Where to Eat Now 2010
Your guide to the perfect dining spots for every occasion. Plus: What to order, where to sit, and how to get in on the best weeknight deals in town.
Edited by Donna Garlough
We know great food here at Boston magazine, and we’ve showcased countless fine restaurants around town in our pages. Yet certain kinds of recommendation requests still fill our inboxes: Where should I take my parents for dinner? What’s a good place for a picky eater? Where can I go with my buddies for a beer? Circumstances, it seems, often dictate where Bostonians dine. So with that in mind, we’ve rounded up our top picks (including both long-standing favorites and talked-about newcomers) for where to go, when to go there, and who to take with you.
Market by Jean-Georges
Great for: A blowout birthday. Bigtime parties demand bigtime atmosphere: flashy décor, hard-to-get tables, new-restaurant cachet. Of all the city’s scene-iest spots, culinary superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chic eatery at the new W hotel stands out, and its unexpectedly manageable prices make going overboard a pleasant, not guilt-inducing, pursuit. So order up the champagne and plenty of apps (look for the sea urchin toast with yuzu and jalapeño, and the scallops with caper-raisin emulsion), and don’t skip dessert. If you opt for the six-course “market menu,” you’ll get the chef’s-tasting treatment for an affordable $58. W hotel, 100 Stuart St., Boston, 617-310-6790, marketbyjgboston.com.
Great for: A hush-hush birthday. Celebrating with only the select few who know how old you really are (and can keep it to themselves)? While this Bay Village restaurant is hardly glamorous—bare-bones décor, furniture and flatware we think we recognize from Ikea—its understated charm and underrated cuisine make it the ideal place to quietly commemorate a big day. Chef Charles Draghi’s deceptively simple menu changes daily, but always features refined, Italian-accented dishes like feather-light ricotta-filled pansotti and sautéed bitter greens with lemon, walnut, and thyme pesto. What’s more, Draghi’s habit of delivering extras to the table and chatting up patrons reinforces the sense of a special occasion. 69 Church St., Boston, 617-426-6969, erbaluce-boston.com.
Great for: Dinner with New York food snobs. At this just-opened South End boîte, chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette do what they do best: serve down-to-earth fare with enough edge to pique diners’ interest. Thanks to Bissonnette’s obsession with offal and house-cured meats, the menu includes creative dishes like sweetbread saltimbocca and grass-fed-beef-heart crostini alongside standards like wood-fired pizzas and lasagna. And with fewer than 40 seats in the house, Coppa has a neighborhood ambiance that’s guaranteed to charm even the snootiest visitor. 253 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-391-0902, coppaboston.com.
Great for: Dinner with tourists. Spare us the baked beans and faux-surly service. At North 26, out-of-towners can get their Faneuil Hall fix—Look, a horse and buggy! Hey, let’s grab a beer at Cheers!—while supping on the kind of food that Bostonians would actually eat. Chef Brian Flagg, who trained with seafood guru Jasper White, has been on board since the restaurant opened last spring, and he’s hit his stride with locally inspired dishes like Woodbury clam pozole with bacon and mole, Berkshire pork osso buco, and a superlative chorizo-studded New England shellfish stew. Millennium Bostonian Hotel, 26 North St., Boston, 617-557-3640, north26restaurant.com.
Great for: Maxing out your expense account. When asked which wine would complement an entrée, staffers at most restaurants know better than to proffer an $18 glass of bordeaux. But that’s how the Sensing crew rolls—and, hey, that is what pairs best with that venison. While the entrée prices have come down since it opened, Sensing retains its ability to seduce diners with morsels like seared foie gras on banana bread and pan-fried lobster with pear essence, then lure them into can’t-refuse desserts like the yuzu “crystalline” (along with an $88 bottle of champagne). It’s also a hotel restaurant, so go right ahead and file that $200 tab under “lodging.” Fairmont Battery Wharf, 3 Battery Wharf, Boston, 617-994-9001, sensingrestaurant.com.
Great for: A solo outing. If there is one essential for a comfortable dining-alone experience, it’s bar seating. No one wants to spend an hour staring at an empty chair or fending off “Are you waiting for someone?” queries. Sportello’s lunch counter layout makes it easy to fly solo without any awkwardness. We’d even argue that this place is best enjoyed by yourself, because nobody can scold you for inhaling the rich, carb-laden fare (goat cheese and black olive ravioli and creamy polenta with veal ragu), or ordering that third glass of chianti. 348 Congress St., Boston, 617-737-1234, sportelloboston.com.
Great for: A group outing. The no-reservations policy at chef Ken Oringer’s bustling Spanish spot means you couldn’t book a table if you wanted to. But why would you want to? People-watching at the bar while sipping a glass of rioja and waiting for a seat is half the fun. Besides, as the night wears on, the setup of communal high-tops devolves into a standing-room-only mash of patrons, all nibbling tapas and guzzling cava straight from porrón pitchers. And since tapas are meant to be shared, it’s no sweat when your party of three morphs into a party of six: Just order more food—and a few extra plates. 1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300, toro-restaurant.com.
The Friendly Toast
Great for: Breakfast after a big night. If you’re staring down a day of headaches and hazy memories, the last thing you need is a chirpy waiter hawking bellinis at a see-and-be-seen brunch spot. Instead, head to Kendall Square’s breakfast-centric Friendly Toast and fill up on stomach-settling home fries and killer breakfast sammies. And if you find you do need the hair of the dog but can’t abide the sight of a cocktail glass, just order up a little Kahlua in your coffee. One Kendall Sq., Cambridge, 617-621-1200, thefriendlytoast.net.
Sel de la Terre
Great for: Snacks after a shopping spree. We have an incorrigible habit of shopping through the midday meal, then wandering hungry around the Back Bay at 3 p.m. Thank heaven for SDLT’s Boylston Street outpost, which serves lunch till 4, then switches right over to dinner. Best of all, the restaurant’s salads and sandwiches—including a killer Niçoise and chef Louis di Biccari’s signature porchetta and whole-grain mustard on a baguette—come in moderate (not Cheesecake Factory) portions, so poor daytime planning doesn’t have to affect those 8 o’clock dinner plans. 774 Boylston St., Boston, 617-266-8800, seldelaterre.com.
Great for: A secret rendezvous. Though its tasty Senegalese cuisine has garnered raves since this South End spot opened last spring, Teranga still tends to fly under the radar of local diners. So while you’re guaranteed an intimate setting and great food (try the whole grilled tilapia or the thin-cut spiced lamb chops called dibi), there’s only a sliver of a chance that you’ll run into your boss, your mother, or whoever you should be taking out to dinner. 1746 Washington St., Boston, 617-266-0003, terangaboston.com.
Great for: Afterwork drinks that turn into dinner. Look around at happy hour, and you’d think the entire Hancock Building had decamped to this two-story bar and restaurant. Something about Post 390 just lends itself to post-work imbibing—whether it’s the prime Back Bay location, the fact that it has two bars, or simply the superior cocktails (we like the Chartreuse-spiked Green Line, which is how you’ll be getting home if you have more than one). And, oh yeah, there’s food. Post 390’s comfort classics—burgers, beer-and-bacon mac and cheese—are sure bets for sating martini-induced hunger pangs. 406 Stuart St., Boston, 617-399-0015, post390restaurant.com.
Trina’s Starlite Lounge
Great for: Drinking and dining. Sober, you might not go for something as injurious to your arterial health as a double-bacon-chili-cheeseburger or a pile of gravy fries. But after four beers? Seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. Trina’s, which debuted last fall in Inman Square, is also well equipped to help you reach your tippling point, as the affable bartenders expertly shake up cocktails like the Popeye (Old Monk rum, tamarind syrup, lime, ginger beer) and the Fallen Angel (a mango margarita with a barbecue-spiced rim). 3 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-576-0006, trinastarlitelounge.com.
Great for: A belly-busting bargain. Given the reasonable prices (appetizers are $10 or less, entrées average $16) and huge portions here, you’d never guess that chef Charlie Redd once cooked at high-end eateries like Harvest and Radius. That is, until you take a bite and realize that big and cheap can also be very, very good. Redd is obsessed with local produce, and piles it high on plates like wild mushroom fricassée with potato, butternut squash, and herb salsa. 329 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-2632, codaboston.com.
Great for: Popping the question. Tell her you’ve booked a table at L’Espalier, and your cover is blown. For a stealthier approach, try this romantic nook near Harvard Square. Chef David Punch’s seasonally influenced offerings are appropriately elegant, but the vibe is so relaxed that she might not get the hint until you reach across the table and hand her that sparkly solitaire. (To increase your chance of getting a yes, order the $65-per-person tasting menu with wine or, at the very least, the chocolate terrine with Thai basil ice cream.) 5 Craigie Cir., Cambridge, 617-576-5444, tentables.net.
Great for: Boys’ night out. Yes, there are newer, flashier places—upscale beer bar Lord Hobo, say, or craft-cocktail haven Drink—but sometimes you really don’t feel like asking how much that doppelbock will set you back or guessing what’s in an “Aviation.” With its long list of reasonably priced beers, sturdy fare (stout-marinated hanger steak, crispy fish and chips), and living room décor, the Publick House feels like a place where you and the guys can hang out awhile, and just maybe order one more round than you normally would. 1648 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-2880, eatgoodfooddrinkbetterbeer.com.
Great for: Girls’ night out. An evening of proper female bonding calls for someplace more energetic than a candlelit restaurant, but not something resembling a pickup scene. Thanks to its funky boho décor and live jazz acts that take the stage each night, this South End favorite has exactly the right vibe, along with a raucous crowd, a roomy downstairs bar, and a come-as-you-are attitude (so feel free to skip the Spanx). Even better, the ridiculous list of sparkling wines—plus the potent champagne cocktails—practically ensures tipsy fun. 541 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-0069, beehiveboston.com.
Great for: Sticking to your diet. Though it got off to a bit of a rocky start when it opened in early 2008, this Jamaica Plain restaurant recently started over with a new chef, Simon Kershaw; now his fresh, seasonal cooking boasts a dedicated following of health-conscious and eco-minded foodies. After a meal of Atlantic salmon with roasted fall vegetables and apple-mustard sauce or couscous-stuffed delicata squash with braised chard, Moroccan hummus, and crumbled feta, you’ll feel as virtuous as you do satisfied. 763 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-0145, veeveejp.com.
Great for: Cheating on your diet. When it’s time for a break from carrot sticks and kombucha, there’s no better place to do it than Scampo, superchef Lydia Shire’s restaurant in the Liberty Hotel. There’s glorious garlic bread, cooked over coals till it’s toasty and crisp…thin-crust pizza topped with sherried chanterelles and drizzled with truffle oil…oozy-creamy mozzarella, handmade buffalo ricotta ravioli, and soft polenta with chive butter…. (We could go on, but we can see you’re already drooling.) Liberty Hotel, 215 Charles St., Boston, 617-536-2100, scampoboston.com.
Great for: Burgers and beer on game day. When Sox fans are not actually at Fenway, they typically get their fix of beer and sports action at the always-packed Game On or the Cask ‘n Flagon. But if you want to eat a meal in relative peace without forgoing access to flat-screens or proximity to the park, venture a bit farther down Lansdowne Street to this Irish pub in the former Jake Ivory’s space. Though it gets plenty lively, patrons are generally too busy swilling Guinness and gorging themselves on Irish-bacon-and-cheddar-topped sliders and curry fries to get in each other’s way. 9 Lansdowne St., Boston, 617-247-1222, lansdownepubboston.com.
Great for: A first date. To make a go of dinner with a near-stranger, three ingredients are required: nerve-calming cocktails, a menu intriguing enough to prompt discussion (but not so weird as to put off picky palates), and enough ambient noise to smooth over any lulls in conversation. The South End’s Franklin Café has all three, plus proximity to a host of late-night spots like Gaslight and Stella that let you keep a good date going even after the dinner check. 278 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-0010, franklincafe.com.
Great for: A second date. Jokes about aphrodisiacs and ice-breakers aside, Neptune sets the right mood with terrific raw-bar platters that are ideal for sharing (though the legendary lobster rolls shouldn’t be overlooked, either). The vibe is animated yet quiet enough for a couple to continue the conversation they started on their first date, and its North End locale provides the perfect excuse for an evening stroll and scoops of gelato. 63 Salem St., Boston, 617-742-3474, neptuneoyster.com.
Great for: A third date. Like a cool mint julep, this southern eatery hits the relaxed, refined note you want when things are beginning to heat up. There’s candlelight, but drinks come in Mason jars; there’s delicate French gnocchi, but also collards and grits. In other words, it’s the sort of place where you can enter well behaved and leave a little bit sloppy. Which, depending on your dating timetable, could be just what you had in mind. 233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge, 617-499-0090, hungrymothercambridge.com.
Great for: A breakup. If there’s any chance of a tearful and/or earsplitting tirade when the dumping commences, you’d better do it in a place that’s already filled with loud and slightly unruly people. A few years ago that was the Liberty Hotel; today the Ames is the place for crowded cocktailing and debauchery, with the second floor of its tavern, Woodward, being the epicenter of all the action. Do the deed over dessert, then retreat to the bar and take comfort in the fact that there’s no shortage of friendly patrons to, er, distract you from your newly single status. Ames hotel, One Court St., Boston, 617-979-8100, ameshotel.com.
Bistro du Midi
Great for: Mom and Dad’s big night out. Parents who have gone too long between dining experiences that don’t involve fish sticks and chicken nuggets can ease their transition back into civilization at Bistro du Midi, which has food that’s simple, rustic, and not ungodly expensive (you still have to pay that sitter, after all). Occupying the one-time Excelsior space overlooking the Common, Bistro du Midi serves Provençal dishes like bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and whole roast chicken for two, executed with precision by chef Robert Sisca, formerly of New York seafood mecca Le Bernardin. 272 Boylston St., Boston, 617-426-7878, bistrodumidi.com.
Great for: Dinner with your vegetarian cousin. Hey, would you want to be taken out for Indian or Thai every time you visit family? Show a little compassion for those going meatless by grabbing a table at this Harvard Square favorite. In addition to the several vegetarian dishes on the menu, chef Michael Scelfo offers herbivores a $29 three-course “chef’s whim” dinner featuring dishes like chickpea fritters with marinated tomatoes, and a salad of blue cheese–stuffed figs with microgreens. With their leaf-eating kin taken care of, carnivores can tuck into cider-braised pork belly and half-pound Angus burgers with zero guilt. 1688 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-5055, templebarcambridge.com.
Legal Sea Foods
Great for: Dinner with your celiac sister-in-law. No, it’s not the most exciting place in town. But for someone sick of asking if there’s flour in the cream sauce, Legal’s wheat-and-gluten-sensitive menu is a relief. Not only does it pinpoint all the inherently safe items on offer—steamed lobsters, wood-grilled fish—it also tells diners how to order items like the pan-seared tuna sashimi (no sesame vinaigrette or seaweed salad) and crispy sea scallops (fried in chickpea flour) so that they’re no longer off-limits. 26 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-426-4444, and other locations, legalseafoods.com.
Food always tastes better when you’ve got the table everyone else wants. Here are five of the best in town.
Great meals—and deals—for every night of the week.
When the occasion calls for excess, these five restaurants deliver.
Our tried-and-true picks for whatever your mood.