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 dĂ©cor, 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 jalapeĂ±o, 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 glamorousâ€”bare-bones dĂ©cor, furniture and flatware we think we recognize from Ikeaâ€”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 sautĂ©ed 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 boĂ®te, 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 fixâ€”Look, a horse and buggy! Hey, let’s grab a beer at Cheers!â€”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 entrĂ©e, staffers at most restaurants know better than to proffer an $18 glass of bordeaux. But that’s how the Sensing crew rollsâ€”and, hey, that is what pairs best with that venison. While the entrĂ©e 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 porrĂłn 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 foodâ€”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 sandwichesâ€”including a killer NiĂ§oise and chef Louis di Biccari’s signature porchetta and whole-grain mustard on a baguetteâ€”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 imbibingâ€”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 classicsâ€”burgers, beer-and-bacon mac and cheeseâ€”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, entrĂ©es 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 fricassĂ©e 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 placesâ€”upscale beer bar Lord Hobo, say, or craft-cocktail haven Drinkâ€”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 dĂ©cor, 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 dĂ©cor 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 winesâ€”plus the potent champagne cocktailsâ€”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 CafĂ© 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 ProvenĂ§al 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 cheeseâ€“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 offerâ€”steamed lobsters, wood-grilled fishâ€”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 mealsâ€”and dealsâ€”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.
Food always tastes better when you’ve got the table everyone else wants. Here are five of the best in town. By Amy Traverso
In a room blessed with an abundance of plush red banquettes and cozy club chairs, table 51 wins the prize for comfort and positioning. Located in a back corner by the private dining room, it takes in the full sweep of noshing couples, fashionable cocktailers, bar-bound sports fans, and all the other chitchatting groups that make this such a must-see scene. 528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-9100, easternstandardboston.com.
At this house of prime beef, the prime real estate can be found in two key spots. The first, table 608, sits at the top of the central staircase, offering a plum view of the milling plebes below while affording a bit of privacy and quiet. The second, table 402, is a cozy two-top on the first-floor balcony. You often can reserve these seats simply by asking for them, but for peak weekend hours, it doesn’t hurt to be on a first-name basis with GM Jason McKinley-Babb. 161 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-542-2255, grill23.com.
No. 9 Park
Oh, to snag the window-side four-tops in the front dining room. You know the ones: generously spaced, with stunning floor-to-ceiling views of the Common. They’re so exclusive that even the table numbers are a secret and an 8 o’clock Friday reservation is a prize possessed by only a lucky few (and likely passed down via last will and testament). For the rest of us, there’s always 5 p.m. on a Wednesday. 9 Park St., Boston, 617-742-9991, no9park.com.
The literati and MacArthur “genius grant” types who frequent this Harvard Square mainstay prefer a certain level of discretion and elegance in their surroundings. The brilliance of Rialto’s 2007 redesign was its creation of intimate spaces defined by high-walled round banquettes and gauzy curtains. It’s really hard to go wrong in this room, but table 51 wins for its superb view of the square. It’s a vantage point so high and well positioned that you’ll feel like a master of the universe. Well, even more like one. One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050, rialto-restaurant.com.
UpStairs on the Square
In the most fabulous Klimt-inspired, pink-paneled, gilded aerie in town, table 19 dominates the room. Tucked into the corner, surrounded by beautiful round windows, and anchored by plush purple ultrasuede banquettes, it’s equal parts whimsy and luxury. Need an excuse to try it out? Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. 91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-864-1933, upstairsonthesquare.com.
Great mealsâ€”and dealsâ€”for every night of the week. By Jamie Coelho and Brittany Jasnoff
Monday: Mistral, Sorellina, and Mooo
Next weekend’s epicurean adventures won’t seem so far away if you kick off the workweek with a $35 three-course dinner at any of these three top restaurants run by chef Jamie Mammano: French-Mediterranean bistro Mistral, upscale Italian joint Sorellina, or steakhouse Mooo. 223 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-867-9300, mistralbistro.com; One Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-412-4600, sorellinaboston.com; 15 Beacon St., Boston, 617-670-2515, mooorestaurant.com.
Tuesday: T. W. Food
Looking for an international getaway without the plane fare and weather delays? French eatery T. W. Food goes global on Tuesdays, featuring a $49 four-course prix fixe menu that’s built around wines from different countries (rioja and Spanish omelets one week, shiraz and scallops another week, and so on). 377 Walden St., Cambridge, 617-864-4745, twfoodrestaurant.com.
Step away from that pot of spaghetti on the burnerâ€”Dorchester favorite Tavolo has got something better cooking. Chow down on polenta with fonduta from Val d’Aosta or agnolotti with veal from Piedmont during Wednesday’s pasta tours, which offer an $18 three-course meal inspired by a specific Italian region. 1918 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-822-1918, tavolopizza.com.
Monday through Thursday, this Somerville stalwart dishes up a $70 made-to-order feast of charcuterie, soup, salad, and fish and meat courses, followed by a farmstead cheese plate and dessert. The restaurant will ditch its current digs for a shiny new Kendall Square location next month, so be one of the last to dine at the old place, or plan to help break in the new one. 118 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-661-3866, evoorestaurant.com.
Jump-start the weekend at this Liberty Hotel hot spot, which has a happy-hour-into-dinner “TGIF” promo that features a host of appetizers for under $7 between 4 and 9 p.m. Dirt-cheap deals include steamed mussels with lemongrass, ginger, and saffron for $7; veal-and-ricotta meatball sliders for $5; and local oysters for a buck and a half. Liberty Hotel, 215 Charles St., Boston, 617-224-4004, clinkrestaurant.com.
Saturday: Il Casale
Rush-hour traffic jams may make you think twice about venturing to Belmont on weeknights. But weekendsâ€”when the roads are clear and you can gather a crowd for a family-style dinnerâ€”are a prime time for chef Dante de Magistris’s ethereally good pasta, whole grilled trout, and tiramisu. Depending on your group’s appetite, you can take the Fiat ($45 per person) or the Ferrari ($60 per person) tasting menu for a spin. 50 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-209-4942, ilcasalebelmont.com.
Postgame Sundays are when our comfort-food cravings really kick in, which makes Tupelo’s fried chicken and ribs (served from 5 to 9 p.m.) a big winner in our book. For $18, you’ll get a hearty plate of fried chicken, smoked barbecue ribs, grits, and coleslaw. And after loosening your belt a notch, finish up with some brown-butter pecan pie. 1193 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-868-0004, tupelo02139.com.
When the occasion calls for excess, these five restaurants deliver. By Amy Traverso
Executive chef Nicolas Boutin, who trained at several Michelin-starred French restaurants before heading to Asia to hone his craft, is at his best when combining local ingredients with French techniques and Asian accents (e.g., Maine lobster bisque with coconut-curry flan). And the private, glassed-in chef’s table right off the kitchen offers a unique window into his take on world cuisine. After you book the room (it holds anywhere from one to eight diners, and menus start at $125 per person), Boutin will call you to discuss a customized meal. Then, on the appointed evening, he’ll lead you through the feast, course by course. Mandarin Oriental Boston, 776 Boylston St., Boston, 617-535-8800, mandarinoriental.com/boston.
Craigie on Main
Chef-owner Tony Maws is a master of seasonal flavors, not to mention the prince of all things pork (his organic pig three ways is one of the finest dishes in town). Even in a down economyâ€”and even with a tab north of $100 per personâ€”Craigie’s six- and 10-course tasting menus are some of the fairest-priced culinary blowouts around, particularly with wine pairings included. 853 Main St., Cambridge, 617-497-5511, craigieonmain.com.
For all the modern flair of chef-owner Frank McClelland’s “chef’s tasting journey” menuâ€”pineapple-sage jus accenting an herb-crusted lamb loin, Nantucket bay scallops in dashi broth with potato noodlesâ€”there’s an old-school grandness to the experience. Service is formal, cheese comes on a wheeled cart, and, for $315 per person (with wine pairings), luxurious flourishes like foie gras, caviar, and truffles are abundant. To really live it up, book this feast at the chef’s table located in the restaurant’s state-of-the-art kitchen. 774 Boylston St., Boston, 617-262-3023, lespalier.com.
By cost alone, O Ya is Boston’s house of splurge. The 16-course omakase menu with sake pairings and a healthy sprinkling of Kumamoto oysters, foie gras, and Wagyu strip loin can easily set you back $350 per person. But you can also do O Ya at a (slightly) more modest price pointâ€”say, eight simpler courses sans sake for about $125 a head. Whatever your budget, the stream of gemlike bites will make you swoon. 9 East St., Boston, 617-654-9900, oyarestaurantboston.com.
Under chef de cuisine Matthew Audette, who took over the post about a year ago, Radius’s menu has become more recognizably modern French. Audette believes texture is as important as flavor, which means a deluxe seven-course chef’s tasting, at $135 per person ($215 with wine pairings), hits all five senses. (We’re counting “mmmm” toward hearing.) Hence, the crunchy sweetbreads with endive marmalade and chestnut purĂ©e, and the Mediterranean sea bass with potato mille-feuille and caviar beurre blanc. A party for your mouth, indeed. 8 High St., Boston, 617-426-1234, radiusrestaurant.com.
Our tried-and-true picks for whatever your mood.
The Fine-Dining Fail-Safe
Clio. Among all chef Ken Oringer’s ventures, this Eliot Hotel stalwart stands apart as his temple of haute cuisine. Famous leopard-print carpet aside, the elegant dĂ©cor (tawny walls, creamy trim, sparkling crystal) is an appropriately muted backdrop for the fabulous food. Dishes like licorice-roasted Muscovy duck with candied pomelo and stinging nettle soup perfumed with bergamot make for a foodie’s paradise, and one well worth the price of admission. Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, cliorestaurant.com.
The Mixed-Drink Mecca
Gargoyles on the Square. Perched midway between a neighborhood dive and an upscale bar, Gargoyles channels the best of each genre (low-key vibe, high-quality cocktails) without the drawbacks (sticky floors, haughty mixologists). You won’t find martinis betterâ€”or much biggerâ€”than the ones they serve here, and there’s lots to love on the specialty-drink side, too, like the vanilla-flavored mule kick known as the Davis Square Trolley. Need more variety? Catch the creative tasting flightsâ€”espresso martinis, sake, scotch. 219 Elm St., Somerville, 617-776-5300, gargoylesrestaurant.com.
The Cozy Standby
Salts. A dimly lit burrow carved into the first floor of a rowhouse on a quiet Cambridge block, Salts fills up quicklyâ€”not just with patrons savvy enough to have reserved their spot, but also with the delectable aromas of chef Gabriel Bremer’s contemporary French fare. The simple, linen-draped tables are close enough for diners to ogle each other’s meals (beef tenderloin with a Meyer lemonâ€“carrot purĂ©e, roast duck glazed with lavender honey), but the flickering candlelight and solicitous service make everyone feel they’re in their own little world. 798 Main St., Cambridge, 617-876-8444, saltsrestaurant.com.
The Exotic Oasis
Oleana. In the hands of a lesser chef, a menu incorporating the flavors of Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, and half a dozen other far-flung countries might come off like a culinary Babel. But Ana Sortun’s fluency in Eastern Mediterranean cuisinesâ€”showcased at her intimate Cambridge restaurant and in her cookbook, Spiceâ€”makes for magical, not muddled, combinations. Whether it’s lamb steak with Turkish seasonings and fava bean moussaka or a plate of meltingly tender tamarind-glazed beef short ribs, nothing gets lost in translation. 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, oleanarestaurant.com.
The Family-Dining Fave
Redbones. Southern roadhouse meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse at this Davis Square barbecue joint, whose funky painted dĂ©cor (dancing bones, pirate ships) and big plates of barbecue delight grownups and kids alike. There are bars on both levels, but beer nuts tend to head to the cavelike downstairs, while families camp out on the quieter top floor to enjoy an array of wonderfully messy treats like corn fritters and fried catfish strips. Feed your little carnivores from the $4.95 kids’ menu, or just go the lazy route: The “easy-order dinners” for four or six come fully loaded with meats, sauces, and sides (plus, thankfully, hand wipes). 55 Chester St., Somerville, 617-628-2200, redbones.com.
The Good-Time Go-To
East Coast Grill. When it’s not packing ‘em in on the strength of its big grilled flavors, this Inman Square joint brings out the party crowd with a full roster of events, like the Southern Food Smackdown (and has the Facebook photos to prove it). The calendar’s highlight is Hell Night, returning this month, which features a menu of fiery food for hordes of patrons hungry for punishmentâ€”and then very thirsty for a bucket of cold beer. 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-6568, eastcoastgrill.net.
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