Downtown Boston’s Trojan Horse: Clover Food Lab

Clover Food Lab

Clover's First Day in Dewey Square

Boston’s Financial District got a new — and usual — breakfast and lunchtime option this week when Clover Food Lab, a locally-owned mobile food truck, opened up shop Tuesday morning in Dewey Square, right next to South Station. This is a significant development for the area’s food scene, but not because Clover is hip (which it is, of course). It’s significant because of Clover’s smarter, more local attitude on food, an attitude which has been totally absent from the downtown food scene for a long, long time. Can a Cambridge-born ethos mark the beginning of a transformation for the city’s zombified lunchtime droves?

The philosophy which drives Clover is part sustainable eating (they serve — gasp — vegetarian food) and part D-I-Y charm. You’ll never catch them calling their food “vegetarian” though. They correcly hold the belief that vegetarian food and non-vegetarian food are not intrinsically different; some dishes have meat and some don’t, just like some have carrots and some don’t.  As far as I know, they aren’t vegetarians themselves, but as restaurateurs who understand that meat is one of the most inefficient and destructive food items on the planet, they choose not to serve it on that scale. It’s refreshing and commendable.

They are fiercely devoted to making their food fresh every single day, and using as many sustainable options as possible. They bring as much as they can for the day, and then when everyone eats it, they pack up and go home. They won’t risk over-ordering supplies, because then they’d either have to re-use their food or discard it. If something goes wrong with the food service, they apologize and make it right. These are smart people who think carefully about their business and carefully about their food.

That attitude — thinking about food — is something sorely lacking from downtown Boston’s lunchmeat-heavy culture. The financial district is an enclave of food ignorance, largely if not entirely devoid of any sort of culinary or environmental forward-thinking. For all of the differences between, say, Boloco, Al’s State Street Cafe, and Chacarero, they’re mostly just doing the same thing: pushing piles of meat-heavy sandwiches and salads onto your plate. It’s a setup which feeds our middle-class workers a lot of crappy, filling food, and doesn’t require them to do any thinking. It’s actually sort of embarrassing.

At Clover, you will encounter things like egg-and-eggplant sandwiches, chickpea fritters, bbq seitan, and rosemary fries. This is so incredibly different than what the district’s workers usually take home — i.e. some type of chicken or beef thing — that it’s actually sort of comical. Downtown food does not require thinking; you don’t think about the quality of your food (which is low), and inevitably, you don’t think about where that food comes from or the things that come with it, like bags, napkins, utensils, and plastic cutlery. When you eat at Clover, in my opinion, you’re more likely to think about it. That’s a good thing.

Clover Food Lab

Clover is a legitimately charming place to eat -- and watch. Photo via flickr/quinnums

Clover is priced aggressively. Sandwiches are $5, drinks and sides (including the fries) are $3 each. The DIY culture shines through: you can watch them cook up seriously excellent food in a big retrofitted delivery van (the vans run on vegetable oils). They aggressively pursue zero-waste serving concepts, provided you pitch in to recycle/compost the containers you get from them. They tweet from on-location during food service, and frequently update their blog, speaking on everything from the food that they order to the permits that they’re required to obtain.  They simply do a whole lot of other things that no one else in the area is doing, and most of what makes them different makes them better.

Will Clover’s presence influence the Financial District’s food scene to move away from thoughtless gorging to a more intelligent approach to lunchtime? I’m cautiously hopeful that, in time, it will: word about food travels fast between coworkers, and if the food in question is good, affordable, and attractive, people will go. All they can really do at this point is sell out of food, talk about themselves, and hope that others talk about them as well. They were slammed on their first two days, and doing a good job of all three right now (if you’ve been to the truck this week, the guy who has been taking your order is executive chef Rolando Robledo, formerly of The French Laundry and the Waldorf-Astoria). The rest, as always, is up to us. Get talking!


2 Responses to Downtown Boston’s Trojan Horse: Clover Food Lab

  1. Pingback: Patrick Pledges $10m for Development of Year-Round Boston Public Marketplace « eyes wide stomach

  2. Pingback: The 2011 Boston Food Truck Challenge « eyes wide stomach

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