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joanna slater

Server Jon Erickson places table cloths on the patio of Boston’s Forum restaurant, Friday, April 11, 2014. The second of the Boston Marathon bombs went off outside of the Forum, forcing the restaurant to close for four months.Gretchen Ertl/The Globe and Mail

All kinds of customers enter the restaurant Chris Loper runs on Boylston Street. One type in particular he has come to recognize. They hesitate as they step inside, or look searchingly at the staff, or stand still as their eyes well with tears.

Ever the host aiming to make his guests comfortable, he approaches them. "I'll just walk over and say, 'Hey, I was here too. It looks like it's probably your first time back in. Let me know if you need anything.'"

Nearly a year ago, on April 15, the second of the two co-ordinated bombings at the Boston Marathon exploded on the sidewalk outside Forum, turning the area into a scene of carnage. An eight-year-old boy, Martin Richard, was killed in front of the restaurant and scores of people were seriously injured.

The bomb shattered windows at Forum and launched shrapnel up into the carpet on its second floor. Closed for four months, it was the last business in the area to reopen after the attacks.

Since then, its staff has tried to move forward from the events of that day, but never leave them behind. Most customers are coming for a drink or a meal; others come for a type of catharsis.

There was the paramedic who recognized Mr. Loper, Forum's general manager, and remembered him bringing linens and ice during the frantic minutes after the bombings. Another was Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost part of her leg in the blast. She came in search of the bartender who had cradled her head as they waited for help to arrive. She found him, and they embraced, weeping.

"Each day, you don't know who's going to walk through that door," says Mr. Loper, a 41-year-old with a low voice and a goatee. It's a cool, sunny day, one of the first of spring. A group of three is lunching on salads on Forum's patio under its new striped awning. At the long bar, others eat burgers beneath four large flat-screen televisions.

Forum's journey – a return to normalcy carrying new scars – echoes the larger dynamic in Boston. On Tuesday, the city will mark the one-year anniversary of the bombings with sombre commemorations and religious services. Then, on April 21, thousands of runners will take to the streets once again for this year's marathon.

For Forum, the past year has been about rebuilding, reopening and getting customers back into the seats, with the awareness that it is no longer simply a place to eat, but a symbol. "Whether we like it or not, we've had some type of identity that has been created for us," said Mr. Loper. "You have to embrace it to a certain extent."

From normalcy to chaos

Opened in 2011, the large, two-storey restaurant was the youngest eatery on its strip of Boylston Street, jostling for diners with more established competitors. Marathon Monday, as Bostonians call it, was a major day on its calendar.

Last year, the restaurant was hosting an event downstairs for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, a charity devoted to serving people with cancer, which had a team of runners participating in the marathon. There was a photo booth brought in for the occasion. Upstairs, on the second floor, Forum was selling tables by the window to the public: $100 bought a group of four a bucket of Michelob beer, lunch and a perfect view of the race.

Mr. Loper was on a cigarette break in the alley behind the restaurant when the first blast resounded down the narrow passage. He thought a construction crane had fallen. As he re-entered the back of the restaurant, he saw the flash of an explosion out front. For the next two or three minutes, until emergency personnel arrived, the only help available would come from bystanders and his employees, many of them college students, who were facing "a scene that you don't see unless you're at war somewhere."

Someone began shredding the photo booth's curtain to make a tourniquet. Others made sure guests were ushered safely out the back into the alley. Others brought tablecloths and bar towels and ice to the wounded. Erinn Fleming, the restaurant's events and marketing manager, remembers hearing a person scream, "Why would someone do this to us? Why would they do this?"

Matt Chatham, a former professional football player, was sitting out on Forum's patio when the bomb went off. He scooped up a young woman named Heather Abbott whose leg had been mangled as she waited to enter Forum, and together with his wife Erin, carried her out the back of the restaurant. As they waited for an ambulance, Erin repeated the Lord's Prayer.

Half an hour later, the police found Mr. Loper and asked him to show them the restaurant's security cameras. He took them to the basement, where he rewound the tapes and saw that they had captured the bombing. He and his colleagues headed home in a daze. He woke up the next morning on his couch, his cellphone ringing. The first call was from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The next was from CNN.

Reopening and rebirth

For 10 days, no one could get back into Forum. Investigators scoured the premises for evidence, ripping out the carpet on the second floor in their search for fragments (though when the staff returned, they found burgers on the grill, untouched). Early on, the restaurant's owner – Euz Azevedo, who heads a company called Boston Nightlife Ventures – said he would reopen.

It took a long time, partly because of a decision to remodel the restaurant. The new version would be brighter, warmer, less "nightclub-y" in appearance, said Mr. Loper. There was another motivation, too: keeping the restaurant the same "would have been a little difficult for a lot of people," he says. He declines to discuss the topic of insurance payments except to say that it's a sensitive topic and "an ongoing process."

Four months to the day after the bombings, Forum reopened with a party. Boston's beloved mayor, Thomas Menino, was there. So was its police chief. Mr. Loper had reached out to his favourite band, Rebirth Brass Band, in New Orleans. He persuaded them to come to Boston and found a sponsor to pay for it.

The band led a traditional "second line" parade – a kind of moving, impromptu dance party – from the place where the marathon finishes to Forum, two blocks away. Staff danced behind the musicians, waving napkins in celebration. Cars honked and people on the street hollered. "It was something to be seen," says Ms. Fleming, 40. "It just felt like everybody was rooting for us."

Becoming a symbol

Once the restaurant reopened, it benefited from strong support from the community. Locals stopped in for a signature burger or a special cocktail to help the restaurant get back on its feet. One group was especially drawn to the venue: those hosting fundraisers or events related to last year's marathon.

Paul and J.P. Norden, two brothers who each lost a leg while watching the race outside Forum, returned for a fundraiser at the restaurant last November. Ms. Haslet-Davis, another marathon bombing survivor, returned for an event this spring benefiting a foundation that provides prosthetic limbs to low-income amputees. Another event raised funds for a scholarship honouring Sean Collier, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer shot and killed as the perpetrators of the bombing attempted to flee on April 18.

"It's just the process," says Mr. Loper of those who were affected choosing to return to the restaurant. For fundraisers, it donates space and food.

As Mr. Loper speaks, it's a quiet afternoon on the restaurant's second floor. Some employees can no longer handle large crowds; a month ago, Mr. Loper said, a waitress found a shard of glass in her shoe and was so overcome she missed her shift.

Business is busier than it was a year ago. Later that evening, Forum's ground floor is full – colleagues having after-work drinks, couples out for dinner – and appealingly noisy.

Upstairs, more than a hundred people are eating sliders and duck wraps and bidding on auction items. A cover band blasts out rock classics. The event is a benefit for a music education charity, which is fielding a team of runners in the marathon for the first time.

At one point Ernie Boch, Jr., a local car magnate who started the charity, takes the microphone. "Given what happened here last year, it's crazy. It's beautiful; it looks fantastic," he says. Then he introduces the runners, to sustained applause.

Marathon Monday

On April 21 – Marathon Monday – Mr. Loper will be in early, just as he was a year ago. The Joe Andruzzi Foundation will be back, only this time with many more people. "It's about repeating what we did last year, but this year, finishing it," said Jennifer Andruzzi, the foundation's executive director.

One of their guests will be Matt Chatham, whose wife Erin is running her first marathon. They've become close to Heather Abbott, the woman they helped rescue from the restaurant last year. Ms. Abbott, who lost her lower leg, will join Ms. Chatham on the course for the final stretch of the race. "It'll be a little eerie being out there," said Mr. Chatham. But he is excited to cheer on his wife and Ms. Abbott.

The restaurant still has its cameras but hasn't instituted any new security procedures. It doesn't plan to do anything differently for the marathon. Already, there is a considerable police presence in the area as the stands for spectators begin to take shape; those coming to watch at the finish line won't be allowed to bring bags.

For the staff at Forum, they will have one of their own in the race: Ms. Fleming made the decision to run the marathon for the first time. Mr. Loper, meanwhile, will be at the restaurant, making sure everything – and everyone – is taken care of.

"I'll be here with people that I respect and admire and care a lot about," he said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Follow me on Twitter: @jslaternyc

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