What to Eat and Drink in Boston

A Local’s Restaurant Guide

Earlier this year, when General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt announced his company’s plans to move its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Boston’s Fort Point Channel—the same waterway where outraged colonists once tossed their tea in a one-fingered salute to England—he defended his choice with the kind of backhanded compliment we relish. "The other thing I like about Boston," he said, "is that you have a chip on your shoulder. I love that."

And what does that have to do with food? The chip is everywhere—not just at Fenway Park—and you can’t talk about the current state of dining in the city without acknowledging that half of what we do is a reaction to our longstanding rep as the stodgy home of beans and cod. Foodies seek out what’s new and hot, urgent with memories of a time not so long ago (say, 1997) when just a handful of cutting-edge restaurants had managed to break the anti-hedonistic mold and John Mariani wrote a scathing takedown of our restaurant scene in GQ, titled "The Boston Glob."

How times have changed. Restaurants are opening at such a clip that even professional chef-trackers have a hard time keeping up. Some of these new entries are forgettable—driven more by a biotech-fed building boom that has flooded the city with first-floor retail/restaurant space than by any culinary mission. But many are fueled by passion and talent and a work ethic that would make Cotton Mather proud. We finally see ourselves as a legitimate food town. And so the chip shrinks, albeit slowly, which is why it’s becoming more acceptable to sing the praises of a bowl of Indian pudding from a restaurant that first opened in 1742, or a perfect plate of gnocchi in Sunday gravy from an 1875 stunner that looks like the place where Nonna and Nonno splurged for their 10th anniversary. This classic food was always good. But now we know that our history isn’t something to deny. It’s what makes us beautiful.

So welcome to Boston, circa 2016. Here are my 10 essential spots, whittled down with an eye to balancing the old and new, the upscale and the down-home. Taken together, they amount to a snapshot of how the city eats today. Yes, I could give you a list composed solely of farm-to-table/cold-brew coffee/emmer pasta/fancy doughnut joints. We have those, too. But the point is for you to leave the city feeling like you’ve eaten specifically here.

By Amy Traverso

[Photograph: Chris Anderson]

  • A Lobster Roll and Chowder at Neptune Oyster

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Let’s get this one out of the way: If you’re visiting Boston (or hosting guests from out of town), you need to hit two crucial coastal notes before you can stick a fork in your to-do list: clam chowder and a lobster roll. This tiny seafood eatery renders excellent versions of both, making the chowder to order with plump, briny Wellfleet clams and stuffing a buttery brioche bun with ample chunks of tail, claw, and knuckle meat, offering you the choice of mayo or butter dressing. And it does so in a charming bistro setting (subway tile, marble counters, red booths) in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy, which is ground zero for tourists looking for a little local flavor. Sadly, too much of that local flavor is still heavy on the oregano-rich red sauce, so this is a particularly great find on a narrow street not far from where the Prince Spaghetti commercial was filmed in 1969, and the Old North Church, where Paul Revere hung his lanterns. Chefs Daniel Karg and John Ross go way beyond the classics for those inclined, pairing seared scallops with Anjou pear butter, duck confit, and Maytag blue cheese and topping cornmeal johnnycakes with smoked trout and sturgeon caviar. Once your meal is finished, walk it off by exploring the North End, home to some of Boston’s most picturesque streets.

  • The Alsatian Pizza at Picco

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Don’t miss the chance to savor the sheer deliciousness of a crispy and pillowy crust—made chewier and notably tangy thanks to two days of cold fermentation—topped with sautéed onions, shallots, and garlic; crème fraîche; Gruyère; and, yes, bacon. There’s no excuse for such decadence, except that the Alsatians have been making variations on the dish (called tarte flambée or flammekueche) for a few hundred years, and they seem to be doing fine. Picco’s version is a smoky, creamy, sweet-tart sensation, and I could survive a lifetime of dieting if this was my Cheat Day treat.

    Picco’s owner, Rick Katz, has been a pastry chef for more than 30 years, and he brings a level of hovering attention to his dough that borders on helicopter parenting. Each weather cycle, each season, each new bag of flour requires adjustments. More time, more water, less heat. In all the years I’ve been eating his pies, I’ve never once found a soggy center or less-than-open crumb or inadequate rise around the sides. And, lest you indulge any conceits about wood-fired stone ovens being the only vehicles for truly great pizza, Picco employs a gas-fired Wood Stone with an infrared deck, allowing the pizza to be moved from the comparatively cooler zone to the hotter one for a final gilding of char around the edges. (Incidentally, Picco stands for Pizza and Ice Cream Company, and the dozen or so flavors, plus sorbet, are uniformly terrific.)

  • The Grilled Clams at Shepard

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    At her Cambridge bistro—perhaps the city’s most lauded new restaurant of 2015—Susan Regis may be serving charred kale and neo-chopped-liver like the cool kids, but, unlike them, she was there at the Boston dining revolution. She earned her stripes among a cohort of chefs who upended Boston’s conservative dining scene in the 1970s and ‘80s, first at Harvest in Cambridge (whose alumni include Chris Schlesinger, Barbara Lynch, and Frank McClelland) and then across the Charles at Seasons Restaurant at the Bostonian Hotel—a kitchen run by Jasper White and Lydia Shire, which begat Gordon Hamersley, Jody Adams, Tony Ambrose, and others. Regis was a Seasons grad who partnered with Shire to open Biba and Pignoli and spent years at the late, lamented Upstairs on the Square (where she won a Beard Award) before joining René Becker to open Shepard.

    On a quiet side street near Harvard Square, in a dining room whose neutral tones and minimalist-organic accents seem to have risen fully formed from a Dwell editor’s dream, Regis’s team turns out wood-fired food that underscores its seeming simplicity with unexpected accents. Ultra-creamy ricotta is infused with chamomile and honey and served on a rye cracker made from freshly milled local grain. But before things veer off into the precious, Regis knocks our socks off with a simple starter of grilled clams served with roasted garlic or cultured nasturtium butter, depending on the season. You taste smoke, brine, a bit of allium or spice, and that hit of rich fat. It feels good handing your appetite (and credit card) over to such capable hands, to eat your way through the seasons and see what the kitchen can pull off with such classics as clams and garlic, or such underappreciated "trash fish" as fluke, whose preparation ranges from a kelp-cured crudo with pickled plum to a large-format main with squid, burdock, and horseradish potatoes. In a city with such high rent costs, it’s rare to find food that feels so personal.

  • The Stuffed Pastas at Erbaluce

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Charles Draghi is a chef’s chef, the kind of guy whose idea of a vacation is to close the place down and revarnish the bar. He and partner Joan Johnson have been cooking and running restaurants around Boston for decades, notably Marcuccio’s in the North End, where he introduced modern Italian cooking to an old-school neighborhood and she kept the wise guys in line. But now, at this little spot on the edge of the theater district, he gets to do things his way.

    To wit: The wine list is entirely Italian. There are few fixed entrées, and therefore no online menu to browse, but the excellent carbonara, with a duck egg yolk nestled into perfectly al dente house-made bucatini, is too much of a fan favorite to disappear entirely, and a signature rack of wild boar roasted over walnut shells with a lavender-scented must—a dish at once richly meaty, herbal, and vinous—makes regular appearances. But every time I open the menu, I scan for the stuffed pastas: agnolotti filled with veal and rabbit ragù or pumpkin, pine nuts, and spices; pansotti with herbs and ricotta; raviolini with ricotta and truffled pecorino.

    Draghi’s family comes from Piemonte in northern Italy—he spent childhood summers there—and his stuffed pastas are some of his best creations, highlighting his love of fresh herbs and precise technique. There are other exceptional Italian restaurants in Boston—Barbara Lynch’s Sportello, SRV (a modern, Venetian-esque bacaro), Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s perpetually packed Coppa enoteca, and Giulia, a Cambridge hot spot where handmade pasta reigns supreme—but this gem, tucked behind a parking lot at the edge of Bay Village, feels like home. I’ve never had a bad meal here, and the warm welcome from the remarkably steady and long-serving staff feels entirely genuine. Also worth noting: The bar has its own moderately priced food and wine menu, which makes Erbaluce the kind of neighborhood restaurant that could tempt you to change neighborhoods.

  • An Orange Blossom Morning Bun at Sofra

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    A year before Yotam Ottolenghi shook up the London food scene with his first eponymous café, Ana Sortun was opening Boston’s eyes to the flavors of Turkey, Greece, Syria, and North Africa at her first restaurant, Oleana. At Sofra, she and pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick bring the same sensibility to a bakery/café format, serving meze, soups, salads, shawarmas, and some of the most inventive fusion pastries in the country. You can have your cronuts, New York (chip? What chip?). We’ll take our "Maureos" filled with baked halvah, tahini-infused doughnuts topped with salted-caramel ganache, and ethereal morning buns scented with orange-blossom water. (For that matter, keep in mind that Boston is a worthy pastry town: I’ll also take the famous sticky buns served at Joanne Chang’s Flour bakeries and the baked currant doughnuts at Clear Flour bakery in Brookline.) The only downside to all this greatness is that lines can be long and tables scarce, so be prepared to grab a box of pastries to go.

  • The Standard Punch at Yvonne’s

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Boston has long had a bifurcated—dare I say muddled—relationship with cocktails. Land of Puritans and the Rum Triangle, home to the temperance movement and the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, the city has taken some time to become a true cocktail town. But it has done so with aplomb, opening smart, ambitious bars at both ends of the spectrum: J.J. Foley’s Cafe, Drink, Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne. But the gravitational pull right now is squarely in the direction of Yvonne’s, the opulent "modern supper club" with a bar scene so hot you could almost forget the food, which would be a terrible idea. Under the direction of chefs Tom Berry and Juan Pedrosa, Yvonne’s presents a global feast, with small and large plates that run from pimento cheese–stuffed hush puppies to a massive plate of long-cooked pork short ribs on kimchi fried rice, topped with spicy sauce and crisp shallots.

    By all means, eat up when you’re here, but Yvonne’s is located on the site of the former Locke-Ober restaurant, where the Ward 8 cocktail was invented in 1898. There are two bars, one of which is decorated with books and portraits in the gentleman’s-club style, only these pictures are of JFK (a former Locke-Ober devotee) in tats and Bill Murray as the model of a modern major general in full military regalia. Beverage manager Will Thompson has designed an equally irreverent bar menu, a something-for-everyone tour that peaks, in my opinion, with four large-format punches. The Standard combines rye whiskey, oolong tea, raspberry, lemon, sage, and soda in a giant glass spigot jar. It’s as fun as a Scorpion Bowl: herbal, fruity, refreshing, and made for sharing. Tea and whiskey give a nod to local history, and the over-the-top garnishes—coconuts, edible orchids, and pineapple crowns—make drinking a glass feel like a party unto itself.

  • The Classic Jumbo With Bacon at Bagelsaurus

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Step up to the menu at this tiny Cambridge bakery, and, before you faint from the sticker shock ($25 for a baker’s dozen of bagels!?), let me share a little anecdote: A friend was recently in town from New York. She’s a successful food writer who lives on the Upper West Side, knows Jewish food like she knows her right hand, and happened to be staying around the corner from the bakery. I held my breath as she formulated her verdict. "These are," she said, "the best bagels I’ve had in my life."

    Owner Mary Ting Hyatt developed her recipes and her business slowly, starting with a weekly pop-up shop at Cutty’s, a superb sandwich shop in Brookline (it would’ve made this list had I been allowed an 11th spot), and establishing a rabid fan base before opening her own store. Her bagels take a full 24 hours to make, beginning with a decades-old sourdough starter and slowly fermenting before being boiled and baked into the chewy and shatteringly crisp wonders that they are. And when you combine, say, an everything bagel with an over-medium egg, Cabot cheddar, mustard butter, and bacon (optional, but really…), you have the greatest breakfast sandwich in town.

  • The Indian Pudding at Durgin-Park

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Oh yes, we’re going there. Indian pudding is a founding food. It is Yankee ingenuity in a bowl, an adaptive interpretation of the traditional British flour-based "hasty pudding," made with the ingredients available to a 17th-century wife (molasses, a cheap by-product of the rum trade, and cornmeal, or "Indian meal," as the Pilgrims called it). And, though we now live in an age of ample flour and sugar stores, it remains a dish you must savor at Durgin-Park, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, where the servers are sassy and the long tables are designed for old-fashioned communal dining. Sure, it’s located in the tourist magnet of Faneuil Hall, overrun with mall stores and ersatz Irish bars—and, John Durgin forgive us, the place was purchased by a national restaurant chain in 2007. But Indian pudding remains Durgin-Park’s calling card. It’s delicious, too: cozy, warm with spice and rich with molasses, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

  • The Sunday Gravy at The Marliave

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Scott Herritt got plenty of press when he took over The Marliave, a Boston landmark opened by French expats Clemence and Henry Marliave in 1875. For decades, it was the go-to spot for a band of politicians, artists, and Harvard swells, but it lost its way mid-century and eventually closed. Herritt brought the old dame back to life to great acclaim, but that was back in 2008, and the heat-seeking media coverage has mostly moved on. Meanwhile, Herritt has succeeded by consistently turning out worthy food in charmingly renovated rooms. He has a legacy to protect here, and he knows it.

    I love both the casual bar, with its antique mosaic tile floor and pressed-tin walls, and the more formal upstairs dining room, with a tight view of Province Street that erases all traces of post–Gilded Age progress—or seems to, if you fall under its spell. In any case, the same eclectic menu—Welsh rarebit, beef Wellington, osso buco, and a pastrami sandwich—is served in both rooms. There’s a Continental flair to the whole enterprise, and the vintage surrounds make this possible. I especially love the Sunday Gravy, a meaty ragù simmered over three days until the beef, lamb, and pork melt into the San Marzano tomatoes, girding up the wonderfully fluffy gnocchi with a hearty base.

  • The Classic Beef Pie at KO at the Shipyard

    [Photograph: Chris Anderson]

    Boston got in early on the Middle Eastern food craze, and now it appears we’re making headway with Australian food, thanks to two meat pie shops opened by Aussie expat Sam Jackson. This is my favorite summer restaurant destination, and I’ll admit that the food is just half the allure. The pies are deeply savory and flaky, terrific with a cold beer or cider and a side of spicy green beans. The rotating dessert menu sometimes includes an irresistible Eton mess. But the equal attraction here is the location, in a working shipyard in up-and-coming East Boston, with a million-dollar view of the city skyline—the best such vista of any restaurant in Boston. Better yet, the shipyard is also home to HarborArts, the city’s largest outdoor art exhibition. Walk past a series of nautically themed sculptures, murals, and installations to a long pier lined with pleasure craft and houseboats, take in the view, and smell the salt air. Add to that a communal outdoor dining area with a party vibe, good tunes, and cornhole games, and you’ve got a summer getaway right in the city.

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