The 50 Best Restaurants 2009
There’s Just No Pleasing Some People
The pros, cons, and perceived preferences of the Hub’s chief dining critics.
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: If our own critic has any shortcomings, we’re blissfully blind to them, of course. Views a heavy hand with butter as cheating, and tends to give beloved veterans the benefit of the doubt, more so than newbies. Also, he doesn’t do the star system for his columns: “The rating is only as good as how often a critic eats there.”
LOVES: Homey sweets, well-appointed dining rooms, obscure ingredients and techniques.
HATES: Butter, salt, truffle oil, “unnecessary” commas added during the editing process.
BEST FOR: Resonant historical context, thanks to a long tenure chronicling the local dining scene.
TYPICAL FARE: “The dish itself is very rich—overly rich, even—especially with melted butter sprinkled on the filling. It’s a good thing the portion is small.” (From a 2007 review of Sagra.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: The website’s members are united by a crusade for good eats, regardless of price point—though expensive is eyed with suspicion—and a disdain for the single-reviewer model. Opinions can tend to fall into lockstep with those of respected ringleaders, who are fiercely defended against perceived attacks. Like Smurfs, posters have a fondness for neologisms.
LOVES: Offbeat, hard-to-find eateries; anything served from the side of a truck.
HATES: First-time posters with contrarian opinions, the Phantom Gourmet, the label “foodie,” big media.
BEST FOR: Continually updated with fresh postings, it’s a good place to scout out a chef’s current best dish.
TYPICAL FARE: “I know it’s not very chowish, but I like Big Macs.” (From a 2008 review of Big Macs.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: While predecessor Alison Arnett favored white tablecloths, First is a self-styled gastro-populist who will review the kind of off-the-beaten-track spots more commonly spotlighted by the Chowhound crowd. She’s an engaging writer, but sometimes lets splashy phrases trump clear description. On the job for more than a year, she has yet to give her first four-star review.
LOVES: True neighborhood haunts, jokes with long setups.
HATES: Very spicy dishes.
BEST FOR: Often being the first critic to review new spots, thereby giving readers an early take.
TYPICAL FARE: “Catfish fingers are fish sticks gone to heaven…. But when the barbecue arrives, Houston, Kansas City, and Memphis, we have a problem.” (From a 2008 review of Roadhouse.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: The tabloid’s chief critic, in the role since 1997, knows his food, and resists the urge to lecture. Instead, his critiques often name some overarching problem (“Have you noticed a theme of too much lemon here?”), then hit it home with example after example. Nobly confesses when he’s been recognized at the restaurant under review. Of all the reviewers, Schaffer’s tastes run closest to our own.
LOVES: Steak tartare, which he always orders if available.
HATES: Sweet or fruity garnishes on savory mains, overly dressed steak tartare.
BEST FOR: Sophisticated wine commentary that—a rare feat—comes without flowery prose.
TYPICAL FARE: “There’s too much salt in garbanzos con chorizo…. There’s excess salt as well in sea urchin souquet, stewed sea urchin and potatoes…. And there’s too much salt….” (From a 2006 review of Toro.)
The Phantom Gourmet
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: Yes, the Phantom is a single person, though he does descend upon restaurants with a trusted entourage. No, the reviews aren’t paid for by advertisers. (We’re vouching only for the numerically scored Restaurant Report Cards.) The drawback to Channel 38’s mystery critic is his scoring system, which gives equal weight to 10 subcategories, many of which have little to do with food quality. If an eatery seriously botches its Portions subscore, a perfect 10 on Entrées won’t save it.
LOVES: Fried things, bad puns, “ooey-gooey” desserts, heaping piles of…anything.
HATES: Expensive fine dining, foie gras, Billy Costa’s TV Diner on NECN.
BEST FOR: Pinpointing well-executed comfort grub in the suburbs, come-hither close-ups of the food.
TYPICAL FARE: “Phantom got down-and-dirty with the chocolaty mud pie.” (From a 2008 review of Hungry Mother.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: For much of his nearly two-decade run, Robert Nadeau—the pen name of journalist Mark Zanger—reliably championed the little guy. Then, a couple of years ago, he reinvented himself as the most unpredictable reviewer in town. (It’s striking how many Nadeau four-stars did not end up in this top 50 list.)
LOVES: The underdog, except when he hates it; cheap ethnic food; the (otherwise uncelebrated) sushi and salsa joint Sushi-Teq.
HATES: Glitzy décor, pricey vino, twee gourmet flourishes.
BEST FOR: Keeping readers on their toes.
TYPICAL FARE: “It was far richer than a younger wine, and sang with ostrich as Burgundy (which I never could afford) might sing with steak.” (From a 2003 review of Meritage.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: A decent plate of pasta can send Yelpers into paroxysms of delight, but woe to the restaurateur whose front-of-the-house delivers the tiniest slight—bad service is punished especially harshly here. Compared with Chowhound, the site is much easier to navigate. But frequent posters have a tendency to wax food-writerly.
LOVES: Exclamation points, fawning service, when their review earns multiple ratings of “Cool” or “Funny.”
HATES: Getting beaten out by a fellow Yelper for the coveted First Review.
BEST FOR: Finding out every last detail about a restaurant, from the art on the wall to the shape of the plates.
TYPICAL FARE: “Also, I’ve eaten upstairs in the formal dining room and the service was impeccable, the food was MARVELOUS, aaaaaand the bill scared me. Try it if you don’t mind spending.” (From a 2008 review of Excelsior.)
PRIMARY INGREDIENTS: This “seriously gimmicky” guidebook weaves together “colorful sound bites” from “totally amateur critics” and has made founders Tim and Nina Zagat “filthy-rich as Rockefellers.” But an editorial obsession with balancing pluses and minuses makes it hard to get a sense of whether a place is truly worthy. Also, the incessant quote marks can make highbrow diners want to gouge their eyes out.
LOVES: Half the dishes.
HATES: The other half.
BEST FOR: The index of restaurants by amenity, including a quirky list of spots with historical digs, starting in 1707 (Longfellow’s Inn in Sudbury).
TYPICAL FARE: See above.