The 50 Best Restaurants in 2011

If it’s serious, considered advice on where to eat that you’re after, you need this: the intelligent diner’s guide to dining out now.

So you want to know what the hordes think about dining out in the city? Just pull up one of a million amateur-review websites or flip through a couple of those quote-filled guidebooks. But if it’s serious, considered advice on where to eat that you’re after, you need to put in a whole lot of research. Thankfully, we’ve taken care of that for you. For the past six months, we’ve been tearing through scores of Boston’s top restaurants, checking out the newcomers that are making waves and popping in on old favorites to see who’s still at the top of their game. We ate, analyzed, and argued, all to create our annual guide to the city’s greatest dining experiences. This time around, we also name Boston’s new must-try dishes and explore how we’ve become a hub of gastronomic discovery. Overthinking things? Maybe. But here it is: the intelligent diner’s guide to dining out now.

blue ginger

Blue Ginger’s tuna poke on a perfectly crisped sushi-rice cake. / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Alta Strada

Chef Michael Schlow isn’t exactly a quiet-suburbs kind of restaurateur; the guy’s got an eatery at Foxwoods, for Pete’s sake. But the original Alta Strada in Wellesley forgoes flash for a delightfully cozy feel; it’s a family-friendly Italian restaurant with exposed brick and warm lighting that just happens to serve exceptional food. From the tender pistachio-topped sacchetti to the Heritage Farm pork chop bursting with flavor, it’s amore on a plate. >> Order This: Homemade ricotta with crostini; sacchetti pasta. >> Great For: Group gatherings.

92 Central St., Wellesley, 781-237-6100, altastradarestaurant.com.

Bergamot

That Somerville is now a hot dining destination is due, in large part, to Keith Pooler. In his kitchen at Bergamot, the chef takes the ubiquitous farm-to-table theme and runs with it, producing plates like a witty root vegetable “reverse risotto” and a pork chop with sweet-tart fig-and-gooseberry sauce. Swing by the bar for surprisingly creative drinks and snacks like pimiento cheese and crackers. >> Order This: Lobster melt (on the bar menu); crispy duck salad. >> Great For: Vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

118 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-576-7700, bergamotrestaurant.com.

Bistro du Midi

There are few restaurants in Boston our staffers recommend to friends more frequently than Provence-inspired Bistro du Midi. In its favor: location (across from the Public Garden), vibe (exceedingly polished, yet easygoing), and versatility (sip cocktails downstairs at the bar or have a more-formal meal upstairs). The clincher, of course, is the food — chef Robert Sisca’s Marseilles-style bouillabaisse and other seafood dishes are some of the most reliably impressive plates in town. >> Order This: Pan-roasted cod with golden raisins and chorizo; grilled Mediterranean sea bass. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

272 Boylston St., Boston, 617-426-7878, bistrodumidi.com.

Blue Ginger

It’s been 13 years since this French-Asian spot opened, and more than 10 since People proclaimed chef Ming Tsai one of the country’s most beautiful people. But a meal here still delights. With artful presentations (tuna poke on a perfectly crisped sushi-rice cake) and brilliant flavor combinations (lobster in white wine–butter sauce with garlic and pepper) — not to mention impeccable service — this is a restaurant with beauty and brains. >> Order This: The garlic–black pepper lobster with lemongrass fried rice; the five-spice mini doughnuts. >> Great For: Business engagements, group gatherings, vegetarian dining.

583 Washington St., Wellesley, 781-283-5790, ming.com/blueginger.

Bondir

Jason Bond doesn’t proclaim anything. He buys local, but his menu doesn’t name-check every farm. No bigwig architect conceptualized his space. (In fact, he did most of the work himself.) So when you go to his petite, year-old restaurant, the experience will catch you off-guard. Every dish has a why-didn’t-someone-make-that-before originality, like a beetroot spaghetti the color of roses. Where other chefs’ food shouts, Bond’s whispers. Listen closely: The message is profoundly good. >> Order This: Sage tagliatelle; handmade burrata; any of the sorbets and ice creams. >> Great For: Date night, standout wine list.

279A Broadway, Cambridge, 617-661-0009, bondircambridge.com.

50 best restaurants

The four-cheese fonduta from L’Andana / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The Butcher Shop

When chef Barbara Lynch opened this South End boîte, she proved that slabs of fat-streaked, air-cured meats and stylish Bostonians made an excellent, albeit unlikely, pairing. Eight years later, snagging a seat here still guarantees prime people-watching, as the stellar wine list, cured meats, and creative pastas have only gotten better. >> Order This: Charcuterie; capellini with lamb ragu. >> Great For: Standout wine list.

552 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-4800, thebutchershopboston.com.

Clio

Ken Oringer is a tinkerer — he’s one of just a handful of local chefs to toy with techniques like dehydration and spherification — and that makes for some of Boston’s most intriguing plates. But he’s also tweaked his 14-year-old flagship over the years, adding a notable cocktail program and planning a decorative revamp, so it’s no surprise that Clio still feels fresh. >> Order This: Foie gras terrine; miso–dark chocolate crémeux. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, cliorestaurant.com.

The Citizen Publick House and Oyster Bar

We’ve long been enamored of the Franklin Cafés; the restaurants do cocktails and late-night brilliantly well. But we confess that lately we’ve been straying — and with their younger sibling, no less. Can you blame us? The raw bar here is one of the city’s best, the drink list superb. And with a crowd that’s so reliably spirited, it’s our new go-to for noisy nights out with friends. >> Order This: Grilled clams with jalapeño butter; roasted organic half chicken. >> Great For: Group gatherings, creative cocktails.

1310 Boylston St., Boston, 617-450-9000, citizenpub.com.

Coppa

Is it worth an hour wait? Put it this way: We’d stand in the February cold for the whipped lardo crostini. We’d get pelted with hail for the cavatelli with chicken sausage. We’d pace Shawmut Avenue in August to get our hands on the charred thin-crust pizzas. And when it comes to the house-cured meats, we’re like the Postal Service: neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night…. >> Order This: An assortment of salumi, especially the soppressata and mortadella. >> Great For: Date night, creative cocktails.

253 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-391-0902, coppaboston.com.

Craigie on Main

Few chefs do both upscale and low-key fare as well as Craigie’s Tony Maws. Nor do many offer them side by side, as he does at his Cambridge restaurant. Bar patrons happily devour burgers, spicy pig tails, and craft cocktails, while guests in the dining room savor a menu of hyperseasonal fare that’s both earthy and urbane — think corn-flour pasta with kid-goat ragout, and a pork trio (rich confit, spiced rib, and grilled belly). No wonder everyone from Harvard kids to visiting chefs from around the globe adore this place. >> Order This: Grilled octopus; pork three ways. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

853 Main St., Cambridge, 617-497-5511, craigieonmain.com.

50 best restaurants

East by Northeast’s house-made wheat noodles with pork ragout. / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Dante

The Royal Sonesta hotel, a stone’s throw from the CambridgeSide Galleria, isn’t everyone’s idea of a posh spot. But ignore the glowing P. F. Chang’s across the way. Once you pass through the glass entry into Dante, you’re in another world — one where gnocchi are fluffy, never leaden, and flirt with roasted peaches. A world where Brussels sprouts with pancetta are good enough to build a meal around. When you finish dinner, you won’t want to return to that neon-lit madness outside. But leave you must. Otherwise, how can you come back? >> Order This:  Veal tonnato; tagliatelle with rabbit; cavolini. Great For: Business engagement, group gathering.

40 Edwin H. Land Blvd., Cambridge, 617-497-4200, restaurantdante.com.   

East by Northeast

The name says it all: This tiny Inman Square spot cooks up Chinese-style dishes with New England ingredients, to delicious effect. The menu is a mix of street-food staples (scallion pancakes, pork buns) and eclectic offerings such as pork-and-cod meatballs in miso butter sauce, and house-made thick-cut wheat noodles with pork ragout. Plates are tapas-size, so you can sample a wide variety; signature cocktails are mixed with the restaurant’s own sodas. >> Order This: Garlic green beans with crispy rice; dumplings. >> Great For: Vegetarian dining.

1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-876-0286, exnecambridge.com.

Eastern Standard

This Kenmore Square stalwart is a lot of things to a lot of people: a go-to spot for a lunchtime frisée aux lardons; a post-Fenway watering hole; a bar fit for cocktail connoisseurs; a late-night haunt for twentysomethings and restaurant industry folk. It excels on all fronts — which is why we can’t stay away for very long. >> Order This:  The Jack Rose cocktail; steak frites; frisée salad. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-9100, easternstandardboston.com.

Evoo

Peter McCarthy was doing farm-to-table before practically anyone else, and his “Home Grown” menu, annotated with a list of the producers, is still an example of local sourcing done right. Such virtue! Such responsibility! So much positivity that we almost feel bad saying, Who the hell cares? Just give us more of that coriander-encrusted sirloin. Don’t skimp on the duck-fat fries. Load up our portion of chocolate-banana bread pudding. These plates, whatever the ingredients, are delicious. >> Order This:  The “Home Grown” menu; the “Chinese box.” >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, vegetarian dining.

350 Third St., Cambridge, 617-661-3866, evoorestaurant.com.

51 Lincoln

A rooftop garden. Colorful paintings by the chef. A globe-spanning menu. No, it’s not the latest city restaurant — it’s 51 Lincoln, the tiny Newton eatery that’s been pleasing MetroWest palates since 2006. Chef-owner Jeffrey Fournier celebrates the seasons with well-balanced dishes like Long Island duck breast with lake-grown wild rice and roasted apples, and chicken under a brick accompanied by Concord-grape risotto. He also does the classics proud, as in his “famous rigatoni Bolognese.” >> Order This:  The polenta fries with truffle-Parmesan dip. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands, 617-965-3100,  51lincolnnewton.com.

50 best restaurants

The Bananas Foster Fluffernutter Brûlée at the Gallows / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The Gallows

Owner Rebecca Roth and chef Seth Morrison understand that people go out for fun, so they’ve loaded the Gallows’ menu with cheeky offerings like Bud Light Lime ponies, Jell-O shots, poutine, and jalapeño poppers. But when it comes time for more-serious eats, they don’t mess around. For proof, look to the signature wedge salad, stuffed roast chicken, and cowboy steaks. >> Order This:  Poutine; wedge salad; the Fluffernutter dessert. >> Great For: Group gathering, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

1395 Washington St., Boston, 617-425-0200, thegallowsboston.com.

Grill 23

Like most steakhouses, Grill 23 is full of mahogany, martinis, and expensive suits. Unlike at most steakhouses, the food is actually worth the ridiculous prices. Those martinis arrive tooth-shockingly cold; the skinny pommes frites are crisp, salty, and fantastic. Jay Murray’s funky starters, like duck carpaccio with curried peanuts and Thai chimichurri, are the menu’s undersung heroes. And the dry-aged steaks? Beautifully marbled, deeply flavored, and always perfectly cooked. >> Order This:  Duck carpaccio; dry-aged New York strip steak. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

161 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-542-2255, grill23.com.

Hamersley’s

If newer spots are like overdyed designer denim, Hamersley’s is the classic pair of jeans you cannot do without. The bistro isn’t flashy; it’s just reliable, from the restrained but efficient service to the flawless food. The spicy halibut-and-clam roast with bacon-braised greens is a taste of New England; the coffee-marinated skirt steak riffs on Latin flavors. And the excellent selection of by-the-glass wines and half-bottles makes sampling several vintages a completely reasonable pursuit. >> Order This:  Duck confit; the inimitable roast chicken. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

553 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-2700, hamersleysbistro.com.

Harvest

Harvest has a problem. It’s not the food (ravioli so light you wonder if they’d float; duck breast marinated in rooibos tea and set over glossy black rice) or the service (friendly, unintrusive). No, the biggest issue with this Harvard Square hideaway is that we can never decide when to go. Should we head in for dinner and have the tender Giannone Farms chicken roulade? Or maybe wait for Sunday brunch, when they serve farm-eggs Benedict with tasso ham? If only every conundrum were this tasty…. >> Order This:  House charcuterie; Giannone Farms chicken; whole roasted lobster. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

44 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-868-2255, harvestcambridge.com.

Hungry Mother

Shrimp and grits. Boiled peanuts. Pound cake. Chef Barry Maiden’s southern menu sounds like it’ll more warm your soul than blow your mind. But then the food arrives, and you taste, and suddenly your head is spinning because everything’s so incredibly flavorful. (Okay, maybe it’s spinning because of the killer cocktails, but still.) Maiden masterfully marries flavors and textures in every dish, from tangy green tomatoes in a cornmeal crust to that dense pound cake accompanied by creamy buttermilk ice cream. And it’s all so reasonably priced, you can afford to have your mind blown on a regular basis. >> Order This:  Catfish meunière; fried green tomatoes; French gnocchi; the cocktails. >> Great For: Date night, creative cocktails.

233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge, 617-499-0090, hungrymothercambridge.com.

50 best restaurants

Il Casale’s broken lasagna / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Il Casale

Like any good Italian grandson, chef Dante de Magistris gives all the credit to his nonna. But while many of the dishes at his Belmont restaurant come from her kitchen, only de Magistris could make them somehow elegant and unfussy, rich and restrained. Salty-crisp guanciale and impossibly soft eggs elevate a carbonara; grilled whole trout is dressed with just enough bright citrus to enhance the fish’s flavor. >> Order This:  Broken lasagna; any of the other homemade pastas. >> Great For: Group gathering.

50 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-209-4942, ilcasalebelmont.com.

Island Creek Oyster Bar

Duxbury’s Island Creek Oysters are so ubiquitous locally, we’ve come to consider them the gold standard. (Sorry, Wellfleets.) So the opening of the farm’s eponymous restaurant last year was long past due, and already we can’t imagine Boston without it. In addition to bivalves, chef Jeremy Sewall offers his takes on chowder and the lobster roll, not to mention entrées such as grilled Faroe Island salmon with fennel. >> Order This:  Oysters, of course; lobster-roe noodles; Mrs. Bennett’s seafood casserole. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-5300, islandcreekoysterbar.com.

La Morra

When a grease fire shuttered this Brookline gem in March, we feared a never-ending Olives-style closure. Would we ever again see chef Josh Ziskin’s Tuscan meatballs with porcini mushrooms? Thankfully, it was only two months until La Morra was cranking out tagliatelle anew. Start with a handful of cicchetti, such as fried olives, before tucking into entrées like rabbit-and-polenta lasagna. >> Order This:  Any of the pastas; the fried eggplant entrée, when it’s in season. >> Great For: Date night.

48 Boylston St., Brookline, 617-739-0007, lamorra.com.

L’Andana

Getting out of the city can do wonders for clearing the mind — and, in the case of L’Andana, filling the belly. At his Burlington restaurant, chef Jamie Mammano (Mistral, Sorellina, Teatro, Mooo) wisely presents a menu that’s light on fuss and heavy on flavor. This is office-park country, after all, and Mammano doesn’t bother with precious, tiny-food-on-a-big-plate cooking. Here you’ll find rich Marsala-glazed veal meatballs; thick, savory wild mushroom soup; and a runny four-cheese fonduta. Even the tuna tartare, infused with citrus, is unapologetically bold, and the wood-grilled steaks are pure, elemental pleasure. >> Order This:  Wood-grilled meats; carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

86 Cambridge St., Burlington, 781-270-0100, landanagrill.com.

  • Rebecca

    Find it hard to believe you did not include La Campania in your top 50. It consistently is ranked in the top 10 in the Boston area by Zagat and others. The quality of the food and the exceptional wine list are hard to beat.

  • Jennifer

    You forgot to mention STELLA in the south end, this is an amazing restaurant one of the best in the city ( top 5). It is open until 1:30am with an amazing menu and one of the best brunchs on sundays!!

  • Michael

    Where’s Journeyman?

  • Barbara

    Andy Husbands of 647 Tremont and Sister Sorel is an amazing chef. This is a place not to be missed.

  • Jerry

    You missed 75 Chestnut St.
    Not only GREAT food, but very very reasonable. You should not have to be the most expensive to be on the list.

  • Mannie

    I went there for my birthday and I specifically ordered this dish that included jumbo shrimp. They gave these tiny little shrimp in replacement for the jumbo shrimp. The rice was way under cooked. The waitress was rude. I e-mailed the head chef and complained about the food and service. No reply. She sucks too. Snobby people would probably think this place was good. I would rather go to Chinatown and eat, cheap or expansive. You always get great food.

  • Leoni

    Nice list!

    I just heard of this great site that’s launching soon called TableZest. They let you browse and discover the best restaurants in Boston and also offer personalized restaurant recommendations. It’s great because looks like you can make reservations directly from their site, even for the same day at popular spots.

    Curious to see which restaurants from this list make it on their site!

    They’re at http://www.tablezest.com if you want to check it out.

  • Alex

    I’ve been to Sonsie many times and absolutely love it. Think it should be on this list!