Fifty Restaurants. One Wild Year.

The highly anticipated return of our field-tested, thoroughly vetted, call-it-like-we-see-it ranking of the best places to eat right now in Boston and beyond.

The spicy, shellfish-packed paella is a signature dish at Toro, a hall-of-fame-worthy landmark and one of Boston’s top restaurants. / Photo by Michael Piazza

“Where should I eat tonight?”

You probably ask yourself that question a lot. I know I do. In part, because I’m a food editor. But it’s also because we all need to eat every day to survive, and if you ask me, the hard work of living ought to be utterly delicious.

Over the past year and a half or so, though, answering the question “Where should I go for dinner?” has become a lot more complicated. As an unprecedented pandemic burned its way across the world, dramatically changing the dining landscape, it felled many restaurants in the Hub and beyond, and forced countless others to radically reinvent themselves.

At the same time, every fire leaves behind rich, fertile soil. I don’t know how chefs do it when some of us still struggle to get out of pajamas for a Zoom call, but even in this hyper-challenging environment, these creative, intrepid—and, most of them will admit, slightly crazy—culinary pros have managed to not only survive, but even spawn new restaurants.

In other words, the Boston dining scene looks entirely different than it did in November 2019, the last time we bit off the daunting task of identifying the top 50 restaurants in and around the city. The playing field has been reset, and it’s a whole new game for calling balls and strikes.

Should we even try? I asked myself that question, too. This time last year, as we were entering the scariest season of the pandemic, we didn’t rank restaurants. Instead we dove deep into reporting on the myriad challenges the industry was facing, and highlighted a couple dozen places that truly excelled at responding to the moment. That’s what seemed fair. (Besides, how could we answer who was the “best”? The best at what? Getting up in the morning? Being not closed?)

We could have punted again this year, but that wouldn’t have been fair, either. It wouldn’t have been fair to you—Boston’s diners.

Maybe you’ve been rushing back out to restaurants recently with a Roaring Twenties–style spirit; maybe you’ve been tiptoeing more cautiously. Regardless of how you’re dining right now, I’m guessing you’ve struggled on more than one occasion to figure out exactly where to go. After all, restaurants are different now—and, perhaps more important, so are we.

How so? For one, a public health crisis made us reevaluate our individual risk tolerance for dining out. Social movements and political maelstroms made us think harder about the people and values we want to support. And as both restaurants and individuals struggled to scrape by, we became more thoughtful about how we spend our money. Once upon a time, diners might have been okay eating at a restaurant that was simply good and convenient. Now, merely cooking for customers isn’t enough. Not if we’re going to leave home to stare at masks (at least where they’re required) instead of smiles, sit under the lingering specter of the Delta variant (especially if you have older parents or unvaccinated kids), and tip even more generously (as is warranted in times like these). Certainly not when all of our favorite restaurants are doing takeout at this point, anyway, or delivering make-at-home meal kits and chef-grade groceries we can’t find at Market Basket.

What it all boils down to is that while we still want to dine out—there’s no substitute for sharing a special meal surrounded by the sights and sounds of a city that’s alive again—it takes a little extra something now to earn our trust, attention, and appetite. In fact, in this new world, we’ve found that great food is hardly the sole criteria for landing on our Top 50 list. As we researched contenders, returned to dining rooms for testing, and listened closely to what was getting local foodies talking, we realized that many of the best spots were those that fed us something pleasantly unexpected: an exciting new idea, a dose of inspiration, a buzzy backdrop for reviving our social life.

That’s why this year, we’ve divided our Top 50 Restaurants list into categories of places that satisfy every type of emotional craving, whether you’re looking to understand where the city’s food culture is headed or which established legends are still going strong as the most reliable, well-rounded pillars of Boston’s restaurant scene.

So, where to eat tonight? Here’s a tip you’ll love: Don’t think too hard. That’s our job, and we’re at your service.

The List