Haute Secrets Boston: Chef, Restaurateur, Real Estate Developer Jay Hajj

There isn’t much Jay Hajj hasn’t done since he came to Boston from Lebanon. The chef/owner/real estate developer made a name for himself when he opened the beloved South End restaurant Mike’s City Diner where politicians, local celebrities and even former Presidents (Bill Clinton loves their ham and eggs) flock for its fun dining scene. He’s also the landlord for several Boston restaurants and is one of the partners behind Yvonne’s, the red-hot “modern supper club” in Downtown Crossing.

Jay HajjPhoto Credit: Jay Hajj

If Hajj’s face seems familiar, you have probably seen him on the Food Network where’s he’s a frequent guest with his pal Guy Fieri. He recently returned to Boston from Bangkok where he gave a hand to Boston chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette as they opened their newest Toro restaurant.

We caught up recently caught up with Hajj to find out what he loves most about Boston.

Where were you born: Beirut, Lebanon

How long in Boston: 38 years

Neighborhood: Raised in Roslindale, but I work in the South End and own real estate around the city. We also just completely renovated a historic 300-year-old home in Medfield.

Occupation: Chef, restaurateur, real estate developer

Favorite Restaurant: Yvonne’s. I’d say I’m biased. But the local and national media has been lavish in its praise, too. Great food and cocktails. Beautiful space.

Best Sushi: Uni. Ken Oringer and his team are just the best. Very sophisticated food.

Best Italian: Rino’s in East Boston. You gotta try their oversized ravioli.

Best dessert: I have to admit the best desserts I had recently were at Pasquale Jones in Little Italy in Manhattan. But here in Boston, it’s the cookie dough at brand-new Little Donkey in Central Square. It’s served with a mixer blade. Who doesn’t love cookie dough?

Best place for a romantic date: Coppa. Very small and intimate and it’s in a great neighborhood that has a romantic vibe all its own.

Best Sunday brunch: Mike’s City Diner, of course! We enjoy a lot of business on the weekends. Our neighbors have been so supportive. I truly owe everything to them.

Best place for a power business meeting: I have most of my business meetings here at Mike’s. But I really love Davio’s. A lot of Boston’s heavy hitters do business there.

If you have out of town guests, which hotel would you recommend? The Taj. The old Ritz-Carlton. Right on the Public Garden. A classic.

Favorite shopping venue/boutique: I’m really a jeans-and-t-shirts kind of guy. But I do love Riccardi on Newbury Street.

Favorite place to buy jewelry/watches: I collect watches. My favorite place is Homsy in the Jeweler’s Building. It’s a Boston institution!

Best Spa: Keldara’s in Dedham. My wife Janet loves them.

Favorite Charity Event: Best Buddies, which helps people with Down Syndrome, autism and other challenges. I’m proud to say I was one of the original chefs Guy Fieri tapped for this fundraiser three years ago. There were only five of us back then. The event has grown dramatically and this year dozens of great chefs participated in what’s become one of Boston’s biggest and best tasting events. Each of us were paired with a “Best Buddy.” My buddy was Sarah Markowitz. She’s great. I just went to her house and cooked for her family in August.

Favorite Cultural Event: Does the Boston Marathon count as a cultural event? To me, the Marathon has everything that’s great about Boston. I ran the marathon for the first time – and probably last time – in 2014.

Favorite Cultural Institution: The Boston Pops.

Best Steakhouse: Boston Chops right here on Washington Street in the South End. It’s a very intimate take on the classic big city steakhouse concept.

Best Pizza: Ok. It’s outside the city. But my old Rozzie pal Billy Papadopoulos makes awesome pub pie at Ultimate Pizza in Easton.

Best Lunch: Vincenzo’s Italian Deli in Dedham. An old-school Italian deli. They make the best Italian sandwich. It might be the best sandwich ever. I eat it standing up right there in the deli.

Best Gym/Athletic Facility: The Huntington Avenue YMCA. The West Roxbury YMCA took me under its wing when I first moved to Boston as a boy. After living through the war in Beirut, I was so amazed to find a neighborhood swimming pool in the middle of the city. I’m happy to say that I’m now on the Board of Directors at the Huntington Ave Y. It’s a very important pillar of the community.

Best Limousine/Driving Service: Can I say Uber? What a great service. It makes traveling so easy.

Best Museum/Exhibit: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I love working on my own yard and I go there for inspiration and ideas. The flowers. The plantings. The stonework. It’s awesome. 

Describe Boston in three words: Closes. Too. Early. Seriously: smart, tough, loyal. 

Favorite historic/legendary place to see or explore: A friend of mine recently brought me to the Church of the Presidents in Quincy. It’s a beautiful old church that looks just like Quincy Market and you can touch the tombs of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams. It’s pretty amazing but not a lot of people know about it.

All-around favorite spot in Boston: Boston Common and the Public Garden. Who doesn’t love strolling through the parks on a beautiful summer day?

Best Aspect of Boston: It’s a very sophisticated city that’s still a little rough around the edges. I love that contrast of smarts and grit.