Jeff Abellard points to the photos on the wall. There’s the old sign for the Wal-Lex, a giant recreation center that was home to the town’s favorite roller rink and arcade. A Little League team photo in black and white is hung next to a mirror. Canvas prints, saturated with fuschia and deep blues, capture a sunset over the Moody Street Bridge. And then there are the massive clocks, frozen in time, just for decoration now.
They are portraits of what Waltham, Mass. was: a small city famously centered around its watch factory, with old-timey activities for the kids in the area. It only makes sense that Abellard would put up pictures and mementos as an ode to Waltham in his restaurant, Bistro781—the name itself pays homage to its area code. On Moody Street, the city’s main drag that’s now called its “Restaurant Row,” there have been a lot of changes over the years. Developments have gone up and younger people have started to move in. The Cronin’s Landing apartment complex, with one-bedrooms starting at upward of $2,200 a month, coexists with the Family Dollar down the street. But even with all the change, Abellard notices that a lot of the restaurants are like his—family-owned, mom-and-pop establishments created by Waltham natives. It’s probably what gives him an edge in creating a successful restaurant—but having good food helps too, of course.
Abellard has always been a Waltham guy—he went to elementary and high school there, and stayed to attend Bentley University as an accounting and finance major. When his days in a cubicle became too dull, he started to work in restaurants. He owned another restaurant through a previous venture, but Bistro781 has been his life’s work for the past few years, from scouting out the location, to decorating, to finding the right chef.
Walking in to Bistro781, it’s clear that it’s not going for a run-of-the-mill restaurant format. Part of the ceiling is covered with detailed, gilded tiles, while the rest has art-deco cutouts for a long row of lights. There’s a giant, sleek bar, but the rest of the setup is mostly cozy, high-top booths. A chalkboard wall has the restaurant’s name emblazoned on it, along with mention of its customizable Bloody Mary. It’s fancy, but not too fancy—you can get dressed up or wear jeans and feel equally as comfortable.
The same goes for the food. Though Abellard and executive chef Jason Duffy take pride in offering gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options, it by no means limits the restaurant to an “earthy-crunchy” label. Instead, it’s just accommodating. And for brunch, that means a lot of indulgent sweets and sandwiches that don’t confine to the standard pancake or bulkie roll.
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For those who align themselves with the beginning part of the word “brunch,” Bistro781 offers an incredible French toast. Three giant slices of challah bread crowd the plate, each piece powdered with cinnamon and brown sugar. The crust is crispy, but when you get to the center, it’s almost like a custard. It’s rich without tasting eggy, and browned without being burnt. Then there’s the vanilla bean butter that comes on the side. Butter on its own makes everything better, but typically one does not butter her French toast. Slather this on, and it almost caramelizes the bread, creating another dimension of flavor. For even more of a sugar rush, you can opt for the cinnamon bun skillet. Cinnabon this is not—unbelievably, this one is bigger. With the icing melted on top, it’s the type of food that will make you look around to see if your mom is going to yell at you for having dessert for breakfast.
Of course, Bistro781 offers some staples—but even those are expected to be different from your usual.
“Everybody can do pancakes and waffles and whatever,” Abellard said. “Whatever we try to do, we try to make it our own.” For him, that means the fluffiest pancakes you’ll ever see, browned and speckled from the griddle. Add blueberry, banana, or chocolate chips, and the pancake almost cracks down the middle from being stuffed.
The savory menu items are no less extravagant. The crab cake benedict, one of the restaurant’s rotating brunch specials, packs a lot into one plate. There’s the standard poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, but Bistro781 ups the ante with crab cakes and chive chimichurri, all served on a Portuguese muffin. The crab cake holds up against all of the moisture, leaving a melt-in-your-mouth taste with the creamy sauce that balances perfectly with the spicy chimichurri. The egg is cooked just right, the yolk running over the rest of the meal when you bite into it. The Portuguese muffin, which is flatter and less textured than an English muffin, creates a substantial plate for all of these toppings, and even adds a garlic flavor to the dish instead of being bland.
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The side dishes reinforce the comfort-food feel that the main courses have. Duffy’s housemade bacon comes crispy with a little grease, the pieces forming curlicues on the plate. The spices add a kick to the standard breakfast meat, creating a flavor outside the realm of plain, maple, or applewood varieties. Bistro781’s biscuits and gravy, however, cannot be outdone. Served in a skillet with a thick layer of gravy at the bottom, the biscuits seem incapable of getting soggy. They’re more textured than biscuits most people would be used to, with less of a smooth top. It’s crumbly, but not dense, and doesn’t absorb the gravy, making it the perfect vessel for such a thick sauce. It’s as if they pureed sausage with cream, leading to a better texture and bursts of smoky flavor. You’ll run out of biscuit before you drain the gravy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a few spoonfuls on your own.
Part of the appeal of Bistro781’s menu is that it changes seasonally. The summer has more fruit-based items, and the restaurant is already gearing up to alter its menu for the coming winter. For now, however, the brunch features capitalize on fall flavors, depending on the day. Two weeks ago, Bistro781 featured pumpkin pancakes, and this past weekend had an apple cider mimosa. The ever-changing menu ensures that ingredients are used only at their freshest, when they are traditionally harvested.
In two years, Abellard has grown Bistro781 into a neighborhood favorite. Its dinner and bar attract people the most, but it has a substantial following with the Sunday brunch set. While the music tends to stick to Motown and standards, with some mellow current favorites like Ingrid Michaelson mixed in, Sunday brunch has a reggae soundtrack to match the relaxed atmosphere.
Behind the less-than-fancy, more-than-casual approach, there’s a real family affair going on. Abellard lists off the many family members that touch the business, from the front of the house to the administrative work. While some people are hesitant to mix business and family, it only makes Bistro781 more cohesive.
“We’re all here because we want to support him, as well as help the business,” Patricia Antoin, the hostess and Abellard’s cousin, said. “I enjoy coming here and eating myself.”
Though a restaurateur’s dreams are never truly fulfilled—there’s always the next location to find or the next fast-casual place to open in the future—Abellard can be content in knowing that he has altered the landscape of his hometown, both through food and the larger cultural development.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t want to be on Moody Street,” he said. “So watching the city grow has become amazing.”
Featured Image by Michael Sullivan / Editor-in-Chief