Celebrate stubborn small-business people at UpperWest, ‘wine bar that almost wasn’t’

Kim Courtney prepares a platter at UpperWest in December.

A new North Cambridge restaurant has drawn raves from The Boston Globe, with writer Sacha Pfeiffer calling the food “wonderful” and enthusing to readers that “due to the alchemy of good food, good drinks and good music, plus the endearing intimacy of this plain little place – I can’t wait to come back.”

Nothing strange so far; Cambridge has no shortage of great places to eat.

But in letting readers in on a “favorite new restaurant” Tuesday, the Globe’s review bore the headline “Endearing, intimate and bare-bones, UpperWest is the wine bar that almost wasn’t.”

That’s because the License Commission did all it could to kill this culinary gem before it had a chance to open. And UpperWest is in what Pfeiffer calls an “oddball” location in the basement of the veterans lodge at 1 Cedar St. for the same reason: UpperWest’s original requested location in Mid-Cambridge was put off-limits by the commission in 2014 as a blatant show of favoritism to an existing restaurant whose owner said he didn’t want competition.

In what remains among the weirdest spectacles ever seen at a public hearing, the commission interrogated, criticized and intimidated the small-business people behind UpperWest to a standstill, and then to the relative wilds of North Cambridge, where they painstakingly refurbished a cheesy vets lodge basement into what Pfeiffer calls “a lovely ambience” and conquered an awkward situation in which finding the eatery’s entrance “requires a map, compass and GPS.”

They had to, as neither the City Council nor the city manager at the time, Richard C. Rossi, seemed able to step up and deal publicly with the fact that the city’s License Commission was handling two citizens in a wildly unfair and unreasonable manner. In classic Cambridge style, the chairwoman of the commission resigned after less than two years of what was to be a three-year term.

But Kim Courtney and Xavier Dietrich weren’t so easily dissuaded. Two years after their first request they opened their wine bar and charcuterie, and Cambridge should be happy they did. Their cozy, unpretentious basement space is welcoming and their simple “peasant food” is “warm, filling, aromatic,” with Courtney’s homemade pasta being, in the Globe’s estimation, her “masterpieces.”

It’s time for Cambridge to celebrate two residents who stuck to their dreams despite years of unforeseen expense and conflict. The best way is surely by visiting and dining at “the wine bar that almost wasn’t.”

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