Food & Drink

The Ground-Breaking Restaurants That Define Boston's Dining Scene

Published On 11/23/2015 Published On 11/23/2015
Courtesy of Alden & Harlow

When it comes to the restaurants that define a city’s culinary culture, you’ve got the newest, the most popular, the most buzzed about, and the most expensive. But we’re not talking about any of those (although, yes, some of those are in here, of course). No, we’re talking about the places that have made Boston’s dining reputation: the groundbreakers, the go-it-alones, the hidden gems. These are the trailblazers that have transformed Boston into a nationally recognized restaurant town.

Menton

Menton

Fort Point

All of Barbara Lynch’s spots are important in different ways, really: B&G Oysters. Butcher Shop. Whisk. Drink. Sportello. No. 9 Park, the foundational pillar in the Lynch empire. But Menton did something no other Boston restaurant has done: it earned Relais & Châteaux status in 2012, one of only 42 such properties currently in the US (hotels included).

But let’s be honest, this restaurant has done so much more. It introduced us to the inimitable pleasures of butter soup, for one. Sold us on the absolute value of a $175 tasting meal -- and the importance of then springing for the wine pairings, for another. It’s not your Friday night go-to, but no aspiring gourmand should leave the city without experiencing Menton once. Just make sure your suit is pressed.

East Coast Grill

East Coast Grill and Raw Bar

Inman Square

When East Coast Grill celebrated its 30th birthday last year, a lot of us had an “oh shit” moment. As in, “Oh shit, I’m old,” followed by “I have to get back to East Coast Grill already.” Not that the place has ever lacked for crowds (ahem, Sunday brunch). Chris Schlesinger literally spent decades upending the city’s fine dining formula; it turns out that simple, spicy food -- both seafood and BBQ -- at a reasonable price point in a congenial atmosphere was the ticket. Little wonder that ECG spawned a consortium of Boston chefs who would go on to do great things in other locales: Nick Zappia (Blue Room, Belly, Central Bottle), Patrick Sullivan (B Side), and Andy Husbands (Tremont 647, Sister Sorel), to name but three. Little surprise also that in 2012, three of Schlesinger’s employees seamlessly took over the reins and carried on without a hitch.

Flickr/Thy Khue Ly

L’Espalier

Back Bay

It’s hard not to miss the old Gloucester Street townhouse space, which was truly unlike any other dining spot in the city. If you wanted to feel like a Brahmin for one night, you splurged. But the restaurant’s move to more modern digs adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental a few years’ back represented a democratization in some ways. Lunch service and weekend tea mean even the five-figure-salaried set could experience Chef Frank McClelland’s exquisite play on regional ingredients, and the salon menu lets you dip a knife into the restaurant’s singular cheese and wine programs. But if it’s a celebratory meal you’re after, you really can’t beat a nighttime tasting menu enjoyed beside one of the picture windows overlooking Boylston St.

Oleana

Oleana

Central Square

Did you think even twice about Turkish spices before Oleana came along in 2001? Ana Sortun’s second spot, Sarma, is getting all the current buzz -- and rightly so, go go go -- but it was Oleana that first opened our eyes to a different kind of Mediterranean fare: fragrant, spicy, and delicate. Oleana has also proven the world’s greatest date spot for vegetarian couples, given that the majority of meze plates are meat free. And anyone who has spent more than a year or two living in this town has almost assuredly enjoyed at least one celebratory meal on the twee patio.

Toro

Toro

South End

NYC readers, just so you know: Toro was ours first. Long before Toro NYC made its splashy debut in Chelsea, there was the original Toro in the South End, which kicked off the city’s obsession with Spanish small plates. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette put a modern twist on Barcelona tapas using regional ingredients to deliver on so many favorites: salt cod fritters, garlic shrimp, braised beef tongue, and of course, the grilled corn with aioli, all perfectly complemented by the Spanish wine list. And the no reservation policy has only kept its light shining brighter -- where else do you see people drinking cocktails at 4pm on Friday afternoon so as to nab the first tables of the evening?

Flickr/dnkbdotcom

Eastern Standard

Kenmore Square

Hard to remember now, but Kenmore Square before 2005 was a place you ducked out of as soon as you could, even on game nights (unless you were a regular patron of the Deli Haus). Then Eastern Standard opened, and everything changed. Garrett Harker gave us the bistro experience we didn’t yet know we needed, in a cavernous hotel space that reinvigorated our love of red leather banquettes. It was shellfish platters and roasted bone marrow and the perfect roasted half-chicken; today you return over and over again because the success of your night is absolutely assured. Oh yeah, and then there’s the fact that bar director Jackson Cannon completely revolutionized the city’s cocktail scene, with a reverence for fresh ingredients and doing the classics right. So, NBD.

Lumiere

Lumière

West Newton Center

It used to be that Boston suburbanites beelined it to the city to get a fine-dining experience. But Michael Leviton upended that formula in 1999, and today, awash in restaurant choices, the suburbs are much better (and fuller) for it. Lumière is one of those places that gets everything right without grandstanding: a beautifully appointed but non-stuffy dining room, an ingredients-first menu that doesn’t scream “locavore,” and a half-dozen impeccably prepared entrees a night. Go for a special occasion, sure, but also go on a Tuesday night -- the experience never waivers.

Courtesy of Craigie on Main

Craigie on Main

Central Square

Craigie Street Bistro was one of those spots that you wanted to stay shrouded in secrecy even as you raved about the place to anyone who would listen. Chef and owner Tony Maws was doing revelatory French fare in a not-easily found basement space, and that was alright with you. But the secret was out for good when he moved into his bigger Central Square space, and the legacy cemented when the Craigie burger appeared on the cover of Bon Appétit. That burger, wondrous as it is, should never overshadow the nightly wonders coming out of the Craigie kitchen, whether it’s a chicken stuffed with dates and chicken sausage or an entire roasted pig’s head for two. Kirkland Tap & Trotter, Maws’ second restaurant, helps feed the soul in between Craigie visits, but it should never supplant its fountainhead.

Courtesy of Alden & Harlow

Alden & Harlow

Harvard Square

Expectations were high for the youngest spot on this list, but Michael Scelfo still exceeded them. His first solo venture -- which opened in 2014 -- took over the revered Casablanca space and brought us small plates unlike any other: delectable fried Brussels sprouts, an actually delicious kale salad, chicken-fried rabbit, and yes, a secret burger that is justly the new talk of the town. The seasonal cocktail list is a whole separate pleasure, and one worth revisiting frequently. Scelfo did one more thing: he proved that restaurants don’t have to buckle under the draconian threat of a negative Yelp review. For that alone, he won our loyalty.

Dave Baldwin/Thrillist

Santarpio’s

East Boston

There is no easier way to prove your foodie bona fides to out-of-towners than to haul their butts to Eastie for a revelatory slice. The centenarian East Boston spot started life as a bakery -- its only misstep, perhaps -- but has since served the city’s best cheese pizza since 1933 with a side of nonpareil people-watching. Sometimes, a sausage pie, a side of lamb kabob, a pitcher of Bud, and a wad of cash (no credit cards here, hun) are all that’s needed to make a night epic.

Flickr/charlene mcbride

Clover Food Lab

Various locations

Because it began as one of the city’s early food truck pioneers born from the mind of an MIT grad. Because it has since expanded into a fast-food empire that proves takeaway food can be fresh, healthy, vegan, and delicious. Because it has had us dropping three bucks on lavender lemonade for years. Because we desperately want one to open in our neighborhood.

Flickr/Arnold Gatilao

Neptune Oyster

North End

Did we even talk about fine-dining lobster rolls before Neptune’s warm butter wonder came along? The unlikely North End gem became an instant crowd pleaser when Chef Michael Serpa reminded us that mayo isn’t the only way to slay a lobster roll. It’s not just the roll though (and those fries, oh those fries): the made to order clam chowder, the fried Ipswich clams, the regional fish entrees, and the daily rotating oyster selections all make this a spot worth the hour-plus nightly wait.

Chris Gould/Uni Sashimi Bar

Uni

Back Bay

We were going to call this one a tie between Uni and Clio -- they are, after all, under the same roof, and Clio was the original pioneer -- but then came word that Clio will close at the end of the year, and Uni will expand into the entire space. So let’s give it up for the Ken Oringer jewel that completely upended our notions of what sashimi could be, and then threw us for another delectable loop with Uni’s late-night ramen menu. We can’t wait to see what an expanded Uni is capable of -- though we’re still guessing that seats will be scarce. 

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Meaghan Agnew is a Boston-based writer who pets strange dogs with impunity. Follow her on Twitter: @meaghandeth.

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1. Menton 354 Congress St, Boston, 02210 (Fort Point Channel)

The Ft. Point spot from the acclaimed chef behind Sportello and Drink, Menton is a "jackets recommended" fine-dining French-Italian hybrid serving a four-course prix fixe and seven-course chef's tasting menus.

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2. East Coast Grill & Raw Bar 1271 Cambridge St, Cambridge, MA 02139

This place is one of the most important restaurants in Boston. You won't want to miss their Sunday brunch.

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3. L'Espalier 774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02116 (Back Bay)

Adjacent to the Back Bay Mandarin Oriental, L'Espalier goes above and beyond standard hotel restaurant fare with some of the most inventive French food in Boston. This is dining at its most hospitable, with an impressive waitstaff catering to four separate dining rooms daily. Dinner service is prix-fixe only, and you can choose between a three-course menu, a six-course degustation menu, or a chef's tasting. A more casual à la carte menu is offered at lunch, but the cuisine -- French crafted with New England ingredients -- is the same.

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4. Oleana 134 Hampshire St, Cambridge, MA 02139 (East Cambridge)

At Oleana, Chef Ana Sortun celebrates Eastern Mediterranean cuisine through her exploration of the regional spice pantry. The mezze-style menu pulls inspiration from Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Israel, Lebanon, and the restaurant's own New England locale with dishes like butternut squash borek pastries and Vermont quail kebab. Enjoy your meal à la carte, or leave your dinner in the hands of the chef with the vegetable tasting menu.

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5. Toro 1704 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118 (South End)

Get yourself to the South End and try some of Toro's Barcelona-style tapas for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette put a modern twist on Spanish small plates by using regional ingredients to craft favorites like salt cod fritters, garlic shrimp, braised beef tongue, and grilled corn with aioli. Be sure to save room for the paella, made the traditional Valencia way with shrimp, mussels, clams, chorizo, and chicken. A Spanish wine list complements it all.

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6. Eastern Standard 528 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215 (Fenway Kenmore)

A Comm Ave restaurant with the appearance of a swanky French bistro, the menu of a five-star Italian restaurant, and the attitude of a local pub, Eastern Standard is an unpretentious offering of the finer things in life. The upscale menu touts a winding wine list, a raw bar, seared fishes, steaks, and house-made pasta while the matching interior flaunts a polished mahogany and red velvet motif.

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7. Lumière 1293 Washington St, Newton, MA 02465

This gorgeous French bistro is just as enjoyable at a special event as it is on a Tuesday night.

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8. Craigie on Main 853 Main St, Cambridge, MA 02139 (Central Square)

Chef and owner Tony Maws' Craigie on Main serves French-accented bistro food in Central Square. The à la carte and tasting menus are constantly changing with exciting new dishes, but one signature remains: The Burger. The half-pound patty blends brisket, short rib, bone marrow, and suet into one unforgettable burger that reached peak food fame when it graced the cover of Bon Appétit.

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9. Alden & Harlow 40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138 (West Cambridge)

Alden & Harlow, located in Harvard Square, is selling delicious and inventive American cuisine from a constantly-changing menu. The kitchen focuses on small plates including everything from chicken-fried rabbit to pickled corn pancakes topped with popcorn. The seasonal cocktail list is just as inventive and could keep you at the bar until late. This, however, is a great thing, because come 11pm the late-night menu becomes available. With options like popcorn snails and berkshire pork belly, you'll want to stick around.

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10. Santarpio's Pizza 111 Chelsea St, Boston, MA 02128 (East Boston)

Santarpio's Pizza has been around since 1903, so when we say “old-school,” we mean it. Much to the dismay of certain Bostonians, Santarpio’s is known for its New York-style pies, whose chewy crusts are thick and crispy enough to bear the weight of the generously distributed Italian cheese and sauce. Keep it simple with a cheese pizza, or get the sausage & garlic pie for a kick of meat. Santarpio's is far from a one-hit wonder though: its skewers of lamb and steak tips make up a solid barbecue option, as does the house-made sausage on its own. The East Boston location is cash-only, so spare yourself a scolding from one of the notoriously cranky serves and head to the ATM beforehand.

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11. Clover Food Lab 7 Holyoke St, Cambridge, MA 02138

"Everything will be different tomorrow" at CFL, which boasts a menu that changes daily and food trucks throughout Boston. The restaurant uses locally-sourced ingredients to create tasty, speedy sandwiches, soups, and drinks.

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12. Neptune Oyster 63 Salem St, Boston, MA 02113 (North End)

Bivalves are king at Neptune Oyster, a popular seafood counter in the North End. The menu is classically New England but a variety of seafood-based recipes come out of the kitchen, from cioppino and fried Ipswich clams to fish & chips and Basque-peppered Spanish octopus. Served two ways, the lobster roll is an award-winning signature, and though it's prepared the typical way with mayonnaise, the hot butter option is the way to go. Neptune draws hoards of seafood-craving hopefuls to its Salem St. storefront on weekend afternoons and evenings, so be prepared to traverse the neighborhood while you wait for your coveted seat at the marble bar.

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13. UNI Sashimi Bar 370 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215 (Back Bay)

Ken Oringer's crown jewel of a sashimi bar made a name for itself when it was tucked into Clio, the Back Bay French restaurant that used to occupy the Eliot Hotel. Once Clio closed, Uni expanded into the entire space. Aside from stunning raw fish dishes, the restaurant serves adventurous hot plates and a late-night ramen menu. All the fish is sourced from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market or New England fishermen.

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