Scallion pancake “sandwiches” at Mei Mei
Hojoko Campari & Fanta “bomb”
With its waterside setting, educated demographics and crisp, New England weather, Boston has long been a draw for seafood, historic restaurants and even claims key 1960’s years when California-born Julia Child lived in Cambridge, where she researched and tested recipes from her years in France. Despite even some family roots on my Sicilian side here, I didn’t experience many memorable meals here in the past. Years passed between my last visit and my recent stay and I noticed a marked change in Boston.
Sure, there has been a big uptick in notable restaurants and cocktail bars — just as there has been across the country. But more importantly, I noted the hospitality change, the camaraderie between industry folk as they recommended each other’s restaurants and bars, and the warm reception I received at each place mentioned here. Knowledgeable staff around Boston confirm that here exists “kindred spirits”: those who seek out (even study) great food and drink, who think about their next meal as they’re wrapping up their last, who geek out about a rare sherry or a wine from the Jura.
View from my room at Hotel Commonwealth
One wishes for a place like Hotel Commonwealth in every city, as it houses no less than three stellar bars and restaurants: Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne (more below). Gazing over Fenway Park (and the official hotel of the Red Sox), the modern, spacious hotel is a fine home base in Boston. Commonwealth makes it all too easy: you can roll downstairs for a top-notch cocktail or the freshest of oysters at restaurants and bars you should have on your go-to list anyway.
But you should get out of the hotel because there are some strong draws across the city, on up through Cambridge and Somerville. Here are a few of the strongest.
Wink & Nod: rooster giouvetsi from Pelekasis
Wink & Nod
So the speakeasy cocktail bar is the trend of over a decade ago, but Wink & Nod is more than a speakeasy cocktail bar. The restaurant side may technically be a pop-up but it’s more a rotating kitchen where every 6 months, a new chef and concept take over the kitchen, playing with uncommon cuisines and dishes.
Case in point: chef Brendan Pelley’s current Pelekasis, which will soon change to a new chef and concept. The modern Greek menu is inspired by Pelley’s heritage, which we can only hope he turns into a brick-and-mortar. Greek food has been waiting for this playful push. Think foie gras dolmades, wild boar keftedes (meatballs) and a rooster giouvetsi, a classic Greek stew and pasta dish, here a comforting mix of fowl braised in cinnamon-tomato sauce, hilopites pasta, mizithra cheese and kalamata olives. And don’t miss the one hundred layer spanakopita.
Cocktails at Committee
Committee pulls on Mediterranean/Greek in a different way. It’s a spacious restaurant serving warm and cold meze with the surprise being the bar, heavy on ouzo, anisettes and rare spirits from Greece and Lebanon (think arak but also thge likes of Haraki Tsikoudia from Crete).
Beverage Director Peter Szigeti hails from Budapest and worked at bars all over Asia and Europe, bringing an international sensibility to the cocktails in the likes of a silky Bohemian Punch, mixing Becherovka (an herbal liqueur from Czech Republic) with spiced honey, lemon, pear, black walnut bitters and Q tonic water.
Island Creek fish (changing) with a dreamy mustard spaetzle & tasso ham
This is New England, after all, and it’s not cliche to say that New England seafood is some of the best in the country, whether succulent Maine lobster or local Massachusetts oysters. Island Creek Oyster Bar is as good as it gets when it comes to experiencing New England seafood, choosing from a changing graph of oysters or crudo of the day, like fluke in sesame, orange and lime. Ethel’s lobster roll on a house rosemary bun is signature but so are decadent lobster roe noodles laden with braised short rib and grilled lobster (the ultimate “surf and turf”). Then there’s the creamy lobster bisque. Have gracious wine director Noell Dorsey pair a wine or sherry from their thoughtful collection.
Daily ceviches & crudo on the raw bar menu at Row34
Sister restaurant to but different from Island Creek, Row 34 is the newer of the two restaurants with a heavy craft beer focus and an extensive, nearly 25 beer draft menu, alongside wines from regions like Jura, Styria and Rioja. Their buttered lobster roll is more traditional Connecticut style, glorious with buttery lobster and a squeeze of lemon. Don’t miss the downright dreamy Old Bay onion rings.
On the sushi side, Uni expanded earlier this year from the cozy basement sushi bar (which is still there) to a bigger restaurant excelling in nigiri and raw dishes like spicy tuna and foie gras tataki in aji amarillo sauce. Besides fish, another draw is bar manager Jason Kilgore’s elegant cocktails, like Shulz & Brown, combining rye whiskey, shochu, peanut, lime and bitters. Note the thoughtful wine list with orange wines and bottles from wine geek region favorites like Jura, Chablis and NY’s Finger Lakes.
Industry favorite & elegant cocktail den, The Hawthorne
Custom cocktails at menu-less pioneer, Drink
While pioneers like No. 9 Park and Drink ushered in the cocktail renaissance in Boston years back, and are thankfully going strong, the scene is in full bloom. Many Boston bars stick heavily to classics or variations on classics, like the still memorable Drink or industry favorite (with excellent hospitality), The Hawthorne. But there are sources for inventive drinks.
Yvonne’s is easily one of the most stunning dining rooms and bars in Boston — and in many a city. Lush and hidden from the street, the massive, historic space has been revived down to a dramatic, vintage wood bar that runs the length of the dining room, opulent with chandeliers and booths. The bar area and tables are equally dramatic, with Old World-style paintings of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken punctuating the walls between fireplaces and bookshelves. Thankfully, friendly service, inspired small plates (rangoon crispy eggplant in pineapple duck sauce) and gorgeous cocktails make it worth your while. On the lower proof side, the Italian-inspired Uffizi is a beauty of Bonal Gentiane Quina, Zucca Rabarbaro (rhubarb) Amaro, white grapefruit and seashell salt.
Backbar has been a bar great for years, hidden behind Journeyman restaurant in the town of Somerville. Besides weekly-changing milk punches and a lush house egg nog — not to mention addictive house hot dogs or carrot miso dog on poppy seed buns — there are drinks like Ricky Bobby Burns, a bracing mix of Dewars 12 Scotch, Cynar, Campari and Benedictine, aromatic with burnt cedar.
Welcoming Craigie on Main, a beloved restaurant in Cambridge, wins with drinks like Apples to Apples, a tall, refreshing mix of Lustau Amontillado sherry, maple-roasted syrup, cranberry simple syrup, orange curacao, caramelized apples, cinnamon and nutmeg. Despite the syrups, it’s not too sweet as some seemingly spirituous drinks here can be, rather, the complexity and nuttiness of the sherry shines.
More about the sherry collection than the cocktails, Straight Law at Taberna de Haro feels like being transported to Spain with its Spanish bites and extensive sherry book with thoughtful notes, available in 2 oz. pours or flights of 4 for $25.
When you just want loud and fun — but still need quality — Brick + Mortar is the rowdy industry favorite in Cambridge, packed even on a Monday night, serving joys like Under the Gun (Altos Tequila, velvet falernum, creme de cassis, lime, chili bitters) from a bar staff who know their spirits but keep it low key.
Hojoko’s playful space
Hipster Asian Fusion
Myers + Chang
As with many US cities, the fusing of Korean with Mexican, Chinese with Jewish deli or other such “mashups” has spread, even becoming mainstream. Boston is no exception, although James Beard-nominated Myers + Chang is a local pioneer, opened in 2007 by Joanne Chang and her husband, Christopher Myers (she is also behind the fantastic Boston bakery, Flour). With one of the friendliest waitstaff in Boston, M + C turns out food pulling from China, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, including their beloved spicy-cold dan dan noodles, sweet and sour brussels sprouts or plump “lemony shrimp” dumplings, served speedily and with a smile.
Singapore street noodles at Tiger Mama
It doesn’t get cooler than Hojoko, from the owners of sushi temple and worthwhile splurge, O Ya. Pull up to the long, green bar or a vintage Pac-Man game and sip boozy slushies, quality sakes or playful cocktails from bar managers’ Daren Swisher and Joe Cammarata, paired with excellent modern Japanese izakaya plates. It’s hard to resist their okonomiyaki or housemade foie gras “spam” with robata-grilled pineapple. Don’t miss their way-too-fun “bombs”, like Irish whiskey with a house cucumber shrub soda or coconut-washed Campari with Mexican Fanta (if you’re lucky, they might even bring out a toy Godzilla to “help” dunk the shot in the soda).
Tiger Mama just opened in December 2015 from Sonoma County-born chef Tiffani Faison, focused on Southeast Asian cuisine. In an industrial-cool space, chilled, garlic-poached salmon chopped salad or crispy chili chicken in coconut oyster sauce tossed with long beans and rice gratify in heat and heartiness. Cocktails also intrigue, like the a fantastic flip (whole egg cocktail) disguised as a light and frothy fizz: the Indo-Fizz combined Old Monk 7 year old rum, coconut milk, whole egg, fresh turmeric and ginger honey syrup.
7 layer hummus at Sarma
Killer Mediterranean Food
Some of the more exciting Mediterranean food in the US is (surprisingly) found in Boston and that is thanks in large part to James Beard-winning chef Ana Sortun, whose restaurant Oleana has been making waves since 2001. She went on to open Sarma in 2013, modeled after a Turkish meyhane/tavern focused around meze (small plates), helmed by chef de cuisine Cassandra (Cassie) Piuma. At roomy Sarma, changing plates of the moment pass by and you can point and choose and also order from the menu with meze like seven-layer hummus, sugarsnap peas in macadamia-miso tarator (a soup-like sauce) or Tunisian steak tartare. Sarma’s cocktails are likewise excellent and pull from the Mediterranean, as with an Anointed Sour, featuring Spanish Gin Mare, lemon, Manzanilla sherry and olive oil syrup for lush texture.
Ames Street Deli
All-day gems with personality are found around the area. Mei Mei, which started as (and still runs) a food truck, can be uneven with some dishes (like unexpectedly dry, bready dumplings) but the charming, quirky cafe is a destination because of those scallion pancakes alone. Thick, Chinese-style pancakes are packed, sandwich-like, with pesto, cheddar and two eggs — plus ham, turkey or bacon, if you so desire — in the Double Awesome. Or the Kimchi Dog pancake is layered with Piggery farm beef & pork hot dog, Hawthorne Valley kimchi and sriracha aioli.
With cocktails from backbar’s Sam Treadway, Ames Street Deli is an airy, all-day cafe in Cambridge where drinks are grouped in sections like “Refreshing: Wicked Taaaht & Tangy”, espresso drinks are properly made and there are quality local beers like Jack’s Abby Smoke & Daggers Nitro on draft. And that breakfast sandwich on an English muffin, laden with egg, piquillo-cheese, kale and a juicy house fennel pork sausage (an add on), is the right way to start the day.