A Chef’s Guide to Eating Well in Somerville
The Somerville of today is a far cry from the once maligned “Slummerville.” Cambridge’s embarrassing neighbor, affectionately referred to as the “armpit of New England,” has become a haven for the innovative, the droll, and dare I say, hipster. Joining eccentric institutions like Sacco’s candlepin bowling and The Pub, are Assembly Row, Aeronaut Brewing’s science and food hub, a revitalized Union Square, and the first Green Line expansion in nearly 30 years.
Somerville’s transformation from a rundown urban area to its sparkling, artisanal opposite has been relatively swift. Josh Lewin, a Dorchester native and one half of the Bread & Salt Hospitality group, says that Somerville remained a distant enigma throughout his childhood. “It’s funny,” he says. “Growing up, I honestly didn’t even know where Somerville was. It might as well have been the other end of the earth. When I moved here, until I got my first bills in the mail, I thought I had moved to Cambridge. I’m not making that up.”
The dramatic rejuvenation seems to have caught a number of New Englanders off guard—just as it did its predecessors in Brooklyn, Portland, and East Austin. Now whenever a Tony Maws or Ana Sortun is opening a new restaurant, you can be assured it’ll be rooted in the thriving confines of Somerville.
To help us traverse that booming culinary landscape, both new and old, we’ve asked Lewin and his partner Katrina Jazayeri (currently working at Wink & Nod’s pop-up incubator), as well as longtime resident Will Gilson, the chef and owner of Puritan and Co. in Inman Square, to give us their picks for the best doughnuts, diners, and “hipster” Mexican food in all of Somerville.
The Neighborhood Restaurant
Gilson: “If you have ever driven through Union Square on a Saturday or Sunday morning and seen a line down Bow Street that looks like there is a new iPhone for sale—you were probably looking at the line for The Neighborhood. Anyone who has been there understands that the quirkiness of this family-owned bakery is what makes it great. They serve breakfast all day with a Portuguese twist, like linguica as breakfast sausage. Each meal is served with an assortment of breakfast pastries and toast, and before your food arrives you have the option of complimentary fruit or Cream of Wheat. I’m not sure when you last had Cream of Wheat, but thanks to The Neighborhood you can take a trip down memory lane, all while your omelet is cooking.”
25 Bow St., Somerville; 617-623-9710 or theneighborhoodrestaurant.com.
Union Square Donuts
Gilson: “Believe the hype! I don’t know how the Union Square area creates such a buzz around breakfast time, but between The Neighborhood and Union Square Donuts, you feel like you are missing out on if you aren’t already there. The doughnuts are monstrous and delicious, and the easiest way to make friends these days is to show up with their now iconic box. Those doughnuts will make a grown man’s eyes light up like a child when that lid lifts up.”
20 Bow St., Somerville; 617-209-2257 or unionsquaredonuts.com.
Lewin: This little Thai spot in Union Square disappoints me once every few weeks when I try to go over there for lunch on a Sunday and realize it’s dinner only that day. But they have great tom yum soup and papaya salad. It’s definitely my favorite papaya salad in the area. Getting outside of Union, but staying with Thai food, I highly recommend Thai Hut, just on the border separating Cambridge and Somerville.”
22 Bow St. #1, Somerville; 617-625-5015 or sweetgingersomerville.com.
Gilson: “Yeah, hidden gems are cool. But what about a really hip, well-curated cocktail bar that chooses to hide itself in the back of a restaurant that was already kind of hidden? That takes its cool status to the next level. Sam [Treadway] and the whole crew at Backbar have made the perfect hideaway that serves the best cocktails in Union Square, hands down. It’s just the perfect example of creativity and tons of hard work.”
7 Sanborn Ct., Somerville; 617-718-0249 or backbarunion.com.
Gilson: “I don’t know if it’s overly hipster or ironic of me to choose a mariachi-accented Mexican restaurant, but I don’t care. El Potro is super tasty and friendly and the margaritas are awesome. They come in mason jars so the local clientele can feel safe pulling up on fixies with their giant beards and “awesome possum” T-shirts.”
61 Union Square, Somerville; 617-666-4200 or elpotromexicangrill.com.
Lewin: “Katrina and I used to walk by all the time, never really thinking we’d ever stop in. There was rarely anyone inside and the dining room was stark white. … When we finally broke down and went in, we were whisked downstairs where there’s another dining room, another bar, and a whole different atmosphere. The seating is all very warm and the service is really great. It’s a really fun, hidden spot.”
Jazayeri: “I love the downstairs dining room because it looks like it’s straight out of a Gabriel Garcia-Marques novel. There is a living wall spanning the entire length of the restaurant, an open kitchen, and a four-seat bar that’ll make you feel as if you’ve walked into some surreal party in someone’s villa. There is a buzz and a liveliness that you’d never expect by looking in the windows at street level.”
253 Washington St., Somerville; 617-764-2180 or casabrestaurant.com.
Daves Fresh Pasta
Gilson: “Right next to Spoke is the best sandwich in the ‘Ville. Dave’s Fresh Pasta does make pasta, as the name suggests, but in my opinion the sandwiches reign supreme. They have a great cheese and wine selection and the specialty foods are like a greatest hits list of the type of European foods I like to bring back from trips abroad. Cambridge and the South End may have Formaggio, but we get Dave’s, and that’s perfect for me.”
81 Holland St., Somerville; 617-623-0867 or davesfreshpasta.com.
Lewin: “Bergamot is obviously well established in the neighborhood, but you really don’t hear too much about them outside of Somerville. Although this has been changing a little bit lately with their upcoming BISq project, it’s always busy, and for good reason. The food is all very well thought out and no question, Dan Bazzinotti has of the very best charcuterie programs anywhere in the area.”
Jazayeri: “On top of killer charcuterie, the service is some of the best around. I can’t think of a time when half the bar wasn’t filled with regulars who leave with a round of handshakes and hugs. It’s even okay if you have to wait for a spot, because they’ve got a really comfy couch where they’ll serve you drinks. Sometimes I actually hope we have to wait, just so we can start off our night in the Bergamot lounge.”
118 Beacon St., Somerville; 617-576-7700 or bergamotrestaurant.com.
Lewin: “Machu Chicken is a little Peruvian take-out spot that specializes in the charcoal grilled chicken. It’s cheap and fantastic! Service is very friendly, and the cooking is very well executed. Someone recently said to me, ‘I don’t know how they get that much salt into a piece of chicken.’ He meant that in the best possible way.”
Jazayeri: “I’ve never been inside, but they fill the air in Union Square with the most delicious, intoxicating smell of roasting chicken. That smells always reminds me of the street where I worked in Elmhurst Queens, with had most incredible food being cooked and served out of street carts. Those smells mark the best food neighborhoods.”
25 Union Square, Somerville; 617-623-7972 or machuchicken.com.
Trina’s Starlite Lounge
Gilson: “Trina’s is my favorite everyday bar. I say that because I feel so comfortable and welcomed there, that I could go any day of the week and have a blast. Its where I took my girlfriend on our first date, where I have celebrated countless birthdays, and where I take my staff after a long night. The kitchen is open late and I can get anything from a cheap beer to a proper cocktail. It’s my Cheers and I’m its Cliff Clavin. Don’t call me Norm, I refuse to be Trina’s Norm.”
3 Beacon St., Somerville; 617-576-0006 or trinastarlitelounge.com.
Gilson: “On any night of the week, there is about a 90 percent chance of having an impromptu industry night at Highland Kitchen since so many of the city’s best restaurants are situated around Highland Avenue. It’s not inexpensive, but that area is the last ‘affordable’ part of Somerville. Highland Kitchen has that perfect trifecta when it comes to a neighborhood restaurant/watering hole: It’s friendly, tasty, and affordable. Some of my favorite bartenders in the city, like Joe McGuirk, have tenure behind the bar there. And the juke box is pretty rad. I hear they have a rockstar brunch, but I’m always too busy working ours at Puritan & Co. to take advantage.”
150 Highland Ave., Somerville; 617-625-1131 or highlandkitchen.com.
J & J Restaurant
Jazayeri: “Right on the corner of Washington and McGrath Highway is J&J Restaurant. If you walk in off the street you’d never think there was a full dinner menu, let alone a dining room. It was started as a convenient store and sub shop—and they’ve retained the ballpark-style menu—but the food is much more serious. They have bacalao served four ways, whole roasted chickens, and my favorite, pork and clams with potatoes and pickled vegetables. Eat in the hidden back room or call ahead for take-out.”
157 Washington St., Somerville; 617-625-3978 or jandjrestaurant.com.
Dosa N’ Curry
Jazayeri: “Dosa N’ Curry is a great Indian spot just outside of Union Square that’s all vegetarian. The cuisine has a heavy Southern Indian influence, which is rare for the area. Their slogan is, ‘North Indian, South Indian, Indo-Chinese, and Gourmet Pizzas!’ I’m not sure what that pizza connection is and I’ve certainly never seen anyone eating pizza at Dosa N’ Curry. My sister first took me there about a year ago because of the unique Indochinese dishes. One of our favorites is Gobi 65, which are spiced cauliflower fritters. Don’t miss the rasam either; it’s a thin sauce made from tamarind and tomato. Dip anything in there, or just eat it with a spoon like I do.”
447 Somerville Ave., Somerville; 617-764-3152 or dosa-n-curry.com.
Lewin: “Katrina and I found Buddy’s Diner over the summer. It was an old truck stop just outside of Union that was purchased by a new owner not too long ago. The place is a gem, with a menu written on paper plates strung around the space. I go there for a sausage, egg, and American cheese sandwich on bulkie roll. That’s what I ate for my lunch almost every day as a teenager at my first job as a dishwasher at Cook’s in the Kitchen. They make it just the way I remember it.”
113 Washington St., Somerville; 617-623-9725
Spoke Wine Bar
Gilson: “Spoke is the most underrated restaurant in Boston. There, I said it! What those guys are able to do out of a kitchen the size of most restaurant’s coat rooms—it’s remarkable and a testament to the talent in that kitchen. There is nothing I wouldn’t order there and the wine selection is funky, fun, and original. It’s my favorite date place, if you can score a seat.”
89 Holland St., Somerville; 617-718-9463 or spokewinebar.com.
Lewin: “Buk Kyung is a Korean spot that also has an outpost in Allston. It’s a big square carpeted room where very little English is spoken. It’s pretty great to be able to have a traditional Korean meal this far away from Boston University. I love all the little dishes of pickles and fermented this-and-that.”
Jazayeri: “Part of the fun for me here is that you put yourself in the hands of the owners, to some extent. If you’ve never had clay pot bibimbop, that alone is worth the visit. If you’re feeling adventurous try the kimchi jjigae, a boiling pot of salty, spicy soup with soft tofu and chewy rice cakes. It will cure you of nearly any illness.”
9 Union Square, Somerville; 617-623-7220