WE HAVE, NO QUESTION, become a city of restaurant landmarks. Looking for the State House? Why, it’s right there on Beacon, next to No. 9 Park and parallel to Mooo. Where to renew your passport in the Back Bay? Walk up St. James and it’s immediately after Post 390. Harvard? Just past Mr. Bartley’s Burgers on Mass. Ave. (If you run into Chez Henri, you’ve gone too far.)
[sidebar]So it’s little wonder that when wanderlust sets in, we look to restaurants for travel inspiration. But to warrant the schlep, these places have to offer up more than just exemplary food and service; they’ve got to provide a palpable shift in vibe, pace, and atmosphere — something very different from what we can get at home. Meaning whether you land in a seaside city’s romantic inn, a tiny town’s regionally loved bistro, or a resort’s locavore lodge, when you step out of your car and up to the host’s station, this much should be clear: You’re no longer anywhere near Boston…and you’re about to experience a meal you’ll remember long after you’ve returned.
What follows are the restaurants that have made themselves bona fide regional landmarks. Our staff journeyed to a long list of contenders to gauge just how worth the trek every last one is. And after countless miles logged and state borders crossed, we narrowed the list down to just 20.
They are the stuff that culinary pilgrimages are made on.
> Miles from Boston Common: 51
> Average meal price per person: $
> Meal on a scale of 1 to 10: 7.5
Back in the dark ages of New England dining (read: the ’80s), Providence’s Johanne Killeen and George Germon were among the few gastro-pioneers to preach that food could be transcendent just by being ultrafresh, meticulously cooked, and pretense-free. Al Forno, their now-legendary restaurant, continues to serve simple dishes that are full of bright flavors. An urbane, Prada-heeled crew files nightly into the glowing dining room, which crackles with the crowd’s enthusiasm for braised pork-shank ravioli and a thin-crust pizza (pictured right) that rivals any in Boston — or Naples, for that matter. 577 S. Main St., 401-273-9760, alforno.com.
> Miles from Boston Common: 99
> Average meal price per person: $
> Meal on a scale of 1 to 10: 8.5
The line out the door is your first hint that meals at this humble-seeming nook can be spectacular. It’s also your reminder to make a reservation weeks in advance next time. When you finally do get inside, settle in with lovelies such as seared day-boat scallops with dollops of braised oxtail and truffled pumpkin purée — memorable enough even if it weren’t served among the dining room’s hurricane candle–lit collection of Americana. And don’t neglect the wine list: 500-plus of the owners’ favorites from their travels to American wineries. Most certainly worth waiting — and veering off the dunes — for. 80 Center St., 508-228-7111, americanseasons.com.
> Miles from Boston Common: 75
> Average meal price per person: $$
> Meal on a scale of 1 to 10: 9.0
Long before the rest of the world jumped onto the trend, Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier were growing their own vegetables and curing their own prosciutto to supply their farmhouse restaurant. And Arrows continues to draw a stream of discriminating diners up I-95. They come for the romance: the pre-dinner stroll through the orchard, the dining room swathed in flowers, and the coddling service. And they come for the food: thoughtful, ingredient-driven fare. Exhibits A, B, and C: Maine lobster served three ways — a grilled tail with lemongrass, claws poached in butter, and knuckles in red curry, all accompanied by a vegetable crêpe and grilled Thai corn. Berwick Road, 207-361-1100, arrowsrestaurant.com.
*Meal price estimates do not include wine or gratuity / $ = under $75; $$ = $75–$150; $$$ = $150–$250; $$$$ = more than $250