The city of Waltham recently became a food destination. I’d been hearing good things for years but was reluctant to go. For one thing, it’s a long way from my home in Somerville. But the real obstacle is that I went to high school there in a bank building on Main Street and I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my teenage wasteland. So that explains why I’m having a hard time leaving the house.
I putter around, checking Facebook and eating yogurt cups, while anxiously watching the clock. I know I’m moving too slowly, but I’m all nerves. This will be my first time in Waltham since Clinton’s second term and I feel like I’m starring in a Meryl Streep film where I return to my backwater hometown to help my estranged father kick his pill addiction. I get myself out of the house and over to the Porter Square station in time to watch the commuter train disappear. I’m at the mercy of the MBTA, so I crank up a podcast about a comedian being sad and wait in the cold for the next train. The LED display over my head is full of bad news; red capital letters inform me the “NEXT TRAIN TO FITCHBURG NOT MOVING. TRAIN IS SEVEN MINUTES DELAYED.” Seven minutes becomes 27, becomes 47. But I’m a failure not a quitter. Like it or not, I’m going back to Waltham.
I start feeling uneasy as soon as I step off the train. I have no plan aside from a hastily compiled list of restaurants along the T-Zone of Moody and Main Streets. The last time I dined out in Waltham, NSYNC and Tiger Woods were on top of the world and my food options were steak and cheese subs, Big Macs, and Arby’s roast beef. The Arby’s is gone now and I’m not feeling great about this assignment. I wonder if I call my editor and cry, she’ll let me walk with an incomplete.
And then I stumble into Leo’s Place Diner. A staple of Harvard Square for 31 years, Leo’s now sits on Main Street right off the Waltham Common. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never went to the former location, but I think I’d have loved it because this place feels good. It’s comfortable and bright. The walls are decorated with signed pictures of musicians, athletes and Afflecks, many posing with the gregarious Bezjian brothers, Raffi and Richie, who’ve owned and operated Leo’s since 1982. Richie works a small flattop grill, cooking eggs over-easy and fluffy chocolate chip pancakes, passing plates along to Raffi, who handles beverage duties and finishes dishes with sliced fruit and flourishes of powdered sugar.
I sit at the counter eating a cup of spiced pumpkin soup with oyster crackers and drinking a Berghoff root beer—one of an impressive selection of bottles Raffi curates from breweries around the country. “I started a little cult back in Cambridge,” he says about his collection and its fans.
While Raffi tends to patrons, Richie takes time between orders to talk to me about the business and his bittersweet departure from Harvard Square. He tells me he’s more relaxed now, he loves all the parking and is excited to be a part of something new. “The city of Waltham seems to be very serious about bringing this city up,” he says. “I’m glad to be part of it. I hope they consider me part of the renewal as a whole."
He does miss Harvard Square’s music scene, especially in the ‘70s, when it was populated by artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. “I remember places that had no liquor licenses—they were coffee houses—and they smuggled in booze because that’s what Muddy Waters wanted.”
I could stay here for the rest of the day, sipping root beer and chewing the fat with the Bezjians, but the days are short this time of year and I have to get down to Moody Street. Like most of the Boston area, Moody Street is under development. Crossing the Charles River, I look right and see sparkling luxury apartments. To the left, empty storefronts. But there’s a lot of optimism here as the city takes steps to court business and build housing, breathing new life into this old manufacturing town.
Leading the charge of Waltham’s emerging food scene is Moody's Delicatessen and Provisions. Opened in 2013 by Chef Joshua Smith, Moody’s is a deli without equal in the Boston area, featuring meats cured and smoked on the premise in a meticulously curated kitchen. I’ve been hearing about the place for years, and I was happy to finally make it in. Like Leo’s, there’s a lot of positive energy here. The staff is super friendly and chats with me about the perks of working in Waltham. (The parking!) Having walked in unannounced, I’m unsure if I’ll be able to snag an interview from someone in management, but Wayne Tucker obliges.
Tucker is—well, he kind of does everything at Moody’s. His titles include morning manager, wholesale director, catering manager and brand ambassador. He’s also the longest tenured employee, having signed on three weeks into opening. Tucker is focused and excited about the product, as well as the development of Waltham.
“It’s a first choice,” Tucker says of the many restaurateurs settling on Waltham. “Red Bird, which is a delicious restaurant, one of my favorites in town, opened up a year or two ago and this was Chef Dan Stokes's first choice. Gustazo down the street, they were in in Belmont and chose to relocate to downtown Waltham. Amuleto, the Mexican restaurant a few doors down, thought Moody Street was a prime location.”
“With all the development of luxury apartments,” Tucker continues, “downtown Waltham is going to become more dense with a lot more foot traffic and you want to bring the food to where the people are.”
After a brief sit-down, I expect Tucker to return to his duties. Instead, he invites me into the back of the shop to show me how the sausage is made. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, it’s pretty awesome. Tucker gets geeky with me, detailing the process from raw product through ageing, and then spoils me with samples of shop highlights like buttery coppa, hardy bresaola and a spicy Sriracha salami.
As the sun starts to set, I realize two things. One, Waltham is loaded with cool places to eat; two, I’m running out of time. The next train back to Somerville leaves in 20 minutes and I’ve still got work to do. I make quick decisions as time ticks down. I forego The Gaff and Red Bird, and head instead for the four-month-old Alba Mediterranean Market and Bakery. Continuing the theme of the day, hanging out in Alba is lovely. It’s another family-run business, operated by siblings Kristina Zeqo and Stavros Kondo. Alba features bespoke treats like crisp baklava that perspires honey, rich, dense chocolate brownies, savory stuffed peppers and salty farmer’s cheeses soaking behind a deli counter.
I sit down with Zeqo and Kondo as the brother-sister team takes time away from their nascent business to welcome me and chat about their decision to open here. “We are the first bakery on Moody Street,” Zeqo says. “They changed the law last June. Before that, a bakery was considered fast food and you couldn’t open a fast food restaurant on Moody Street.” It was a rule in place to protect downtown Waltham from the national chains, but the loosening restrictions presented an opportunity for Zeqo and her brother to enter the marketplace. They know the neighborhood is changing and hope to put themselves in a position to succeed alongside the transition.
I, however, have not set myself up for success. With precious few minutes to spare before the train comes, I grab some food for the road, ordering a savory spinach and cheese pie encased in filo dough. Zeqo thoughtfully wraps up my dinner and gives me pieces of pistachio and walnut baklava for later. As I head out the door and hustle back across the Charles River, I can see the eastbound train pulling away from the station. The symmetry of today’s commuting follies threatens to ruin what’s been a wonderful day. Instead, I take a moment to look at the Charles from a fresh angle and uncover my spinach pie, which is soft and not overly flaky, with a light, almost silky filling. It’s perfect, and now I can’t seem to find the energy to be upset.
Leo’s Place Diner – 655 Main St., Waltham, 781-790-1371, leosplacediner.com
Moody’s Delicatessen and Provisions – 468 Moody St., Waltham, 781-216-8732, moodyswaltham.com
Alba Mediterranean Market and Bakery – 248 Moody St., Waltham, 781-899-2149 facebook.com/albasmarketbakery/