Get a Life–May 26, 2006

By Jane Lopes

I love food in all its infinite forms. But even more than food, I love restaurants. Good restaurants have to have good food. No way around that. But really good restaurants also have all the other things that make eating out an experience rather than just a vehicle for receiving good food. HB, a restaurant and catering company located in Belmont, is a really good restaurant.

I knew that I liked HB even before I stepped foot in the restaurant. First, the full name of the restaurant is HB, A Hearty Boys Spot. Yes, a pun! I love wordplay almost as much as I love food. “Hearty,’’ as in nourishing, invigorating food. “Hearty,’’ as in full of heart. And, of course, hearty sounds like “hardy,” as in The Hardy Boys.

Most girls I knew growing up read the Nancy Drew series and imagined themselves as Nancy: dating Ned Nickerson, eating waffles with the fam, and saving the world from the evils that lurk in sleepy Midwestern suburbs. I never read the Nancy Drew series, only The Hardy Boys books. And instead of wanting to date them—being in my “boys have cooties” phase—I wanted to be Frank Hardy. He and I are both Scorpios.

Moving on—the second reason that I knew I liked HB is that they are incredibly generous. I found HB through “Dining Out for Life,” an organization that rallies restaurants to donate a percentage of their profits to AIDS research one night a year. Most restaurants donate 30 percent of the night’s proceeds. HB was donating 50 percent. I made a reservation for eight people the night of “Dining Out for Life” and dragged my friends along, promising them a good cause, good food, and a good experience. I was crossing my fingers for the last two.

I was not disappointed.

Due to traffic, we showed up nearly 20 minutes late for our reservation. I hate being late just as much as I love restaurants and puns. I was effusively apologetic, telling anyone who would listen how sorry I was. The busboys thought I was really weird, but our waitress and the host were exceedingly nice about it and assured me not to worry. They seated us in the window, looking out at the raucous traffic of Halsted Avenue.

I became infinitely less flustered as we broke out our bottles of wine (HB is BYOB and does not charge a corkage fee), and I examined the decor of the room. It is warmly lit with soft orange walls and a low partition running through the middle, making each table feel a little more intimate. Mirrors of different sizes and shapes litter the walls, and the candles dangling in front of them create a nice glow. Along the top of the walls, written in casual cursive, are quotes about food: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” —Virginia Woolf; “A man hath not better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry” —Ecclesiastes 8:15; “Never eat more than you can lift.” —Miss Piggy. Quite the eclectic mix.

So far, HB has all the “other things” that make a really good restaurant—barring the fact that we had not tried the food yet. We started with a basket of truffle fries, served almost too hot to touch and emanating a velvety odor. Things were boding well. Next were almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon with a brown sugar crust, which arrived straight from the oven in a white ramekin. This dish was also excellent—the sinewy sweet dates, chewy savory bacon, and grainy brown sugar complimented each other perfectly, although I wanted to add a little salt. And, lo and behold, there were no salt and pepper on the table. Alas! Pet peeve #1: restaurants that do not put salt and pepper on the table. Pet peeve #2: salt and pepper served in little finger bowls so that by the end of the meal they’re hotbeds of germs and other people’s food as everyone at the table digs their grimy little hands into the same two square inches of space. I know they’re horribly gauche, but shakers were invented for a reason. My only qualm with HB: process and mode of salt distribution.

The more food I ate, however, the more I got over it. As an entree, I would recommend the brown sugar–crusted salmon or the veggie pesto pasta, which came with a thick web of golden, blistering parmesan cheese stretched over the top. And certainly do not skip dessert (your best bet is to come on a Wednesday, when HB offers a three course meal for $25). All the desserts I’ve tried are incredible—the lemon tart, the banana split, the cold almond and chocolate pot with cinnamon and warm strawberries—but if I had to choose one it would be the cupcake flight. Three mini cupcakes on a skinny white plate—chocolate chili, honey lavender, and orange blossom, all with a different cream cheese frosting generously swirled on top. HB’s phone number sums it all up: BIG-YUMM.