Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Boston Greats.
Beyond the stereotypes of Boston’s love of lobster and clam chowder (as true as they may be), the Massachusetts capital is one of the culinary hubs of America. Here, the array of cuisines define Boston almost as much as the architecture: The slow-simmered sauces and hand-rolled pastas dished out by the Italian eateries in the North End with its narrow streets and brick buildings, or the bold fusion cuisine among the gleaming glass towers in the shadow of the historic Fenway Park.
In the surrounding cities of Cambridge and Somerville, too, chefs from all over the world delight diners with the flavors of their heritage. The restaurants here don’t need accolades — though you can hit up what’s known as one of the world’s best sushi purveyors, or a long-standing seafood spot dubbed “North America’s Best Landmark Restaurant”— to prove what local diners already know: The Boston-area food scene is a world-class feast.
With a record number of restaurants shutting down due to the ongoing pandemic, now more than ever is your chance to step up to the plate and support the restaurant industry. Whether you’re just passing through or have lived here for years, dig into this guide to the essential restaurants that make the Boston area such a great place to eat.
Aquitaine (South End)
With a black-and-white tiled floor plus handsome corner booths and tables topped with luxe white linens, Aquitaine feels like a Parisian bistro tucked by the Seine and not Boston’s South End. The French fare offered by chef/owner Seth Woods has snagged awards like Boston magazine’s best French restaurant, which is hardly a surprise right from that first bite of steak frites. On offer here are two spins: steak frites Aquitaine with hanger steak and a rich shallot sauce, and the Parisian, which showcases New York strip steak with garlic parsley butter. Packed brunch services spill out onto the patio, too, where diners delight in French twists on morning meals, like the decadent duck hash and eggs.
Dining at the restaurant: Aquitaine offers limited socially distant indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant directly, with delivery offered via third-party apps.
Beehive (South End)
On any pre- (and hopefully post-) pandemic night, Beehive buzzes thanks to live bands that fill the underground space with jazz tunes, to the delight of diners cozied up close. The fare is as eclectic as the laid-back spot’s Boho-inspired surroundings with brick walls, sumptuous drapes, and hand-painted murals. Chef Ryan Skeen — who worked with Daniel Boulud and other culinary greats before heading to Boston — dishes out locally sourced, Mediterranean-inspired plates such as vegetable-packed couscous spiked with spicy harissa, while burgers find new zing with malt onion jam. The New York Times shouted out the Beehive as a must-visit when in Boston, and the bands and bites are music to the taste buds as much as to the ears.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining is available, with patio dining returning as soon as weather permits.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant directly, with delivery from third-party apps.
No. 9 Park (Beacon Hill)
Barbara Lynch’s name is synonymous with top-notch cuisine in Boston and beyond, and the fine-dining flagship of her glitzy seven-restaurant empire still makes waves even nearly 25 years after its opening. Here, the refined service in the surroundings of dark wood awash with light from the antique chandeliers is as much on display as the French-Italian fare. On offer is a four-course prix fixe menu, from raw bar delights to the signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras. No. 9 Park’s accolades stretch as long as the James Beard Award-winning wine list: An AAA Four Diamond Rating as well as top awards from Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Boston magazine, and others.
Dining at the restaurant: No. 9 Park is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available for pickup by calling the restaurant directly.
Doña Habana (Roxbury)
While owners Nivia and Hector Pina only opened this Cuban restaurant in 2016, their ties to the culinary community run deep. They’ve helmed the Puerto Rican eatery Vejigantes since 2012 and Merengue, which delights Roxbury with Dominican fare, since 1994. The vibrant interior at Doña Habana marries Old Havana with modern day, featuring murals and bright walls and booths with sleek lines and handsome dark tones. The menu is much more than just the classic Cuban sandwich (though their mini Cubanitos are notable, too), with stuffed empanadas, house ceviche that zings with fresh lime juice, and beautiful bounties of paella. Stellar sides include fried maduros and crisp plantains with mojo sauce. And the mojito bar? The dozens on offer are enough to keep you coming back for more.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for socially distant indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available via OpenTable, with delivery through third-party apps.
Row 34 (South Boston)
Chef Jeremy Sewall and partner Shore Gregory’s Row 34, which opened in 2013 and has garnered raves from the likes of Bon Appetit, is all about celebrating seafood. Especially the most beautiful bivalve — the oyster — harvested fresh from Duxbury and shucked here by the bucketful. The mussels are magic too, steamed in cider and served with grilled sourdough, plus the pasta and clams with a generous heft of garlic. You can spot the seafood bounty displayed on ice in the treasure-trove by the entrance, which lends a refined nautical vibe to the hip, industrial space with its sprawling patio.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently closed to indoor dining.
Bricco (North End)
In a neighborhood with a wealth of Italian spots, Bricco’s bright flavors shine through its “boutique” cuisine, as restaurateur Frank DePasquale dubs his restaurant’s upscale spins on regional Italian dishes. The Italian seafood staple of octopus finds new zip with a ginger and jalapeño crust, with the farfalle tartufate dish a savory land-and-sea symphony with lobster, fava beans, pancetta, and more. The more formal vibe matches the sophistication of the plates, and with an adjoining grocery store, basement-level bakery, and nearby pasta and meat shop, you can bring a bite of Italy home with you.
Dining at the restaurant: Bricco offers indoor dining.
Takeout: Call the restaurant directly for takeout, with delivery offered via third-party apps.
Casa Romero (Back Bay)
The decor of this casual Back Bay beauty — with bold orange and pink walls and hand-painted tile from Puebla, Mexico bedecking the bar and tabletops — matches the cuisine: Bright, rich, and surprising. Back when chef/owner Leo Romero opened the spot in 1972, traditional Mexican cuisine was unheard of in Boston. But his dishes stand the test of time, like the pollo cilantro which showcases chicken in a rich, house-made tomatillo and cilantro sauce, as well as the best-selling pastor tacos, filled with pork brightened by pineapple and cilantro. In the warm weather, the lively dining room overflows out onto the patio, where diners throw back the award-winning margaritas and smoky mezcal cocktails well into the evening.
Dining at the restaurant: Casa Romero is currently open for indoor dining, and outdoor dining on the private, walled patio will return in the spring.
Takeout: Call for takeout, or order delivery through third-party apps.
China Pearl (Chinatown)
Along with a location in nearby Quincy, China Pearl delights Chinatown with dim sum and Cantonese-style dishes in its huge, gorgeously appointed dining room with chandeliers, hanging lanterns, and gleaming statues of mythical animals. In a neighborhood with a wealth of dining options, the eatery has been a favorite since first opening its doors in 1960. Notably, the dim sum dishes served up by staff with rolling carts are things of beauty, earning nods from the The Boston Globe, Boston magazine, and elsewhere for the crisp-edged pan-seared turnip cakes, pork and preserved egg congee, and steamed dumplings of shrimp balanced with chives.
Dining at the restaurant: China Pearl is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: China Pearl currently offers takeout for pick-up only, including special “survival packs” of bulk orders of their favorite dim sum dishes.
Grill 23 (Back Bay)
The stakes at this Back Bay steakhouse are high. Owner Chris Himmel has to uphold the nearly four-decade reputation of excellence since the restaurant opened in a vastly different Boston in 1983. Then there’s the notice near and far: The clubby classic steakhouse is Boston’s singular spot to receive the Grand Award from Wine Spectator for its ascendant wine list, plus it frequently notches top honor as Boston’s best steakhouse from Boston magazine, with further nods from Zagat and The Boston Globe. Luckily, the plates proffered within the old-school digs (think columns, wood tones, and leather) don’t disappoint. Come with high hopes for the filet and the prime ribeye that’s aged for 100 days before its date with the grill and a rich bath of béarnaise, and leave (very) full and satisfied.
Dining at the restaurant: Grill 23 is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Pickup is available by calling the restaurant, with takeout and delivery offered via third-party apps.
Legal Sea Foods Harborside (South Boston Waterfront)
Though owner Roger Berkowitz — whose father founded Legal Sea Foods as a fish market in Cambridge in 1950 — sold off his restaurant empire to an investment firm in late 2020 as a result of the pandemic, Legal Sea Foods Harborside is still a Boston institution. Tucked on the Harborwalk right by Liberty Wharf, the casual restaurant with its seaside industrial vibe affords gorgeous views of the water as you watch chefs shuck local oysters. Diners across America know the chain as a go-to for seafood, but this flagship location truly pulls out all the stops across three floors that overlook the water. The menu is chock full of seafood favorites such as lobster rolls and sushi, and fans of Legal’s creamy clam chowder are in good company: It’s been on the menu at presidential inaugurations from 1981 and onward.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for indoor dining, with dining on the patio that overlooks the Boston Main Channel to return in the spring.
Takeout: Call the restaurant for pickup, with delivery via third-party apps.
Lincoln Tavern (South Boston)
In a sprawling brick-walled space once occupied by a department store and now reimagined as a laid-back neighborhood pub with tiled floors, Lincoln Tavern’s menu combines wood-fired pizzas and American fare. Executive chef Nick Dixon whips up tavern favorites such as wood-grilled sausage pizza with sharp pickled cherry peppers, and short ribs that are braised for 18 hours and served with truffle mac and cheese. But perhaps the real treat is the decadent, award-winning brunch, served every day to a jovial crowd, when you can savor banana chocolate chip doughnuts and breakfast pizza. Hit up the brunch test kitchen on Fridays, too, when the chefs work their alchemy and try out new dishes that may end up gracing the permanent menu (like the popular Fruity Pebbles pancakes).
Dining at the restaurant: Lincoln Tavern is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available via phone, with delivery fulfilled by third-party apps.
MIDA (South End)
Chef/owner Douglass Williams knows perfect pasta. He spent years honing his skills with top Boston chefs Michael Schlow at Radius and then Jamie Bissonnette on the opening team for Coppa before opening this refined South End neighborhood spot. The house-made pasta with just the right bite stars in dishes such as the rich and classic carbonara and a hearty lasagna with fontina cheese and short rib. Come hungry for the feast of “Mangia Pasta Mondays,” which is also available for takeout and includes heaps of five different pastas with salad and bread on the side. Williams’s skills are getting recognition outside the city, too: In 2020, the James Beard Foundation made Williams a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Northeast category, with Food & Wine adding him to the list of their Best New Chefs the same year.
Dining at the restaurant: MIDA is open for indoor dining, with patio dining to return in the spring. Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available through third-party apps.
Strega by Nick Varano (North End)
Restaurateur Nick Strega’s empire once included several ventures in the area before he sold most to an investment firm in 2020. But lucky for Boston, he’s holding onto his baby — the original restaurant he opened in 2003 in the historic North End. Stars have flocked to the glitzy spot with its chandeliers and dark moody tones for years, and you’ll find a prominent wall with pictures of Verano smiling with the likes of Sofía Vergara and Dwayne Johnson. Potential celeb sightings aside, the cuisine is the real star: The housemade ravioli with ricotta and plum tomato sauce, the earthy lamb chops balanced by pistachio pesto, the classic parmigiana with confit chicken. Opt for a robust espresso martini which will keep you up past dessert.
Dining at the restaurant: Strega by Nick Varano is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Order takeout by calling the restaurant, with delivery from third-party apps.
Tiger Mama (Fenway)
Food show fans will find a familiar face in Tiffani Faison, a recurring judge on Chopped and a Top Chef alum, though neighbors know the James Beard Awards nominee best for her four-restaurant empire in Fenway. Since opening in 2015 a stone’s throw from Fenway Park, Tiger Mama’s bold flavors have whisked diners away from Boston and across Southeast Asia. The menu of small, shareable plates and larger dishes features plates that match the funky, tropical decor — from curried Singapore street noodles doused with sesame seeds to mouth-burning pad gra pow with ground chicken and Thai basil, to pork dumplings and dim sum-inspired goodies. Brian Callahan, meanwhile, cools things down with creative riffs on tiki drinks.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining and outdoor dining on the Boylston Street patio are temporarily suspended.
Takeout: Though currently hibernating for the winter with outdoor dining to resume in the spring, Tiger Mama is available for catering orders.
O Ya (The Leather District)
Wife-and-husband restaurateurs Nancy and Tim Cushman pull out all the stops for their snug Japanese spot, set within a stunning historic fire station. Instead of a la carte options, diners savor a splurge-worthy nightly chef’s menu of sushi and cooked dishes that unfold over about 20 courses. The nigiri, sashimi, and small plates might feature silky fish topped with white truffle or black olive puree, with chunks of king crab swimming in an uni bouillabaisse. It’s the kind of creative fare that has snagged the restaurant recognition as one of the world’s best sushi restaurants, along with a host of awards, notably named by The New York Times as the best new restaurant in 2008 a year after its opening.
Dining at the restaurant: O Ya is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery from O Ya’s sister restaurant, Gogo Ya — with sushi, nori tacos, and bowls — is available for takeout and delivery via the website.
Stephanie’s on Newbury (Back Bay)
Stephanie’s on Newbury boasts one of the best spots in Boston for people watching. In the warmer months, the patio offers the chance to savor upscale comfort food and seasonal sangria as you gaze at people milling around the swish shops of Newbury Street. Executive chef Sebastian Zuluaga homes in on homey American favorites dreamed up by founder and chef Stephanie Sokolove, like the classic pot pie with its buttery crust and piping-hot interior of vegetables, plus chicken or lobster. If choosing to dine in the restaurant — with its bursts of orange decor and light from the copious windows — be sure to get a reservation. Since opening in 1994, the spot has been a local favorite, and the long lines (especially for weekend brunch) are proof.
Dining at the restaurant: While the Newbury Street patio is currently closed and will return with the warmer weather, indoor dining is available.
Takeout: Takeout is available by phone, with delivery offered by third-party apps.
Union Oyster House (Downtown)
A bright moment during a challenging 2020 for this Boston landmark which is owned by local legend Joe Milano? Snagging the title of “North America’s best landmark restaurant” from the inaugural World Culinary Awards. In a city known for its love affair with seafood, this historic spot has been shucking oysters and serving up succulent, butter-drenched lobster since 1826, making it Boston’s oldest restaurant. Stop in for fresh local oysters served with dollops of signature cocktail sauce, alongside hard-shell New England lobster will all the fixings. The digs are about as old-school as they come — rich wood tones, brick walls with exposed ceiling beams, a handsome bar with millwork — adding to the charm of this institution.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining is available.
Takeout: Takeout orders may be placed by calling the restaurant directly, with delivery via third-party apps. Note that takeout may be unavailable during especially busy times.
Uni (Back Bay)
Executive chefs and owners Ken Oringer and Tony Messina have snagged enough accolades to fill their bi-level sleek and moody Japanese-style izakaya, Uni. Both were named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Awards at points in their storied careers, along with nods near and far from Zagat, Condé Nast Traveler, and Boston magazine, who crowned Uni Boston’s best Japanese restaurant in 2019. Savor creative sashimi — masterpieces of spicy tuna and foie gras with cranberry, plus scallop with kumquat and smoked curd — as well as buttery sashimi, hot plates, and more. Frequent flirtations with non-sushi fare such as burgers and ramen keep the menu fresh, while flights of Japanese whisky round out the cocktail list.
Dining at the restaurant: While Uni’s main dining room is currently closed due to the pandemic, the restaurant offers semi-private dining suites within the rooms of the Eliot Hotel.
Takeout: Order from a separate takeout menu by calling the restaurant directly, or get delivery via third-party apps.
Alden & Harlow (Harvard Square)
A “Best of Boston” chef by Boston magazine, chef Michael Scelfo’s New American dinner and weekend brunch spot calls a handsome subterranean space of Cambridge’s historic Brattle Hall home — but the food is no basement fare. Here, shareable plates and larger options lean vegetarian, with other New England-inspired favorites: Grilled broccoli with squash hummus; housemade chips with three-onion dip; seared Bluefin tuna that finds a surprising sweet-sour kick thanks to pickled apple butter. Instead of multiple spins on the pub grub classic, the singular burger is a thick, smoky Black Angus patty topped with secret sauce and cheese chips, with only around 40 available per night.
Dining at the restaurant: Alden & Harlow currently offers indoor dining. Experience the best of the restaurant through a special reservation on OpenTable that includes three plates from the restaurant and its upstairs sibling, the Longfellow Bar, for $30 every Sunday through Tuesday nights.
Takeout: Takeout is available for pick-up only.
Craigie on Main (Central)
Seasonal, farm-to-table fare takes center stage at this longtime French-inspired American restaurant in the Central neighborhood of Cambridge. The meals dreamed up by James Beard Award-winning chef/owner Tony Maws might be five-star, but the laid-back and rustic restaurant — white-washed brick walls, light streaming in through the copious windows onto the wood floors — calls for jeans and elbows on the table. The menu changes often, though the favorite Craigie on Main burger always finds a welcomed spot in the spotlight. Maws has spent years perfecting the combination of grass-fed beef with Vermont cheddar and housemade ketchup, and that effort shines through the first bite. The Chef’s Whim dinner, too, never disappoints and takes the guesswork out of dinner.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining is currently closed.
Takeout: Takeout is available, with delivery via third-party apps. Check out the weekly rotating “family dinner” for two, or a la carte options, including that burger.
La Brasa (East Somerville)
Before opening La Brasa in 2014, owner and executive chef Daniel Bojorquez cut his teeth working with Boston culinary giant Frank McClelland at the iconic L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre. Now, Bojorquez updates staid steakhouse staples with inspirations from his homeland of Mexico. Cilantro chimichurri sings atop grilled flank steak, with even the humble Caesar salad finding new life with charred jalapeño dressing and cojita cheese, with toasted pepitas and tortillas for crunch. The corn tortillas are made fresh to order, and the smell from the wood-fire grill fills the hip, industrial space.
Dining at the restaurant: La Brasa is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant is open for both takeout and delivery via the website and telephone.
Nathan Tavares is a writer and editor from Boston who specializes in food and hospitality and loves a big bowl of ramen. You can find more of his work at nathantavares.com.