The Hottest Restaurants
Boston may be famous for its revolutionary legacy, financial shrewdness, boundless ingenuity, and intellectual disposition. But for most of its history, it was not known for its food. An image of the old New England boiled dinner hung above it like a dark cloud. Gourmands in other cities mocked us for our baked beans, chowder, anadama bread, and johnnycake. While they were laughing, however, a new crop of cooks and restaurants took root here. Today we proudly proclaim without irony that Boston is the best city in America for dining out.
How can we say this? In the last decade, Boston chefs and restaurants have been showered with every distinction in the industry, including a passel of James Beard Foundation awards. But what most confirms what we already knew to be true is that, despite a squishy economy, notoriously parsimonious New Englanders are eating out in droves. Some long-established restaurants are whispering of record-breaking revenues, and new ones are opening as fast as the kitchen equipment is delivered.
In this, our annual dining issue, we celebrate our full pantry of culinary riches. We pick the hottest restaurants in Boston with the help of the city's celebrity chefs Â— many of whom made this year's hot list with their latest projects and achievements Â— beginning below. We also hear from the chefs themselves, who dish about everything from their junk-food cravings to their worst dining experiences. And, finally, in case your favorite place to dine is your own house, we serve up a list of the city's best takeout. Dig in.
Chef Robert Fathman (formerly of Trio, the Federalist, and Grill 23) left Boston just long enough for us to miss his cooking and his sense of humor. Now he's back in action at Azure, the impressive result of the Lenox Hotel's recent food and beverage overhaul, filling the restaurant's debut menu with one clever turn after another. Case in point: his “oysters in bondage,” a dish of the tender bivalves snared in crispy potatoes. [Lenox Hotel, 61 Exeter Street, Boston, 617-933-4800.]
After 20 years in the shadows of other chefs, Laura Brennan has struck out on her own with Caffè Umbra. (Latin for “shadow,” umbra is actually a reference to the restaurant's location in the shadow of Holy Cross Cathedral.) Her delicious old-school French dishes Â— chicken-liver terrine, scallops vol au vent, seafood pot au feu Â— are the kinds of simple and confident dishes that can only come from a well-trained chef. [1395 Washington Street, Boston, 617-867-0707.]
Meals guided by the standard progression of appetizer, entrée, and dessert are so turn-of-the-millennium. At least, that's what diners may well be saying after they've gotten hooked on Meritage, where Boston Harbor Hotel executive chef Daniel Bruce's menu uses different types of wine to guide diners to food choices. After 13 years of pairing food with wines from around the globe at the hotel's annual Boston Wine Festival, Bruce's expertise has earned its own forum. [Boston Harbor Hotel, 70 Rowes Wharf, Boston, 617-439-3995.]
Chef Jeffrey Everts learned a thing or two during his training in Arizona kitchens: first, to keep his dishes simple, letting the natural flavors of the ingredients take center stage; and second, to insist on fresh, local products. But he's not averse to pushing boundaries: On one recent menu, he got Bostonians to eat bison. Even more astounding: We loved it. That combination, plus the restaurant's striking second-story view of the church spire across the street, are what keep the crowds packed in tight. [Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-772-0202.]
Sure it's loud and crowded, but, as Esquire magazine put it, Via Matta Â— from the management team that gave us Radius Â— is Boston's “best Italian restaurant ever.” Either way, the new kid on the block has our attention for a lot of reasons: The kitchen understands the true meaning of al dente pasta; the uniforms are sexy and whimsical (Puma sneakers!); and an all-Italian wine list is a damned good idea. [79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008.]
Some say Hamersley's is back in the spotlight; we say it never went out. Over the years we've counted on Hamersley's Bistro to create French fare the way Julia Child taught us: with respect for ingredients and aesthetics, and the good sense to not take it all too seriously. We've also counted on seeing Gordon Hamersley's Red Sox cap behind the stove of his open kitchen every night, and indulging in Fiona Hamersley's thoroughly French wine selections. [553 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-423-2700.]
Our sentiments about the cuisine at L'Espalier vacillate between loving Frank McClelland's devotion to New England ingredients and loving his inclination toward all things French. From the tiny but perfect amuse bouches that open every meal to McClelland's epic and legendary seven-course degustation menu, which changes daily, an evening at L'Espalier is a pampered French holiday right in the Back Bay. [30 Gloucester Street, Boston, 617-262-3023.]
It's a pattern in these parts: A maverick restaurant becomes wildly successful, then is largely neglected when its owners move along to other ventures. Not so Radius. As the circle grows for partners Michael Schlow, Christopher Myers, and Esti Benson (who added Via Matta during the summer and debut Great Bay next month), the partners are also keeping the home fires warm with continued top-notch service and startlingly good food prepared by chef de cuisine Gabriel Frasca at the high-powered flagship. [8 High Street, Boston, 617-426-1234.]
Named for the arrondissement in Paris where legend says the bistro was born, Pigalle is an ode to French cuisine past and present. Chef Marc Orfaly has a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to regional French cuisine Â— be it a plate of juicy steak and crispy frites or a cassoulet hearty enough to withstand a bitter-cold winter's night. [75 Charles Street South, Boston, 617-423-4944.]
We'll admit it: We didn't see this one coming. Since opening in 1997, Truc has been one of many consistently good French restaurants in the South End. But something happened last summer: Karen Densmore elevated herself from partner to owner and brought in chef Philip Wang. With experience in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud in New York, Traci Des Jardins in San Francisco, and Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Wang has worked with some of the best. Better still, he's paid attention, and it shows in Truc's newly sublime dishes. [560 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-338-8070.]
The word is out, and for good reason: Carmen is a rare gem of a restaurant. Night after night the staff at this cozy, tiny bo”te puts enormous care into feeding diners and does so with aplomb and not a hint of attitude. Caution: A double-thick pork chop is Flintstonian in proportion Â— but considering it's been soaking in brine for three days and gotten a tender finish on the grill, you may end up devouring the whole thing anyway. [33 North Square, Boston, 617-742-6421.]
Size doesn't matter. At least not here. Chef Anthony Susi's storefront restaurant may have fewer than three dozen seats, but that doesn't stop him from producing big, addictive flavors Â— minus the heavy hand of so many other chefs. His gnocchi are so light and airy, they're a physics conundrum. And the ratio of basil and butter to tomato in his sauce is spot-on. [69 Prince Street, Boston, 617-248-8814.]
No. 9 Park
Overlooking Boston Common, No. 9 Park is a comfy nest for Barbara Lynch, a Bostonian to the bone if there ever was one. The Southie native refers to her food as refined French and Italian country dishes, but we've never tasted anything as ethereal as her prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras or her crispy duck. [9 Park Street, Boston, 617-742-9991.]
We're accustomed to Mediterranean fare by way of France, Italy, and Spain. Chef Ana Sortun takes us deeper into the roots and history of these cuisines by serving us dishes straight from the Ottoman Empire and the kitchens of North Africa. Thanks to her, basturma (Turkish) and shrimp saganaki (Greek), are now part of our culinary lexicon, and we happily lap up Armenian bean and walnut paté, fava bean moussaka, and chicken with za'atar. [134 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 617-661-0505.]
Todd English and his 13 restaurants have earned more than their share of good and bad buzz recently. But if you ever had a doubt about his talent in the kitchen, make a beeline to the place it all began: the Charlestown original. Whether you opt for a classic Olives entrée like Tuscan steak or one of the many daily specials, you'll understand why there's a continued demand for his food (and more of his restaurants). [10 City Square, Charlestown, 617-242-1999.]
Sashimi Bar at Clio
We've had our eye on Ken Oringer for some time now and knew all about his penchant for Asian cuisine. But we never expected Clio to become the home of this city's best sashimi bar. Oringer has given us a delicate menu of handcut fish paired with a vast array of eye-opening accompaniments. Some things we could have anticipated: rich bites of pristine tuna with the clean heat of ginger and an eye-opening pow of wasabi. But onion juice, beets, foie gras, and pickled bean sprouts? What a surprise. And we're the better for it. [Eliot Suite Hotel, 370A Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617-536-7200.]
Where do chefs go to eat on their nights off? The dining room of chef C. K. Sau. Sau's menu culls the best dishes from China's culinary centers (Shanghai and Canton) with glorious results a notch above his Chinatown neighbors. It's a big menu, but don't miss the crispy, whole fish with a sweet and tangy sauce Â— or anything with Sau's signature hot garlic sauce. [21 Hudson Street, Boston, 617-338-6688.]
Oishii sushi bar
The best sushi bar in town is actually out of town, not to mention out of the way (off Route 9 in Chestnut Hill), and not particularly spacious (with barely more than a dozen seats). But the delectably fresh fish is well worth the drive and inevitable wait. With no fewer than 35 makimono (rolled sushi) options to choose from and outrageously good daily specials, Oishii makes deciding what to order difficult. But rest assured: It's all terrific, thanks to the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the sushi chefs, some of them from New York's famous Nobu. [612 Hammond Street, Chestnut Hill, 617-277-7888.]
The woman who brought Boston Biba, Pignoli, and a revamped Locke-Ober has wowed us more than once, so we're certain Lydia Shire will do it again this spring with Excelsior. This time Shire's partnering with the team behind Grill 23 & Bar and the Harvest to create a new restaurant in the space of the now-closed Biba. [272 Boylston Street, Boston.]
Northerners may have a tortured history with the South, but these days even hard-core Yankees are putting politics aside to indulge in Andy Husbands's refined tribute to Southern classics. After building a loyal following at his twin restaurants, Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel, Husbands has made Rouge his much-anticipated next project. Besides, we don't get treated to enough catfish around these parts. [480 Columbus Avenue, Boston, 617-867-0600.]
Every season our city draws more and better theater, so it makes sense that we've been adding dining options to the playbill. From the folks who brought us Mistral and the Federalist, enter stage right: Teatro, a midpriced Italian eatery set to open this month. [177 Tremont Street, Boston.]
The concept of a “nitery” is new to us, but we do know one thing: We'll be noshing on chef Rene Michelena's food in this new, open-late hot spot's three dining rooms long after the rest of the city has closed down for the night (or early morning, as the case may be). There's also a swank vodka bar and plenty of entertainment, including impromptu jam sessions with celebrities who drop by. [90 Exeter Street, Boston, 617-236-1134.]
UpStairs on the Square
Ever since UpStairs at the Pudding closed two years ago, we've been waiting patiently for Deborah Hughes and Mary-Catherine Deibel to reopen in Harvard Square. Their two-story, pink and green restaurant is worth the wait. We're also glad that chef Amanda Lydon (who quietly left Metro last summer) is back behind the stove. [91 Winthrop Street, Cambridge, 617-864-1933.]
Peter McCarthy runs one of those quiet little restaurants that always turns out to be a great experience, with flavorful, inspired food served by a top-notch, friendly staff. We're particularly reminded of how much we love Evoo (it stands for “extra-virgin olive oil”) after we've spent far too much money on a bad meal somewhere else. [118 Beacon Street, Somerville, 617-661-3866.]
For more than 20 years, Chris Douglass has been humbly cooking beautiful “New American” cuisine for a steady stream of loyal diners. He hits a lot of high notes along the way, but it's the consistency of his food, his passion for ingredients, and his restaurant's comfortable dining room we love best. [3 Appleton Street, Boston, 617-426-1790.]
(Rialto, blu, Noir)
As chef and partner at Cambridge's Rialto, Jody Adams wins raves for her stylishly presented Mediterranean-influenced food. The past year has seen her stay as busy as ever, with her first cookbook, In the Hands of a Chef, published last winter and a new project, transforming the Charles Hotel's Tini Bar into Noir, a '40s-style cocktail lounge. Why did you become a cook? I can't sit still. I love food. I love to cook. I love to cook in restaurants, and I love to make people happy around a table. Who are your role models? Lydia Shire, Gordon Hamersley, Julia Child, and my mother. What's your motto? I agree with the advice of a seasoned, old chef: Cook first for yourself, then for your customers, and last for the press. Your food will have honesty, passion, and soul. I have on my menu only dishes that I love. What are the biggest changes you've seen in this city's food scene over the last 10 years? The biggest change is more stylized plate presentations. The best change is better-fitting chef jackets for women. In this city, whose kitchen would you most like to work in? Of those I haven't worked in, Jasper White's Summer Shack. Do Bostonians have high expectations? You bet . . . and they should. High expectations mean high standards. What's the worst thing a customer ever did? Everything from projectile vomiting, sex at a table, and drawing with ink on linen even when they've been offered paper. But I think the worst thing a customer can do is steal from a restaurant Â— it's mostly small things like salt shakers or my cookbooks. What is your signature dish? Soupe de poissons, grilled clams, Tuscan-style steak, and roast duck. These are all dishes that were inspired by dishes I had in other countries. The soup and clams are from the south of France, the steak and duck, from Italy. I give the classics a twist but don't stray too far from the original. Jody's picks: Hamersley's Bistro, 553 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-2700; Jasper White's Summer Shack, 149 Alewife Brook Pkwy., Cambridge, 617-520-9500.
When Thomas John breezed into town from India nearly two years ago, proper Bostonians didn't know quite what to make of him. First there was the remarkable décor at Mantra, the stylish Ladder District restaurant in whose kitchen he reigned: a 20-foot-high hookah den next to the main dining room; the long, glowing bar; the sleek marble-clad walls. But most remarkable about the place was his food: beautifully presented creations that balanced exotic and heady spices with classic ingredients in a winning combination. It's one that's perfect for the restaurant revival taking place in the newly fashionable Ladder District. What are the biggest challenges to doing business in this city? Bostonians don't dine at lunch. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? Oleana for Mediterranean. For Asian, Oishii, and for Latin, Chez Henri. What's your favorite ingredient? Curry leaf. It has a distinct, aromatic, and refreshing flavor and can be used in combination with other spices. What's always in your home kitchen? Bananas on the counter and shrimp in the refrigerator. What is your signature dish? Pan-roasted halibut with coastal spices. I take a humble piece of fish and elevate its status by subtly adding the spices. Thomas's picks: Chez Henri, One Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-354-8980; Oishii Sushi Bar, 612 Hammond St., Chestnut Hill, 617-277-7888; Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505.
Just when we thought Ken Oringer couldn't top the excellence of his Asian-influenced French cooking at his Back Bay restaurant, Clio, he did. Last summer, Oringer took the underused lounge at Clio and transformed it into an intimate sashimi bar where he let his love for Asian techniques and fresh ingredients (the eel is flown in live and prepared on-site) run wild. The results were stunning. The drawback? Now having to decide between a table in the main dining room or one at the sashimi bar. Who are your role models? Jacques Pépin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. If you could eat at only one restaurant in town, where would it be and what would you order? Blue Ginger, anything on the menu. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? For Mediterranean, Oleana. For Asian, Oishii. For Latin, Taqueria Cancun. For seafood, Imperial Seafood. For breakfast, I'll go to Chau Chow City for dim sum. For takeout, Santarpio's Pizza. In this city, whose kitchen would you most like to work in? Ting [San]'s kitchen at Oishii. What's the best thing a customer ever did? Took me to Paris. What's your worst dining experience? Eating bugs in Thailand. What junk food do you crave? Hot dogs, White Castle burgers, and pizza. What's always in your refrigerator at home? Hot sauce. What is your signature dish? Marinated yellowfin and yellowtail tuna. It represents my style because of the complexity of flavors, the simplicity in its appearance, and the surprise element: I was inspired by the aesthetic of the whole dish. Ken's picks: Blue Ginger, 583 Washington St., Wellesley, 781-283-5790; Chau Chow City Restaurant, 83 Essex St., Boston, 617-338-8158; Imperial Seafood Restaurant, 70 Beach St., Boston, 617-426-8439; Oishii Sushi Bar, 612 Hammond St., Chestnut Hill, 617-277-7888; Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505; Santarpio's Pizza, 111-113 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-567-9871; Taqueria Cancun, 65 Maverick Sq., Boston, 617-567-4449.
When Gordon and Fiona Hamersley opened the original Hamersley's Bistro in 1987, most people didn't think of the South End as a dining destination, let alone one of the best restaurant neighborhoods in town. But the straightforward French-inspired cooking at Hamersley's was so impressive Â— and addictive Â— that he sparked a neighborhood revival. Hamersley never planned to be a cook, but after stints in local Boston restaurants in the '70s and a few seasons with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, he discovered what Bostonians later found out: He loves to cook. And he's very, very good at it. Why did you become a cook? It beats dishwashing. I actually had no plans to be a chef until I started moving up the kitchen ladder, which was unintentional. Who are your role models? Wolfgang Puck, Julia Child, and André Soltner. He was a real chef's chef Â— he worked every day and every night in his restaurant. If you could eat at only one restaurant in town, which would it be and what would you order? I'd go to Rialto and get the duck, or I'd have the chicken livers at the Franklin Café or the steamed chicken at New Shanghai. What's the best part of doing business in this city? The seasons of New England are such a treat. Boston is the only major city where you can be out in the rolling hills picking your own lettuce and then use it that night on your menu. What are the biggest challenges? Governmental red tape and parking. I can't even talk about the parking. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? For Mediterranean, Oleana. For Asian, Oishii Too in Sudbury. For seafood, I love the lobster at Jasper White's Summer Shack. For breakfast, I'll go to Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe for poached eggs, home fries, sausage, and an English muffin. For takeout, Flour Bakery + Café. What junk food do you crave? Peanut M&Ms and french fries. What is your signature dish? Roast chicken with garlic, lemon, and parsley. We have regulars that come once a week and have ordered nothing else. I estimated once that we sold more than 150,000 orders. But that was a while ago. Who knows at this point? Gordon's picks: Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, 429 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-7669; Flour Bakery + Café, 1597 Washington St., Boston, 617-267-4300; Franklin Café, 278 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-0010; Jasper White's Summer Shack, 149 Alewife Brook Pkwy., Cambridge, 617-520-9500; New Shanghai, 21 Hudson St., Boston, 617-338-6688; Oishii Too, 365 Boston Post Rd., Sudbury, 978-440-8300; Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505; Rialto, One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050.
(Olives, Figs, KingFish Hall, and Bonfire)
One hit in Boston wasn't enough for Todd English. Since luring diners to the hinterlands of Charlestown with Olives, English has gone on to build an empire of 13 restaurants, each of which showcases his flair for cooking everything from his trademark Mediterranean cuisine to seafood to steaks to pizzas. And though in the past year he has seen his share of ups and downs, English is still busy planning new ventures, appearing on cooking shows, even making Esquire's best-dressed list. It isn't all hype: Witness the crowds that have been lining up outside that original Olives in Charlestown every night for 14 years. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? For Mediterranean, Oleana. For Asian, Jumbo Seafood, and China Pearl for dim sum. For Latin, Tacos El Charro in Jamaica Plain. Anthony's Pier 4 for Dover sole and a great white Burgundy. And for breakfast? Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe. In this city, whose kitchen would you most like to work in? It's not a restaurant, but I would love to work at Maria & Ricardo's Tortilla Factory in Canton. What is your worst dining experience? There is no such thing as bad dining in Boston. What's the one thing you'd never, under any circumstances, eat? Grape-flavored bubblegum. What junk foods do you crave? Peanut M&Ms and tortilla chips. What is your favorite thing on your menu? Tuna tartare at Olives. Todd's picks: Anthony's Pier 4, 140 Northern Ave., Boston, 617-482-6262; Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, 429 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-7669; China Pearl, 9 Tyler St., Boston, 617-426-4338; Jumbo Seafood, 5-7 Hudson St., Boston, 617-542-2823; Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505; Tacos El Charro, 349 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-983-9275.
(No. 9 Park)
How an Irish girl from South Boston makes the best pasta in town is a long story. No matter. One bite of Lynch's perfectly made gnocchi and there's no need for explanation. Though her résumé includes everything from private chef duty on a yacht to working alongside Todd English to manning the kitchen at the beloved former Galleria Italiana, it's in her own kitchen at No. 9 Park that Lynch has flourished, raising simple French and Italian country fare to new heights. If you could eat at only one restaurant in town, where would it be and what would you order? The Blue Room for a double order of seared tuna with Asian greens. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? For Mediterranean, Oleana. For Asian, King Fung Garden. For Latin, Chez Henri. For seafood, Jumbo Seafood. For breakfast, Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe. For takeout, Formaggio Kitchen. In this city, whose kitchen would you most like to work in? Ken Oringer's at Clio. The one thing you'd never, under any circumstances, eat? Haggis [the traditional Scottish dish made from the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep cooked in a sheep's stomach]. What junk food do you crave? Cheez-Its. They are salty, crunchy, cheesy Â— I can't resist them. What's your signature dish? Prune-stuffed gnocchi. Barbara's picks: The Blue Room, One Kendall Sq., Cambridge, 617-494-9034; Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, 429 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-7669; Chez Henri, One Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-354-8980; Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; Jumbo Seafood, 5-7 Hudson St., Boston, 617-542-2823; King Fung Garden, 74 Kneeland St., Boston, 617-357-5262. Oleana, 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505.
(L'Espalier and Sel de la Terre)
It's no wonder L'Espalier has long been the restaurant of choice for special occasions. Everything from the Back Bay brownstone where it's housed to the expertly executed service practically guarantees a perfect experience each visit. But it's Frank McClelland's menu, featuring classic dishes made with reverence for French technique and using New England's best seasonal ingredients, that makes the occasion especially memorable. At McClelland's second restaurant, Sel de la Terre, that French technique goes casual under the hands of McClelland's partner/chef de cuisine, Geoff Gardner. Who are your mentors? My grandmother, Virginia Sutherland McClelland. She kept a handwritten cookbook based on her recipes. I use many of these recipes at L'Espalier to this day. Moncef Meddeb, the original owner of L'Espalier, is another. He took me under his wing in his kitchen. If you could eat at only one restaurant in town, where would it be? I love dining in the North End with my children. One of our favorites is Antico Forno. What's the best part of doing business in Boston? The close proximity to local producers and the inspiring and dramatic seasonal change. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston? For Mediterranean, Sel de la Terre. For Asian, Oishii. For Latin, Café Brazil in Allston. For seafood, Woodman's. For breakfast, I love the Agawam Diner, and for takeout, I go to RedBones. What junk food do you eat? Kit Kat bars. My children are responsible for my addiction. What's your signature dish? A juniper-rubbed venison loin with lentils du Puy, foie gras, Chartreuse, and an escargot vol-au-vent with a red currant Amarone sauce. It represents all things New England. I especially like pairing the venison with escargot. This particular dish is inspired by the forests of New England. Frank's picks: Antico Forno, 93 Salem St., Boston, 617-723-6733; Agawam Diner, 163 Newburyport Turnpike, Rowley, 978-948-7780; Café Brazil, 421 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-789-5980; Oishii Sushi Bar, 612 Hammond St., Chestnut Hill, 617-277-7888; RedBones, 55 Chester St., Somerville, 617-628-2200;