Banyan Bar + Refuge

boston, massachusetts

A new restaurant grows on sacred ground

Banyan brings new life to Hamersley’s old space

There are a few key players that kicked off the wave of chef-driven restaurants in Boston that continues to this day and Gordon Hamersley is definitely one of them. His Hamersley’s Bistro helped establish the South End as a restaurant destination, which played a major role in the neighborhood's real estate boom.

Hamersley’s occupied a prime location at the intersection of Tremont and Clarendon Streets filling a corner of the Boston Center for the Arts building and spilling out on to the plaza with patio seating. But as much as the restaurant, its owners, and its legendary roast chicken were loved, it eventually began to feel tired. The formality of the white table cloth dining felt too stiff, the bar felt too cramped, and the overall experience meant that we hadn’t dined there in years—despite being neighbors.

hungry for design banyan sign
Our destination as glimpsed through the urban flora.

So what to do with a space that so many people associate with special dinners and celebrations through the years? For the new owners there were two options: carry on with a similar menu in a similar manner or start over with a completely new concept. The owners of the new Banyan Bar + Refuge chose the latter and changed everything. Rebecca Roth and Seth Yaffe (the team behind The Gallows restaurant and Blackbird Donuts, also in the South End) have created an “Asian gastropub” featuring small plates.

But the “Asian gastropub” description doesn’t do justice to the inventive dishes created by Chef Phillip Tang, formerly of East by Northeast. The creations coming out of his open kitchen take the best of traditional Asian cooking and give it a modern twist. All the dishes are share-ready giving a fun “let’s try that” tapas-like experience to the meal. Highlights include pork wontons, charred okra, lobster roll (served warm or chilled), vegetable cast iron crispy rice with poached egg, and octopus lettuce cups.

hungry for design banyan food plates
Small dishes allow you to sample a variety of Chef Tang's creations—and you'll want to try them all.

Despite the explosion of flavors and dishes coming at you, there’s good pacing and the table was never crowded with plates as often occurs if the service is not well choreographed. And like its sister restaurant The Gallows, Banyan offers only one dessert—sesame cream puffs—and it’s totally worth the calories.

Setting the tone for the fun, inventive drinks include a Kirin “slushie” beer (which we had previously only seen in Tokyo) and creative “on tap” cocktails that we’re seeing more and more in new restaurants.

hungry for design banyan slushie beer and cocktail
No that’s not Dairy Queen soft serve on top of your beer but it’s the perfect treat for a hot summer night. Or try a Umeboshi Old Fashioned—with plum infused rye, simple syrup, and bitters—straight from the tap.

The restaurant is named after the banyan tree, one of the world’s most unusual species, which has roots that come down from horizontal branches to form “legs” allowing the tree to grow by expanding the space it occupies. The interior by Sousa Design picks up cues from the tree by incorporating branches that fill the space above the bar, expand out from the central light fixtures, and fill the back walls. Our dining guests—a husband and wife architecture/interior design team—wondered how their fire rating got ok’d in Boston but the branches make a powerful design statement and you know immediately you’re not in Hamersley’s anymore.

hungry for design banyan branches
hungry for design banyan branches detail
The wood and branches used are an artful design element that reference the restaurant name, adding texture and warmth to the interior.

The interior color scheme is a neutral brown, grey, and green. Original windows line two walls and have been opened up in the bar area. Comfortable seating options including tables, booths, and “lower” high tops. A couple of “chef's table” counter seats face the open kitchen. While they seem a bit too much in the middle of the action for us they may be a good option for a first date.

hungry for design banyan open kitchen
The kitchen is the focal point of the dining room and you, too, can have a front row seat.
hungry for design banyan tiles and chairs
Multi-color hexagonal tile contrasts with dark, herring-bone wood flooring, while traditional Asian themes are used sparingly throughout.

The brand identity by Adam Larson plays up the connection to the banyan tree as well with a brush stroke logo evoking a jungle and imagery of the twisted roots of the tree carried through to the coasters, postcards, etc.

hungry for design banyan postcard and coaster
Rich, textural photography gives an exotic feel to the printed materials.

All-in-all the combination of design, food, and drinks come together as a strong, cohesive concept. Of course we have some minor quibbles (some of which the owners may be looking into). The large metal sign above the door seems heavy-handed and out of place for the neighborhood and the level of design sophistication inside. The messy bits under the bar are also highlighted in the front picture window at eye level—perhaps a treatment on the bottom of the window would help mask this view? And when we went to make our reservation, a generic, templated website didn’t give us any sense of what to expect. The slapped-together looking site is definitely not in keeping with the care paid to interior and brand identity.

hungry for design banyan sign and window
Initial impressions conveyed by the industrial looking sign and untidy view into the bar through the eye-level picture window thankfully don't accurately represent the experience inside.

It takes many parts working together in unity to create a great restaurant experience. It starts with the owner’s vision which is the inspiration for the food and drinks which in turn drive the interior design and branding. It’s rare that a restaurant pays close attention to all the components (especially in Boston) but Banyan does. Like the tree for which it’s named, Banyan starts with a strong base and expands out in unexpected ways. It appears everything is in place for it to grow. Let’s all pay our respects to Gordon and his dearly departed Hamersley’s but let’s go out and have some fun at Banyan.

Banyan Bar + Refuge
553 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116