Buckle up, kids: The most exciting restaurants that opened over the past year aren’t oyster bars and steakhouses. They’re Peruvian and Greek, theatrical and tiny, playful with serious food. This motley crew is captained both by Boston royalty and relative newcomers. Keep your calendar handy as you read our picks for this year’s most interesting new restaurants in Boston: You’re gonna want to make reservations as you go.
More Like This
When Cambridge icon Rialto shuttered its doors after 20 years, the city waited with bated breath to see what would -- or could -- take its place. Chef/owner Michael Pagliarini took up the gauntlet. After totally redoing the huge space, he started seducing diners with a refined take on the beautiful Italian fare he serves at his more rustic, intimate Giulia. Basically, it’s even prettier than Giulia and there’s more of it to love. Also: pasta table.
The man who swept Cambridge off its collective feet with the addictively shareable Alden + Harlow introduced his second concept to high expectations -- and has not disappointed us. Michael Scelfo’s small plates at Waypoint are focused on the sea, and he introduced large-format roasts like skate wing and lamb shoulder for when your group really wants to dig in. If you’re feeling fancy, there’s also caviar service. Oh, and absinthe on tap. Oh, and insanely good pizza (for which the flour is entirely milled in-house, thank you very much).
Look, it's not like we need to tell you to get excited for something new from Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer. You’re probably reading this while you’re standing outside waiting for your table at Toro. Little Donkey, which opened in late summer and does both lunch and dinner, offers an eclectic menu with which the James Beard Award-winning chefs have clearly felt free to have some fun. Istanbul meat ravioli? Chicken fried in pickle brine? Pizza bagel? Foie gras? Yes. You can have it all.
Located in the old Ten Tables Cambridge space, formerly home to Craigie Street Bistro, Forage is heir to some good restaurant karma. Owner Stan Hilbert (GM of Ten Tables Jamaica Plain) brought chef Eric Cooper with him from JP, and the concept -- as you may have guessed from the name -- has a big emphasis on hyper-locality and seasonality. It’s a menu that celebrates local food without being enslaved to local flavors. European steak frites is just as at home here as Indian-inspired mackerel. Sure, Huron Village is a bit of a trek if you’re not a North Cambridge local, but just like the restaurants that have gone before it, Forage is worth the trip.
OK, this is not a quirky family establishment. This is a quirky big guns establishment. The team behind Yvonne’s (the glitzy reimagining of the venerable Locke Ober space) is contributing to the Downtown Crossing renaissance with this Peruvian/Chinese/Japanese mashup that somehow just works. They’ve only been open a few weeks, but so far, so good. Playful crossovers like octopus lomo saltado and Peruvian sashimi could make that business dinner Downtown so much more fun.
While Cambridge mourned the loss of the legendary Rialto, Chef Jody Adams was cheering up the other side of the river with Porto. After the success of Trade and the more casual Saloniki, Adams is continuing to give Bostonians an education in all things Mediterranean. Chef de cuisine Jon Sanchez is exploring these gorgeously fresh flavors while also pushing their boundaries. Warm brandade in the winter might be the cure for the Boston grays; but make sure to go back when their patio opens in the spring.
When Chef Josh Lewin and his partner Katrina Jazayeri took over the old Sherman Cafe space in Union Square, they wanted to be part of the fabric of the community. So you can get luxurious yet affordable European-style fare for breakfast and lunch, but you can also go for the meticulously crafted, almost theatrical dinners and see why this small spot in Somerville is quickly becoming a national name.
Michael Bergin (L’Espalier, Sel de la Terre) opened Fat Hen in a small space next to colleague Daniel Bojorquez’s well-established La Brasa, but his food won’t be overshadowed. The refined Italian menu never sacrifices satisfaction for artistry (proof that comfort food can be fancy). The smart wine list, intimate environment, and warm service have helped make it a local favorite in just a few short months.
Sign up here for our daily Boston email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun the Hub has to offer.
Rialto's 20-year run serving high-end Italian cuisine isn't an easy act to follow, but when it closed, Chef/Owner Michael Pagliarini rose to the challenge and opened another Italian gem in the storied Charles Hotel: Benedetto, a stylish space with house-made pastas and an extensive Italian wine list with rare and vintage bottles. The sister restaurant to Pagliarini's Giulia, this chic eatery prepares dishes inspired by Umbria and Tuscany, such as tagliatelle bolognese, braised duck leg tortelloni, and veal nodini with Tuscan kale. Feel free to dine family-style with a large party, as the restaurant offers a 15-foot, white-oak pasta table that seats 12-16. Benedetto means "blessed" in Italian, which is exactly how locals feel having this spot in Harvard Square.
Cambridge’s Waypoint could have exceeded our expectations with its beverage program alone, but even 20 types of absinthe along with rum, mezcal, agave, sherry, and gin stand second to the coastal-inspired seafood menu. The raw bar is complete with such maritime gems as smoked and salted peel-n-eat shrimp, while hot dishes include pizza, pasta, roasts, and small plates. Seafood is incorporated in unconventional ways wherever possible, from the squid ink bread and smoked whitefish pizza to the fish-shaped neon signs that decorate Waypoint’s walls.
From Boston’s favorite chef duo Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer (the minds behind South End stars Coppa and Toro), Little Donkey is a spacious, industrial-chic tapas restaurant with an always-lively 15-seat bar. An upbeat place to be any night of the week, the Central Square spot features a beverage program with inventive cocktails (like the Ode to Pablo with Sombra mezcal, Aperol, spicy ginger shrub, and lime), a solid mix of local craft beers, and an international wine list. Pair your libation with a smattering of globe-spanning small plates like foie gras bratwurst, BBQ scallops, and kimchi fried rice.
Forage injects a much-needed dose of restaurants past into Cambridge, which is, of late, better known for its shiny, new (if a little bit sterile) eateries. Forage is nestled into a basement that’s been home to five restaurants in the last four decades; so, it’s understandably well worn when you enter, lit by sparing incandescent bulbs that hang self-consciously above and decorated with potted plants, which could easily be found in your parents’ windowsills. The menu is dotted with equally understated, local ingredients served simply: warm Sparrow Arc Farm Potatoes plated with Vermont cheese and Maine Coast sea vegetable salt, bourbon-brined roasted chicken with sweet potatoes, ginger, and spinach, and baby green farm salad, with black walnuts, apple, and cranberry vinaigrette. The ambitious cocktail program fully exploits the kitchen’s foraged spoils; the 130 is a flurry of Berkshire Bourbon, Becherovka lemon, honey, and orange bitters.
Just off the lobby at Boston’s Godfrey Hotel is Ruka, the vibrant, multidimensional, seafood-centric restaurant conceived by the team behind Yvonne’s and Lolita. The menu at Ruka in Boston winds through Peruvian, Japanese, and Chinese cuisines like a maze -- one you must eat your way out of -- starting with makimono (Japanese sushi rolls) and tiraditos (Peruvian sashimi), like Taragai Sashimi, a dish of penshell clam and starfruit frothed with coconut-lemongrass foam and sansho peppercorn. You’ve only just begun; you’ll want to cross the menu to the Chilled Oysters Chalaca, with Cast Coast oysters, salsa criolla, aji crema, and Peruvian black mint before you reach the selection of wok dishes, arguably Ruka’s main event. The Octopus Lomo Saltado is graced with peppers, onions, ginger soy, black rice, and shoestring fries, while the Seared Wild Striped Bass’s plate-mates are quinoa miso, black vinegar, wasabi oil, and lotus chip. You’ve made it this far, and you might as well try some desserts; the Suspiro Limeno is a heavenly interpretation of Peru’s Manjar Blanco, similar to dulce de leche.
Named after the shared Italian and Portuguese word for "port," Porto serves up a fantastic selection of local seafood, both raw and cooked. The Mediterranean-influenced menu consists of lightly seasoned dishes with fish as the main event, and a number of unique desserts. Go for house-made squid ink buccatini with crispy squid, the lobster ravioli with urchin and curry leaf, or the raw scallop with chamomile, Niçoise olive, and lemon balm. For dessert, check out the espresso pavlova, as well as the "not baklava."
At Juliet, a sophisticated, white-walled cafe in Union Square, you can order a quick cup of coffee from the takeaway counter or sit down for a full breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In the morning, you'll find an a la carte breakfast menu with drip coffee, matcha tea, and turmeric tonic, as well as toasts with sweet and savory spreads and rotating breakfast taco specials. The afternoon and evening bring more elegant and seasonal dishes, and a formal prix fixe option served at the chef’s counter.
Located in the old market space next to La Brasa, Fat Hen is an upscale Italian with an attention to detail that's obvious in everything from the carrot-salted butter that accompanies the bread basket to the beautifully blended aperitivo cocktails. Expect creative dishes like tortellini with lemon ricotta and rigatoni with rabbit sausage, and don't forget to order dessert -- caramel gelato affogato, anyone?