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.

L’Espalier

Our testers are constantly on the lookout for signs they’ve been noticed — too many “gifts” from the chef; a suspiciously good table on a crowded night. At L’Espalier, though, we can never tell; everyone is getting lavished with attention. And every plate is photo-worthy, be it the veal tenderloin braised in hay-infused milk, or the butter-poached lobster with vanilla-scented squash. >> Order This:  The chef’s “Seasonal Degustation” menu. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

774 Boylston St., Boston, 617-262-3023, lespalier.com.

50 best restaurants

“S’mores” with dark chocolate cremeux from Salts / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Lumière

Finding a restaurant not hawking locavore fare these days is tough, but at Lumière it’s no gimmick: More than 30 New England purveyors supply the bistro with everything from meat and seafood to fruit and honey. Chef-owner Michael Leviton then transforms it all into polished renditions of French classics — e.g., unbelievably moist roast chicken paired with the most vibrant produce of the season. >> Order This:  The $35 three-course prix fixe. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement.

1293 Washington St., Newton, 617-244-9199, lumiererestaurant.com.

Market by Jean-Georges

The folks behind this W hotel restaurant want you to know that it’s not just any restaurant. It’s Market by Jean-Georges, as in superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. But it’s not just celeb-chef good, it’s good good. And with Matthew Barros (formerly of Myers + Chang) in the kitchen, the cuisine is as inspired as ever, from the scallop sashimi with crunchy rice to the rib-eye with buttery hot sauce. >> Order This:  The five-course “Market” menu. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, creative cocktails.

100 Stuart St., Boston, 617-310-6790, marketbyjgboston.com.

Menton

What hasn’t already been said about the highest of high-end Boston restaurants? Just go. Go for the experience of being waited on hand, foot, and glass. Go for the $145 seven-course tasting menu (which will cost even more, because you’ll want the $105 wine pairings, and might as well spring for the $18 cocktail). Go for the ridiculous parade of canapés, amuse-bouches, mignardises, and other fancy extras showered upon you. Go so you can say you went, and then go again. >> Order This:  Foie gras torchon; tautog with artichoke barigoule. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

354 Congress St., Boston, 617-737-0099, mentonboston.com.

Mooo

Warm rolls come out in a cast-iron pan. Steaks arrive with bone-marrow butter, which you slather on with a rosemary-entwined wooden spoon. The scent of truffle permeates the Parmesan-sprinkled fries. These details make Mooo not just an excellent steakhouse, but also a lovely place to dine. And with soft light and even softer interiors, it’s as well suited to a couples’ dinner as a guys’ night out. >> Order This:  Wagyu beef dumplings. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

15 Beacon St., Boston, 617-670-2515, mooorestaurant.com.

Myers + Chang

Chef Joanne Chang’s people-pleasing tendencies extend to Asian fare at this funky diner, where the vibrant décor and über-cheerful staff combine to make even Tuesday nights feel festive. The food, too, elicits grins, especially the tangy hot-and-sour soup; fat, crisp-edged pork-and-chive dumplings; and triple-pork moo shi, all perennial favorites; be sure to try rotating specials like sweet-potato-and-cod fritters for more seasonally driven flavors. >> Order This:  Triple-pork moo shi; Mama Chang’s pork-and-chive dumplings. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

1145 Washington St., Boston, 617-542-5200, myersandchang.com.

50 best restaurants

Oleana’s falafel / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Neptune Oyster

A funny thing often happens at Neptune. You’ll jump through all the requisite hoops to get seated — leaving your cell-phone number, checking your phone obsessively, then racing back from wherever you’ve been biding your time (ahem, drinking) to claim your spot — and then some jerk will inevitably try to slip onto a barstool unnoticed. Thank heaven the staffers are vigilant, and will politely boot him. Because you’ve waited patiently for those hot fried clams, that butter-drizzled lobster roll, that flaky grilled whole branzino. You deserve that scallop ceviche. So forget it, Mr. Sly: These glimmering oysters, crab claws, and littlenecks are ours. >> Order This:  Oysters; any fish special listed on the wall. >> Great For: Standout wine list.

63 Salem St., Boston, 617-742-3474, neptuneoyster.com.

No. 9 Park

Every now and then, grownups need to be romanced. They need to feel giddy, and special, and starry-eyed. And there’s no surer path to that feeling than a date at No. 9. A flight of mini martinis will set you in the right direction; seared foie gras with Seckel pears will help you stay the course. By the time you polish off dessert — chocolate pavé with pumpkin and chicory sound all right? — the two of you will be necking like teens after prom. >> Order This:  The three-course prix fixe, plus a few selections from the incredible cheese cart. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

9 Park St., Boston, 617-742-9991, no9park.com.

O Ya

Sitting at the chef’s counter, you should be mesmerized by what they serve. Us? We’re fascinated by what they toss. As the prep cook shaves an exquisite black truffle, stray bits fly left and right. The door opens, there’s a gust, and flecks of gold leaf flutter off the nigiri and into the air. Corners of the prettiest toro we’ve seen are thrown aside as the chefs create uniform slices of fish. We’re seriously tempted to eat off the floor. But there’s no need: With discards that gorgeous, just imagine what’s coming on your plate. >> Order This:  Yuzu-cured arctic char; kanpachi baby hamachi sashimi; seared diver scallop and foie gras. >> Great For: Date night, business engagment.

9 East St., Boston, 617-654-9900, oyarestaurantboston.com.

Oishii Boston

The hard part is finding your way into this barely marked sushi destination. The rest is easy. We head straight for the specialty rolls. The star of this sea is the toro-truffle maki, made with shrimp tempura, fatty tuna, white truffle (!), and sturgeon caviar (!!). Landlubbers will delight in Kobe beef rolls with sweet pear, and quail eggs prepared on a robata grill. It’s not cheap, but attentive service and thoughtful freebies (an amuse-bouche of edamame mousse on a recent night) sweeten the deal. >> Order This:  Sakura-smoked hamachi sashimi. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering.

1166 Washington St., Boston, 617-482-8868, oishiiboston.com.

Oleana

If it were up to us, we’d craft our entire meal here out of the first courses; they’re just that satisfying. Chef-owner Ana Sortun’s elegant take on falafel is a must, as is the whipped feta with hot peppers, and the spoon-tender, tamarind-glazed beef with eggplant in the Sultan’s Delight. Also excellent are entrées such as the flattened chicken bursting with za’atar spice, and the clever trout “spanakopita” — especially when paired with uncommon selections from the noteworthy wine list (how about a Spanish Txakolina or a Cinsault blend from Lebanon?). >> Order This:  Sultan’s Delight, spinach falafel. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, oleanarestaurant.com.

50 best restaurants

80 Thoreau’s bone-in pork chop with winter squash / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Posto

They say man cannot live by bread alone, but for Posto’s bruschetta, we’d be willing to try. With candy-sweet roasted tomatoes, creamy goat cheese, and the perfect crispy/chewy ratio, it’s almost enough to make you forget the rest of the menu. But that would mean missing the expert pastas, superfresh seafood, and pizza so authentic it’s been certified by Neapolitan authorities. >> Order This:  Margherita pizza; steak burger with cheddar; affogato with vanilla gelato. >> Great For: Group gathering, vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

187 Elm St., Somerville, 617-625-0600, pizzeriaposto.com.

Prezza

Chef Anthony Caturano is a guy’s guy. He’s a big-game hunter, a fisherman, a carnivore to the core. So it’s no surprise that some of Prezza’s best stuff comes from the wood grill — a veal porterhouse with saffron-lobster risotto; a prime rib spun for hours on the rotisserie. And everything from the pumpkin ravioli with mascarpone to the mussels with chorizo polenta is bold, bold, bold. You want dainty food? Go somewhere else. You want big flavor and even bigger red wines? This is your kind of place. >> Order This:  Wood-grilled squid and octopus; spicy mussels; the rotisserie special. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

24 Fleet St., Boston, 617-227-1577, prezza.com.

Rendezvous

Long before the skinny-jeans crowd claimed Central Square, chef Steve Johnson made it a cool spot to dine. For six years now he’s been putting out inventive western Mediterranean fare (sourced from local farms and a rooftop garden), serving it all up in a rehabbed Burger King. Add in the bang-for-your-buck wine list and tasty sippers (the “Nehru,” made with saffron and cardamom, is a must), and it’s a diamond in the rough-around-the-edges neighborhood. >> Order This:  Turkish pizza; braised pork-and-veal meatballs with toasted orecchiette. >> Great For: Date night, group gathering, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-576-1900, rendezvouscentralsquare.com.

Rialto

Poor Charles Hotel. How many people pass through its lobby nightly, ignoring its staffers’ smiles and glazing over its décor? Blame Rialto: The second-floor restaurant has such pull, no one seems to notice anything else. Patrons make a beeline for the bar. They angle for tables, antsy to try the olive oil–poached lobster and slow-roasted duck. They come in for the prix-fixe menus inspired by regions of Italy. And then they skitter away, only to return the next time they crave butterscotch budino. >>  Order This:  The four-course “Regional Cuisine” menu. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, group gathering, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails, standout wine list.

One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050, rialto-restaurant.com.

80 Thoreau

It’s hard not to be annoyed when great local chefs decamp to other locales. So we’re ecstatic that when Carolyn Johnson left Rialto, she stayed within our sphere. At 80 Thoreau, she wows Concord with appealing (but not too out-there) fare like a bone-in pork chop with winter squash, and seared scallops with melon, peppers, and almonds. If our city’s thunder has to be stolen, let it always be done like this. >> Order This:  Anything grilled. >> Great For: Group gathering, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

80 Thoreau St., Concord, 978-318-0008, 80thoreau.com.

salts

A “salad” of heirloom beans, carrots, radishes and beets from Salts. / Photo by Anthony TieuliSalts

Salts

has an atmosphere of such genuine warmth that it’s the destination for special-occasion dinners. (Seriously: On our most recent trip, every table in the room was toasting something.) A commitment to local food means everything tastes just-picked fresh, and an experimental spirit — the platings are ultracool — makes for dishes that delight you even before they hit your lips. >> Order This:  Any fish dish; the chocolate crémeux with peanut ice cream. >> Great For: Date night.

798 Main St., Cambridge, 617-876-8444, saltsrestaurant.com.

Scampo

The menu is all over the place: It’s heavily Italian, with plenty of pasta and pizza. But then there’s roti with curried chicken. And lamb rump steak with Persian ravioli. And shrimp étouffée. In short, there’s no theme to Lydia Shire’s Liberty Hotel restaurant, other than “tasty.” The creamy, fresh mozzarella is the perfect vehicle for toppings like prosciutto and fennel pollen. Any house-made bread is done just right. And the entrées? They’re about as far from delicate as can be. And that’s just the way Shire (and we) like them. >> Order This:  Kurobuta pork chop; mozzarella. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering.

215 Charles St., Boston, 617-536-2100, scampoboston.com.

Sorellina

When a restaurant’s culinary substance matches its style, that’s a beautiful thing. Jamie Mammano’s Back Bay eatery is no doubt one for the see-and-be-seen set, but the kitchen’s swankified takes on Italian standards like spaghetti and meatballs — here reimagined with tubular maccheroncelli pasta, Kobe beef meatballs, and a butter-heavy Barolo sauce — stand up to the soaring ceilings, elegant flatware, and impeccable service. >> Order This:  Maccheroncelli with Kobe meatballs; any seafood appetizer. >> Great For: Business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

One Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-412-4600, sorellinaboston.com.

Sportello

It isn’t for everyone. If you’re weird about personal space, steer clear; the counter seating means you’ll be dining next to strangers. If you want intimacy, you’re out of luck; it’s bright and noisy. And if you’re in the market for something formal, you’re better off elsewhere; this is a diner-style joint with a bakery inside. That said, those are the reasons we luuuuurrve Sportello. It’s quirky, and we appreciate that dishes like strozzapreti with rabbit and picholine olives are so casually yet successfully presented.  >> Order This:  Anything from the pasta and polenta menu. >> Great For: Vegetarian dining.

348 Congress St., Boston, 617-737-1234, sportelloboston.com.

T. W. Food

A collaboration between chef Tim Weichmann and his wife, Bronwyn, this Huron Village gem overflows with care. The chef’s impeccable technique turns simple dishes like a soft-scrambled egg with trumpet mushrooms into something you’ll dream about for days. And with Bronwyn making recommendations and ensuring tables are vanquished of crumbs, a dinner here feels like being coddled and spoiled. >> Order This:  The grand tasting menu; the soft-scrambled egg. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, standout wine list.

377 Walden St., Cambridge, 617-864-4745, twfoodrestaurant.com.

50 best restaurants

Roast duck from Troquet / Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Ten Tables Cambridge

With food that capitalizes on the season’s bounty, chef David Punch reels in a cross section of Cambridge; you’re as likely to see tattooed students as graying scholars clinking glasses in the intimate, dimly lit dining room. Arrive a few minutes early to share a snack or two (cheese boards, house-made pickles), or to tip back a Berkshire Brewing Company ale at the tiny bar. >> Order This:  The tender pork chop. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining.

5 Craigie Cir., Cambridge, 617-576-5444, tentables.net/cambridge.

Ten Tables J.P.

There’s a reason owner Krista Kranyak was able to open two more Ten Tables locations after this one: It’s the kind of smashingly successful indie restaurant that everyone wants in the neighborhood. Offerings like the house-made ricotta cavatelli with wild mushrooms keep the locals coming back, and the newish bar area has made the place an even more inviting hangout. >> Order This:  Chorizo-stuffed chicken with pickled jalapeño; the bar menu. >> Great For: Date night, vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

597 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-8810, tentables.net/jp.

Toro

You know the drill: Show up about 40 minutes before you actually want to eat, because unless it’s 5:30 on a Monday, you’re going to wait. Luckily, that’s just enough time to order and drink one of Toro’s excellent cocktails. By the time you polish off a spicy Perro Picante, your name will be up, and your appetite for blistery padrón peppers and the now-famous cotija-and-aioli-slathered corn will be whetted. >> Order This:  Bone marrow with oxtail marmalade; pimientos de padrón. >> Great For: Vegetarian dining, creative cocktails.

1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300, toro-restaurant.com.

Troquet

There are restaurants that cater to food lovers who like wine, and then there are restaurants designed for people who have a deep love for small-batch burgundies, grand-cru bordeaux, and esoteric rosés and want something lovely to eat with them. Troquet is most certainly the latter. The cellar isn’t the city’s biggest, but thanks to smart buying by the staff, it offers tremendous values on hard-to-find bottles — and even the food seems designed to fit the wine program, not the other way around. The ingenious menu guides diners to wines that pair well with each app, entrée, and dessert, so even if you aren’t one of those wine nerds, it won’t be hard to fake it. >> Order This:  Roast duck; assiette of Vermont lamb; whatever seasonal soufflé is offered. >> Great For: Date night, business engagement, group gathering, standout wine list.

140 Boylston St., Boston, 617-695-9463, troquetboston.com.

Uni

Despite being part of the popular Ken Oringer restaurant club, this tiny sashimi bar in the Eliot Hotel still feels like a secret. With only 21 seats, it’s where sushi chef Chris Gould takes fresh, exotic fare from the sea and turns it into edible art. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, either — on Tuesdays, get four courses plus sake bombs for a reasonable $35. >> Order This:  Uni spoon; the omakase. >> Great For: Date night.

370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, unisashimibar.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!