Many restaurants close because of lagging sales. Fewer close because their beloved owner is facing death. But that’s what happened at Spoke Wine Bar, a warm refuge on the Davis Square fringes.
The 40-seat restaurant opened in 2013, presided over by neighborhood firecracker Felisha “Flea” Foster, a former wine buyer at Dave’s Fresh Pasta down the block. She was a crackling presence in the square — fearless about sharing her opinions on Riesling (or anything else) with her customers. Executive chef John daSilva served steak tartare, whipped baccala, and pureed eggplant studded with currants. You could almost hear the customers swoon.
It closed in December 2016 because Foster had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS. Regulars were bereft. What would happen to the lovable little bar? What would happen to Flea?
Enter Mary Kurth, a biomedical engineering PhD student at Harvard University. Kurth, 30, bartended for Foster at Spoke while at school, and she couldn’t bear to see it vanish. So she bought it, partnered with Foster’s co-owner Dave Jick, who also runs Dave’s Fresh Pasta. (It isn’t easy for a grad student to buy a restaurant. “I needed Dave to stay invested, and I financed buying out Flea’s percentage,” Kurth says.)
Spoke reopened in May 2016, with executive chef Eric Frier (Coppa) cooking out of its wee kitchen. Last weekend, Kurth and Frier threw an anniversary party.
One person couldn’t attend: Flea. She died in 2017, at 47 years old.
Before the party, I talked to Kurth, Frier, and assistant general manager and wine director Liz Mann, who worked at both Spokes, about keeping Spoke’s legacy alive while creating something new.
How was Flea such a force?
Mann: Flea was really a badass. . . . She had opinions, strong ones, about wine. And she was pretty specific about what kind of music would play. If Lynyrd Skynrd came on, she’d have a fit: “I don’t want to hear any [expletive] ‘Free Bird’ in here!” She’d fought so hard to get this space, and she did it later in life.
What makes the neighborhood special?
Mann: People who come in act like your neighbors. They’re invested in your doing well. You’re not just providing a service. You provide community; they can come to talk about something that’s bumming them out. In taverns, people used to bitch about taxation without representation, and then they did something about it. We have that going on. . . . We’ve been through highs and lows here. When the Supreme Court decision passed to [make] gay marriage a right, we threw a huge party, because Flea was a lesbian, and she and her partner, Sheri, had been through all of the business of opening the restaurant and, through that, provided community for other gay couples. One couple came in and said, “We just got engaged!’” It was incredible. We got to share in that. I was like, “Well for sure, the thing we have to do now is take a bottle of pink bubbles and saber it!”
Kurth: Flea was a badass lady. She was unwavering in every aspect of her business. She had a reason for doing everything she did, vocalizing it, and getting you on her side. She did everything by her moral compass, and it meant that she only supported the things she believed in and wasn’t afraid to back down from a fight. She had no problem publicizing her politics. She didn’t care if you didn’t like it.
Lots of places serve wine — what was different about this one?
Kurth: I think that Flea really wanted to create an intimate atmosphere. She wanted a wine bar with the best quality you can find. She wanted to make sure she was supporting small wine growers. She wasn’t afraid to offer products that no one had heard of and allow John daSilva to work with ingredients people weren’t familiar with. As much as it was a place to wind down and have a glass of wine, she always made sure you would be introduced to something new.
Mann: Every time we opened a new bottle, the bartender who pulled the glass would taste a little bit first before pouring for the guest to make sure it wasn’t corked or off. It’s a tiny little thing that a lot of people would take for granted, but it was kind of huge for me. I was tasting every single thing that [went] out, like the chef. Taste everything, taste everything, taste everything.
Kurth: She had a reason you should drink this Riesling with this dish. You couldn’t say no! “You are correct: This is what I should be drinking now; this is what I should be eating now.” You were always satisfied after a meal here.
When Flea announced the restaurant would close, people were worried. What was it like to work here then?
Kurth: It was crazy. People were thinking about a Kickstarter to keep it open. Everyone was extraordinarily sad, and there was lot of rumored chatter, a lot of gossip and planning of how to keep it open, but nobody followed through. The amount of support the place had and the dedication employees had to have was quite remarkable. It was a testament to the amount of work Flea had put it into space.
‘Her biggest thing was to back up the products and people you believe in.’— Mary Kurth, new co-owner of Spoke, on the dedication of Felisha Foster to the Somerville wine bar
Mann: A lot of guests would come in and have to cry: “When is it going to close?” People would sit down and weep for a while. It was really tough to handle that while handling your own emotions.
How did you find out about the illness and the closure?
Mann: It was apparent when Flea started noticing symptoms. She said, “I keep kind of slurring my speech and everyone thinks I’m drunk, and I don’t want to talk to guests as much. Everyone thinks I’m hammered.” She had an aggressive form of ALS. It was neurological. It started in her head.
It was tough because it was obvious it couldn’t keep going. Flea never wanted to admit defeat.
Mary, you were at Harvard, getting a PhD. Now you’re a restaurateur. How did you actually buy the place?
Kurth: I sat with [Spoke partner Dave Jick] a couple times a week over the course of a month, starting in early December 2016. The restaurant was packed every night. There was heaviness in the air, but there was also so much life. People poured in to show their support. There were other offers on the table, but none of them kept it as a neighborhood restaurant. Flea didn’t want the space to become a nail salon or Chinese takeout. I offered to continue her original vision, and take on all of the work. . . .
I wrote to Flea. I sent her a letter about how much I admired the space and loved working there and the amount of passion and drive that her team had and that it would be an honor to keep it going. Her biggest thing was to back up the products and people you believe in. It’s been about showcasing those things to the community.
The sale went through second week in January. We reopened in May.
Mann: There’s always that feeling when it’s changed into something else, it belongs to someone else. If you sell your home, you can’t get pissed if people paint it mint green after they buy it. Everyone was nervous and afraid: “Can I buy it? Can you buy it?” [Mary] made it happen and has been amazing. It still feels very much like a neighborhood bar.
Did Flea ever see the ‘new’ Spoke?
Frier: She came in right before we opened. It was incredibly sad to see the look in her eyes. It was my first time meeting her. Seeing it getting cleaned up to reopen, she knew that she wasn’t going to be a part of it, and you could tell it was pretty heavy on her heart and tough for me to want to do right by someone whom I didn’t know — but I knew how many people valued her as a person and as a restaurant owner.
How are Flea and Mary similar?
Mann: One example of Mary being Mary is that she loves bees. She loves biodiversity, farming, agriculture, and even composting. Mary finally got some bees to put up on the roof along with a small garden she’s growing for the restaurant. She hauled buckets and dirt and everything up a ladder to do it. . . . But Mary is allergic to bees. I told her to ask someone else to do it. Maybe someone bigger, stronger, not allergic. She says, “Nah. I got an EpiPen. It’ll be fine.”
Flea was like that, too. It takes that fearlessness to be a leader, and more to be a woman that people respect and love. Flea closed the restaurant on a Saturday night for a chef’s wife’s mother’s funeral so that all of us could go and support them. That’s a lot of income to turn down, but some things are more important.
How are things different?
Mann: We needed to get down to the bones. New appliances. Otherwise, [Mary] would have just been inheriting Flea’s bar.
Kurth: We worked hard to make the space feel slightly warmer, to lighten it up. We changed the wallpaper, light fixtures, seating. We made it more comfortable. The first thing I heard was, “Please get us chairs with backs!” There used to be metal stools with no backs.
How’s the wine?
Mann: There is much more diversity on the wine list. We’re still learning, so we’re still trying different things. We may not have the wine knowledge that Flea had, and it will take years of tasting, of trying things, of making mistakes before we get there. Now we have wines from Greece, Georgia, Portugal . . . But we still have a lot of Chenin Blanc — Flea was known for having what some would say is too much Chenin Blanc.
What’s hard and what’s special about cooking at Spoke?
Frier: It’s a small restaurant. . . . We have four induction burners and a turbo fan oven, which is like, basically, a toaster oven.
Then why do it?
Frier: Chefs like big toys and stuff like that. I come from kitchens that are very well built but the appeal, if you want to call it that, is the challenge. It forces creativity. You constantly think, “Can we do it here?” It makes you a better cook. If you can learn how to work with nothing, you can test your senses a lot more.
What’s Spoke’s legacy?
Mann: We like pointing out badass women who make wine. [Flea] was a badass woman. She was 45 [when she opened Spoke]. Everyone was like, “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” But she did. And she defied odds.
Mary also doesn’t take no. The world is full of people who say you can’t do this or that. Why? It’s awesome to have someone who is young and dedicated to the community. . . . She was at Harvard and not far from finishing a PhD, and now she’s mentoring our food runner who just got into a PhD program at Duke. They talk about navigating an educational career. It’s incredible.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.