50 Best Restaurants 2010: Restaurants I Miss

Certain places change your mental landscape, and what you want when you go out to eat. These long-gone spots did it for me.

IF I HAD ONLY ONE WISH for a restaurant I could spend an evening at again, it would be Michela’s, no question. It’s not just that, in opening the place, owner Michela Larson discovered Todd English. Or that MICHELA’s rolls remain the best ever served in a Boston restaurant. It’s that the kitchen and staff were big-bang-astral-masses talent — people who thought they wouldn’t just shoot for the stars, but reach them. (They did.) And back then, in the mid-’80s, it was Boston’s first restaurant-as-hip-club; just being there meant you’d meet interesting people.

BIBA was where chef Lydia Shire was truly unleashed, circa 1989. Yes, Biba’s food had Indian and South Asian influences we hadn’t tasted before, wildly mixed with Mediterranean (and with salt and butter; the waiters would sometimes joke that the name was short for “bathed in butter always”). But the whole place was exciting, from the white-hot bar scene to the literally white-hot tandoori oven to Adam Tihany’s wonderfully crazed, worldly décor. Wonderfully crazed: That’s the energy Lydia Shire has brought to every place she’s gone since (except Locke-Ober, her valentine to old Boston). But nothing has ever really matched Biba’s sexy savor.

Shire’s current partner at Towne, Jasper White, opened JASPER’s in 1983 and closed it 12 years later. It was where Bostonians learned that a great seafood restaurant could be billed as something else; where New England influences and ingredients could have pride of place on a haute-cuisine menu; and where the assertively masculine New American style of cooking first took hold. White beat up local purveyors, as he put it, to get the freshest catch, and started using less-popular bycatch (a.k.a. trash) fish long before other chefs did. Nowhere after Biba and Jasper’s did Shire and White sing their own songs as loud and clear, and I miss the music.

Nothing had — or has — the elegance, serenity, and restraint of MAISON ROBERT, which closed in 2004. It was the first modern classic French restaurant in Boston, and it made people want to go to the equally grand restaurants JULIEN and AUJOURD’HUI, both gone now, too. Maison Robert’s co-owner Ann Robert set a service standard that was unmatched. It was formal and correct, yet gracious and caring.

ICARUS was never iconic. Yet it was quietly influential, in the attention Chris Douglass paid to local ingredients before it was fashionable, and in its role in making the South End a food destination. And it had live music and a marvelously relaxed vibe. I miss going down the stairs on a Friday night and having drinks while a jazz trio eased me into the weekend.