Oak Bluffs gets a culinary boost

Selectmen enthusiastically approve permits for a new Ben DeForest restaurant on Circuit Avenue.

Ben DeForest pitches Cardboard Box Restaurant to selectmen. -Barry Stringfellow

Vineyard culinary luminary Ben DeForest will be opening a new restaurant, Cardboard Box Restaurant, on Circuit Avenue this year.

DeForest, the driving force behind popular Oak Bluffs eateries Red Cat and Balance, and who also transformed the Ritz Cafe into a culinary destination, went before selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday night seeking approval for a seasonal all-alcohol restaurant license for his new venture, scheduled to open this spring.

Cardboard Box Restaurant will be located at 6 Circuit Ave., the basement level of the Lampost, one-time location of the Rare Duck,  Dive Bar, and most recently, Down Island.

“It’s called Cardboard Box because it’s been my belief for a long time that if the food is great, someone will sit in a cardboard box to eat it,” DeForest said. “There’s an incredible amount of money spent in restaurants on decor and it’s always been my theory that it takes a lot of steaks to pay off a $5 million build-out.”

Cardboard Box will focus on ethically sourced food, on a menu that includes Island fare like clam chowder, lobster bisque, and fish and chips, DeForest said. The menu will also embrace Oak Bluffs’ heritage with Portuguese-influenced offerings, he said.

“It’s all going to be infused with what I call a modern steakhouse culture,” he said. “It’s going to be very different from what we’re doing at the Red Cat. We’re looking to have a broad appeal … It’s not going to be a reservation place, it’s going to be walk-in. We’re going to bring something to Oak Bluffs that is not necessarily here.”

DeForest said he hopes his new venture will draw diners back to the downtown district.

“I’ve been in this business for a couple of decades on this end of the Island and a great amount of the dining public has moved over to Edgartown, because there are more options there,” he said.
DeForest told selectmen he would be back for an entertainment license so “a handful of bands” could play at Cardboard Box.

“It’s not going to be a live-music venue,” he said. “We’ll have a [late night] food menu that starts at 10:30 [pm] and goes to 12:30 at night. It’ll be a place where people can go and eat that isn’t Back Door Donuts.”

“I completely agree we’re losing market share to Edgartown,” selectman Brian Packish said. “It would be a positive for our downtown.”
Selectman Gail Barmakian complimented DeForest on his culinary resume, but also expressed concern about noise from amplified music, saying that Circuit Avenue has become a bit “zoo-ish” at that end of the street.
“There’s been live music playing at the Ritz for as many decades as I can remember,” DeForest said. “If you look at my track record from Balance, to the other Balance, to Red Cat, I have never had any noise complaints, I have never had a liquor violation. I’m not looking to run a loud place where people are swinging from the chandeliers. I can’t have it louder than where people can have a conversation and have their dinner. [Ritz co-owner Larkin Stallings] is a dear friend of mine, I’m not going to outblast him.”

Stallings was on hand at the meeting to voice his support. “I’m all for having a vibrant business next door,” he said.
Selectmen also approved a change in manager permit with their 4-0 vote.
Erica DeForest, Ben’s wife, will manage the new establishment.
Cardboard Box is backed by Newton-based Three Amigos Holding Company.

Selectman Mike Santoro, who is a restaurant owner, abstained from the vote.


Back Door decibels

In other business, selectmen were presented with a sticky situation further up Circuit Avenue. Kennebec Avenue homeowner Lynn Vera asked the board to consider action that would curtail the late-night noise and littering that comes with the throngs who patronize Back Door Donuts, across the street from her home.

Vera told selectmen the biggest crowds gather at Back Door Donuts every night between 11 pm and 1 am. “These are not families and children, these are people getting out of bars, not aware of how loud or drunk they are,” she said.

Vera said the parking lot for abutting Reliable Market is full during the late hours, with loud music often blaring from cars.

“The music is louder than the people and the people are so loud, they’re not aware of it,” she said. At one point this past summer, she went outside in her pajamas with a headlamp on to ask for quiet, Vera said.

“They had no idea why I was upset,” she said. “I can’t blame them for yelling and laughing. The environment we created encourages it.”

Vera said she’d made late-night calls to former co-owner Rita Brown over the years. “I said ‘I’m sorry to wake you up, but I’m up too.’  She told me selectmen wouldn’t do anything because she provides a public service.” Vera expressed frustration with the lack of response from Oak Bluffs police, who told her to speak to the private security guards, who are on premises as part of the lease agreement between former Back Door Donuts co-owner Rita Brown and the owners of Reliable Market.

“These security guards, they’re teenagers. They can’t hear their phone because it’s so loud,” Vera said. “I call the police and they say ‘We’re busy now,’ and I say, ‘Come on, we bought you guys Segways, you can handle it.’”

Vera said the area is strewn with litter every morning and that her neighbors have had to put up fences to stop people from relieving themselves in their yards.

She stressed she had no animosity towards Brown or Back Door Donuts, which she frequented as a little girl when it was a quiet word-of-mouth operation. She asked selectmen to consider making Back Door Donuts “Front Door Donuts,” to do business after 10 pm from the front entrance on Bradley Square, where there are benches, common space and all the abutting businesses are closed.

Santoro said he helped negotiate a deal between the Pacheco’s, owners of Reliable Market, and Brown, for use of the market’s parking lot after hours.  

Brown paid $15,000 per year to allow for pedestrian use of the lot.

Santoro said it was clear that there were a number of conditions of the lease, such as litter pick-up and adequate security detail that were not being enforced.

“I think the new owners are professionals who will handle these things a lot differently,” he said.
Last week, Back Door Donuts was sold to a company owned by seasonal residents and high-profile businessmen Richard Friedman, David Ginsberg, and Patrick Lyons.

“I think you have some excellent ideas and when the new owners come in, we’ll have a very lengthy discussion,” chairman of the selectmen Kathy Burton said.

The issue is endemic of the shift on Kennebec Avenue to becoming a more commercially vibrant street, Packish said.

“Business development is great, but we also need to keep up our property values,” Barmakian said.

“Our property taxes are $13,500 a year,” Vera said.

Road drainage discussion

Highway department supervisor Richie Combra told selectmen work would be underway soon to clear drains at locations on County Road and on School Street, where heavy rains create small ponds. He also said the improvement will only be temporary. “We’re going to rectify it for a few months but it will eventually fill up again due to runoff from private property,” he said. “We’ve talked about the best avenue to fix the problems. It’s going to be super expensive and require private cooperation.”