Boston

A Chefs' Guide to Eating Out in Boston

Published: Last Updated:

Boston is a city often described as old-school, traditionalist—puritanical, even. But Beantown’s hospitality insiders want you to know there’s much more forward-thinking food and drink here than the city gets credit for. Whether you’re craving pristine fish in a gorgeous plate of sashimi (or in a South American–style ceviche), searching for the perfect burger, or seeking out an excellent loaf of naturally leavened bread, you’ll find it in Boston.

An elevated drinking scene has exploded in recent years, too, featuring frozen craft tiki drinks, natural rosé served in a self-described feminist wine bar, and pre-Prohibition-era drinks remixed by cocktail nerds—it’s all here. And to accompany those sips, Boston has its share of unique late-night eats. Choose between savory duck tongues in Chinatown and crunchy, cheesy cabbage-topped nachos in Cambridge, then wake up (late) the next morning and start your day off with brunch at a modern Jewish deli, or an industry-wide chicken-and-waffles party where everyone (well, everyone who can ditch work on a Monday at noon) is invited.

To round up some of Boston’s best spots to eat and drink—both on and off the beaten path—we asked some of its best chefs what a visitor absolutely has to eat in their city. Do you know how many said clam chowder? Lobster rolls? Baked beans? Zip, zero, nada. But Trinidadian doubles and anadama English muffins? Those got them excited.

We talked to tastemakers from a spread of neighborhoods, with a range of specialties: Douglass Williams, chef-owner of Mida; Irene Li, chef-owner of Mei Mei; Jeremy Sewall, chef-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34; Tiffani Faison, chef-owner of Sweet Cheeks Q, Tiger Mama, Orfano, and Fool’s Errand; Josh Lewin, chef-owner of Juliet and Peregrine; and sommelier-owner Lauren Friel of Rebel Rebel wine bar.

Here’s their expert take on where to eat and drink in Boston right now.

This article was created by the Serious Eats editorial team and brought to you by Capital One®. Capital One has had no involvement in any editorial aspect of the production of this content.

Best Late-Night Eats

“Late” is a relative term here in Boston. No, the bars don’t stay open until 4 a.m., like in New York, but if you’re seeking the perfect midnight snack, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Options run the gamut from a flavorful, hearty green salad to ginger-scallion lobster to classic queso dip.

  • Peach Farm

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Full confession: I don't really eat late at night anymore, but if I do, I'm at Peach Farm Chinatown. It’s got just about zero ambience, but it’s all about the food, and there’s no better way to describe my love for this late-night spot.

    Debbie, a longtime server at Peach Farm, along with her fellow staff, are always so on point every time my wife and I visit. They know what we like to order and never fail to make us feel right at home. We always get the duck tongue, which comes drenched in a more nuanced, slightly spicier version of General Tso’s sauce. We usually get the (off-menu) sesame noodles, too, because they're so umami-laden—but also sweet and crunchy, with tons of nutty sesame flavor from the seeds. Depending on how spendy we’re feeling, we’ll get the ginger-scallion lobster as well.

    Back to Top

  • The Franklin Cafe

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    The Franklin Cafe in the South End is primarily an industry bar and late-night spot, so there’s a camaraderie there; plus, it’s pretty fun to meet tourists who happen to walk in and wonder what they’ve just discovered. It’s a neighborhood bistro, and the great bartenders hustle and get it done.

    When I come from the buzz of my own kitchen, and walk beyond the curtains of The Franklin after leaving the frantic energy of my own restaurant, it’s kind of calming to watch the circus and not actually be in the circus. The restaurant is dark and has a lot of shadows, highlighted by big red banquettes to sink into. I find myself just sitting in a banquette, enjoying the food and the company, and watching the theater of it all.

    I recently went back after a long time, and, honestly, the food was as stunningly good as I remembered. I ordered a bitter-greens salad, not expecting much so late at night, and it was well seasoned. You know, like somebody paid attention to it; like somebody had love for it. The thing is, when you serve endives, and watercress, and sharper vegetables like that, you have to balance them very well with flavors like sugar, acid, and oil. You can't just throw everything together and be like, “Here you go.” And this salad had all those flavors, and was so good. You know how when you have a surprising dinner, it just uplifts you? That's how it always feels at The Franklin.

    Back to Top

  • Lone Star Taco Bar

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Lone Star Taco Bar, in Cambridge, feels like my second home at this point—it’s super low-key, with warm wood everywhere and an obligatory buffalo-head mount on the wall.

    What I order depends on how much drinking has already been done that evening. If it's an after-work visit, I'm probably pretty hungry. I love the Victory Club nachos that they do; they're a little bit fresher than your usual late-night nachos, which I appreciate. They put a ton of cabbage slaw on there, which is nice—I'm a sucker for cabbage. And then I usually get one of their beer-battered Baja fish tacos, also featuring cabbage, plus a mango-habanero aioli.

    If it’s more of an “I've been out partying and it's a last-stop-before-home” thing, then usually there's an order of queso with chips thrown in there, too, just for good measure.

    Back to Top

Best Drinks

There are plenty of Irish pubs and worthy dives around town, but if you want to experience the latest and greatest in Boston’s cocktail scene, these chefs have you covered.

  • Blossom Bar

    Photograph: Courtesy of Blossom Bar

    For drinks, I would have to recommend Blossom Bar in Brookline. Going there feels a little bit like stepping into a garden—they have huge cacti and a really cool minty color scheme, and I love the all-purple bathrooms.

    I’ve definitely drunk my way through the entire menu at Blossom Bar, and my personal favorite drink right now is called Duan’s Whip—I think the name might have to do with how much the owner, Ran Duan, loves cars. The drink itself is like a Dole Whip, with pineapple soft-serve in it. And, of course, it's perfect with the Sichuan food the restaurant serves, which is really spicy and heavily seasoned. You need a drink that can kind of keep up with those big flavors.

    Speaking of the food, I love the Chongqing dry hot chicken and the fei tang fish stew they make. Now, any time I eat super-spicy food out and there's not an amazing tiki cocktail to go with it, I'm really disappointed.

    Back to Top

  • Backbar

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Particularly on a weeknight, Backbar is a great place to go with my partner and hang in a very dark room with a chill, romantic vibe. What I love about going here is that it's not just a neighborhood spot; it's a world-class spot that, luckily, happens to be in our neighborhood. The bartenders are super-nerds, which I really love, because I myself am a super-nerd about wine.

    Though I don’t pretend to know as much about cocktails as the people at Backbar do, I really don't think you can go wrong just ordering straight off the cocktail menu. It's always changing, in seasonal shifts, which is fun. But other than ordering off the menu, the bartenders can make up incredible custom drinks on the spot.

    I like to go in and say, “I want gin, and I want it to be fresh,” or “I want Privateer rum, and I want the drink to be tiki-style,” and just let them do their thing. They’re not just like, “Here's our Painkiller." They’re like, “Let me tell you about what I made for you and why, and the history of the cocktail. Is the drink from pre-Prohibition? Did I make it up? Is it a riff on something else?” So, they'll build it and give you the whole history, and I think that’s really cool.

    Back to Top

  • Rebel Rebel

    Photograph: Ella Rinaldo

    Rebel Rebel is kind of the front door to Bow Market, this new and hip development in Somerville. It’s a natural-wine bar, and my favorite for drinks. Everyone will tell you, "Oh, it's a small bar." But nothing really prepares you for walking in—then you’ve basically seen the whole thing, with the glowing neon and the prominent messaging. It almost looks like a little retail wine shop, the way that the storage is laid out, where you have the shelves going up to the ceiling and chalk-marked prices on the bottles. This is because the selection of wines changes so often that there's not really a wine list.

    Then you kind of fall into a conversation with the server about what you like about wine and what you don't like. It's an invitation that you can't say no to, because otherwise you can't get a drink. So you're almost automatically learning as soon as you step in the door. There are no anonymous experiences at Rebel Rebel.

    Part of the fun of going there for a drink, for me, is not to be at the bar drinking, but to actually be learning, whether about a new producer, or new winemaking methods, or whatever it is. I can go there one day after another and learn something completely new each time.

    Back to Top

Best Brunch

Most chefs shudder at the thought of working a brunch shift, but they sure know how to appreciate a good morning meal. These spots have three things in common: eye-opening cocktails, carbs aplenty, and a vibe worth getting out of bed for.

  • Mamaleh's

    Photograph: Courtesy of Mamaleh's

    The best weekend brunch, for me, would have to be at Mamaleh's, a modern Jewish deli in Kendall Square. When I was growing up in Brookline, my family used to go to B&D Deli, another excellent and similar place that's now closed, and I think that was my introduction to meat- or vegetable-stuffed knishes and beef-tongue sandwiches and all that good stuff. And my dad actually grew up eating tons of Jewish food in New York City, so that's always been a nostalgic cuisine for us. But beyond being familiar and comforting, it also turns out that the food at Mamaleh's is really, really good, and made with a lot of care and love.

    You can have a composed meal from the menu, or you can just order a bunch of stuff at the deli, and no one will judge you if you want to eat a pint of whitefish salad for breakfast. I really love the house-cured lox that they do, and the blintzes—which are crispy and tender at the same time, and sweet, and creamy, and just so good. Growing up, I was not into cheese and fruit together, but now I am converted. The raspberry jam that goes on top is just the most perfect thing.

    Back to Top

  • Trina's Starlite Lounge

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    The brunch at Trina's, in Somerville, is pretty epic, and they do an industry brunch every Monday. It’s perfect if I’m looking for an enormous Bloody Mary, and also every other person in the industry who I maybe do or don't want to see, depending on how my weekend has been. Trina’s food is awesome and classic, and the whole place has a super-diner-y vibe. It’s like a greasy spoon, but one that uses incredible ingredients—which I love, because that's my jam.

    The chicken and waffles is always a great option, with crispy fried chicken, buttermilk waffles, and a hot-pepper syrup. But more than anything, you go to Trina’s for the vibe. It feels like your community. It feels like you're there with a hundred friends and family.

    Back to Top

  • Bar Mezzana

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Bar Mezzana’s exterior has a very urban feel, matching the surroundings in the Ink Block neighborhood. But when you walk in, the space is inviting and relaxed, with an open kitchen, white tile, and soft blue colors. I think they do a really cool brunch, because it's not traditional—it’s not what you would expect for brunch. There’s granola and yogurt, and Nutella doughnuts, but then they phase into some Italian brunch-y stuff, with pastas, frittata, and an amazing mortadella sandwich. They also have a very good burger. Great food, great cocktails, great bar.

    Bar Mezzana definitely feels like a personal restaurant to the owners, Heather and Colin Lynch. It's a place that fits in the neighborhood, and seems like it's been there for a while, even though it’s based in a relatively new building. The restaurant sits at the crossroads of a couple of different great neighborhoods, so you feel like you can walk to South Boston, but you're kind of in the South End. There’s definitely a little bit of a gravitational pull down there.

    Back to Top

Best Splurge

Working in restaurants makes you extra discerning about how and where you spend your hard-earned cash and precious nights off. For a special night out, here’s where those in the know go.

  • Cafe Sushi

    Photograph: Courtesy of Cafe Sushi

    For our special occasions, my family's always going to Cafe Sushi on the outskirts of Harvard Square. To be honest, I miss the old-school carpet and weird hotel-lobby furniture the restaurant used to have, but they recently underwent a renovation, and now it’s just a beautiful, comfortable space. In particular, I love the light wood, the tile, and the shibori accents, which make the restaurant feel super sleek without being overly precious or fancy—just like the food.

    One of the really cool things about this place is that it can be a splurge, or it can be lunch for under $20. There's enough on the menu there that if you're with someone who doesn't really want to eat sushi, they can still have a really interesting meal. For example, they serve a phenomenal tofu steak with miso sauce, and a pickle plate that's really, really delicious. There’s also a whole section of the menu featuring just fish heads and cheeks, and that’s really fun.

    We always just go to Cafe Sushi and tell the server, “Give us whatever you're most excited about—that's the dish we want!” I would put my life in their hands when it comes to fish. And my brother-in-law, who now lives in North Carolina, comes to the restaurant multiple times when he's in town, because there are just so many different ways you can experience the place: with the preset dinner menu, or the à la carte menu, or the casual lunch.

    Back to Top

  • Asta

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    I get excited about Asta because Chef Alex Crabb's food is different from anything else in Boston. He's not cooking based on trends; he's not trying to do exactly what he thinks people want to eat. Instead, he wants to cook food that he wants to cook, and you have to go in there for that experience. Alex takes the best New England ingredients and creates menus that use global cooking methods. Right now, the menu has a pumpkin vine cold tomato soup, and nectarines with chantilly cream and fig-leaf oil.

    If you're looking for a steak, a grilled piece of fish, or something else traditional, you're not going to find it at Asta. The restaurant serves tasting menus only, except on the weekends, when there might be fried chicken for lunch (which is amazing, by the way). It is just really an extension of Alex Crabb and Shish Parsigian, Alex’s partner, who runs the front of the house. It’s one of a kind, with a funky feel to it, and Alex and Shish have just done an amazing job.

    The experience of walking into Asta is as unique as the menu. Brick flows from the exterior to the interior with little splashes of color, and flowers break up the clean, hard surfaces. The kitchen is right in the dining room, and so you're kind of watching everything unfold as you eat. There's a silverware drawer that you open to take out your silverware at your seat. The wine list is really interesting and really fun. And the space is small and intimate. Boston needs more restaurants like this.

    Back to Top

  • Zuma

    Photograph: Courtesy of Zuma

    When we're not cooking at home, my wife and I like to tuck into places where we can just stay awhile and enjoy ourselves. Zuma is a new sushi restaurant at the Four Seasons in Back Bay, that's just a really nice place to sit and take our time. That's what we're looking for over anything else: a place where we can relax and spend time together. It’s a place where you can just sink in and not be bothered by anyone.

    We went for the first time to the Zuma in Rome, actually. We were on an Italian extravaganza for a few weeks, and so we just wanted some sushi, to get a break from Italian food. So we went to Zuma and were blown away, and, luckily for us, now the restaurant’s opened in Boston. Most of our selection there is from the sushi bar. The fish is great, nice and clean, and there’s a very good wine list.

    Back to Top

  • Bondir

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Walking into Bondir is truly like walking into someone's home. You hear this a lot, and it generally references some sort of very purposeful curation, or an attempt at hominess, but at Bondir it just feels shockingly natural. You walk inside, past the fireplace, where a hunk of meat is usually roasting, and it kind of casts a spell. The menu can be so different from day to day, depending on the market, but the one thing you can always count on—and should be careful not to overlook—is the delicious breads. They are often naturally leavened and made with locally harvested or ground grains. You can’t go wrong with any iteration of bread at Bondir.

    I think Chef Jason Bond is one of the pioneers of ingredient-focused cooking. The menu item might read "rye, broccoli, and eggs." Period. You kind of leave yourself in the cook's hands to take each of those ingredients at the peak of its season and then—either through classic or more modern-leaning techniques—present them to you in the perfect way, which could be broccoli and egg yolk with bacon pasta.

    There is such far-ranging inspiration for the cooking at Bondir. So you may have Chinese- or Japanese-inspired food in one dish, and, even on the same night, by the time you get to dessert, it may be French-influenced or Southern American–influenced cooking.

    Back to Top

Can't-Miss Bites

This one’s not an easy choice for a chef: We asked them to choose the single dish that a visitor must eat before leaving Boston. The unifying trend was decidedly un-fancy comfort cuisine—food that wraps them in a warm embrace, and that they keep coming back for.

  • Anadama English Muffin at Vinal Bakery

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    I love Vinal Bakery—it’s so bright and cheery, just like its owner, Sarah Murphy. It’s small and white-tiled, with a pop of seafoam-green wood. And at the bakery, there are a lot of fresh takes on classic New England recipes. For example, Sarah makes brown bread muffins, brown-butter snickerdoodle cookies, and anadama English muffins. These are in the style of classic New England anadama bread, which is slightly sweet, with molasses and cornmeal.

    What I love most about Sarah’s English muffins is that they're puffy—super, super, super puffy—and they're soft and delicate and warming. But they're not greasy. I don't know how Sarah does it. They're so airy and flavorful, and I love them with just a crap-ton of butter. If you're visiting Boston, you can take the muffins home with you, because Vinal sells them in four-packs. Bring them home to your friends and family, and be a total hero.

    Back to Top

  • Doubles at Singh’s Roti Shop

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    There's a place in Dorchester, on Columbia, called Singh's Roti Shop, which is half record store, half Trinidadian food shop. They do really traditional Trinidadian doubles, one of my favorite things to eat in the city.

    The dish is essentially two fried-dough patties made to order—kind of similar to the elephant ears you would get at a street fair or a carnival, but savory instead of with sugar on the outside. They’re really soft and pliable and have a nice, beautiful texture to them. And then in the middle is a channa masala burger, made of curried chickpeas stewed forever. A tamarind chutney goes on top, and a really, really spicy pepper chutney. It's super delicious, and messy as all hell. You’re definitely not going to a meeting afterward, or anywhere that you need to be seen in public.

    Back to Top

  • Chicken Sandwich at Brassica Kitchen + Cafe

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    Since it’s so close to my house, I love walking over to Brassica Kitchen + Cafe for breakfast or lunch. Inside the restaurant, there’s a lot of wood, a lot of texture, and you can see there is a lot of love in that wood. The place is warm and embracing, creating a natural hospitable feeling, and the front-of-house staff is always so chipper! And in addition to the warm vibe, there is so much attention to detail, from the beautiful pottery to the flatware. Somehow they make it all work. The tables are cozily close, so you lean into one another and dig into the food. I love everything about this place, from the food to the vibe to the thoughtful details to the hospitality.

    The fried chicken sandwich at Brassica is my favorite. It has pickled green tomatoes, local honey, and homemade hot sauce, between slices of homemade brioche. Plus, just about any vegetable item they have on their menu is mind-blowing—all of the food has so much umami and deep flavor. I think Brassica is the most underrated restaurant in all of Boston. They just really give a shit about what they do, and that makes the food super, super good. With well-done preparations and some obvious higher-end technique, the menu here doesn't come across as too precious—it just comes across as delicious.

    Back to Top

  • Ceviche at BISq

    Photograph: Brian Samuels

    BISq tells you what it’s all about at your very first glance. To enter, you have to move past a collection of wine bottles from around the world, displayed, labels out, like a collection of prized heirlooms. Then you walk in and see the kitchen at work, helmed by Chef Alex Saenz; the food is all about his carefully selected, eclectic small plates, and the perfect wine to go with it.

    Ceviche is not a longtime Boston tradition, but it's an honorary tradition that’s been adopted here over the years. Saenz's ceviche, which rotates seasonally but thankfully now seems to be always around, is a barely updated version of the classic. Right now it has local scallops, celery, and ají amarillo. The balance of the acid from the tiger’s milk, a Peruvian-style citrusy marinade, and crunchy quinoa is like a poetic reference to the chef’s South American roots.

    In Chef Alex, you have a cook who's not sharing ceviche just because of the moment it’s having in Boston, and the great ingredients available for it—which, to me, is a good enough reason. You actually have somebody who's sharing a piece of himself with the city that he's adopted.

    Back to Top

Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

Show 2 Comments