Most restaurant reviews focus on just one part of the dining experience: the food. But just as important as the food is everything else: branding, interior design, service, music, and overall vibe. An exceptional dining out experience is one where all the senses are engaged, not just the taste buds. Find out which restaurants have the “taste” to meet our standards (and which ones don’t).
Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
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State Park serves up some sass in Cambridge
Outside Kendall Square, just past the fork of Cambridge and Hampshire Streets, you come upon an unusual restaurant mecca. Tucked into this office plaza are eight—count ’em, eight!—restaurants all with the same address: One Kendall Square.
While we had been to all the venues over the years, we were eager to try State Park, the self-proclaimed “obnoxious little sister restaurant” of Hungry Mother, which serves Southern-inspired cuisine just a block away. We first visited State Park last summer on a warm evening when we were able to dine outside at picnic tables. We liked it so much we returned this past weekend with friends (who just happen to run a successful restaurant design consultancy) and were greeted by 6-foot-high snow banks.
We always like when there’s a story behind a restaurant and there’s a good one here. State Park was inspired by Hungry Mother State Park in southwestern Virginia, a favorite vacation destination from the owner’s youth. The concept is based on the park’s main lodge, and captures the feeling of a “lost in time” bar that could be anywhere. It has the owner’s emotional ties and fond memories written all over it.
State Park’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek personality is apparent from the get-go. The brand identity and website (by Image Conscious Studios) features retro imagery to suit the throwback rural watering hole theme. Off-the-cuff copywriting also helps bring the restaurant’s irreverent personality to life.
The quirks continue inside where a curated collection of kitsch—illuminated vintage beer signs, “double-take” wallpaper, taxidermied critters—decorates the walls. With odd objets to discover in every corner, we found ourselves scrutinizing the entire space for eye candy. One of our favorite discoveries was a six-foot long diorama showing Hungry Mother State Park (painstakingly created by ICS).
But don’t let this collection of “junk” fool you. A lot of thought went into making everything look like it had been there forever. Details like the thick, hand-carved wooden tables and drink rails, vintage red Naugahyde booths, and a functioning jukebox all help to set the tone. We all agreed that the State Park owners working with design/build firm Studio FKIA and designer Christine Rankin Manke of Hacin + Associates did a great job of carrying the concept through to every detail.
Not surprisingly, the bar/restaurant as a whole is very well planned. The subterranean space is aptly dark and unpretentious. It’s divided into smaller rooms that include a bar, game areas (pool, shuffle board and pinball machines), and three distinct dining areas. The layout provided floor space and recreational amenities so that groups could stand and enjoy cocktails without getting in the way of dinner guests.
It’s no wonder that State Park is a popular destination amongst the Kendall/MIT crowd. In addition to an inviting, group-friendly space, State Park offers creative food and drinks at reasonable prices. The bar serves pitchers of cocktails and novel beer-centric drinks. Try their Official State Park Cocktail—a bottle of Miller High Life with rye (“no returns”)—although our favorite concoction was the Topanga with beer, bourbon, grapefruit, and cinnamon.
The food is better then it really needs to be at a place like this, showing the oversight from the folks at Hungry Mother. The menu features a diverse cross-section of innovative Southern fare, including pickled eggs, boiled peanuts, and custom creations like the Memphis BBQ Spaghetti, which our friend described as “red neck bolognese.” We thoroughly enjoyed our meal, especially the side dishes and appetizers such as the Winter Green Salad and Charred Broccoli. While we give them high marks for creativity, the main dishes can be a bit hit or miss—the Crispy Skin-on Trout was definitely one of the hits. And let’s not forget the Southern hospitality. Our waitress’s funky flair and attentive style provided stellar service.
While State Park transports you to another place and time, we do have a few suggestions. For starters, the exterior could use some help. The restaurant is in the basement level of ugly, generic office building with an awkward, concrete “moat.” Especially coming from the direction of Kendall Square Cinema, it’s hard to immediately know where to go. Some fun wayfinding signage to point the way and highlight the location could help. Sitting outside in the summer or looking through the windows you stare directly at a wall of grey concrete—not very park-like. It would be great to extend the décor to the outside. How about birch branches? Or reclaimed wood? Or old hand-painted signs? And it wouldn’t hurt to address the bathroom hallway, too. The walk to the restroom makes you feel like you’ve abruptly left the park and entered the beige, fluorescent-lit basement of a suburban office building. How about putting up some more funky wallpaper or at least paint the walls a better color?
That said, we think State Park’s execution of a unique concept is right on target. It made us feel like we’d stepped into a party where everyone was having a good time. Every touchpoint—from decor to branding to food—exuded fun and, more importantly, obvious affection for a special time and place.
As kids, we remember having fun at our local state parks. As we grew up, we have (somewhat more hazy) memories of fun times at “shot and a beer” bars. It’s clear the owners of this State Park want to help us bring back these good memories and make new ones. So have a heaping helping of their hospitality.