Eat Here Now: Boston’s 25 Hottest Restaurants
For when you’re sick of the grocery store, 25 restaurants you’ve just gotta try.
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Given Pagu’s location near MIT, it’s perhaps no surprise that chef Tracy Chang has introduced some A-plus innovations for the COVID era. Her restaurant’s lineup of Japanese-Spanish flavor bombs now includes more takeout-friendly fare, including pizza (don’t miss the squid-ink-blackened dough topped with pickled Basque peppers). There’s also the “Pagu Market” menu, which offers family-size meals and home-cooking supplies—from produce sourced from local farms to the chef’s purple, taro-based pancake mix. And yet even in the midst of such reinvention, Chang has found time to help those in need, cofounding two initiatives that keep restaurant staffers employed and deliver fresh food to vulnerable essential and frontline workers.
La Fábrica Central
It’s not exactly that chef Giovanna Huyke has been hiding in plain sight—it’s just that, until recently, the festive nightlife scene at La Fábrica Central competed with her food for attention. With the restaurant’s club room still closed because of COVID-19, Huyke’s vibrant octopus escabeche salad with peppers and olives, and fried whole snapper with a coconut Creole sauce are finally getting a much-deserved spotlight—and reminding us why she had her own daily cooking show for 20-plus years in Puerto Rico.
Not to sound schmaltzy, but as Jewish delis continue to dwindle across the country, it’s more important than ever to keep our local old-timers alive and well. Thankfully, this Coolidge Corner mainstay is making that easier with a new delivery service that brings everything from peppery pastrami to NFL-inspired “krazy knishes” (in flavors like Buffalo chicken) to your door. That said, even if it requires donning a mask, there’s still something special about dropping by to catch up on local gossip and grab a hearty sandwich.
With live-music venues still shuttered, we’re grateful that this Cape Verdean fixture continues to invite global artists to strum guitars and slap drums on its small stage. Enjoy a morna, funaná, or batuque soundtrack while delving into hearty katchupa, a slow-cooked hominy stew with linguiça, or white-wine-sautéed shrimp in a spicy Moçambique sauce. And as long as the weather allows, relish cachaça-based cocktails on the patio under a colorful mural of namesake singer Cesária Évora.
Tawakal Halal Café
Tourism may have slowed down, but thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and a recent nod from Bon Appetit, this tiny, inconspicuous restaurant in the shadow of Logan remains a popular grab-and-go pit stop for in-the-know foodies flying in or out. Luckily, local fans need not cross an ocean (maybe just the Callahan Tunnel) for richly spiced, slow-braised goat in saucy spaghetti, fried-flaky sambusa pockets filled with ground beef and herbs, and other enlivening offerings from chef-owner Yahya Noor, a Somali native who exudes the palpable passion and drive—he arrived here by way of a refugee camp—that is the backbone of Boston’s indie restaurant scene.
East Boston, tawakalfoods.co.
Villa Mexico Café
It’s the little things that set this fast-casual spot—long a favorite among downtown office denizens and foodies alike—apart: Burritos are stuffed with chorizo or mole-sauced chicken, then grilled (as they should be!) on the flat-top until their tortillas are perfectly crisped, while house-made black salsa employs deeply roasted, skin-on chilis to roll our tongue with mouthwatering heat waves. Really, though, the dynamic energy of mother-daughter team Julie and Bessie King continues to be the secret ingredient; they make us feel like we’re part of the family, even when we’re just stopping in to stock up on new, ready-to-reheat meals that’ll power us through our WFH days.
Red-sauce-soaked Italian comfort food has been a salve during these anxious times, and chef Douglass Williams—always a soothing, sage-like presence in Mida’s kitchen and dining room—clearly understands the concept of food as medicine. How else to explain his wonderfully balm-like pork sugo with broccoli rabe, rib-sticking short-rib lasagna, or toothsome tubes of handmade bucatini with guanciale in tomato sauce? And honestly, if there’s a stressful situation that Williams’s garlic-butter-soaked focaccia can’t cure, we’ve yet to experience it.
South End, midaboston.com.
Woods Hill Pier 4
To be sure, farm-to-fork activist Kristin Canty’s crisp, contemporary pearl on Boston’s face-lifted waterfront looks like a million bucks (there are even heated igloos to extend patio season). But it also exudes authenticity. Lamb shoulder with black garlic, cilantro, and fermented tomato coulis, for instance, actually comes from Woods Hill’s own small farm in New Hampshire. Chef Charlie Foster, an alum of Daniel Boulud’s empire, finds other ingredients even closer to home—such as fresh mushrooms foraged in the gnarled Massachusetts woods.
At a time when most of us are staying close to home, chef Jose Duarte’s new addition to Chelsea offers a much-appreciated direct flight to the flavors of his native Peru. Here, Amazonian paiche is wrapped in a banana leaf with fried plantains and hot relish, while cumin- and panca-pepper-marinated beef skewers are served with a spicy uchucuta sauce. It all makes us crave a trip to the Santa Cruz Lodge, Duarte’s gastronomy-focused eco-hotel in the central Andes that strives to support local agricultural communities.
At Sarma, “a little bit of everything” is always the right order. That’s why chef Cassie Piuma’s new family-style feasts, served in a reimagined parking lot turned patio, are so alluring: Even in small groups, they allow us to enjoy a chef’s selection of a dozen za’atar-spiced, tahini-brushed, Mediterranean–influenced meze, from beet muhammara with goat cheese and apple to duck-stuffed grape leaves to strawberry froyo with pistachio-baklava bark. The à la carte takeout menu offers just as much adventure—plus transportive bottled cocktails spiked with fragrant cardamom or jasmine tea syrup.
Even in the social-distancing era, human connection remains central to the mission of Tanám, which uses Filipino-inspired cuisine as a form of cultural storytelling. Small groups can still enjoy the signature communal kamayan feasts—banana-leaf-lined spreads that showcase fresh shellfish, flavorful meat skewers, and vibrant sauces—on the spacious patio at Bow Market. But when snow and ice make that impossible, you can stay virtually linked to the restaurant: Chefs Ellie Tiglao and Sāsha Coleman plan to package ingredient kits so fans can cook along with them.
Now in its 15th year (and its first with an additional rear patio), Boston’s Spanish tapas stalwart feels invigorated by the still-fresh spirit of executive chef Josh Elliott, who took over in 2018. Those famous cobs of alioli-swabbed grilled corn are as delectable as ever, but Elliott manages to find ways to surprise us with curveballs like the boar-and-truffle terrine with pickled nectarine, black garlic, and dijonnaise.
South End, toro-restaurant.com.
If we were going to spend an election year arguing over politics, we’re glad it was around freshly poured pints at Democracy, a traditional American public house cofounded by former union organizer James Razsa to bring idea-swapping community leaders together over rich porters, hoppy IPAs, and funky fare like a fried chicken sandwich with “Kool-Aid pickled” onions. The taproom’s worker-owned structure, meanwhile, is a forward-thinking model for how our revolutionary city could extend small-business entrepreneurship to all.
Bored by all those unchanging takeout menus on Grubhub? Get thee to Asta, where every day, chef Alex Crabb’s fine-dining background and playful spirit combine to reveal an entirely different to-go dish: Thursday’s duck confit with potato gratin zigs to Friday’s braised pork shank with eggplant caponata, which zags to Saturday’s beef stroganoff with broccoli slaw. When you need to get out of the house, though, you’ll find eclectic whims du jour on the dining room’s multicourse tasting menus—as well as a new vermouth-splashed sidewalk café, anchored by cheffed-up snacks like cherry clafoutis.
Back Bay, astaboston.com.
Brassica Kitchen + Café
Amid the double whammy of Boston’s still-sky-high rents and COVID-era business woes, it’s essential to protect the kind of brilliant indie restaurants that give the city energy and character—uncategorizable places such as Brassica, a spunky day-to-night operation where chefs Jeremy Kean and Phil Kruta push flavor, flavor, flavor in funky small(ish) plates. Uni-smeared bruschetta with extra-sweet gold tomatoes is the kind of bold, brilliant choice backed up by similarly exciting cocktails—including “From the Top,” which adds Moroccan spices to rye whiskey, pomegranate, and cacao.
Jamaica Plain, brassicakitchen.com.
Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen
The pandemic economy has had a particularly pummeling effect on Black-owned restaurants, which were already historically under-resourced in Boston. Enter Darryl’s owner Nia Grace, who this summer launched the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition to promote and advocate for the future of places like her beloved soul-food fixture. Darryl’s itself continues to evolve, adding a spacious new patio for digging into Cajun-style catfish or country-fried chicken wings with sweet peach chili, and even reimagining its legendary live jazz and blues program—see: the 10-hour-long virtual “Songs of Freedom” concert celebrating Juneteenth.
South End, dcbkboston.com.
His father may have turned China Pearl, Chinatown’s oldest still-operating restaurant, into what it is today, but Shōjō’s Brian Moy (pictured) represents the future of the (normally) neon-lit neighborhood. Though things are quieter downtown now, it hasn’t stopped the restaurant from giving us a taste of that vibrant urban energy via its funky street bites: think hot and crispy chicken wings with a makrut-lime-based “Buffalo” sauce, or silky duck-fat fries amped up with sriracha aioli or “kimcheese.” The place also satisfies our taste for sake, so until karaoke bars are back, take home a cup of Yuki Otoko Junmai’s “Abominable Snowman”—a woody, warming elixir for cooler nights—and pound those bombers around the kitchen table instead.
Can restaurant dining rooms stress safety without looking sterile? Absolutely—for proof, look no further than Italian-inspired charmer Pammy’s. Instead of Plexiglas table dividers to separate diners, husband-and-wife team Chris and Pam Willis hung from the ceiling molto-chic Palladian-style windows that were rescued from an old church, as well as industrial-cool, steel-trimmed panes. Their retouched trattoria’s updated look is more than skin-deep, though: After guests dine on exceptional plates such as house-made mafaldine with clams, and escabeche mussels bruschetta with saffron aioli—now offered in a prix-fixe format—they can purchase one of the gorgeous green plants that adorn the space, or take home loaner books from Pammy’s new “anti-racism library.”
Every wine bar talks about terroir, but today, the best new bottle houses are also interested in how small-scale vintners’ backstories and production methods inform taste and texture—as at Nathálie, with its distinct focus on natural, woman-produced wines. Even better, the patio-equipped Fenway space uncorks half-bottles, making it possible to explore the pear-like notes of an Aleatico and a tropical-tasting Grenache Blanc in one sitting. Chef Alex Bhojwani is equally thoughtful when it comes to sourcing ingredients for the restaurant’s vibrant berbere-, harissa-, and mint-laced small plates, even introducing diners to his purveyors in weekly “Meet the Maker” interviews on Instagram.
Jamaica Mi Hungry
In the months since the pandemic arrived, Jamaica Mi Hungry chef-owner Ernie Campbell has cooked thousands of meals for Common-Table, a citywide effort to feed economically vulnerable families. It’s no surprise, then, that the hospitality at his fast-casual restaurant in (where else?) Jamaica Plain is just as soul-warming as the spectacular jerk-spiced chicken and curry goat served there and from the food truck—painted in the green, black, and gold colors of Jamaica’s flag—parked outside Campbell’s forthcoming spot in Allston.
Jamaica Plain and Allston, jamaicamihungry.com.
This bright-shining beacon in Nubian Square offers just the right balance of southern-style comfort and chef-driven flair: Fish and corn fritters are enhanced with savory tahini-turmeric and sweet maple-and-citrus yogurt dipping sauces, respectively, while triple-fried chicken wings get the spicy Thai-chili treatment. The whole operation is a reflection of community-minded (and infinitely sunny) chef-owner Cheryl Straughter, who previously detoured into social work with Future Chefs, a Roxbury-based nonprofit, before opening Soleil in 2018. As winter moves in, expect soul-warming family-style assortments—say, smothered barbecue beef ribs or quarts of collard greens—to light up the longer nights ahead.
Post-pandemic, on-site dining may no longer be the main way that restaurants do business. For an early example, look at industry pacemaker Irene Li, who announced just before press time that she may never reopen the dining room at her Chinese-American eatery Mei Mei. Instead, she’s focusing on selling prepared foods; hosting virtual noodle-making and other classes; and bringing her signature dumplings to farmers’ markets. It’s the kind of adaptability that’s necessary to survive a brand-new dining era, and as usual, Li—a six-time James Beard award “Rising Star” nominee—is leading the way.
Craigie on Main
There’s been plenty of competition this year, but so far, acclaimed toque Tony Maws takes home the prize for most ingenious al fresco setup, having transformed a nearby parking lot into “Craigie Next Door,” a scrappy-sophisticated revision of his fine-dining restaurant that trades white tablecloths for a white tent trimmed in string lights. Family-style dinners such as spice-rubbed and roasted whole chicken taste just as good in takeout form, though, if you’d rather enjoy Maws’s chef-style home-cookery from the comfort of your own home.
Mike’s City Diner
Here’s one bonus to remote office work: We get to trade stale breakroom bagels for big—no, huge—breakfast platters at Mike’s, a landmark diner beloved for duck confit hash and oversize omelets. Once lunch rolls around, you’ll find two-handers like the “Pilgrim” sandwich (turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce), famously a favorite of Guy Fieri. The place has its own star, though, in very visible chef-owner Jay Hajj, who was recently featured on a Food Network special that raised money for restaurant relief, then returned to his native Beirut after August’s devastating explosion to cook meals for the now-homeless with chef-philanthropist José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen.
South End, mikescitydiner.com.
How’s this for a COVID-friendly restaurant experience? At Chris Chung’s Inman Square oasis, only one party at a time is served inside, making the chef’s nine- or 15-course omakase of sushi, sashimi, and Japanese-style small plates even more memorable. But even as takeout or delivery (ushered to your doorstep by Chung himself), all of the super-fresh presentations are stunning: Witness the recent “Surf & Turf” tasting—which involved buttery toro with miso ranch and fried garlic as well as Wagyu beef lardo with pickled hearts of palm—and à la carte dishes like Aloha State–inspired poke salads.