Riley’s Roast Beef gets only a couple of mentions in Infinite Jest, and its one meaningful-ish mention is less than flattering. Around the novel’s midpoint, Don Gately is hurtling down Comm. Ave. in Pat Montesian’s “black 1964 Ford Aventura” (not a real car, but read this) en route to grocery shopping for Ennet residents and, among other neighborhood landmarks, he
…passes the hideous Riley’s Roast Beef where the Allston Group gathers to pound coffee before Commitments.
Like the Professional Building of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, my visit to Allston-Brighton led me to conclude that this roast beefery was a composite of two different, real establishments: drawing its name from the now-defunct Riley’s Roast Beef, and its location appearing to match Kelly’s Roast Beef, at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Street.
Untangling the various roast beef specialists of the the greater Boston area, past and present, turns out to be something of a chore. Locations of places called both Riley’s and Kelly’s in Chelsea and Revere and Danvers, made me wonder if this was some kind of Adidas-Puma rivalry, but I didn’t find any evidence for that.
A Riley’s location existed in Allston at least until 1999, according to the Boston Globe, which seems to confirm Wallace’s opinion of its quality: “Whatever is lacking in the roast beef is more than made up for in the fries.”
I spent enough time in Allston-Brighton to get hungry and, in the spirit of total coverage, I stopped in at Riley’s, I mean, Kelly’s for a roast beef sandwich. I did so thinking it must be something of a neighborhood landmark: in addition to being the most prominent business on its corner—directly opposite my best guess for The Unexamined Life—Kelly’s proudly declares that it has operated locally since 1951, and the Kelly’s website uses many not-so-humble self-descriptors, including “legendary” and “delicious.” Well, I certainly wouldn’t label the sandwich I ordered “hideous,” but nor would I make a point of visiting again—sorry, “4 generations of New Englanders” who “agree.”
Anyway, here’s the big reveal: I was entirely mistaken. As I learned much later, the Kelly’s establishment I visited had only opened about a year before. What’s more, it closed in December 2011, just a few months after my visit. Hardly the neighborhood landmark I took it for, and a reminder—not that I should have needed it—of how much can change in twenty years. Or one.
A few other Allston-Brighton casual dining establishments receive similarly brief mentions in the book, which unfortunately we won’t get around to, as this series will move out of Enfield and into Cambridge later this week. They include two locations around Union Square, or “Enfield Center”: fictional Steve’s Donuts, which seems to be real-life Twin Donuts and the “Elit Diner”—whose “final e’s neon’s ballast’s out.”
One whose location is never quite pinned down is the “Steak ‛N Sundae,” which Mike Pemulis suggests to Hal Incandenza as a place to blow off steam, late in the story. Like I had presumed of Kelly’s and Riley’s, this one too seems equally based on two different locations. The better known of the two is Steak ‛n Shake, the regional chain originating in Normal, Illinois—where Wallace taught English at Illinois State University early in the writing of this novel.
More interesting to me is the former Steak & Sundae—defunct and being demolished in Google Maps’ Street View—in Syracuse, New York, where David Foster Wallace also lived during the writing of Infinite Jest. From what’s left of its sign, it does look like the Steak & Sundae would have been there in the early 1990s… but I’m getting more cautious about assuming these things.