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South End News - April 12, 2001

The question on the tip of our taste buds

With spring in the air, restaurants have flung their windows open for al fresco dining. Taste buds are blossoming, barbecues are sizzling, and everyone's got one question on the tip of their tongue..."Where is a good place to eat in Boston?"

It was this same question that inspired a couple of designers to create the idea for a dining book called "Where to Eat." Jill Epstein, a graphic designer at a small design firm in Boston, and Tracey Roberts, the president of the company, were looking for a dining book that would satisfy their discriminating taste for both food and design. After scouring bookstores for the perfect dining guide, they found nothing but "four star restaurant" lists with no illustrations or mouth-watering descriptions. During a conversation at the office, the two designers decided that they could solve the problem by creating a book of their own. So under Roberts' executive direction, Epstein started out on a quest to find an answer to this dining dilemma.

Epstein recalled the beginning stages of creating "Where to Eat" with the nostalgia of a successful entrepreneur. "I was always the girl in the office who was interested in the restaurant scene," Epstein remembered. "If a new restaurant opened, I was always there to check it out. I love dining out and always cook at home, so I was a good fit when Tracey needed someone to launch the idea with her."

Epstein created the book from scratch, starting with what she knew best -- the design -- and worked her way through the yellow pages like a chef improvising with a recipe. With no prior knowledge of sales or marketing, Epstein relied on her enthusiasm and charm to pitch the idea to some of the most exclusive restaurants in Boston.

"There were a lot of skeptics at first," admitted Epstein. "People in the restaurant industry are bombarded all day by someone selling something. I stood apart because of my enthusiasm -- I completely believed in what I was doing, and many of the restaurant owners agreed that there was a need for this dining book."

It wasn't long before she was pounding the pavement, showing up on the doorsteps of restaurants with a proposal in hand. "They really loved my presentation, even though I only had this little black-and-white mock-up book that I posted together. I was really selling air at that point. People were investing in the fact that I would be successful."

WIth a heavy workload of design projects, "lunch hour" took on a whole new meaning in the office. Epstein used her free time to research restaurants and follow dining trends. Within a year, she had developed a client base of influential local restaurants. Soon, she was wining and dining herself through the most exclusive restaurants in the city. "The Boston dining scene is a small community," explains Epstein. "The restaurants that signed on initially were very influential on the decisions of the restaurants that followed." When the first issue was successfully launched in the spring of 1999, it was met with a warm welcome from restaurants and customers alike.

Since then, "Where to Eat" has blossomed into a kind of encyclopedia of Boston restaurants. Now under the parent company Spire, the dining book has expanded to include 276 restaurants, including an "..and Beyond" section to cover the subrubs. The Spring/Summer 2001 issue will launch on May 1. It will highlight new restaurants, as well as the good old favorties that may have been forgotten in the whirlwind of dining trends. The dining book also has a web site, www.wheretoeatboston.com, with over 70 restaurants online and individual links to many of the restaurants."

"The book has grown a lot," Epstein said with a smile. "We've really culminated a huge following of dedicated readers, subscribers and people who correspond to us by e-mail."

Epstein has a lot on her plate, so to speak, for the upcoming year. The launch of the Spring/Summer issue will bring the usual fan-fare of dining events to promote the book. Not to mention plans in the works to launch in one other city by the end of the year.

Until then, Epstein will keep her taste buds tuned in to Boston and enjoy her lovely home on a tree-lined, cobblestone street in the heart of the South End. "The diversity of restaurants is the nicest part about the South End," said Epstein. "It's become a dining destination for people because it's so beautiful... It has everything from small, neighborhood spots to French-Vietnamese bistros."

As a sort of "culinary curator" of the Boston dining scene, Jill has whetted her taste buds to appreciate the cuisine of her own backyard fully. "There's something more eclectic about the South End," she said. "It's urban, but it feels residential...It's about as good as it gets for city living."

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