Rail Trail Flatbread Co.in Hudson opens at 11 a.m., and there's already a collection of locals waiting outside on a Friday afternoon. The restaurant smells more like the repurposed wood that lines the walls and bar than pizza, but it's early. A few cooks load up the hardwood oven while others toss dough. The bar is already in full swing and customers are knocking back housemade, spicy and briny Bloody Marys.
Sitting at a booth at two o'clock are co-owners Michael Kasseris (son of pizza mogul Theodore Kasseris) and Jason Kleinerman. Their third partner-in-pizza, Karim El-Gamal, is off doing coffee research.
Kasseris knows that observation is key to starting something big. When the three first arrived in Hudson, after pursuing business degrees and ventures in Brookline, they started scouring the town to figure out their next step.
“We came here and realized right away that everyone was really plugged into their community, and really engaged with what the town needed and what everyone else wanted,” Kasseris says, sitting next to Kleinerman as the restaurant buzzes. “We heard from many people that they really wanted a good, local, family-run restaurant that they can kind of make a part of their town’s center.”
Rail Trail isn’t family run, but it’s close; Kleinerman and Kasseris have been friends since grade school in Belmont and El-Gamal is Kasseris’ grad school buddy and Kleinerman’s former roommate. Before any of them had turned 35, El-Gamal, Kasseris and Kleinerman had already launched a wildly successful set of businesses on Main Street, revitalizing the area according to many locals. New England publications reviewed their restaurant, Rail Trail Flatbread Company and ice cream shop New City Microcreamery, with rave reviews.
Their first boozy venture, a speakeasy in the back of the ice cream shop, is hocking spiked soft-serve without a hitch (more on this later). In the eyes of the locals, these three young entrepreneurs helped the world see what Hudsonites have known for years: That the tiny riverside town is actually home to remarkable talent.
Katie Mullahy Quinn has known as much for years. The experienced cheesemonger grew up in Hudson, when Main Street used to thrive and Victor’s ‘50s Diner was simply the Main Street Diner. She left to pursue her license as a Certified Cheese Professional (it’s a thing) before opening Mullahy’s cheese shop on Main this October. By then, the Rail Trail triplets had already launched two of their three hotspots (Rail Trail and New City). Between her network of family and longtime friends, and the Rail Trail-inspired business boom, Mullahy’s tiny cheese shop became a local favorite, featured in Boston magazine, with her products sold at the Medusa Brewing Companydown the street.
“When I was a kid, Main Street was full of people,” Quinn says, picking out cheese from her case. “It’s slowed, but things picked up again. We all want people to succeed.”
For years, the restaurant scene in the 150-year-old town consisted of a handful of Portuguese restaurants and some red-sauce Italian joints. The Horseshoe Pub draws locals in on summer days. Formerly a foodie destination, the Old Schoolhouse Pub, a Portuguese restaurant and bar on School Street, went from a Boston Globe best cheap eat to an uninhabited dining room with underseasoned stews and over-grisly steak tips.
After Rail Trail moved in, other restaurants and shops (like Mullahy’s) opened on Main with similar success. Medusa Brewing Company, which opened in March of 2015, now attracts hoards on the weekends for flights and giant Jenga. Head brewer and co-founder Keith Antul brews a variety of hoppy IPAs and easy-to-drink German style beers in the back, which come in five-ounce flight sizes (I call them “baby beers”) and hefty pints. A few locally made snacks are available, as well as mismatched board games and darts. It’s easy to waste an afternoon sitting at the bar, talking to locals over a pint (what a thought, strangers actually talking to each other at a bar).
Harvard Sweet Boutique, behind Main Street, opened in Hudson in 2012 — but owner Sue George was baking her tasty brownies and cookies from her home in Harvard, Mass. for years before. She spotted her location on South Street and jumped in; she quickly felt at home.
“It’s a great community,” she says, in the bubblegum-pink bakery. “People are amazingly supportive.”
George makes many gluten-free, sugar-free and low carb options, but her vanilla sea-salt caramel brownies are anything but. She says that business has been booming, and she attributes some of that to the Rail Trail gang.
“They’ve brought a ton of people to Hudson,” she says.
But a gem in a Hudson strip mall quietly wowed locals years before Rail Trail opened, far from Main Street. Feng Lin at Feng Japanese Fusion Cuisine slices incredibly creative creations and fresh fish, including dumplings wrapped in raw tuna and seasonal sashimi. While the restaurant offers cooked entrees from its kitchen, the exceptional surprise is at the sushi counter, with shockingly fresh fish for an inland town. Special rolls can lean toward the heavy-handed side (like a summer special roll with mounds of fried potato strings), but the simple treats — like sea bream sashimi and melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail — rival the sushi at Boston joints.
River picnickers and hikers interested in exploring the nearby state parks (Callahan and Hopkinton State Parks, for instance) can grab Mullahy's snack boxes, full of hand-picked artisan cheeses: They go great with a few of Harvard Sweet Boutique’s house-made Snickers bars and macarons for dessert.
But today, a true afternoon in Hudson begins and ends with El-Gamal, Kasseris and Kleinerman.
Everything at Rail Trail Flatbread is either housemade or made with natural ingredients, from the Plantation Pineapple Rum in the Stiggins Eye, to the bright-pink pomegranate-beet puree on the Lamb Jam pizza. Chef Thomas Kepner (a Craigie on Main alum) insists on as many handmade items as possible, and has from the moment he agreed to work for Rail Trail.
“I remember Tom being here at 3 in the morning baking burger buns,” Kleinerman recalls with a laugh. “Come hell or high water, he’s dedicated to doing everything from scratch.”
Of course, Rail Trail’s flatbreads attract the most attention, and vary from the typical pizza equivalents (like the Melizana, their best seller, with spirals of ricotta and strips of fresh basil) to the more inventive takes (the coconut shrimp, for instance, with scallions, pineapple and shrimp tossed in toasted coconut).
But the other menu items could almost outshine the pies, especially the Sririacha cauliflower, made with baked parmesan and drizzled in smoky “funk." Similar to the Buffalo Brussels sprouts at Highland Kitchen, the team at Rail Trail created a veggie app more crave-worthy than the original hot wing it’s modeled after — the Rail Trail cauliflower even more so. They also make a mean, juicy hamburger and killer calamari. Most dishes run on the sweet side, but not in a cloying way.
Meanwhile, the scoop shop across the street also focuses on hand-made touches, with ice cream swirled with local milk and chilled with liquid nitrogen on the premises. All the ultra-creamy flavors (from cake batter to fennel pistachio) are rich and almost buttery. For the sundae-lovers, New City makes its own “funks” and “gravies” — dry crumbles and sauces, respectively.
After five o’clock, six days a week, Hudsonites stroll back to the shoe-shine sign in the corner and flip a light switch. A greeter opens a set of shutters, checks IDs and then welcomes you into the hottest bar in town —Less Than Greater Than, a speakeasy serving perfected classic cocktails and strong-as-hell “Spirits & Cream.” The three restaurateurs didn’t look to Boston for inspiration, and it shows; this bar may be cooler than anything in Mass’s capitol. Instead, this joint feels straight out of Soho or Williamsburg. No wonder — the three did their speakeasy research in Manhattan.
“We went to 18 bars in two nights,” Kleinerman says. “It’s an homage to a lot of them, our version of that.”
But no one in Hudson seems too concerned with competition. Restaurants constantly work together: the Harvard Sweet Boutique on South Street supplies the desserts for the Horseshoe Pub, Medusa pours beer all over town and you can spot Quinn sitting at the brewery bar after she closes on Fridays. And when I ask Michael if he thinks he revitalized the town, he can list countless names of others in his next breath.
“We have been a part of the revitalization, but there have certainly been plenty of businesses before us that have fought very hard in the lowest of the lows to keep the Hudson downtown alive well before we got here,” Kasseris clarifies. “We came at the right time to the right place.”
Rail Trail Flatbread Company - 33 Main St., Hudson, 978-293-3552, railtrailflatbread.com.
New City Microcreamery - 28 Main St., Hudson, 978-333-7144, newcitymicrocreamery.com
Less Than Greater Than - No phone. Enter through the back of New City Microcreamery, lessthangreaterthan.com
Mullahy’s - 63A Main St., Hudson, 508-570-8068, mullahys.com
Medusa Brewing Company - 111 Main St., Hudson, 978-310-1933, medusabrewing.com
Feng Sushi - 191 Washington St., Hudson, 978-568-8885,fenghudson.com
Harvard Sweet Boutique - 25 South St., Hudson, 978-562-5938, harvardsweetboutique.com