When it comes to the dining scene in any major city, everyone’s always so focused on the shiny and new (we’re guilty of this sin, too), but fixating on the next big thing means we sometimes neglect the bedrocks of Boston’s dining scene. Of course, we’re guilty of this sin, too -- so today, we’re trying to absolve ourselves by honoring our elders a little. Here are 10 old-timers who deserve better -- or at least deserve your undying loyalty for making the city’s restaurant scene what it is today.
This one feels a little tricky, given that the restaurant no longer occupies the Gloucester St townhouse once so integral to the L’Espalier experience. But little-known fact: when it opened in 1978, L’Espalier was first situated on Boylston before heading to Gloucester a few years later. Regardless, the restaurant’s (final?) move to its current modern space has actually democratized its meal service. Lunch, afternoon tea, and weekend brunch mean that we hoi polloi can rhapsodize over chef Frank McClelland’s French-tinged regional cooking, while the salon menu lets you go hog wild (daintily, daintily) over the cheese and wine programs. And if it’s still a celebratory meal you’re after, you really can’t beat a nighttime tasting menu astride one of the streetside picture windows. Still amazing after all these years.
Here’s where we really start getting into Boston’s dining history. Marliave first made its debut in 1885, opened by a French immigrant who brought over a closely guarded cachet of Francophile recipes. It’s had its ups and downs in the 13 decades since, but Marliave really is an undersung institution. Where else can you enjoy French onion soup and rarebit at the bar while savoring a drink called the Chauncey Warbucks (Baker’s bourbon, absinthe, grenadine, bitters)? The first floor reeks of backroom politics gone by, while the upstairs dining space provides a charmingly anachronistic view of Downtown Crossing (you forget how little the architecture has changed here). Oh, and on those deep February nights when you cannot bear to drag your ass out the door? Marliave delivers. Rarebit in bed, baby.
It’s nice to know that old-school Harvard Square hasn’t completely disappeared. Over four decades, this Square workhorse has pushed farm-to-table ideals while training many a future celebrated chef. It’s New England cuisine the way both locals and visitors want it: ingredients like lobster and halibut done to the nines. The tasting menu is anniversary-worthy, while the two-course "business lunch" is a steal. If you’re fixing for the prix fixe brunch, plan ahead, because every maitre d’ in town seems to tip off their hotel guests about it (must be those Rise and Shine Martinis). Come summer, a spot on the garden terrace is still one of the most coveted tables in the city.
Many of us who grew up in the city were dim-sum regulars; it was one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get out of the house during daylight hours (hey, there wasn’t nearly as much going on in Boston back in the ‘80s). Most of Chinatown’s old-time spots have since quietly slipped away, but China Pearl remains a stalwart. Climbing up those stairs is like slipping down a rabbit hole of nostalgia: the decor, dishware, and menu all feel virtually unchanged, and the dim sum itself is as dependable as ever. Look around and you might notice an older-than-usual crowd; those are the regulars who were sucking down shui mai before you were even a zygote.
It’s hard to oversell this place, even though in some ways it’s hard to sell it. Pizzas and pitchers, what’s the big deal? Well, the movie-set-like interior, for one, with its frayed booths and framed celebrity headshots. And the history, of course. Regina started in 1926 as both a sit-down and to-go pizzeria; we like to think Boston spurred the home-delivery pizza business. But really it’s about the 16in brick-oven beauts you can set your clock to, just as your forebears likely did before you.
Because you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. The centenarian East Boston spot started life as a bakery, strangely enough, but in 1933 it began slinging the pies that still cause spasms of glee in all who partake. It’s simple, it’s no-frills, it’s hard to get to, it’s credit-card-averse... and it’s still a legend. Give a Bostonian a salty waitress, a sausage pie, some lamb kabob, and a Bud, and he’ll give you that rarest of New England gifts: a smile.
Oh, no big deal, just the oldest restaurant in America. Union House has its critics, but we’re talking about a place that began shucking oysters in 1826, back when said bivalves were hella bigger than the ones we eat today and folks like Daniel Webster sucked them down on the regular. Go for the decor and the New England staples (or as the menu calls them, "Ye Olde New England Favorites"): steamers, clam chowder, boiled or baked stuffed lobster, and by all means the baked beans and Indian pudding.
If you think Boston’s Mexican food scene sucks today, try 45 years ago. Back then Casa Romero was the city’s enchilada oasis, a tucked-away basement eatery (in the basement of the old L’Espalier, in fact) visited by pretty much every single denizen at some point in their residency. And the appeal endures: it’s got the Mexican tile tables, the generous margaritas, and the massive menu of classic over-the-border entrees (plus a little-known patio for warm-weather eating). Are the prices a little nuts at this point? Absolutely -- but then again, nowhere in Boston does history come cheap.
Was the ordering system always so screwy? Probably, but then again, back in 1937, the lines likely weren’t as long. Beacon Hill’s classic luncheonette isn’t always easy to navigate -- seriously, why is the bathroom all the way in the back? And why will no one let you by to get there? -- but it’s always worth it. It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or breakfast for dinner, or lunch for breakfast), with most dishes prepped on the griddle and all servings proving crazily ample.
Craving some Boston cream pie and a martini served on a silver tray? Then you’ve found your nirvana. Here are just a few of the crazy historical tidbits from this 100-some-year-old dining room: It hired the first French chef in America in 1855 (M. Sanzian); Emeril Lagasse, Lydia Shire, and Jasper White all cooked here; and Malcolm X was a busboy in the 1940s. Oh, and Sanzian is actually credited with inventing Boston cream pie. Take all that in before considering the menu full of bygones, with its iceberg wedge salad and roasted quail and baked Boston "schrod" (a staple since 1906). Such throwback decadence is only enhanced by a wood-paneled dining room so ornate you’ll feel compelled to end the meal with a brandy and a cigar.
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1. L'Espalier774 Boylston St, Boston
2. Marliave10 Bosworth St , Boston
3. Harvest44 Brattle St, Cambridge
4. China Pearl Restaurant9 Tyler St, Boston
5. Regina Pizzeria11 Thacher St, Boston
6. Santarpio's Pizza111 Chelsea St, Boston
7. Union Oyster House41 Union St, Boston
8. Casa Romero30 Gloucester St, Boston
9. The Paramount44 Charles St, Boston
10. Parker's Restaurant60 School St, Boston
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.
Marliave first made its debut in 1885, opened by a French immigrant who brought over a closely guarded cachet of Francophile recipes. It’s had its ups and downs in the 13 decades since, but Marliave really is an undersung institution. Where else can you enjoy French onion soup and rarebit at the bar while savoring a drink called the Chauncey Warbucks (Baker’s bourbon, absinthe, grenadine, bitters)? The first floor reeks of backroom politics gone by, while the upstairs dining space provides a charmingly anachronistic view of Downtown Crossing (you forget how little the architecture has changed here). Oh, and on those deep February nights when you cannot bear to drag your ass out the door? Marliave delivers. Rarebit in bed, baby.
All of the dishes at this upscale American restaurant are plated so artfully you’ll hardly want to dig in to them, but trust us when we say that it tastes even better than it looks. Enjoy brunch cocktails like the Rise & Shine Martini (Stoli Oranj, triple sec, and freshly squeezed orange juice) with a three course prix-fixe brunch menu inside by the fire or outside on the elegant, rustic patio. For dinner enjoy a raw bar and options like juniper roasted venison and brown butter poached halibut, or order three or six course meals (with wine pairings) from the tasting menu. While their fancy dining room is the perfect place to host a business lunch, have no fear they great beer.
China Pearl is one of Boston’s Chinatown tried-and-true dim sum spots, complete with a hefty menu of Appetizers, soup, chicken, beef, seafood, pork, vegetables, fried rice, and noodles. The dim sum wrapped in paper-thin crystal dough are hand-delivered on cart by servers who frankly seem to had enough, but continue their mission to feed Boston’s Chinese food-craving citizens anyway, because it’s important. Get to China Pearl early on weekends; lines of hungry patrons who have come here for years will undoubtedly have formed if you get there too late.
Ask anyone where to find the best pizza in Boston and they'll most likely say Regina's in the North End, whose street-stretching lines attest to the thin-crust pizza's popularity. Family-owned and operated since 1926, Regina's specializes in a secret-recipe brick-oven pizza made with a light, spicy-sweet sauce and house-made mozzarella. Call ahead and get your pie to-go, or eat inside the cramped, wood-laden space, where a gruff (but friendly) waitress with a thick Boston accent will take your order among an abundance of celebrity photos.
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.
Ready for this claim to fame? Union Oyster House is the oldest restaurant in America, serving up mussels, chowders, lobster, and (of course) oysters in Government Center since people like Daniel Webster were alive and slurping back shellfish here. Its big, red rooftop sign lights the way like the North Star, a landmark in the neighborhood, leading people to this rustic, buzzy space, where the New England staples (or, as the menu states, "Ye Olde New England Favorites") are a must: steamers, clam chowder, boiled stuffed lobster, baked beans, and Indian pudding.
You wouldn’t expect suddenly find yourself in Mexico while taking a walk in a Back Bay, but that’s exactly what happens when you walk into Casa Romero, an upscale Mexican joint whose dishes and décor ostensibly transport you south of the border. Decorated with Talavera tiles from Puebla and anchored by an outdoor patio enclosed by a sunset orange, wooden plank fence behind the restaurant, Casa Romero provides a warm, inviting setting in which you’ll indulge in house margaritas, soups, salads, appetizers, meats, poultry, vegetables, seafood, and desserts.
Get to this Beacon Hill breakfast favorite early or prepare to wait in an obscenely long line. Fans queue up down the street and through the space, wrapping around the open kitchen, where they watch as cooks whip up luscious treats like buttermilk pancakes (fresh fruit, chocolate chips, and apple cinnamon are available), caramel & banana french toast, and malted Belgian waffles on a large griddle. Customizable omelets and breakfast sandwiches are on the menu, too, as are fresh salads and sandwiches later in the day for lunch and dinner. After placing your order, you'll pay at the counter and either sit at one of the coveted in-house tables, or take your order to-go and eat in the Public Garden just a couple of blocks away.
Parker's Restaurant inside the historic Omni Parker House Hotel is legendary for a few reasons: it invented Boston cream pie and Parker House rolls, Emeril Lagasse cooked here (bam!), Malcolm X was a busboy here in the 1940s, and JFK proposed to Jackie at Table 40. If the sheer romance of that last tidbit isn't enough to get you through the door, you're either heartless, or the grand architecture and upscale surf and turf plates like butter poached lobster, roasted quail, filet mignon, and baked Boston schrod (a staple since 1906) will do the trick.