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.

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/11/the-50-best-restaurants-2011/