52 Things to Love About Eating Here Right Now
Need a reason to go dining in Boston? We found 27, from fine service to bars that cater to morning drinkers, and all the way to Hong Kong where we found a local specialty.
1. Jumbo scallops with chestnut pudding and caraway butter ($26), Neptune Oyster
Chef Dave Nevins’s sweet-savory plate of plump scallops is a triumph of balance and creativity. 63 Salem St., Boston, 617-742-3474
2. Maiz asado con alioli ($5), Toro
The pure perfection of char-grilled corn is made better yet by garlic mayo, cheese, a dash of smoky Espelette pepper, and a squeeze of lime. 1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300
3. Beet chitarra with short ribs and crystallized ginger ($24), Pava
Susan Regis’s shockingly hued homemade pasta shines when unexpectedly—and deliciously—paired with short ribs and candied ginger. 1229 Centre St., Newton Centre, 617-965-0905
4. Spinach falafel ($9), Oleana
Greaseless outside, creamy inside, and served with tahini and yogurt, this falafel is worthy of more than just late-night sandwiches. 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505
5. Turtle cheesecake ($8), the Metropolitan Club
The word “addictive” is overused for food, but here it’s entirely appropriate. This is big enough to share—but we’re betting you won’t. 1210 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill, 617-731-0600
6. Salmon tartare ($16), B&G Oysters
Superfresh fish, beets, rich horseradish crème fraîche, and homemade potato chips help B&G put the city’s countless other tartare variations to shame. 550 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-0550
7. Tuscan-style steak ($43), Rialto
Some believe a steak can stand alone. We prefer ours à la Jody Adams, with meaty portobello mushrooms, arugula, and a drizzle of truffle oil. One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050
8. Banana-stuffed French toast ($7.95), Zaftigs
How to describe brioche filled with caramelized bananas and doused with date butter? Here’s a try: indulgent, scrumptious, and worth every calorie. 335 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-975-0075
9. BLT ($6.95), Flour Bakery + Café
The freshest ingredients make this time-tested combo ultra-delectable and—could it be?—even healthy. 1597 Washington St., Boston, 617-267-4300
10. Consommé of smoked game bird ($17), Craigie Street Bistrot
Fashionable foodies might skip Tony Maws’s old-school consommé. They shouldn’t: The broth may look thin but it’s loaded with smoky, meaty flavor. 5 Craigie Cir., Cambridge, 617-497-5511
11. Sundae ($18), Restaurant L
What might have happened if Mom had let you have your way: peanut butter, burnt sugar, and white chocolate ice creams with a trio of toppings. 234 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-266-4680
12. Clam fritters ($7.95), Chez Henri
Designed as a bar snack, these celestially light fritters could easily outshine the poshest of noshes. Paul O’Connell’s spice rub adds a kung fu–grade kick. One Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-354-8980
13. Caesar salad ($10), Domani
Irrefutable proof of why romaine, anchovy dressing, and croutons became a classic. Rene Michelena’s gooey six-minute egg topper is a stroke of modern genius. 51 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-424-8500
14. Niman Ranch pork chop ($18), Ashmont Grill
Coupled with a rich fruit chutney and earthy braised cabbage, this juice-packed cut shows just how tasty the other white meat can be. 555 Talbot Ave., Dorchester, 617-825-4300
15. Qabelee pallow ($14.95), the Helmand
Spicy and sweet—chunks of lamb baked with rice, carrots, and raisins—unite in a first-rate example of exotic Afghan cooking. 143 First St., Cambridge, 617-492-4646
16. Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown ($8.75), All Star Sandwich Bar
The house Inner Beauty hot sauce adds lip-tingling distinction to this sloppy favorite. (As if the juicy meat smothered in cheese weren’t enough.) 1245 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-868-3065
17. Antipasti della casa ($12), the Butcher Shop
An oversize plate piled high with four kinds of house-cured pork: mortadella, speck, and hot and sweet sopressata. What else do you need to know? 552 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-4800
18. Chili relleno con pato loco ($12.75), East Coast Grill
Tender duck—smoked in-house—is the secret ingredient in these stuffed chilies accompanied by chipotle mashed sweet potatoes. 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-6568
19. Chocolate “caviar” ($10), Café Fleuri
This do-it-yourself dessert looks like a savory starter but—surprise!—it’s a concoction of dark chocolate, homemade raspberry jam, and brioche. 250 Franklin St., Boston, 617-451-1900
20. Cheese pupusa ($1.50 each), Tacos Lupita
It costs mere sofa-cushion change, but there’s nothing humble about this Salvadoran treat of warm corn tortilla stuffed with mild melted queso. 13 Elm St., Somerville, 617-666-0677
21. Roasted chicken ($14.75), Petit Robert Bistro
Amazing how a little French technique (and a lot of butter) can make something so simple so great. This moist half chicken is a weekday staple. 468 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-375-0699
22. Twice-cooked pork ($13), Anise
Szechwan fava bean sauce lends allure and spice; the paper-thin pork belly melts in your mouth. One Kendall Sq., Cambridge, 617-577-8668
23. Veal with wild mushrooms ($30), Via Matta
You won’t even need your knife with this flavorful veal served with an assortment of mushrooms, barely wilted spinach, and a splash of lemon. 79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008
24. Sashimi in ponzu sauce ($25), Oishii
Tiny tastes of the freshest seafood are kept cool, collected, and delicious in a handcarved ice block, making this dish as good as it looks. 1166 Washington St., Boston, 617-482-8868
25. Mussel and saffron tart ($12), Hamersley’s Bistro
Who says quiche has to be bland? Gordon Hamersley’s briny mussels and saffron take the classic to new heights. 553 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-2700
26. You don’t have to be a VIP to get exemplary service
When I moved from sultry Mississippi to blustery Boston, I figured I’d have to expect rudeness instead of southern hospitality, and trade my year-round ice cream indulgence for bowls of insipid chowder. Lo and behold, this freezing city is inexplicably and gloriously ice cream friendly, with more outstanding local creameries than any one town deserves. The “y’all” mentality, however, has been harder to find than an armadillo crossing the Pike. Then I discovered Picco.
The South End joint is known for its brick-oven pizzas, but for me the draw is the ice cream and, more specifically, the folks behind the old-fashioned bar. While Christina’s, Toscanini’s, and others may tolerate sampling, my neighborhood redoubt encourages customers to try flavors like peanut brittle, caramel swirl, pistachio-cookie, and cherry chunk—and then try some more (my single-visit record pushes a dozen). Better yet, instead of using those flimsy plastic things, the just-so scruffy bartenders serve up each bite with a long metal spoon. And though I’m pretty sure they’re nice to everyone, the little lip biting, hair tossing, and sweet southern drawl I throw in probably help keep the freebies coming. —Rachel Baker Picco, 513 Tremont St., Boston, 617-927-0066.
27. The best wine turns up in the most unlikely places
Swaggering oenophiles like to brag about the hard-to-find bottles they’ve sniffed and swirled at No. 9 Park or Les Zygomates, but for those in the know, some of the best buys are found elsewhere. Namely, Anthony’s Pier 4. It may no longer be the coolest destination, but that’s the point. Most of today’s crowd passes right over the 1982 Saint-Juliens and vintage Krug Champagne, as well as early California cabernets from Robert Mondavi and Heitz Cellars. Newer vintages, priced as they might have been 20 years ago, are also available on the Best of Boston–winning list: A 2002 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru Clavoillon is $150 (a ridiculously low markup, since it goes for about $100 retail), while cult Napa cabernet Caymus from the legendary 1997 vintage lists is just $125. —Jane Black Anthony’s Pier 4, 140 Northern Ave., Boston, 617-482-6262.
28–31. You can (finally) get a fantastic meal for under $25
It’s inevitable. Within minutes of discovering I write about food for a living, any new acquaintance is my new best friend. He wants to know what my favorite restaurant is, what I really think of No. 9’s prune gnocchi. And, oh yeah, he wants to tell me all his favorites, too. After we analyze (and agree on) what makes Sel de la Terre’s eggplant–goat cheese purée so good (answer: toasted black walnuts), Mr. New BFF will lean in conspiratorially and whisper, “Yeah, but here’s what I really want to know. Where do you get great [fill in cuisine here] without breaking the bank?”
This was the question I used to dread. Because, until recently, the polite answer was: “Yeah, that’s a tough one.” (And the real answer was: “Absolutely no idea.”) Over the past decade, Boston has painstakingly earned its reputation as a top-notch place to eat. The dirty little secret was that it came at a price. Last fall the New York Times was moved to note, in a front-page article, that entrées across the country were regularly breaking the $40 barrier. Up here, we’ve been paying that kind of money for years.
In the past year, however, small, low-key, low-price bistros have opened all around town. My most satisfying recent meals have been the $5.95 chicken arepa at Orinoco, the $8.50 portobello sandwich at Ashmont Grill, the $7.95 burger at Z Square, and the $14 spicy sausage and roasted pepper pizza at bargain-restaurant pioneer Joe V’s, which hasn’t raised prices since it opened three years ago. Even the celeb chefs—desperate to please without foie gras and caviar—are getting in on the act: Ken Oringer now has tapas bar Toro and Michael Schlow has casual Alta Strada. So to answer your question: Yes, great cheap food is out there. You heard it from me. —J.B. Orinoco, 477 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-369-7075; Ashmont Grill, 555 Talbot Ave., Dorchester, 617-825-4300; Z Square, 14 JFK St., Cambridge, 617-576-0101; Joe V’s, 315 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-338-5638.
32. When chefs say “local produce,” they mean really local
The first bite of L’Espalier’s tomato salad floored me. The dish screamed August, yet it was October. When I asked our server, he pointed toward chef-owner Frank McClelland’s rooftop garden, which first sprouted 19 years ago. Today, at least a dozen local chefs, including those at Aura and Rendezvous, cultivate minigardens. Just as many—Rene Michelena (Domani), Paul O’Connell (Chez Henri), Esti Parsons (Radius)—tend greens at home to use at work.
It’s no easy task growing produce in New England. But our chefs, bless them, are undaunted. Will Gilson, chef at the Garden at the Cellar, currently has 15 rosemary and thyme plants flourishing in the dining room for both décor and cooking. One bite of his thyme-laced parsnip potage, and I can already taste the end of another winter. —Erin Byers Murray L’Espalier, 30 Gloucester St., Boston, 617-262-3023; Garden at the Cellar, 991 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-876-2580.
33-44. Yeah, we’ve got that
Boston’s array of ethnic eateries is a gastronomic UN. Sample treats from Jamaica to Tibet—and everywhere in between.
CAPE VERDEAN: Restaurante Cesaria What to eat: Kachupada, a stew of hominy, pork, beans, and kale ($8.95). 266 Bowdoin St., Dorchester, 617-282-1998.
DOMINICAN: Merengue What to eat: Mofongo, mashed plantains filled with chicken or pork ($7.25). 156 Blue Hill Ave., Roxbury, 617-445-5403.
ETHIOPIAN: Addis Red Sea What to eat: Gored gored, beef simmered in a blend of berbere, onions, and ginger ($10.95). 544 Tremont St., Boston, 617-426-8727.
HUNGARIAN: Jasmine Bistro What to eat: Veal paprikash, a Hungarian pot roast thickened with sour cream ($22). 412 Market St., Brighton, 617-789-4676.
JAMAICAN: Ortanique What to eat: Curried goat ($7.95). 370 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-234-0040.
LEBANESE: Reef Café What to eat: Vegetarian moussaka ($8.99). 170 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-202-6366.
MOROCCAN: Tangierino What to eat: Sultan’s kadra, a spiced filet of lamb, cheese-filled eggplant, shiitake, poached fig, and caramelized apricot ($27). 83 Main St., Charlestown, 617-242-6009.
NORTH AFRICAN: Baraka Café What to eat: Vegetarian couscous ($8.95). 80 1/2 Pearl St., Cambridge, 617-868-3951.
PERUVIAN/COLOMBIAN: Rincón Limeño What to eat: Bistec a lo pobre, steak, fries, fried plantains, and rice topped with fried egg ($9). 409 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-569-4942.
POLISH: Café Polonia What to eat: Potato pancakes with sour cream and beef goulash ($12). 611 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-269-0110.
TIBETAN: Martsa on Elm What to eat: Tofu and mushrooms in mango sauce ($8.95). 233A Elm St., Somerville, 617-666-0660.
TURKISH: Sultan’s Kitchen What to eat: Doner kebab, lamb or chicken served over rice pilaf with mixed greens, yogurt-garlic sauce, and sultan’s salata ($10.75). 116 State St., Boston, 617-742-6100.
45. The Tea Party never really ended
Though Boston was literally awash in the stuff in 1773, finding good tea can be a tall order in our modern mocha-half-caf-latteccino metropolis. Sure, we’ve got the no-frills cuppa, and the prissy high tea, too. But for those of us looking to steep in a soul-satisfying experience, nothing can touch the city’s authentic teahouses. At Jamaica Plain’s ultraserene Cha Fahn, the menu of 40 loose-leaf varieties reads like a well-crafted wine list (a favorite is the smoky Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong). A dicier proposition is the South End’s Qingping: It has an opium-den feel bordering on the mystical, and resolutely refuses to post regular hours. Once we settled in for moon cakes and a pot of rare pu-erh, though, the spell was cast—and we resolved to toss all lesser teas overboard. —J. L. Johnson Cha Fahn, 763 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-983-3575; Qingping Gallery Teahouse, 231 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-482-9988.
46. We save a lot of room for dessert
I can hardly be bothered to walk an extra block for better coffee. But endure stop-and-go traffic from my apartment in the South End to Coolidge Corner in Brookline for a Party Favors cupcake? Anytime. The moist cakes smeared with towers of frosting are sweet but not sickly, and expertly decorated with everything from bright flower bouquets to eat-me-right-now Elmos. No one else—not the Buttery, not Modern Pastry, not Lulu’s—comes close. So imagine my glee when Party Favors announced it would open an adjacent 1,600-square-foot bakery this month. The space provides co-owner John Pergantis with enough room to add flavors to challenge my vanilla-on-vanilla mentality, including Boston cream pie, chocolate mousse, and Key lime; in the expanded kitchen, he’ll give lessons to aspiring bakers and professional bowl-lickers. Now, if only he’d expand all the way to Tremont and Dartmouth. Or better, start a 24-hour delivery service. —Sascha de Gersdorff Party Favors, 1356 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-566-3330, partyfavorsbrookline.com.
47. Even a firebomb can’t keep a great restaurant down
As a longtime Jamaica Plain foodie, I look back on 2005 as my personal annus horribilis: Jake’s Boss Barbecue: closed. Tacos El Charro: up for sale. El Oriental de Cuba: firebombed. A neighborhood can endure only so much, which may explain why so many people rallied to resurrect El Oriental, arguably Boston’s most authentic Cuban restaurant, after a Molotov cocktail reduced it to a charred shell that July. “It’s overwhelming, the support we got,” says owner Nobel Garcia, a J.P. resident for nearly 50 years. “People calling to give money, bring paintbrushes, do anything.” Nearby restaurants took in Garcia’s displaced employees. A community fundraiser collected nearly $20,000. And when El Oriental reopened last October after 14 months and more than $400,000 in repairs, faithful patrons packed the 49-seat space—freshly painted in red and green—from open to close. When I managed to squeeze my way back in a few weeks later, I found the signature crisp-gooey Cubano and fried plantains were as magnificent as always, and the café con leche still kicked ass. Garcia says he never once considered simply giving up after the fire; of course, neither did we. —J.L.J. El Oriental de Cuba, 416 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6464.
48. There’s always something on tap
New York and San Francisco can keep their industrial-themed nightclubs and well-appointed lounge bars. For those of us who enjoy a pop or two before breakfast in the unpretentious environs of a neighborhood dive, Boston offers an unparalleled array of options. The Cantab Lounge, the Sligo, and my personal standby, Wally’s—there are several bars that cater to early-bird boozehounds. Sure, you might not get a particularly hip crowd at 8 a.m., and the air might not abound with witticisms, but that’s part of what makes the experience so gratifying. The bristle-chinned guy nursing a Bud to your left—never written a press release in his life. The elderly woman fondling an unlit cigarette in the corner—very sparing with the perfume. This is the bar experience stripped down to its basics: a place to plant your elbows, someone to listen to your worldly woes, a bottle of your favorite poison, and nobody there to note that your jacket doesn’t quite match your pants. If you didn’t have to go outside to smoke, it’d be heaven. —Chris Wright Wally’s, 427 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, 617-424-1408.
49. Our neighborhood joints are cause for obsession
I knew my infatuation with Taqueria la Mexicana was spiraling out of control when I started ordering in bulk. Rather than picking up one of the eatery’s transcendent tamales, I purchased a dozen. Instead of being satisfied with a platter of enchiladas verdes, I entreated the manager to sell me their piquant chicken filling by the pound. (He consented, somewhat bemusedly.) My moment of clarity came last January, when I slogged through blizzard conditions for the sole purpose of securing a single chili relleno—and returned home with four.
The best thing about Taqueria la Mexicana—aside from the sumptuous comida, of course—is that it’s the kind of place where locals outnumber interlopers, where you’re just as likely to hear pure Somahville brogue (“I’ll have the flautahs with cahnitas”) as rapid-fire Spanish. Tucked into a grungy retail block in Union Square, the restaurant has as its central element of décor a wall of faded Polaroids showing every dish on the menu, which the staff then prepares before your eyes. And there isn’t a single unctuous waiter on the premises. Such unpretentiousness is what vaults this place into the restaurant world’s most rarefied circle: the authentic neighborhood joint.
Neighborhood joints are the lifeblood of the Boston dining scene, the epicurean embodiment of our balkanized city. Without them, we’d be just another megalopolis drowning in corporate clones and overpriced objets d’food. Whenever friends visit me from out of town—by which I mean anywhere farther away than, say, Jamaica Plain—I inevitably take them to Taqueria la Mexicana. My friend Kirk, back after a lengthy stint in Colombia, tore through the number one combination (two enchiladas, two tamales, and two flautas for seven bucks) without pausing to breathe. “My God,” he said afterward, washing down the meal with a gulp of fresh horchata. “Are all the Mexican restaurants around here this good?”
“Nope,” I said. “Just this one.” —Steve Almond Taqueria la Mexicana, 247 Washington St., Somerville, 617-776-5232.
50. Our chefs are patent-wielding techno-wizards
Enough with the oddly persistent myth that Bostonians are crusty culinary conservatives. We’re inventors, dammit, with the patents to prove it. Consider the Lobster Line (U.S. patent number D450,133)—that wacky contraption of tanks, baskets, custom-made kettles, and I-beam pulleys dominating two of Jasper White’s Summer Shacks. It was designed by the chef himself after inspiration struck on the floor of a lobster processing plant in New Brunswick. (“I just kinda converted their concept,” he explains, “just shrunk it down,” so his crew could prepare up to 100 clambakes or lobsters at once.) Or take N-jectibles (U.S. patent number 6,723,361), the cupcakes, éclairs, and brownies that Trani owner Anthony M. Feola first fills with ice cream and then stripes with chocolate using computerized machines he and his father developed. “Trani is not a bakery or an ice cream shop, it’s an N-jectible shop,” insists Feola. “It’s a whole new genre.” To which I add: Doesn’t Boston’s restaurant scene deserve a whole new rep? —Ruth Tobias Summer Shack, 149 Alewife Brook Pkwy., Cambridge, 617-520-9500, and other locations; Trani, 111 Salem St., Boston, 617-624-0222.
51. If you somehow run out of places to eat, Providence is an hour away.
True love convinced me to move to Providence 14 years ago, but I still wasn’t thrilled about a place that was culinarily synonymous with red sauce and mozzarella. “Someday,” my soon-to-be husband mused, waving his hand over the panorama of mud and debris, “the rivers will flow through the city again, and people will even come from Boston to hang out.”
He was right: If you build it, they do come—and not just for WaterFire, the bonfires that light up those rivers most weekends from May through October. Today, chowhounds journey here to eat at New Rivers, where owner Bruce Tillinghast serves an eclectic menu that makes the restaurant’s proximity to WaterFire an afterthought. Loyalists have also followed Matt Gennuso, who left Hamersley’s Bistro in 2003 to take over Chez Pascal. His food, especially the crispy duck leg confit on a torte of potato and Swiss chard, takes French cooking to new heights.
“Providence is hot,” I tell my husband. “I know,” he says, not a little smugly. —Ann Hood New Rivers, 7 Steeple St., Providence, 401-751-0350; Chez Pascal, 960 Hope St., Providence, 401-421-4422.
52. Our most famous dish is so iconic, it’s revered around the globe
As I ducked into the lobby of the Langham Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong’s busiest commercial district, and headed down to the Bostonian Restaurant, I couldn’t tame my excitement. At last, I would do what I had skipped a close friend’s wedding, taken three Xanax, and traveled 24 hours across 11 time zones to do: eat a real lobster dinner.
It might seem odd, or downright stupid, to trek 8,005 miles to get something available within blocks of my apartment. But it seemed just as odd that a five-star hotel in this cosmopolitan city would build a gastronomic temple to New England. After all, our cuisine is known, where it’s known at all, more for its practicality than its polish—leftover salt pork is used to give oomph to baked beans; everything else is served raw or deep fried. Would I find shark fin chowder? Lobster with jellied pig’s ears? (It wouldn’t be that unusual: General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies is standard Chinese here.)
But in Hong Kong, plain old lobster is New England enough. It’s also, I discovered, pretty much the extent of our overseas brand. (Another Hong Kong restaurant, the Boston, serves clam chowder alongside beef stroganoff, but that’s another story.) Still, when I told three separate cab drivers where I was from, their responses were identical: “Oh, Boston. Lobster. Nice.” Even Edith, the marketing assistant who gave me a tour of the hotel, was flustered when I asked what she thought of America’s Walking City. She blushed and looked down demurely, then said, “I know they have a lot of lobster.”
Not Harvard. Not the Red Sox. Not the Freedom Trail. Rome’s got the Coliseum; Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Boston? We’re one giant crustacean.
With its swirly carpets, corporate booths, and etched partitions, the Bostonian could have been anywhere. The only clues to the fare it offered were the sepia-toned photos of the Boston skyline and framed cartoons drawn by patrons back when the restaurant provided paper tablecloths and crayons to amuse them “American style.” That everything except the lobster was generic western, not ye olde Boston, was beside the point: “Boston translates to fresh seafood,” says executive chef Chris Christie—a Canadian who has lived in Asia for 13 years and really would like to get to Boston sometime.
That’s why lobster was the centerpiece when hotel managers cooked up the Bostonian a decade ago to steal customers from the then dominant, now defunct Regent Hotel’s steakhouse. Locals, the managers told me, see the Bostonian as a place to impress clients by splurging on an exotic dinner. Boiled, poached, butter baked, or fricasseed, a 1½-pounder goes for about $72.
Chef Christie, a trim, bald fortysomething with bright eyes and a warm smile, has done his best to keep the menu true to its conceptual roots. There was, of course, lobster, plus lobster bisque, salmon tartare, and rib-eye steaks in puny-by-Boston-standards-but-culturally-appropriate 8-ounce portions. What was missing included cod (viewed as inexpensive and therefore inappropriate for “fine dining”), baked beans (viewed as too British in this former colony), and Boston cream pie (the Chinese don’t do creamy sweets).
When my lobster arrived, I found it perfectly cooked, though it lacked the flavor of one pulled straight from the water—but then, it had traveled as far as I had. I cleaned my plate, then paid the chef the ultimate compliment: It tasted like home. Well, of course it did, Christie answered. “We don’t do lobster bisque with Asian five-spice. What would be the point of that?” —J.B.