9 Historic Boston Restaurants for an Old-School Dining Experience
These iconic taverns and restaurants offer classic dishes like New England clam chowder, oysters, and more.
While Boston is certainly fresh-faced compared to places like Damascus, Athens, or Xi'an, this centuries-old city is a veritable senior citizen by U.S. standards. While there are certainly a few drawbacks to the city’s age—the tangled, traffic-clogged streets are a major one—Boston more than makes up for its flaws with its high concentration of fascinating, historic, and all-around iconic restaurants, taverns, and bars. For first-time tourists and lifelong Massachusetts residents alike, the following spots are certain to provide visitors with a memorable perspective on the rich history of the Bay State’s capital city.
Southie has undergone some seriously massive changes over the past few decades (we’re looking at you, Seaport), but one venue in particular has remained largely frozen in time. Located on West Broadway, local favorite Amrheins made its grand debut in 1890, serving up classic favorites like Parmesan Haddock, Corned Beef Hash, and, of course, New England Clam Chowder. Dinnertime visitors should be sure to grab a seat at the bar—Boston’s oldest hand-carved bar, to be precise—for some local craft beer, while early risers can head in for some decadent breakfast fare, with Peanut Butter-Stuffed French Toast, pillowy Buttermilk Pancakes, and savory Eggs Benedict all gracing the menu.
Bell In Hand Tavern
Heading to your local pub for some much-needed gossip is one of humanity’s favorite pastimes, and at the Bell in Hand Tavern, this time-honored tradition has been enjoyed for centuries on end. It all began with founder Jimmy Wilson: This Boston local spent half a century as the town crier, and—upon retirement—opened Bell in Hand Tavern in 1795 to keep the free-flowing conversation alive. Renowned for its remarkably smooth ale, the watering hole became a frequent meeting spot for a wide array of public figures, with Secretary of State Daniel Webster serving as one of its most famous regular patrons. In the modern era, guests are welcome to stop by for classic pub fare like Fish and Chips or Baked Mac ‘n Cheese with a crisp lager in hand.
Boston’s North End is famous for its fantastic Italian fare, but in terms of history, there’s no beating Cantina Italiana. This beloved old-timer first appeared on Hanover Street in 1931 and currently serves as the oldest operating restaurant in the entire neighborhood—an admirable feat for an area so flush with historic landmarks and businesses. Sicilian staples like arancini mingle with classic Italian-American dishes—Fettuccine alla Carbonara, Veal Milanese, and Eggplant Parmigiana, to name a few—and all dishes pair perfectly with a glass of Mediterranean wine, a pint of local beer, or one of Cantina Italiana’s many martinis and spritzes.
The bulk of Boston’s historic restaurants have a distinctly European flair, with the charming Casa Romero serving as one major Latin American-focused outlier. Located in the heart of Back Bay, this colorful joint is believed to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in all of New England, operating since 1972. Food-wise, Casa Romero offers a plethora of decadent dishes like huitlacoche-loaded Jumbo Shrimp and Mole Poblano Enchiladas—and the restaurant’s cocktail list is no slouch either. With the warm weather in full swing, be sure to stop by for a refreshing margarita—or three—enjoyed on Casa Romero’s sunny patio.
Down in the deepest southern reaches of Dorchester, one of the nation’s most unsung political stomping grounds exists in the form of the Eire Pub. Founded more than half a century ago, this unassuming Irish-American watering hole was vaulted to local stardom in 1983 after a visit from sitting president Ronald Reagan, followed by a 1992 visit from then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton. Since then, famous visitors include Anthony Bourdain, NHL star Willie O'Ree, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, while—in the absence of celebrities—locals continue to be drawn in for fresh craft beer, tasty nachos, and a wealth of decadent sandwiches ranging from Grilled Reubens to Chicken Parm.
J.J. Foley's Cafe
In the mood for cheap draft beer served amidst massive amounts of Irish paraphernalia? It’s tough to throw a stone in Boston without hitting a venue that checks those boxes, but for a little added historic flair, head to J.J. Foley's Cafe. This cozy family-owned venue has been in operation since 1909, providing visitors with ample opportunity to enjoy a refreshing pint of Guinness served at a pre-Prohibition bar. J.J. Foley's is equipped with a pretty sizable beer list, but don’t miss out on its dinner menu—on a rainy day, nothing quite compares to a serving of Duck Poutine Fries paired with a healthy dose of Shepherd’s Pie.
When it comes to American culinary culture, The Bay State has done a lot of heavy lifting. The chocolate chip cookie, marshmallow fluff, and Boston Cream Pie were all invented on Massachusetts soil—and for serious sweets fanatics, Parker’s Restaurant is the perfect destination for sampling the latter. Located within the opulent Omni Parker House hotel, the venue gave rise to this iconic dessert in the mid-1800s, and is also noted for inventing the Parker House roll. While this ornate restaurant has entertained patrons ranging from Charles Dickens to John F. Kennedy—and even saw the future president propose to Jacqueline Bouvier at Table 40 in 1953—the former employees are perhaps even more interesting than its past diners. Malcolm X once worked at Parker’s Restaurant as a busboy in the 1940s, while Vietnamese politician Hồ Chí Minh was a baker at the Omni Parker House during the early 1910s.
Union Oyster House
It’s impossible to cover Boston’s oldest restaurants without shining a spotlight on Union Oyster House. Founded in 1826, this charming Faneuil Hall-adjacent property is a true overachiever, serving as not only the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Boston—but the entire nation. As you may assume from the name, succulent seafood is the norm around here, with Fried Oyster Rolls, New England Clam Chowder, and Baked Stuffed Clams found on the menu. Beyond the cuisine, Union Oyster House has also played host to some fascinating historic characters as well. Politicians like Daniel Webster and John F. Kennedy were frequent patrons, and several decades prior to opening, the building served as a refuge for the exiled Louis Philippe I, a European royal who would later serve as King of France from 1830 to 1848.
Planning a self-guided tour of Boston’s Freedom Trail? Once you’ve hit the final destination, take it one step further with a quick stroll from Bunker Hill Monument down to the iconic Warren Tavern. Located in Charlestown, this beloved pub dates back to 1780, and counts Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, and even George Washington as some of its most notable patrons. Warren Tavern is worth visiting for the history alone, but fortunately, the food and drink here is top-notch as well. There’s no shortage of classic cocktails and New England craft beer to sip on, while dining options include lobster rolls, buttermilk fried chicken, fried clams, and a wealth of other savory selections.