An unexpected seafood boil in the South End
We didn’t see the seafood boil trend coming, but we’ll happily embrace it. Joining the likes of Holly Crab and Loui Loui Seafood is this bona fide Creole den in the South End. Bootleg Special is not for the dieting crowd -- the Cherry Coke-glazed ribs appetizer makes that readily apparent -- but the rest of us get to savor treats like crawfish mac & cheese, fried oyster po-boys, and a build-a-boil menu that could net you lobster, jumbo gulf shrimp, and Dungeness crab served with a moonshine sauce. The biggest surprise of the “Libations” menu is not the whiskey-forward cocktails but the well-curated wine list.
Sustainable, picture-perfect New American cuisine
If there is one unambiguous Instagram food-porn star among Boston feeds, Cultivar is it. The moment Mary Dumont’s hotel restaurant opened, stunningly plated entrees started inducing FOMOOF (fear of missing out on food). But none of this is about flashiness for its own sake; Dumont merely seeks to please as many of your senses as possible. Though sustainable seafood and dry-aged meats feature prominently on the menu, the on-site hydroponic garden is what elevates so many of the dishes, with bright, fresh vegetables adding texture and depth of flavor to both the pastas and entrees.
The cocktail and Szechuan experience Boston proper has been waiting for
No more $30 Lyfts to Woburn. Baldwin Bar superstar Ran Duan has upended his parents’ original Sichuan Garden space in Brookline Village, and it’s a twofer fantasy come true: an all-killer menu of dan dan noodles, Chengdu dry hot chicken wings, and double-fried pork to accompany the inevitably amazing cocktail program. Sidle up to the tiki-adjacent bar and savor elixirs like the Cadillo Sour (Bacardi Carta Blanca, guava paste, mascarpone, lime, mint). Or just put your drinking fate in Duan’s hands and let him entertain you off-menu.
Southern comfort in the South End
The thrill here is not just that Southern cuisine has finally come to the South End, but that the food is so outstanding. Chef and owner Jason Cheek, nostalgic for his North Carolina upbringing, has concocted a tranquilizing menu of decadent shared table eats. The crunchy, juicy fried chicken is a no-brainer -- when you walk in, it seems every table already has a plate of it -- as are the baby back ribs, best accompanied by the extra-rich mac & cheese. But the appetizers are where things get most interesting: silky chicken liver parfait, potent salt and vinegar pork rinds, and deeply flavored crispy pig tails. The cocktail menu is small but delivers smoke and citrus, and the decor is its own delight -- a raw industrial space transformed into a down-home roadhouse, with vintage pie plates dotting the walls and upside-down vintage lamps hanging from the rafters.
The rare combo of great tiki drinks and great food
You may not realize it, but everyone needs more tiki cocktails in their lives. Or rather, everyone needs more top-flight tiki cocktails, which Tiki Rock delivers in spades. Uni, Clio and Waypoint alum Charles Smedile directs a beverage program that features potent drinks with names like Eastern Soup and Blood of the Tickled Pink. The added pleasure of the space is a dinner menu that far surpasses your Kowloon expectations, with sashimi and maki rolls paired with cheeky Polynesian treats like truffle beef dumplings and coconut shrimp (and yes, there is a Pu-Pu platter).
Neighborhood restaurant and cafe with a social conscience
Rarely have social justice and fine dining dovetailed so seamlessly. The twee Union Square cafe and restaurant has woven equality into its ethos: fair wages for all of its employees, a gratuity-free pay structure, and a one-room layout that lets diners and kitchen workers share in the evening experience. The dining joys begin in the morning with the cafe’s lovely breakfast menu (Gruyere omelet, chocolate tahini toast) and continue through the early afternoon with sandwiches like the Lyonnaise Workbreak (duck breast, tapenade vinaigrette, orange segments, sliced olive, toasted pistachio). Then dinner arrives, another experience entirely: a prix fixe menu, thematic and dictated by the seasons; or an a la carte, no-reservations meal at one of the six seats at the kitchen counter (think Quebecois charcuterie, salad Nicoise, and a regionally sourced pork loin).
A neighborhood restaurant serving special-occasion food
Why can’t more restaurants be so straight-up crowd-pleasing? The “New American trattoria” from married partners Pam and Chris Willis does familiar dishes impeccably, from a mushroom bruschetta to a simply divine bowl of house-made spaghetti topped with cured pomodoro and a top-notch pecorino. The boneless half chicken is a surprise delight, pounded down and then folded together so the white and dark meats blend together; the pork chop, too, is pleasingly tender and richly flavored. Another draw: the exclusively natural wine list from wine director Lauren Hayes, a true restaurant rarity.
Neighborhood spot celebrating locally sourced comfort fare
Why can’t every restaurant be like this? Field & Vine plates simple American dishes impeccably prepared with seasonal, sustainable ingredients -- so simple, so straightforward, so successful. There is never a miss on the small-plate menu, but current highlights include the braised macomber turnips, the smoked bluefish pate, and the cast-iron cornbread with slow-roasted pork shoulder (the menu changes monthly, so take these highlights as examples only). The chocolate lavender pot de crème, meanwhile, arguably deserves its own Instagram account. The former Journeyman space, once chilly and inaccessible, now feels homey and pretension-free, with wood tables and an open kitchen where you can watch the magic happen. This is a neighborhood spot you’d visit for some oysters and glass of Sauvignon Blanc on Monday and a multi-hour, multi-course spread with friends the following Saturday.
The ne plus ultra of Boston's French-Canadian fare
Who would have thought a French-Canadian restaurant would be one of our most celebrated entries? But the State Park and Mamaleh’s team lured us in immediately with dishes both familiar -- oysters, charcuterie, a crispy, fatty half-duck -- and uniquely Quebecois, including poutine, mushroom oreilles de crisse (a vegetarian twist on fried pork jowls), and a fried rabbit leg served with gribiche (the classic French hard-boiled egg dressing). Even the sourdough bread slathered in butter and topped with radish slices is a snack to be savored. The dark, atmospheric back room is for romance, the brighter front space for large-group conviviality; for the sake of eating your way through the whole menu, we suggest multiple visits to both.
Europe by way of Harvard Square, excellent for cocktails or foie gras
From the supergroup behind Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Row 34 comes yet another unabashed winner, this one housed in Harvard Square’s historic Conductor’s Building. The first floor is bartender Jackson Cannon’s masterpiece, a funky, expansive cocktail space with a long bar, cow-print bar stools, and some booth seating. After you’ve downed a French 75 or three, head upstairs to the austere, narrow dining room for a decidedly European repast. Beef tartare and foie gras torchon are two of the decadent starters that segue into equally rich entrees like chicken liver terrine, duck au poivre, and veal boudin blanc. If you seek a less-hedonistic spread, the lunch or brunch menus are your gateway drugs.
Eataly's homage to all things wood-grilled
This massive space feels a world removed from the controlled Eataly chaos downstairs, but you can feel the imprint nonetheless. Terra delivers on rugged, rich, primal cooking driven by the behemoth wood-fire burning stove in the center of the restaurant. You could eat your way through the skewers menu and leave sated and raving, but every entree offering gives you the salt and fat fix you crave, from the crispy, brick grilled chicken to the extra-rare grilled lamb chop, seasoned only with lemon and mint. But gluten lovers needn’t fret: the bruschetta and pasta menus deserve equal love and also appear on the new Monday to Friday lunch menu, along with salads that stray delightfully far from your usual deskside fare.
Cozy, accommodating French bistro and wine bar
There’s a little Francophile in all of us, which is why it’s so hard to resist even the most mediocre French bistro. But co-owners Sandrine Rossi and Loic Le Garrec (Petit Robert Bistro) know their way around an authentic French meal, and Frenchie is thus a small-scale revelation. The diminutive, subterranean space serves mostly small-plate versions of classic dishes: think escargot toast, a drumstick coq au vin, mussels with chorizo, and beef bourguignon. The 32 wines by the glass seal the deal, and a solo diner could do far worse than cozying up to the snug bar and ordering steak frites with a couple of glasses of French red. Coming back for brunch mandates you wait for a table in the back-room solarium, both for the vitamin D and the dramatic floral wallpaper.
A venerated small-plates lair perfect for sitting and sharing
Michael Scelfo’s inaugural solo joint took over the iconic Casablanca space on Brattle St and brought Harvard Square a tasty repertoire of shareable plates that included everything from chicken-fried rabbit and fried Brussels sprouts to the Hub’s new favorite secret burger. The seasonal cocktail list is its own distinct pleasure, and one worth revisiting frequently. Order the “That’ll Do” -- it’s made with a smoked pork-infused scotch, absinthe, and Green Mountain Maple Liqueur.
Rotisserie chicken and bocce ball in a Watertown locale
It’s still hard to wrap our heads around there being fine dining near the former Arsenal Mall area. But what Strip-T’s started, Branch Line continues. The beautiful space from Eastern Standard folks Garrett Harker and Andrew Holden headlines its menu with rotisserie chicken (or rotisserie cauliflower for the vegetarians); one genius starter dish is simply rotisserie drippings served with bread and roast garlic. The grilled whole branzino and butcher’s steak are entrees you’ll be craving winter or summer. Right now, we’re counting down the days to alfresco rosé and warm-weather bocce in the restaurant’s outdoor space.
Celebrated French-New American cuisine with one of our best burgers
Chef Tony Maws had us at Craigie Street Bistrot, and then cemented our love with his bigger Central Square space. It’s not just about his magazine-cover model of a burger, which should never overshadow the nightly wonders coming out of the kitchen, be it chicken stuffed with dates and sausage or an entire roasted pig’s head for two. The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, Maws’ second restaurant off Inman Square, helps feed the soul in between Craigie visits (see below), but it should never supplant its fountainhead.
Divine homemade pastas in an intimate, romantic setting
The strangely forgotten stretch of Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter is home to some of Cambridge’s buried gems (Temple Bar, Cambridge Common), but Giulia is a true diamond. Chef Michael Pagliarini spends hours each day rolling out his doughs at the restaurant’s pasta table, which produces some great corn and brown butter agnolotti, whole wheat penne with pork sausage, and pappardelle with wild boar. If you’re a paleo nut who insists on denying yourself the area’s greatest carbs, you can tick carnivorous boxes with the grilled bone-in beef rib-eye with roasted potatoes and salsa verde.
Four-star city fine dining celebrating New England’s bounty
Every Bostonian should feel like a Brahmin for one night. Chef Frank McClelland’s exquisite play on regional ingredients makes the $118 seasonal tasting gustation seem like an absolute bargain and the $98 version an absolute steal (and sure, spring for the wine pairings!). Lunch service, weekend tea, and the salon menu all let the more budgeted among us dip a toe in the highborn world, as does the weekend prix fixe brunch -- as in, both Saturday and Sunday -- that lets you have your caviar omelet and eat foie gras, too.
A home run of Mediterranean food and spices
Did most Americans even think twice about Turkish spices before Ana Sortun came along? Oleana set the stage for her second, already revered spot -- our favorite place for group outings when a vegetarian or two is involved. We’re talking almost 40 Mediterranean small plates, from salmon ceviche to Brussels sprout bravas to crab & red lentil kibbeh. And then there’s that cocktail program unlike any other -- when’s the last time you found fennel or pollen in your drink?
Urban oyster bar from the man who brought you the city’s best hot lobster roll
Michael Serpa’s townhouse space pays proper homage to New England seafood with dishes like blue prawns a la plancha and whole roasted sea bream. Oysters are aplenty, as are the Jonah crab claws, dressed lobster, and a seafood-friendly wine program. Reservations can only be made through Open Table, and a flat 20% tip is added to every bill, eliminating the mental gymnastics of tipping protocol.
Special-occasion, super-high-end, ticketed dining
Once you buy your way into chef Peter Ungár’s space and create an online profile specifying your tastes, you leave your dining fate in the hands of the kitchen, which prepares your meal in front of an intimate 20-seat counter. Oysters with cucumber-seaweed gel? Chocolate-covered venison? Nashi pear and candied Meyer lemon? Not a problem. Every dish is outlandishly inventive and well worth the $195-per-person cost, especially considering that includes tax, gratuity, and drink pairings. Still blanching at the imaginary bill? Make your first visit a $65 lunchtime one.
Reimagined New England fare for sophisticated palates
Chef Matt Jennings fastidiously sources his ingredients, then plays with classic New England dishes in unexpected ways: deviled eggs with crispy hen skin, clam chowder with squid, crispy Brussels sprouts with garlic croutons, pan-roasted chicken livers. The crudos, cheeses, and charcuteries could make a whole meal on another night; either way, you must start with the dry martini service with “All the fixins'.” The “Lo-Fi Sunday” menu is epic in a quieter way: the famed Townsman burger served with either a bourbon or a beer, and a singular take on the TV dinner: chicken-fried hanger steak with gravy, mashed potatoes, maple carrots, and fried pickles.
A beloved sashimi bar transformed into an expansive izayaka
Do you even miss Clio anymore? Ken Oringer and Tony Messina’s UNI gives equal love to hot dishes like Japanese milk bread, whole roasted lobster with Singapore black pepper glaze, and wagyu beef dumplings, as well as the expected cold stuff, which now includes many nigiri and maki options in addition to inventive sashimis. And not to worry: The late-night ramen menu is not only intact but expanded, often attracting outside ramen stars to stage pop-ups.
A tropical oasis in Boston serving funky riffs on Southeast Asian classics
We’ll follow Tiffani Faison anywhere, but thankfully she simply skipped down the street for her follow-up to Sweet Cheeks. That said, it’s a 180-degree turn from her down-home Q sanctum: Tiger Mama is neon lights, punchy Tiki cocktails, and umami heaven. The menu explores all manner of spicy, crunchy Southeast Asian cuisine, from crispy chili potatoes to Singapore street noodles to lamb roti. Come with a crowd to hit up the banquet-style dishes, which include salt and pepper monkfish tail and chili crab (with, dear god, beurre blanc). The only thing you shouldn’t eat? The herbs growing on the vertical indoor garden.
Vegetarian-friendly Venetian bites
Don’t know what a bacaro is? Simple, really: It’s a Venetian wine bar, and it’s your new favorite dining conceit. SRV (Serene Republic of Venice) is a small plates/pasta haven, which means you get to sample both beef tongue tonnato and bone marrow risotto, smoked sea trout and bauletti with prosciutto and black truffle. For the full family meal experience, spring for the shared Arsenale menu, which puts you entirely at the gastronomic mercy of the SRV kitchen. Also? This is the place where you and your vegetarian friends can dine equally well.
Unexpected French cuisine from two young upstart restaurateurs
If you've been breathlessly wondering what had happened to the Whisk pop-up group, get ready to exhale. Co-chefs and owners Jeremy Kean and Phil Kruta have finally put down roots, though that hardly means they’ve settled down. Expect the same unpredictable French-influenced fare, experienced either as a tasting menu or a la carte. The seasons dictate the menu, but peekytoe crab salad, a wild mushroom omelette, and duck l’orange might all make an appearance. If French simply isn’t where your head’s at, American comfort will save the evening, in the form of either the customized house burger (pork belly as a topping?!) or the country-style fried chicken.
Hidden gem serving superb, seasonal French-inspired plates
The Table at Season to Taste may be (OK, is) super-awkwardly named, but it's splendidly committed to seasonal cuisine and French techniques. If you're going to eat one prix fixe meal all year, you might as well go for this one: foie gras mousse and duck leg confit, served with purple mustard, almonds, and pickled cherries.
Seasonal Italian fare in tiny, book-lined room complete with mysterious cocktail window
Housed inside the former La Brasa marketplace space, Fat Hen dishes up pasta with seasonal stuffings and toppings, and those wanting to go heartier can opt for secondi plates like lamb saddle or chicken al mattone. The charms of the super-cozy space are only enhanced by the little cocktail window, where drinks are passed through from the La Brasa bar.
Delightful seafood sister to Alden & Harlow, with added absinthe menu
Michael Scelfo's latest Harvard Square venture was guaranteed to be a hit, but he certainly isn't resting on laurels. Think of Waypoint as the Alden & Harlow maestro going by sea instead of land. The snack selection includes raw-bar munchies, from caviar to peel-and-eat shrimp, and small plates that include such choices as tallow-fried peanuts. Pizzas come with atypical toppings like chopped clam and smoked whitefish, and there are bowls of seafood pastas and larger plates like grilled monkfish cheek and king crab in chili garlic oil. To pair with all this ocean fare? A host of cocktails, including four featuring absinthe.
Splashy Downtown spot for celebratory Japanese cuisine
Head to this new Downtown Crossing hotel spot for a date night of creative sushi, piping-hot robatayaki, and unique decor. The glam, modern izakaya from chef Michael Mina (who just happens to own a global dining empire, including the original PABU in San Francisco) brings next-level event dining to the suddenly happening DTX. Seasonal small plates like lobster and pork belly okonomiyaki and seared foie gras lead up to a massive sashimi and makimono menu. If you're feeling flush, go for a once-a-year splurge like the $115 Australian tomahawk steak for two.
Charming, diminutive oyster bar with unparalleled tinned fish menu
Tinned fish are having a moment, and we're not talking two-buck anchovies from Trader Joe's, either -- we mean Siberian caviar, octopus, eel, and cod liver, to name but four of the imported delicacies at Saltie Girl. For every clam chowder or lobster roll at the lilliputian seafood bar, there's another unexpected treat: uni Benedict, torched salmon belly, fried lobster and waffles, etc. Sit at the bar to watch the dish assembly happen in real time, and be sure to explore the wine menu that includes seven rosés.
Japanese fusion in sleek loft space
Tracy Chang, the still-under-30 sensation behind Guchi's Midnight Ramen, planted roots in a polished, open-kitchen space that introduces Central Square diners to the full array of her talents. Small-plate offerings like ikura avocado toast, sea scallop sashimi, and pork belly bao complement larger dishes like uni miso mazemen and Chang's take on the fried rice she ate as a child. Her global travels also result in menu surprises like the jamon and curry crab croquetas, while the a la carte and three-course lunch menus give you one more reason to ditch your sad desk salad. It's hard to resist any establishment that offers you a departing satsuma orange as a symbol of good luck, or one that's named after a dog ("pagu" is Japanese for "pug").
Playful Southern cuisine in a New Orleans-like lair
Did the city need another Southern restaurant and another Jason Santos venture? Yup and yup. This subterranean Comm Ave space finally got the design love it deserved, with Santos embracing its moody, labyrinthine appeal and working with designers Michael and Erica Diskin to soften its edges with whitewashed brick and distressed wood seating. As for the New Orleans-inspired menu, it's indulgence upon indulgence: deviled egg toast, pork belly cracklings, shrimp & grits, and buttermilk fried chicken served three ways (Nashville hot, white barbecue, sweet and spicy). By all means, start with a frozen Voodoo Grenade (yes, there's an actual NOLA-style frozen drink machine behind the bar), but don't just drink your dessert -- beignets, after all, are also on the menu, served with vanilla bean whipped cream for dunking.
Lovingly prepared pasta and cocktails in tucked-away South End space
With its unpretentious yet sophisticated interior, Mida is all about humble, beautiful cooking. Chef/owner Douglass Williams draws from Italian influences and places a premium on seasonal ingredients to turn out homey fare like caponata toast, crispy duck wings, handmade ricotta gnocchi, and grilled beef collette. The menu rotates regularly, but the wine list remains committed to both Northern Italian and French bottles (although a Negroni starter doesn't hurt).