Metro, Food, Top Story

The Gallows Sets Itself Apart In The South End

Maybe it’s the larger-than-life Ouija board glowing behind Seth Yaffe, or the little flock of stuffed ravens that sit to his left. Whatever it is, stepping into The Gallows feels like stepping into October.

Yaffe, the general manager of the South End restaurant, confidently surveys his luminescent restaurant, the candlelight reflecting off his face and the wood paneled walls behind him. Rough wire chandeliers throw starburst patterns across the ceiling. The decorations make you feel like you’re inside a jack-o-lantern, but the ambiance isn’t spooky—it’s warm and engaging. Yaffe’s restaurant makes you want to sit down for a full-bodied beer and a long story.

Those stuffed ravens have overheard hundreds of stories, including Yaffe’s own. He knew what he wanted to do with his life before he turned 13. Even through business school, his real passion was working as a cook. He held onto his dream of opening a restaurant.

But that dream didn’t even begin to find roots until 2006, when Yaffe was working alongside his friend Seth Morrison at Perdix, another South End establishment.

One day when the two were cooking, a petite girl named Rebeca Roth knocked on the back door and asked for a job. She had just quit culinary school.

After long nights of cooking, the trio often craved two of the most American pleasures: a cheeseburger and a cold beer. But there simply wasn’t anywhere to go—the South End was full of white tablecloths.

“We’d all be kind of smelly and dirty and we’d leave and want to go get a burger and a beer and there just wasn’t anywhere,” Yaffe said.

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After splitting up to pursue different projects for a few years, they didn’t let go of the idea of opening the restaurant they had been searching for. They talked about it  until the day they bought the Washington St. location. Roth was the owner from the start, and Morrison ran the kitchen. Yaffe assumed the position as general manger, a move to the front of the house he had already taken in their time apart.

The kitchen was filled with Brazilian and Colombian prep cooks and dish washers who struggled to pronounce the “th” of Yaffe and Morrison’s shared first name. When Morrison first introduced himself the crew immediately re-christened him.

“No, no, no, you’re the Jefe,” they said.

The routine was repeated when Yaffe came in.

“No, no, no, you’re number two, you’re Segundo,” they said.

The nickname would stick around, even when the distinction between Yaffe and Morrison was no longer necessary. Yaffe now runs most of the daily operations at the restaurant and Morrison has since left The Gallows. Even with the confusion of two Seths gone, the staff still affectionately tosses out calls of “Segundo” as Yaffe strides around the glowing restaurant. Although Yaffe stepped out of the kitchen, he stays involved with the food by conceptualizing much of the menu.

While they’re best known for their burger—they’ve won “best burger” in every major Boston periodical—the menu changes every week. But the philosophy behind the food is always constant.

Now one of the hottest culinary attractions in Boston, this restaurant born out of a quest for a burger and a beer hasn’t lost it practical, all-American roots.

Even more complex dishes, like the Asian-style lobster roll, still allow the personality of The Gallows to come through.  Substituting a boa bun for a hot dog roll and green curry for mayo, Yaffe shows how a relatively basic item can be elevated to a culinary delight but still grounded in a recognizable classic.

But the menu also features a hot dog. The Gallows doesn’t let its philosophy get in the way of the laid-back atmosphere—they know sometimes their customers aren’t looking for an adventure, just a predictable meal.

“We’re a community of people who like to eat dirty, disgusting food and we don’t necessarily know where they come from, and be okay with that,” Yaffe said.

Yaffe doesn’t feel the need to boast about the details of his food, even though much of it is sourced locally—he thinks providing the highest quality food to the customers is his responsibility and the taste stands on its own.

This sense of responsibility doesn’t stop with Yaffe and Roth. Even though they are clad in street clothes, the whole staff’s desire to provide their customers with the full Gallows experience is palpable. The bartenders rotate taps featuring local beers frequently to mimic the menu. There is always someone being attentive to the little touches, whether it is a greeting when you walk in the door or a quick goodnight when you head out.

“As much as the glamour comes from doing things that are different from everyone else, I think that that’s a large part of why some places become successful, but you also have to make sure you’re doing those different things consistently,” Yaffe explained.

The fluid consistency leaves the customer a sense of forward motion, a sense of change. The good kind that makes you excited for things to come. At The Gallows, every day feels like those crisp October days that leave you craving a full-bodied beer and a good story.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

October 16, 2014