table with drinks in hand. Once Beers saw The Living Room was closing, he knew they had to come back and reminisce for one final drink served by Anita Davis.

Anita Davis poured beer after beer at this same countertop for almost twenty years. Photo by Christina Griffin.

Davis has been a bartender at Hauck’s restaurant for almost twenty years. Her children used to come as kids to the restaurant after school. Now they’re 28 and 25 years old.

Davis’ smile is warm, her hair is blonde and she has a heavy Boston accent. Two men enter The Living Room and sigh upon sitting at the bar. They ask Davis to put a golf game on. In her Bostonian accent she says, “Nah, we don’t watch golf heah. It’s like watching paint dry.”

But she changes the channel to the golf game.

“I’ve been here nineteen years because I love it so much,” Davis says, “It’s the best job ever. I love the way things are, the way they treat us and it’s been the best nineteen years ever.”

The Living Room will close its doors on Saturday, but John Hauck is throwing Davis a birthday party to celebrate on Monday. It will be a personal birthday gathering filled with shared memories, drinks and food— a fitting end.

Tears swell in her eyes.  “At least you know you’re coming back Monday,” Davis says.

As the clock passes five o’clock, the bar begins to fill with customers.

John Hauck goes to check in on the kitchen. The kitchen is amazingly clean. A white piece of paper in the window of the restaurant touts the “A” rating by Boston Inspectional Services.

One month after the restaurant’s closing, the Sanitary Inspection Grade still shines in the front window. Photo by Christina Griffin.

The kitchen smells fresh—a blend of soy sauce, barbecue and a sizzling grill. The air is crisp. A cook stir-fries some veggies on the grill. He waves as Hauck as passes through.

The sound of the kitchen is sizzle, chops, plates clacking and the door swinging open and closed.

The Living Room’s menu is full of American-style comfort food, sectioned between ‘Small Bites’, ‘Land and Sea’, ‘Sandwiches’, ‘Buckets’ and ‘Pasta’. It is eclectic. Where else in Boston can one get a poke bowl, barbecue brisket, mac and cheese, a black bean burger, chicken taquitos and calamari?

The chicken taquitos went off the menu once and regular customers fought back. After countless requests, the chicken taquitos reign on the menu prominently in the center.

While the bar begins to fill, the back room remains quiet. JB hands Hauck a clipboard to review numbers for the furniture they’re selling. Everything inside the restaurant must be taken or sold by the end of January.

The two flip through sheets of papers, pointing. There are nods, yeses and questions.

Tears begin to swell in JB’s eyes.

“This place is part of my identity,” JB says as he breathes deeply to swallow the lump in his throat. His voice shakes but holds strong.

“It’s been my whole life here, it’s been a home not only for myself and my family, but pretty much everyone I know,” says JB. John Hauck sheds tears as his son speaks.

The two begin to reminisce. JB first recalls the struggle to win a 2 a.m. liquor license and a DJ license.

“That was an awesome time. Everyone helped support us from the community,” JB says.

“It was fun when the whole Bruins team was in the back room to watch the Super Bowl game,” Hauck recalls.

JB nods in agreement, “Having 120 of my friends separated by a thin divider with the whole Bruins team, watching the Patriots win, then the Bruins coming over to party with all my friends…we just hung out, took pictures and everyone drank and had a great time.”

The Living Room has hosted wedding receptions, 30, 40 and 50-year-old birthday parties and countless events in the same back room the two now sit.

“We were honored to do the wake for Jerry Angiulo here,” Hauck says, “they had the whole valet zone, the whole block was filled with flowers of flatbed tow trucks.”

The Living Room served the North End community throughout the near twenty years it sat on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Richmond Street. Photo by Christina Griffin.

Back at the front of the restaurant, Mike and his brother Chris Cottens recline with a draft beer and talk with Anita Davis. The Cottens brothers frequent the bar because it’s not “cookie-cutter”, says Mike.

“As property value increases, bars have to worry about profit instead of a fun atmosphere. It becomes general and cookie-cutter,” says Mike.

“Before you know it your neighborhood bar becomes Applebee’s,” says Chris.

Mike and Chris note there are very few family-owned bars like this left in the city. Hauck has noticed as phone apps like Tinder have become popular, people aren’t meeting at bars anymore, which removes a slice of a neighborhood bars’ economy.

Back at the front of the restaurant, Dane Olsen greets customers as they enter. Olsen has worked as The Living Room’s doorman Thursday through Saturday for just seven months. He checks IDs, keeps a headcount and “on rare occasions, removes belligerent individuals from the building,” says Olsen.

It was meant to be a job to pay the bills, but as for many customers, The Living Room became Olsen’s home. He works here only three days a week, but he feels a part of the family. Like Mike and Chris Cottens, Olsen has noticed the majority of family-owned restaurants are being replaced by chains.

To Olsen, “Food is a unifier and to have it sterilized without love or care is a shame.”

“I really can’t imagine working in an environment like this anywhere else. There’s a lot of crying, tears, goodbyes—it’s a shame. It just feels kind of disrespectful,” says Dane.

Hauck says he does not plan to open another restaurant.

“The market has changed so much since I got involved in it. I knew twenty years ago where to advertise. Boston Magazine, Improper Bostonian, flyers, then all of a sudden social media took over and I had to rely on my sons for that. I don’t have social media, I have a flip phone,” says Hauck.

But John Hauck is changing with the times. Hauck plans to open up a retail cannabis shop by Boston University with his son JB. They’ve met with Brookline officials and submitted proper paperwork.

The sun sets on the final Thursday in The Living Room and another Zac Brown Band song floats from the radio, “We’re free as we’ll ever be.”