Of course there’s a lobster roll on this list—and to start things off, no less. Without eating one, you could hardly say you’d been to Boston. But there are plenty of bad (and overpriced) rolls in the city, so caveat emptor. Fact is, a lobster roll is a study in simplicity, a sum-of-its-parts wonder, so each part must be perfect: the buttery griddled split-top bun, the sweet meat, the light hand with dressings and add-ins. And any unnecessary embellishments—brioche buns, tobiko, heirloom tomatoes, or (shudder) lettuce—are often just distractions from inferior meat.
The lobster roll at Row 34, located in an airy converted warehouse in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, is mercifully free of any unnecessary additions. Chef-owner Jeremy Sewall gets most of his meat from his cousin, Mark, who captains a boat out of Maine’s York Harbor, which means the lobster rolls are always sweet and fresh, and need absolutely no smoke screens. Whether you get your roll with mayo or hot butter, it’s always perfect. The restaurant’s proximity to the city’s finance and tech centers means there’s always a hopping bar scene, with a truly impressive beer program to match. And if you find yourself craving a roll after a Red Sox game, Row 34’s Kenmore Square sister restaurant, Island Creek Oyster Bar, makes its rolls with the same delicious meat, though they gussy them up a bit more with crème fraîche and a rosemary-scented bun.
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.
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 Katz will disabuse you of any notion that truly great pizza needs a wood-fired stone oven, as 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.
So pull up a chair and soak up the relaxed neighborhood vibe. In recent years, the South End has become a destination for young families, so no one will judge you if your toddler spills their milk while you enjoy your grown-up pie. (And if you bring your toddler, all the better; incidentally, Picco stands for Pizza and Ice Cream Company, and the dozen or so flavors, plus sorbet, are all terrific.)
Tony Messina won his 2019 "Best Chef: Northeast" award from the James Beard Foundation based on the poetry of his sashimi compositions at Back Bay’s UNI. Think of combinations like Spanish sea bass with green chermoula, sultanas, and preserved lemon, or kingfish with strawberry, wood sorrell, and cucumber. Elsewhere on the menu, there’s Kalbi-Braised Lobster with Kimchi Butter, and Thai-inspired Duck Carnitas. But I choose this most elemental dish—raw A5-grade wagyu beef presented (very, very, carefully) alongside a black rock heated to 600°F, a dish of salt, and sukiyaki sauce—because it's an experience, both primitive (raw meat, raw heat) and theatrical.
As with our aforementioned lobster rolls, this dish is entirely dependent on the quality of the product, which, in this case, is the most buttery cut of beef you’ll ever let melt on your tongue. After eight seconds on the stone, the beef releases a brown butter aroma and, on first bite, resembles foie gras in its richness. In a world where upscale fast-casual is the dominant trend, the simple decadence of this dish combined with the luxe midcentury-Japanese surroundings, is a perfect counterpoint.
Boston loves its academics, and we especially love stories of brainy types who go into the restaurant business (see also: Joanne Chang). JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau began their careers as filmmakers and architects, respectively, and Celeste is an extension of the pop-up restaurant they began hosting in their Cambridge home in 1993. The small 24-seater retains an intimate, homey feel, only much cooler, all white walls and pops of color (one piece of art is the film poster for Calderón’s latest work, Amores Gatos, which Rondeau produced).
The food is inspired by the dishes Calderón learned from his mother, so you’ll find excellent versions of Peruvian classics like causa, a potato terrine; Chinese–Peruvian fusion (also known as Chifa) fare, like garlic prawns and the national dish lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry with onions and tomatoes. But I especially love the vivid flavors of the ceviche mixto, with its mix of salt, acid, heat, sweet potatoes, and a little bit of fat from toasted corn. The marinade is bright with aji amarillo chilies and vibrant with citrus and salt; it's a dish that sets the mood for the entire meal.
Michael and Den Duan came to America with dreams of life on the opera stage, but in time, they decided to open a restaurant just outside Boston, in Brookline, instead. Then, as in many family businesses, their son, Ran, stepped up to take it into the next generation. Ran took all that creative momentum and turned it toward the cocktail program—first at the family’s second Sichuan Garden restaurant in Woburn, where he developed a restaurant-within-a-restaurant called Baldwin Bar, and, later, at the original Brookline location, where Sichuan Garden was given a complete overhaul and reopened as Blossom Bar, with a modern tiki bar vibe and soft tropical colors. Just try to feel gloomy in a room like this.
Ran’s cocktail artistry has since earned raves from the local press, as well as Esquire, GQ, Food & Wine, and a number of others. And, along with other star mixologists like Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne and Naomi Levy of Better Sports Social Club, he’s helped make Boston an unquestioned destination for cocktails. The Gloria, a cocktail developed by bar manager Will Isaza, won the East Coast division at the 2019 national Legacy Cocktail competition, and it’s a potent blend of aged rum, passionfruit, lime, cinnamon, coffee, and mascarpone. It may sound heavy, but restraint wins the day, and the tropical exuberance of this drink is just the warmth we need to get through Boston’s seemingly endless winters.
Step up to the menu at this tiny Cambridge bakery, and, before you faint from sticker shock ($24 for a baker’s dozen bagels!?), here’s an anecdote: A friend who splits her time between New York’s Upper West Side and Tel Aviv was in town for a visit. She’s a successful food writer, an expert on Jewish food, 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 in Brookline, eventually establishing a rabid fan base there before opening her own store. The long lines are a testament to her success, so do what the locals do and call in your order (weekdays only) rather than fighting for the handful of tables. Hyatt’s bagels take a full 24 hours to make: a decades-old sourdough starter kicks off the slow process of fermentation and they're finished up by 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 not really), you have the greatest breakfast sandwich in town, even better with a cup of La Colombe coffee.
Union Oyster House
Boston is a great oyster town, but no place has patina like this. The Union Oyster House is Boston’s oldest oyster house and is actually the oldest American restaurant in continuous service; as a matter of fact, as you slurp down your Cotuits, Wellfleets, or Duxburys, you’ll be in view of John F. Kennedy’s favorite booth (number 18). Around 1775, this building served as headquarters for Ebenezer Hancock, paymaster of the Continental Army. And at this very oyster bar, Daniel Webster drank his daily brandy and water. The decor hasn’t changed too much since then, which is just how we like it.
The restaurant’s location, between Faneuil Hall and the North End, makes it a natural stop for tourists, but it’s easy for locals to forget the charms of this nearly 200-year-old operation. We could all follow Webster’s lead and enjoy a drink and some freshly shucked bivalves, usually a mix of East and West Coast varieties varying in their balance of sweetness and brine. Or take another bite out of history and get the oysters Rockefeller, that late-19th-century recipe in which the oysters are blanketed with a buttery, herbaceous stuffing.
Tony Maws is another Beard-winning chef whose fine-dining restaurant, Craigie on Main, has been a favorite of the Cambridge intelligentsia since it opened in 2008. At Craigie on Main, Maws delivers on both his love of precise French technique and his commitment to local sourcing, so when he developed a burger for the adjacent bar menu, it was made with a blend of local grass-fed beef cuts and never boasted a tomato slice out of season. Due to the limits of the grass-fed beef supply at that time, he made just 18 of them a day.
The burger developed a cult following, made more zealous by the burger's scarcity. So imagine our joy when Maws, along with his partners, Michael Leviton and Nick Zappia, opened an all-burger bar inside the bustling Time Out Market, a massive, airy food hall near Fenway Park where some of the city’s top chefs are turning out fast-casual variations on their signature dishes. Craigie Burger’s menu lists just three burgers, plus a burger bowl and fries, but they're all fantastic and they don’t run out. I’m partial to the "O.G." version, with its custom-made sesame seed bun, tangy slices of Cheddar cheese, and house-made ketchup. For the patty itself, the beef is sustainably raised, then custom blended, ground, and griddled. It has a buttery juiciness that few burgers can match.
Chef/owner Tiffani Faison is a star of the Boston dining scene. Or, more precisely, she’s a sun, big and bright and drawing others into her orbit. Her early adoption of West Fenway, with the 2011 opening of her Sweet Cheeks barbecue joint, established the neighborhood as a dining destination. Now, with her fourth restaurant, Orfano, just a couple of doors down from the others, Faison is serving modern Italian–American fare with her signature mix of irreverence toward the form and when-it-counts seriousness towards the food.
Longtime fans will remember that she first made her mark with Ligurian-Italian cuisine at Rocca, and it’s great to find her back in the world of hand-rolled gnocchi and salumi. But at this restaurant, with its grown-up, modern-steakhouse vibe, Faison serves a mix of prime cuts and nonna’s classics, treating the piccatas and parms of the world with the utmost respect. In the latter case, the Pig Parmesan is a heritage breed pork chop pounded thin, then stuffed with mozzarella and served alla marinara. It’s familiar but fresh, a combination that stands out in a string of winners.
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, in the less-talked-about neighborhood of West Cambridge, 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 in a compact, colorful space stocked with top-notch spices, halvas, jams, oils, and other Middle Eastern pantry essentials. (Tables can be hard to come by, so arrive early.)
Don’t miss the "Maureos" filled with baked halvah, tahini-infused doughnuts topped with salted-caramel ganache, and ethereal morning buns scented with orange-blossom water. (Speaking of outstanding baked goods, keep in mind that Boston is a worthy pastry town: I also highly recommend the famous sticky buns served at Joanne Chang’s Flour bakeries and the baked currant doughnuts at Clear Flour bakery in Brookline.)