Just because you’re a tourist in Boston doesn’t mean you have to eat like one; with some of the country’s best colleges, leading medical breakthroughs, and a true global population, Boston is a world-class city with world-class dining, all nestled into compact, walkable neighborhoods … just perfect for burning off some calories. Here’s where to dine like a local in Boston.
Faneuil Hall/North End
If your time here is short, a walk back in time at this landmark meeting hall with guides in 18th century costumes makes for kitschy fun. But besides mispronouncing Faneuil Hall (rhymes with “manual”), thinking this is the only place to eat in the area would be a mistake. While you will find any number of great pubs — the Hong Kong, Anthem (pictured), and circa-1654 Green Dragon among them — following the scent of garlic along the historic Freedom Trail makes for more fun. If you’re in the mood for a brewski, Bostonia Public House carries several varieties of Sam Adams, crafted just a couple of miles away, along with excellent cocktails, affordable three-course, prix-fixe lunches, savory bar bites, like parmesan polenta fries, and a great beet salad with whipped ricotta, pistachios, and honey.
Those old enough to remember the most expensive public-works project in U.S. history, the Big Dig, will dig the Rose Kennedy Greenway, especially beautiful during the summer and fall with its 1.5-mile string of parks, a carousel, contemporary art exhibitions, and swings. A jaunt through brings visitors to either the waterfront with great views at Joe’s American Bar and Grill or Little Italy, where dozens of restaurants open their windows a la the Old Country. Hanover Street may be the most popular — especially Bricco for pre-dinner drinks, such as espresso martinis, and apps, like grilled octopus, — but tucked-away Mama Maria always delights. If it’s raining, check out the covered patio at Il Panino. And if you haven’t had your fill of history, don’t forget to visit Old North Church, where Paul Revere’s infamous “One if by land, and two if by sea” signal is said to have been sent. Is dessert more your scene? It’s worth waiting in line at Modern or Mike’s Pastry for a cannoli and watching servers artfully wind string crisscrossing the ceiling around takeaway boxes.
Penny-pinching college students are fans of iconic Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, an institution since 1960, but there are plenty of other smart choices in this home of Harvard University. Creative cocktails at Parsnip like Breeze Through the Trees (featuring pine liquor, gin, lemon, grapefruit, and rosemary) are winning co-eds over, but with mouthwatering mains, like sea bass and duck, at big-plate prices better for when Mom and Dad are in town, Night Market is another new fave. Inventive Asian street fare features banh mi bites for just $2 and daikon fries for $7 with sake slushies to cut the spicy bite. There’s an impressive number of other new restaurants in Harvard Square, including The Sinclair (pictured), a mashup of chef Keenan Langlois creative comfort foods, and an adjoining music hall that’s Boston’s only outpost from independent New York company The Bowery Presents.
Alden & Harlow is a hit among those too cool for school (don’t forget to check out their grilled carrots at dinner), but if you really want a good weekend brunch (and to “paahhk the cahh in Hahvahd Yahd” for just $3), check out PARK. It’s worth a walk afterward to the Harvard Museum of Natural History for a peek at the amazingly lifelike glass flower collection or to try and spot the narwhal in the Jumanji-like Great Mammal Hall. Cute boutiques, like Mint Julep and Black Ink, abound, and book-lovers will delight in the grand staircase at Harvard Coop (hint: they have a public bathroom).
Further afield in Cambridge’s Central Square, James Beard Award Winner Tony Maws cranks out just 20 bar burgers a night at Craigie on Main, and the mussels and frites at Central Kitchen are a great fill-you-up for just $14. Tech hub and MIT home Kendall Square is booming with several new restaurants, including Smoke Shop, one of Boston’s only BBQ options. Wash it all down at Mead Hall, with one of more than 100 beers on tap, or take a stroll through a real-life “secret garden” high atop the concrete jungle, accessible by elevator in a parking garage at 4 Cambridge Center.
Most of the peanuts and Crackerjacks around the nation’s oldest ballpark don’t exactly hit it out of the park in a culinary sense, although there are plenty of great places to pre-game before a Sox game. Try Game On or Boston Beer Works — or if you missed out on tickets to the country’s oldest ballpark, stick around Bleacher Bar for a direct view of centerfield through the wall.
Fastball-loving foodies can enjoy a cloth-napkin experience even dressed in a ball cap and shorts at Eastern Standard, where sidewalk dining in the summertime is a grand slam with its butterscotch bread pudding and Jackson Cannon’s cocktails. Neighboring Island Creek Oyster Bar (pictured) is a perfect place to get a taste of bivalves from local suburb Duxbury and other fresh seafood.
Boston’s newest and trendiest neighborhood has a distinct feel from the rest of Boston, especially with its contemporary rooftops and seaside sidewalk dining, making it a summer favorite for locals and visitors alike. It’s easy to pass an afternoon in the sun trying out the extensive tequila menu at Rosa Mexicano (sober up with guacamole smashed tableside) or with a tiki cocktail at the patio at Committee, where Sunday brunch features a DJ. For the best view from above, check out Outlook Kitchen and Bar at Envoy Hotel with cocktails made from local spirits, or admire the scenery both inside and out at the Institute for Contemporary Art, which welcomes chefs and DJs for its Summer Fridays entertainment series. It’s TGIF at Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, too, featuring free big-screen flicks projected onto a screen with al fresco dining weekly (Jaws makes for an ironic treat.) You can still enjoy the view even if it’s steamy or sprinkling from the third-floor, fully enclosed, glass-walled lounge at Legal Seafoods, or hop on over to Bastille Kitchen (pictured), where the new Sunday brunch offers another opportunity to enjoy the upscale-French-bistro-meets-ski-lodge digs.
What was once the city’s gritty transit hub has been revitalized and now buzzes with shoppers flocking to international budget retailers like Primark and H&M and Massachusetts giants TJ Maxx and Marshalls. But it’s all about flash and panache at Yvonne’s, without a doubt Boston’s hottest new restaurant. Despite the waiting list — and list of celebrities who make it a point to come here for shared plates and massive sharable drinks (i.e. the ginormo Moscow Mule, below) — pastry chef Liz O’Connell’s creations–like an After Dinner Twinkie–are always playful and never take themselves too seriously. That’s the point of dessert after all, isn’t it? Speaking of playful, many of the city’s theaters are nearby, including the Cutler Majestic and Opera House, and there are free fine-arts to be had on Boston Common park, which features free Shakespeare each summer; this year catch Love’s Labours Lost.
With its historic brownstones and meandering brick paths, the South End is romantic by day and sexy at night — but morning may be when this neighborhood hits its stride. Several of the city’s best brunches are all within a mile of each other, including Masa’s 2-course for $9.95, Tremont 647’s Pajama Brunch (come in your most comfortable attire), and Cinquecento, which is $9.95 for coffee, fresh juice, a starter, and a main. Even better, Cinquecento and nearby Gaslight offer free parking for a post-nosh stroll. Mimosas not your thing? Wink + Nod nails the speakeasy concept, or opt for a glass of wine with charcuterie at Coppa or Italian small plates at newcomer SRV, which stands for Serene Republic of Venice.
The golden dome may be the state’s seat of government, but one of the ‘hoods’ most interesting haunts is housed where those who disobeyed the law were sent. The Liberty Hotel (pictured), impressively built at the site of the former Charles Street Jail, features a plethora of options for dining (Clink, Alibi, and Scampo) and entertainment, such as fashion shows and DJs. One of the best is Yappie Hour, however, a happy hour for dogs with treats for pets and owner alike in the Yard interior courtyard. For a true taste of Boston Brahmin, stroll nearby Charles Street for some of the city’s preppiest attire and unique housewares, snacking at Toscano for authentic Pappa al Pomodoro, the refreshing-yet- filling tomato bread soup. This is also an ideal area to catch a Duck Tour, a unique WWII-era amphibious vehicle with narration that goes way beyond your average tourist bus.
Here, it’s best to start at the top — Top of the Hub, that is — for a drink and the city’s best panoramic view. Then, work your way down to superb shopping since the restaurant is housed in the Prudential Center. Or, visit tony Newbury and Boylston Streets for more upscale brands. In essence, the whole area is a runway, and there’s some of the best people watching at mainstays Stephanie’s on Newbury (pictured) and Sonsie. Or, see without being seen from the second-floor café at independently owned Trident Book Sellers and Cafe, where breakfast all day delights as much as the extensive number of reads and gifts.
Just because Tufts University is Davis Square’s anchor doesn’t mean the pizza is college-student lowbrow. Posto offers up pillowy gnocchi and chewy Neapolitan crust gourmet pies, and Mexican goes up-scale at The Painted Burro. Even the iconic Rosebud Diner has been reborn as Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar, serving up such adult dishes as seared salmon and Moroccan stew. There’s plenty to do, including bar hopping (Saloon, Foundry on Elm, and the Joshua Tree with live music are faves), an old-school marquee movie theater, and candlepin at Sacco’s Bowl-Haven. If you’re a gambler, try your hand selecting a brew at the wheel of beer at Redbones, one of Boston’s few BBQ joints.
Further afield — a.k.a., Worth the Price of an Uber
Though it’s tucked away in a quiet corner of Somerville, stepping into Sarma is like being instantly transported to the buzzing bazaars of Istanbul. A true feast for the senses inspired by chef Cassie Piuma’s travels, colorful Mediterranean meze mesmerize with layers of flavors and spice amidst bright walls and chairs. It’s no wonder reservations should be made several weeks in advance. Same goes for a seat at Ran Duan’s Baldwin Bar in Woburn, where stools require a call at least a week ahead at this hideaway inside Sichuan Garden II restaurant tucked in a Colonial home near an office park. With dark woods, crystal and brass goblets, potions, and smoky ice, it’s like stepping into the colorful side of The Wizard of Oz.
Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at email@example.com.
Photo credits: Michael Young (Sinclair); Michael Piazza (Island Creek); Richard Bertone (Bastille); Susie Cushner (Sarma).