Small-plate dining is having a moment in Boston thanks to the efforts of restaurants like Dalí. The tapas-style restaurant opened its doors in 1989, and is still going strong three decades later. In an industry where the lifespan of a restaurant is often only a few years, this is a phenomenon.
We visited owner Tamara Bourso to learn more about their cuisine and history, one she affectionately refers to as “a love story gone delicious.”
Bourso met her husband, Mario León, in 1985. The couple bonded over a dream to open a tapas restaurant inspired by his Basque heritage. The venture became a labor of love for the couple. León visited banks all over Boston to secure loans, and worked on construction and carpentry. Bourso held a day job as a secretary, staying late at the restaurant for painting, sewing, and designing tiles.
When the doors opened it was an instant hit. “Every Boston chef came to see what the fuss was all about," Bourso said. "We got tons of great reviews, and soon the concept of small dishes became ubiquitous.”
The whimsical interior Bourso created for Dalí takes inspiration from Spanish art, like Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. “I was particularly impressed with his organic treatment of the walls and wanted to pay homage," Bourso said. "Our guests often feel nostalgic about Spain, even if they haven’t been there.”
Their commitment to authentic Spanish cuisine produces the same feeling. In Spain, tapas are a part of bar-hopping over the course of the evening - a great alternative to consuming the same flavors. “Diners are now liberated from the usual soup, salad, appetizer, entrée, dessert protocol," Bourso said of their menu. "With tapas they are free to experience many flavors in small portions.”
The menu also embraces cuisine from many of Spain’s distinct regions, each with their own specialty. “Spain has so many traditional dishes that have originated in different areas," said Bourso. "And they're dependent on product availability.”
Dishes like cold gazpacho, baked goat cheese with tomato and basil, and Moorish-influenced recipes from the warm South are on the menu. There are also rice dishes from coastal Valencia, and French-influenced recipes from northern Asturias.
And of course you'll find plenty of seafood dishes from tropical Cádiz on the menu, like sautéed sea scallops in saffron cream. Aliya Wali, Dalí’s Office Administrator, describes the appeal of the cuisine as a type of “hearty, savory, and flavorful” comfort food.
When asked to name their favorite dish, the staff pointed to the Solomillo en Tostada, a beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce. Chimichurri is a staple of Argentinean cuisine, its name rumored to have origins in the Basque language.
León passed away in 2017. But his presence is still felt throughout the restaurant, and Bourso's commitment to their authentic vision is stronger than ever. Their dedication has earned them a devoted clientele that include locals, travelers, and restaurateurs who have been coming back for decades. Wali also notes the “cycle of family,” the restaurant sees. Many guests who used to visit as college students bring their own children decades later.
“It’s humbling to know how many thousands of lives Dalí has touched over 30 years,” Bourso said. But she is also proud. To be able to see through the opening of a restaurant, and have it come out on top in this city, is no easy task. But that's exactly what they accomplished. There were no discussions about if it would work. Their vision, and love and trust in each other, was enough to move their dream forward.
415 Washington St., Somerville, 617-661-3254, dalirestaurant.com