What’s the Perfect Day Eating in Bean Town? We Talked to 'Boston Globe’s' Food Critic
When Devra First weighs in, the food world listens. The Boston Globe’s restaurant critic since 2007, First is known for her rare mix of empathy, humor, and blunt honesty, and her pitch perfect ability to channel job anxiety into a story about a local pizza chain, or step back from our generation's Big Chicken Sandwich Debate to properly contextualize it.
First knows the ins and outs of Boston's culinary scene as well as anyone, especially as it has evolved over her twelve years in a restaurant critic role, the knowledge you can't find in a city guide. In this conversation, she gives an insiders perspective on everything from the best, unexpected neighborhoods to eat in, to her thoughts on takedown reviews, to her ideal day of eating around Boston.
On her start in food writing:
I grew up in New York, and my mom was an adventurous, experimental, really good cook who was always making meals from scratch and reading Gourmet and Bon Appetit. So, from a young age, I think that naturally started to shape me and make me interested in food, but I never thought I wanted to be a restaurant critic.
I wanted to write the Great American Novel, but I needed to support myself, so after teaching English in Japan for a year, a friend asked if I wanted to move to Boston, and I thought ‘sure, why not’ and moved in the mid-90s. When I got here, I decided I’d try and get an editorial job, so I first worked for a tiny magazine, and then at Boston’s (now defunct) alt-weekly, The Phoenix.
After a few years writing about food at ThePhoenix, I got hired by the Boston Globe as a copy editor on its Living/Arts desk. But the food section fell under our purview, so I became friends with the food editor and I remember thinking of this ridiculously punny headline -- I think it was Ponzu Scheme -- and the editor was like ‘you should write a story so you can use this headline.’ That’s how I started writing for her and food section, through my ridiculous headline.
On getting the Globe restaurant critic job:
We had a few rotating food columns, and I was in this incredible rotation with Joe Yonan (now the Washington Post’s food editor) and Wesley Morris (now a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic-at-large for the New York Times). We’d all go out to eat together and take turns writing the stories. It was the most fun I ever had, and gave me some reviewing experience. And then Alison Arnett, the chief restaurant critic at the time, left, and so I put my name in for the job and didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell I’d actually get it, but Marty Baron, our editor at the time, took a chance on me so I’m eternally grateful to him for that.
On take down reviews, generally:
They tend to be big name places from out-of-town chefs, because those places are easy ones to kick. You’re not going to sink them, so it gives you a chance to flex your writing muscles and generate buzz without doing significant harm. I’m going to come out and say I don’t really believe in this type of review. I believe in writing about those types of places, but I don’t believe in the take down review for the sake of the take down review. Is it fun? It is great for the readers? Does it get you a lot of attention? Yes.
But fundamentally, I believe restaurant criticism is consumer advocacy and not about the critic. It’s about cultural criticism. So if you want to write about a place like Tao as a piece of cultural criticism and make it nuanced and thoughtful, I’m all for it. But if you want to tear it down just for the sake of tearing it down, that’s not something I’m into. The concept of an easy target is not interesting.
On the story she’s written that’s gotten the most love:
My Papa Gino's story got a big response. Some of it was like “how dare you write about our Papa Ginos” because I’ve only lived here since 1995 and so I’m clearly an interloper, but I think the reason it worked was a combination of things: people grew up eating it, so it was personally meaningful for a lot of people here, and it spoke to a moment of where we are in the work life in America and how tenuous everything feels for so many people. That hit a nerve, and it was unexpected, and I think people didn’t expect something about Papa Gino's to wind up where it wound up.
On Boston’s culinary journey over the last decade:
When I started in August 2007, it was foie gras and caviar and business client lunches and expensive bottles of wine. And then the recession hit, and everything shifted to lobster mac & cheese and craft beer. It was fascinating watching diner priorities shift and seeing how there just wasn’t the kind of dining anymore that supported these expensive restaurants. The upscale pub grub scene was out in full force, but it was also when we started to see the rise of these interesting, creative smaller restaurants where the price point wasn’t as high and the optics were totally different. It was more egalitarian, more explorative, there were fewer boundaries. Chefs are always trying to stretch a dollar, but they were finding more creative ways to do it, and changing the way we ate -- and many of the cheap cuts of meat they originally used, short rib and pork belly and even cauliflower, aren’t cheap anymore. But the creativity was the good that came out of the hurt everyone felt.
Devra First’s Ideal Day of Eating In and Around Boston:
Breakfast: Sofra, for pastries and shakshuka.
Lunch: Dim sum at Winsor Dim Sum Cafe in Quincy.
Dinner: Omakase at Cafe Sushi or Tasting Counter.
Dessert: Everything Renae Connolly is making at Benedetto.
Nightcap: Sake and Japanese whiskey at Momi Nonmi.
On Boston’s best, most surprising food neighborhoods to take out-of-towners:
I really like to take people to Chinatown, or, if we have more time, to Malden and Quincy, where a lot of the Chinese community has expanded to. That we have this big, still vital Chinatown right in the heart of the city is very cool. I often take people to Winsor Dim Sum (although I think the one in Quincy has the edge now). Shojo for cocktails before or after.
But my favorite is probably East Boston. No one who flies in ever thinks of coming to eat there, because they fly right over it, but there is fantastic food there: Taqueria Jalisco, Angela's Cafe, Frio Rico for shave ice, Santarpio's for pizza, and KO Pies (Aussie food in a working shipyard).
Or you can go to Belle Isle Seafood in nearby Winthrop and get a huge lobster roll or a good fried seafood plate and watch the airplanes fly over your head.
On Boston losing some of its regionality:
I think that some unique regionality is getting lost everywhere, and I think in part that is because of social media, and the length of time it used to take food trends to travel. It used to be years, and now it happens thousands of times a day, so I think it’s inevitable that’s going to happen across the world. I think there’s so much more exchange and interplay and I think that’s cool in many ways.
I’m not worried we’re not going to have seafood shacks in New England any more, so I think change ultimately is good, I just hate that it costs a lot of money to get into the game in most major cities. I don’t think it’s good for dining culture. And I hate that you travel now and see the same places everywhere. But I feel like a lot of travelers are assured by that, so who am I? I think in any city you go to, you’re always going to find interesting, unique eccentric weirdo places if you look for them. I was in Vegas a few months back, and you go off the strip and there’s a ton of cool experimental stuff happening. That was so fun to see.
Boston Chef to keep an eye on:
Douglass Williams at Mida.
The most interesting things happening in Boston food right now:
The opening of small, original, inclusive places owned by women. For example: Fox & the Knife, staffed almost entirely by women; Nathalie, which showcases women winemakers; and Rebel Rebel, which does the same and recently spearheaded a fund-raising initiative in support of abortion access using the hashtag #RoseforResistance.