For decades praises for Boston’s food scene have tended to be backhanded digs. People pretended to be surprised to learn that Cambridge was once home to Julia Child’s televised kitchen. Or condescended to a bowl of gloppy clam chow-dah. But these gestures were mostly halfhearted. Much of the cruel avenues of the Internet considered Boston a second-rate food city. But in recent years Boston’s food scene has shattered those outdated conceptions.
If you want to test the culinary strength of Boston’s food scene, measure the force of its chefs. A number of Boston-based chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs have been awarded or nominated for a James Beard Award. This includes chefs Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park), Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette (Coppa, Toro), and baker Joanne Chang (Flour Bakery + Cafe).
Also Boston’s? Top Chef celebrities Kristen Kish, Tiffani Faison, Carl Dooley, and Michael Schlow. Tony Maws (Craigie on Main) was named one of America’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine.
Consider, too, the undercurrents of Boston’s food scene. There is nothing forgettable about Loyal Nine’s glorious experiments on Colonial food. Known for its “East Coast Revival” cuisine, the restaurant’s historically inspired menu reimagines Colonial suppers of forgotten crustaceans and salt-pork casseroles.
This guide to Boston’s food scene will nudge you toward all the little shops and restaurant empires you need to know about, whose foods are so delicious, so complex, that their flavors will pull you deep into bliss. You’ll walk away from the experience feeling rattled, exhilarated, lucky-giddy happy. Your first thought will be, can I do it again, will there be more?
Boston, more than a city, is a universe of offerings. That’s why we’ve mapped out the most fashionable and ambitious neighborhoods of Boston eats—so you can get blissed out in food and avoid getting suckered like a tourist.
The North End is where you’ll find not only the Freedom Trail but also the cannoli trail to sugar-dusted Sicilian pastries filled with ricotta cheese. Be warned that there is a war between Mike’s Pastry, Modern Pastry, and Maria’s Pastry Shop for the title of top cannoli. Please, do go—there is nothing more magnetic than an aproned baker batting a spool of cotton string and tying a bow around a box of pastel-colored sweets. For dinner, there are plenty of Italian restaurants dotting the North End to choose from. Go to the North Square Oyster for its tender rigatoni with a lobster and oxtail bolognese.
Boston’s miniature Chinatown offers plenty of bare-bones, faded shops. But you’ll never be on the fence with its restaurants. The food is exquisite, masterfully done, and cheap. Hike up Beach Street, so busy and crowded with noises and scents that you’ll want to stop to peek at the live fish and chickens. Saunter over to Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant for a joyful morning of dim sum. There’s also Gourmet Dumpling House and Taiwan Cafe. As with any good story of overeating, you’ll need a break: stroll the seven minutes to Downtown Crossing and get some hand-pulled Xi’an noodles from Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe. The Sichuan peppercorns will gently numb your lips. For dinner, try Haley.Henry’s Portuguese tinned smoked eels or octopus.
One of the most beautiful spaces in the city is the Seaport District. Once a muddy, water-clogged spot in the Boston Harbor, the place has been turned into a complex development project set with avenues of glass towers. There’s huge cultural value to visiting Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, a glassy Tetris block on the edge of the Boston Harbor. Afterward, head to KO Catering & Pies, where it’s all about savory Australian-style meat pies. Or go to Boston food scene’s acclaimed (but pricy) O Ya for sushi, described by Eater as “an expression of harmony, and [an] elegant redirection of Japanese cuisine.”
Do you find it tough to step out of the shadowy bars where Paul Revere, and other Sons of Liberty, once crawled? Well, get ready to step into the light, into the Back Bay that is. If you’re a novice to the neighborhood, be forewarned that many of the designer shops are for self-replenishing wallets. If you can’t afford a beautifully tailored suit from Newbury Street, you can get realms of pleasure from Ken Oringer’s restaurant Uni for immaculate sushi.
The beating heart of Boston’s most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods is the South End. Its brick row houses were once synonymous with crime and poverty, but now the neighborhood is hip with artists, reports Time. It has been touched by an expanding seafood-boil food scene, too. There’s nothing bland about the Cajun-seasoned crawfish and po’ boys at Bootleg Special. If you want a transcendent experience, try Barbara Lynch’s Butcher Shop or B&G Oysters.
Across the Charles River—just a hop and a Red Line subway away—is Cambridge, a playground of inventive food, buttoned-up institutions, arty bookstores, music venues, and cafes. Take in an early morning view of the Frank Gehry-designed structure at the M.I.T. Stata Center (imagine blocky shapes scrawled by a child, set loose as steel and brushed aluminum). Then jump into eater mode at Clover Food Lab for a blood-orange soda and chickpea sandwich. If you want a memorable experience of seasonal ingredients, reserve a table at The Table at Season to Taste, run by Top Chef alum Carl Dooley. For a giant bowl of ramen, go to Yume Wo Katare; for housemade pasta, Giulia.
These trends represent everything that we love about the genius of the Boston food scene. You’ll love the restaurants, too. If you pause to snap photos at these places, know that the person sitting across from you is likely going to pluck something off of your plate. Do yourself a favor: lift the plate to your face, elbows out, and don’t let your eyes roam from your meal, lest it disappear.
Forget stir-fries lubricated in goop, a sadness for eaters. On any given night in Boston, you can ride that briny, soy-and-ginger rush that you’ve been dreaming about. Of course, much of the scaffolding of Boston’s Asian-fusion food scene was built by legend Ming Tsai (Blue Dragon). It used to be that you had to go directly to him to get your fix. But that was eighteen years ago and Boston is a brave new world. If you want to bask in a style of Asian fusion that’s native to the skinny-jeaned people, go to Myers + Chang, which offers the flavors of Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and beyond, against an indie-rock soundtrack. There’s also Shojo, Mei Mei, Night Market, Sa Pa (they cater, too), and Tiffani Faison’s “scary pretty” food (think short-rib crudo) at Tiger Mama.
Bostonians don’t order sushi irresponsibly. They order very soft ribbons of pale pink, cream, or ruby fish that practically glow on the plate. There’s no shortage of seafood in Boston, and if you don’t mind having your wallet squeezed for extraordinary sushi, go to O Ya or Uni, two of Boston’s finest sushi restaurants. For a joyful and affordable treat, go to Cafe Sushi. Can’t have raw fish? Plunk down at Waypoint for cooked seafood.
Boston’s food scene is no mere church for tradition. Its chefs have been quietly perfecting modern New England food. Café du Pays serves vividly flavored French-Canadian food with a touch of bling: New England fare like New England cheese and oysters. Loyal Nine, called “one of the most interesting restaurants in the city” by Boston Globe, has a magical way of making you consider what Colonial America would have eaten today had its people desired stylish fare and unique cocktails. Indulge in Massachusetts Oysters dressed in elderflower vinegar, crispy fried soldier beans, or fried oysters and chicken legs with cured egg yolks.
If the rebellious part of you wants to indulge in parts of the animal that are usually thrown in the trash, try Boston food scene’s modern-French restaurant Craigie on Main. There, dare to live a little—ask your server to present the table with a crisped, lacquered pig’s head, sawed in half, for delicate tacos. Be guided by Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa), a James Beard Award winner, who builds menus around nose-to-tail organ parts.
There is an odd magic at work in Boston, where the food increasingly grows rich as its culinary scene becomes diverse. For non-European flavors, go to La Brasa, Blue Dragon, and Flour Bakery + Cafe, suggests Thrillist. If you want to champion the female chefs of Boston’s food scene, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. After all, this is the city that gave rise to No. 9 Park’s Barbara Lynch, who in 2014 won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, a title almost always won by men. There’s also chefs Ana Sortun (Oleana), Cassie Piuma (Sarma), Maura Kilpatrick (Sofra Bakery and Cafe), and Top Chef alum Karen Akunowicz (Myers + Chang). Well done, peeps of the Boston food scene!
You’ll need several hours of the day just to make it through our list of dishes unique to Boston’s food scene. Be quick or be patient—but do enjoy.
If you are enticed by lists and see existence as pure subordination to them, read more on Boston’s trends and best restaurants here.
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