Lynn native Solomon Sidell started his career in the sixth grade as a dishwasher in Swampscott to afford baseball cards. He went on to run hot dog stands in front of downtown nightclubs and slush stands in Nahant. Now he works from midnight until 7 a.m. at his landmark South Street Diner, feeding eggs and good cheer to Boston’s creatures of the evening. The round-the-clock restaurant has operated since 1947, a hangout for Leather District factory workers, nightlife denizens, visiting celebrities, and curious tourists. “I bought it in 1997, when the Big Dig was in full construction. I was young and dumb,” he says. Some might disagree.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? The European, with big giant pizzas and the tuxedoed hosts, in the North End. I was probably 8 years old. We’d come to the North End and go to the library, go to the waterfront, and then go to the European for dinner or a late lunch from Lynn.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? There are a million restaurants in the city. There’s one popping up every single day. It’s exciting but a lot of work to maintain employees in that environment of 500-seat restaurants.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? The city was divided. Today it’s gentrified. There’s any type of food imaginable in any part of the city at any time. Before, it was segregated: You’d go to Chinatown for Chinese food, go downtown for a steak, go to the North End for Italian. Today, there’s an Italian grill at Park Plaza.
What other restaurants do you visit? I go to the North Street Grille, owned by my sister, and I like Kava over in the South End.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? Family dinners. My father would make something, and we’d guess the spices. He’d make a meatball with rice inside, garlic, and say, “What are the ten items inside?” We’d sit around at family dinners, and it was always a special moment. We called it Family Council. He was an excellent cook.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Well, I don’t usually have bad experiences, but on Wednesday night, a restaurant outside the city closed, and I had a reservation. Nobody bothered to call me! They closed due to the weather being bad, but me and eight other people were at the door, so the weather wasn’t that bad. Artichokes in Wakefield.
How could Boston become a better food city? A streamlined system of government where we pay the bills in one location. When you go to open a restaurant, you have to go to 50 different locations and hearings in the process. It would help existing businesses stay in business. We do a big block party with face paintings, a cartoonist, ice cream trucks, every year. That’s 25 hearings in six months! By the time you’re done, you’re dizzy.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. My customers are family, supportive, and funny. Every one of them has a story, and every one of them brings their story to the diner. They’re all regulars, if it’s their first time or 20 years.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Vegan.
What are you reading? I read five to six magazines, business magazines, daily. I don’t have the time to sit down a lot of times to read a book.
How’s your commute? Eleven minutes! I live in Malden. I go to work at midnight, and I get out at 7 a.m. Our primary business is 1 a.m. until 4 a.m. We serve 800 meals a night in 39 seats.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Kimchi.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? You know, I think we have everything, from high-end restaurants to the South Street Diner to every type of ethnic food you can imagine. It’s an incredible food city. I miss the days of the Marche [Movenpick], but Eataly does a good job. There’s nothing I can say that the city needs for restaurants. It just needs more restaurant employees to care.
‘My customers are family, supportive, and funny. Every one of them has a story, and every one of them brings their story to the diner. They’re all regulars, if it’s their first time or 20 years.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Caffe Graffiti. It was right at the 50-yard line on Hanover Street, directly across from Caffe Vittoria. It was run by a family who knew everybody’s name. As long as you weren’t a tourist, you were family.
Who was your most memorable customer? I have two. One was a gentleman who would come to visit me. His son was at the Floating Hospital for Children. He’d come every night as his opportunity to wind down. He made me a tie of Marilyn Monroe — he painted on it, this tie, a Marilyn Monroe. He gave it to me as a gift for the months he was there with his child who ended up passing away. And Reggie Wong, who owned the Corner Pub on Lincoln Street, was the first Chinese person to welcome me to the neighborhood. On the night of his passing, his [family] could have eaten at any restaurant in Chinatown, but they ate with me.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Boston cream pancakes at the South Street Diner.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.