Lifestyle

The Hungry I, a mainstay of romance and French cuisine on Beacon Hill, closes its doors

Chef-owner Peter Ballarin has closed The Hungry I restaurant on Beacon Hill after 38 years. It was long known as one of Boston’s most romantic restaurants. The sale of the building was completed Monday.
Pat Greenhouse
Chef-owner Peter Ballarin has closed The Hungry I restaurant on Beacon Hill after 38 years. It was long known as one of Boston’s most romantic restaurants. The sale of the building was completed Monday.

C’est la vie. Longtime Beacon Hill bistro, The Hungry I, has closed its doors after nearly four decades as one of the city’s most romantic restaurants.

Lovebirds and friends flocked to the restaurant as much for its decadent French fare as its candle-lit, cozy quarters. After limboing under a low archway (on which the word “Ouch” was painted), patrons stepped past cartons of fresh vegetables and into an exposed brick dining room adorned with oil paintings and throw pillows. A menu boasting indulgent dishes like duck a l’orange and a sprawling list of European wines lay on white tablecloths. Climbing vines and flowering plants bloomed in a secluded patio tucked in the rear.

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The courtyard patio of The Hungry I restaurant.
Carlson Capital Real Estate
The courtyard patio of The Hungry I restaurant.
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Chef Peter Ballarin opened The Hungry I in 1981 in the basement of a 19th century Beacon Hill brownstone on Charles Street. The restaurant was the first solo endeavor for Ballarin, a Massachusetts native who learned his craft from a French cook while in culinary school. Over the years, he assumed the role of maître d’, checking in on guests as they rang in a birthday or an anniversary, and of chef, serving up sophisticated French fare in a kitchen only big enough to fit four people.

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The bistro’s seating was as snug as the kitchen in which its dishes were created. The scene inspired both intimacy and community, said Ballarin.

“Because you’re so close, people start to mingle. We had people who would come once a year for a birthday. They’d sit next to a woman who was celebrating her birthday. And that woman was next to a couple who was celebrating their anniversary,” explained Ballarin. “And then, year after year they’d come at the same time and they’d say, ‘Oh hi, how are you?’ to one another and over time they all became friends. How lovely was that.”

For 38 years, the restaurant remained a contender on the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Zagat and Time Out named it one of Boston’s most romantic restaurants in 2018 and 2019 features, respectively. A website for the quaint hideaway claims it hosted more wedding proposals than anywhere else in the city. The statistic remains unconfirmed, but The Hungry I befit such a special occasion in cuisine, ambiance, and price tag.

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Chef-owner Peter Ballarin has closed The Hungry I restaurant on Beacon Hill after 38 years.
Pat Greenhouse
Chef-owner Peter Ballarin has closed The Hungry I restaurant on Beacon Hill after 38 years.
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Quick to make a joke and admittedly a “temperamental chef,” Ballarin didn’t set out to inspire romance.

“Oh no, no, hell I just wanted people to keep coming back,” said the chef. “I didn’t realize I would be there for so long.”

And yet “to have the most romantic restaurant in the city, you have to have some romance within you,” Ballarin said. His inner Romeo was on display during the private weddings held at The Hungry I, where the ceremony would take place in the courtyard and Ballarin and his staff would stand on the second floor with baskets of rose petals to toss in the air upon the couple’s kiss.

The Hungry I’s closure comes with sadness, but not surprise. The 3,000-square-foot property, which was owned by Ballarin, was listed for sale in mid-2018. With three apartments stacked above the subterranean bistro, the Charles Street location boasts both residential and commercial zoning and has ballooned in value since the 1980s, according to assessors records.

The chef said potential buyers knocked on his door and it felt like the right time to sell.

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“But I do feel lost and I’m not quite sure what is going to happen to me,” he said. “It will fall in place.”

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The interior of The Hungry I restaurant.
Carlson Capital Real Estate
The interior of The Hungry I restaurant.

The bistro served its last meal on Sept. 14. The seven-day, full liquor license remains for sale for roughly $479,000. But by Monday, the restaurant had been cleared out and the building’s sale completed. A bookstore and cafe will move in, partially staying true to the establishment, which was once called The Hungry Intellectual.

But no vegetable cartons line the basement’s narrow green entrance. No throw pillows separate a diner from the exposed brick. No ring boxes burn within guests’ pockets. No chefs dance in the kitchen. The tablecloths are folded and packed away. And the opera music, always soft enough to allow for intimate conversation, has stopped.

Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @hannaskrueger.