Many of the country’s biggest companies are headquartered in Boston or have major offices here, including General Electric, Liberty Mutual Insurance, the TJX Companies, and Wayfair. Other large employers include the area hospitals, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, and its universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Boston University. Everyone who works in these places needs to eat, and many of them host guests from outside the city. The result is a vibrant and ever-changing food scene, fueled by a thriving economy.
As in other cities, the more expensive restaurants often have less pricey menus at lunchtime. And it’s always a good idea to make reservations for dinner and lunch at the moderate and high-end venues.
A Taste of Boston, From Oysters to Boston Cream Pie
What should you eat on a first visit to Boston? Well, Boston is a seafood town, and good plates of oysters are ubiquitous. Try them at sit-down restaurants like Legal Sea Foods or Row 34 or modest food stalls inside Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Ask for Wellfleet oysters from Cape Cod, which deliver a briny taste of the sea. Boston cream pie is an obvious choice, and is especially renowned at Omni Parker House. Lobster rolls are a fun summertime option, with piles of lobster meat served on hot dog buns. Some people like mayo mixed with the lobster, while others prefer warm butter. Both options are sublime. Try them at Neptune Oyster or The Barking Crab.
Go Straight to the Source
The tiramisu at many North End restaurants comes from Modern Pastry, 257 Hanover St. (tel. 617/523-3783). The surreally good concoction ($3.50 a slice at the shop) makes an excellent picnic dessert in the summer. Head 4 blocks down Richmond Street to eat in Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, off Atlantic Avenue.
Weekday Breakfast & Weekend Brunch
Several top hotels serve Sunday brunch buffets of monstrous proportions -- outrageous displays that are outrageously expensive. They're worth the investment for a special occasion, but you can have a less incapacitating a la carte experience for considerably less money. Dine on a weekday to get a sense of the neighborhood and mingle with the regulars.
My top choice is in Cambridge: the S&S Restaurant, a family-run operation that never sends anyone away hungry. In Boston, the Elephant Walk and Hamersley's Bistro are excellent Sunday brunch destinations. Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, 429 Columbus Ave. (tel. 617/536-7669), is a longtime South End favorite not far from the Back Bay -- just the right distance to walk off some blueberry-waffle calories -- that's closed Sunday and doesn't accept credit cards. The Paramount, 44 Charles St., Beacon Hill (tel. 617/720-1152), is a classic for pancakes and eggs with a side of neighborhood gossip.
Boston Restaurant Weeks
The third week of August was the original Restaurant Week; it's now 2 weeks, as is the March incarnation. We find the latter less enjoyable because late winter's seasonal ingredients are dull, but the price is right. Popular restaurants book up quickly, so plan accordingly. The Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 888/733-2678) lists names of participating restaurants and individual numbers to call for reservations. Ask whether the menu is set yet, and seek out restaurants that really get into the spirit by offering more than just a couple of choices for each course. If you don't, you're going to experience more chicken, salmon, and begrudging service than anyone deserves.
The Lunch Line
Try to be near Downtown Crossing at lunchtime at least once during your visit and seek out Chacarero, 101 Arch St., off Summer Street (tel. 617/542-0392). It serves other things, but the lines are so long because of the scrumptious Chilean sandwiches, served on house-made bread. Order chicken, beef, or vegetarian, ask for it "with everything" -- tomatoes, cheese, avocado, hot sauce, and (unexpected but delicious) green beans -- and dig in. The lines are long but move fairly quickly, and for less than $9, you feel like a savvy Bostonian.
Dining Gluten-Free in Boston & Cambridge
I turned to the parents of young acquaintances who have celiac disease in search of suggestions for Frommer's readers who are in the same boat. Perhaps most important is not forgetting to do what you do at home: Be sure your server knows that a diner or diners at the table can't eat gluten. Check out the Elephant Walk; Davio's; Nebo, 90 N. Washington St. (tel. 617/723-6326; www.neborestaurant.com), an Italian restaurant on the edge of the North End; and the funky Other Side Cafe, 407 Newbury St., off Mass. Ave. (tel. 617/536-8437), which also has numerous vegan options, outdoor seating in fine weather, and deafeningly loud music inside at night. The Legal Sea Foods and Bertucci's chains have gluten-free menus. Other dependable choices are branches of two national chains: P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 8 Park Plaza (tel. 617/573-0821), and in the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/378-9961); and Wagamama, Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall Marketplace (tel. 617/742-9242); in the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/778-2344); and 57 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge (tel. 617/499-0930).
Yum, Yum, Dim Sum
Many Chinatown restaurants offer dim sum, the traditional midday meal featuring appetizer-style dishes. You'll see steamed buns (bao) filled with pork or bean paste; meat, shrimp, and vegetable dumplings; sticky rice dotted with sausage and vegetables; shrimp-stuffed eggplant; spring rolls; sweets such as sesame balls and coconut gelatin; and more. Waitresses wheel carts laden with tempting dishes to your table, and you order by pointing (unless you know Chinese). The waitress then stamps your check with the symbol of the dish, adding about $2 to $3 to your tab for each selection. Unless you order a la carte items from the regular menu or the steam table off to the side in most dining rooms, the total usually won't be more than about $10 to $12 per person. On weekends, the selection is wider than on weekdays, the turnover is faster (which means fresher food), and you'll often see three generations of families sharing large tables.
Looking to confirm a hunch, I asked a Hong Kong native to name Boston's best dim sum restaurant, and we agreed: Hei La Moon, 88 Beach St. (tel. 617/338-8813). It opened in 2004 and has since eclipsed a pair of solid competitors: China Pearl ★, 9 Tyler St., 2nd floor (tel. 617/426-4338), and Chau Chow City ★, 83 Essex St. (tel. 617/338-8158). To order off a sushi-style menu and have dim sum prepared just for you -- a good tactic on weekdays -- head to Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant, 61-63 Beach St. (tel. 617/426-8899), or Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, 10 Tyler St. (tel. 617/338-1688).
Where's the Beef?
Say "Boston," think "seafood," right? Apparently not. Branches of most of the national steakhouse chains dot the city, and they're all at the top of their game -- a rising tide lifts all boats, as the seafood folks say. Make a reservation, and have a light lunch.
The local favorites are Grill 23 & Bar; the Oak Room, in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, 138 St. James Ave. (tel. 617/267-5300; www.theoakroom.com); and Abe & Louie's, 793 Boylston St. (tel. 617/536-6300). Devotees of the national chains can choose from the Palm, in the Westin Copley Place Boston, 200 Dartmouth St. (tel. 617/867-9292); the Capital Grille, 359 Newbury St. (tel. 617/262-8900); Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 217 Stuart St. (tel. 617/292-0808); Morton's of Chicago, 1 Exeter Plaza, Boylston St. at Exeter Street (tel. 617/266-5858), and World Trade Center East, 2 Seaport Lane (tel. 617/526-0410); Ruth's Chris Steak House (tel. 800/544-0808), in Old City Hall, 45 School St.; and Smith & Wollensky, 101 Arlington St. (tel. 617/432-1112).
Boston Tea Party, Part 2
In Boston, the only city that has a tea party named after it, the tradition of afternoon tea is alive and well. Reservations are strongly recommended; at the Four Seasons and Taj Boston hotels, they're pretty much mandatory.
The best afternoon tea in town is at the Bristol Restaurant & Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St. (tel. 617/351-2037). The gorgeous room, lovely view, and courtly ritual elevate scones, pastries, tea sandwiches, and nut bread from delicious to unforgettable. The Bristol serves tea ($28) every day from 3 to 4:15pm.
Taj Boston, 15 Arlington St. (tel. 617/598-5255), serves tea in the celebrated Lounge at 2 and 4pm; it's available Saturday and Sunday in the winter, Friday through Sunday the rest of the year. The price is $25 for tea and pastries, $33 to add sandwiches.
The Langham, Boston, 250 Franklin St. (tel. 617/956-8751), serves afternoon tea ($31) daily from 3 to 5pm in Bond Restaurant & Lounge. The chain's flagship is in London, and as you'd expect, this is a proper British experience. The Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, in the Boston Harbor Hotel, 70 Rowes Wharf (tel. 617/856-7744), serves tea daily from 2:30 to 4pm in a lovely room overlooking the hotel marina. It costs $19 to $30. The Mandarin Oriental, Boston, 776 Boylston St. (tel. 617/535-8800), serves tea in the Lobby Lounge Thursday through Sunday from 2:30 to 4pm. It prices food ($27) and drinks ($6-$9) separately. Swans at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, 50 Park Plaza (tel. 617/654-1906), serves tea Friday through Sunday from 3 to 5pm and offers meatless and dairy-free options. The price is $30 to $32 for adults, $17 for children.
Two non-hotel destinations are worth considering. The Courtyard restaurant at the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St. (tel. 617/859-2251), serves tea ($23) Wednesday through Friday from 2 to 4pm. And across the river, beloved Cambridge restaurant Upstairs on the Square, shown here, makes a wonderful destination. Zebra Tea ($28) is a three-tiered wonder that lets the inventive kitchen cut loose on a small scale. Food and drinks are also available a la carte, and the Grand Peppermint Tea ($18) combines minty sweets and a pot of the headliner. Tea is served Saturday and Sunday (Thurs-Sun in Dec) from 2 to 4pm.
And if you just want a well-prepared cuppa, head to Harvard Square, where Tealuxe, Zero Brattle St., Cambridge (tel. 617/441-0077; www.tealuxe.com), has been delighting tea aficionados since 1996. It serves and sells more than 100 varieties and serves light fare and desserts.
Quick Bites & Picnic Provisions
If you're walking the Freedom Trail, pick up food at Faneuil Hall Marketplace and stake out a bench. Or buy a tasty sandwich in the North End at Volle Nolle or Il Panino Express, 266 Hanover St. (tel. 617/720-5720), and stroll down Fleet or Richmond street toward the harbor. Eat at the park on Sargent's Wharf, behind 2 Atlantic Ave., or in Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, overlooking the marina (which is also an option if you stocked up at Faneuil Hall Marketplace).
Two neighborhoods abut the Charles River Esplanade, a great destination for a picnic, concert, or movie. In the Back Bay, stop at Trader Joe's, 899 Boylston St. (tel. 617/262-6505), for prepared food. At the foot of Beacon Hill, pick up all you need for a do-it-yourself feast at Savenor's Market, 160 Charles St. (tel. 617/723-6328). Or call ahead for gourmet thin-crust pizza from Figs, 42 Charles St. (tel. 617/742-3447).
On the Cambridge side of the river, Harvard Square is close enough to the water to allow a riverside repast. About 5 minutes from the heart of the Square and well worth the walk, Darwin's Ltd., 148 Mount Auburn St. (tel. 617/354-5233), serves excellent gourmet sandwiches and salads. Take yours to John F. Kennedy Park, on Memorial Drive and Kennedy Street, or right to the riverbank, a block away. Nowhere near the Charles, there's a branch at 1629 Cambridge St. (tel. 617/491-2999), between Harvard and Inman squares.
Outdoor Dining: Boston's Sidewalks, Patios, and Roof Decks
Boston’s cold winters keep people indoors for half the year, so when it warms up, folks pour into the outdoors. It used to be difficult to find sidewalk dining outside of Newbury Street in Back Bay, but that’s changed (although Newbury Street is still a good destination for sidewalk and patio options, such as the Piattini Wine Café). On the water, both The Barking Crab, 88 Sleeper St. and Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, 70 Rowes Wharf at the Boston Harbor Hotel (daily 7am–10pm) have cozy waterside patios. In the Seaport District, Yotel, 65 Seaport Blvd., has a rooftop lounge and terrace, and Legal Harborside, 270 Northern Ave., has both a patio and a large roof deck, both serving food.
Cambridge is a better destination for outdoor dining than Boston, where an alarming number of tables sit unpleasantly close to busy traffic, but both cities offer agreeable spots to lounge under the sun or stars.
Across the street from the Charles River near Kendall Square, both restaurant patios at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, 5 Cambridge Pkwy. (tel. 617/491-3600), have great views. The hotel's ArtBar is casual; Dante is fancier. On one of Harvard Square's main drags, Shay's Pub & Wine Bar, 58 John F. Kennedy St. (tel. 617/864-9161), has a small, lively seating area. More peaceful are the patios at Henrietta's Table and Oleana.
On the other side of the river, try the airy terrace at Miel (tel. 617/217-5151), in the InterContinental Boston hotel, which overlooks Fort Point Channel. Most bars and restaurants in Faneuil Hall Marketplace offer outdoor seating and great people-watching. In the Back Bay, Newbury Street is similarly diverting; a good vantage point is Stephanie's on Newbury, 190 Newbury St. (tel. 617/236-0990). A popular shopping stop and after-work hangout is the Parish Cafe and Bar, 361 Boylston St. (tel. 617/247-4777), where the sandwich menu is a "greatest hits" roster of top local chefs' creations.
The Scoop on Ice Cream
No less an expert than Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's has described Boston as "a great place for ice cream." That goes for Cambridge, too -- residents of both cities famously defy even the most frigid weather to get their fix. I like Cambridge better: Try JP Licks, 1312 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/492-1001); Ben & Jerry's, in the Garage mall, 36 John F. Kennedy St. (tel. 617/864-2828); or Lizzy's, 29 Church St. (tel. 617/354-2911) -- all in Harvard Square -- or Christina's, 1255 Cambridge St., Inman Square (tel. 617/492-7021). Favorite Boston destinations include Emack & Bolio's, 290 Newbury St., Back Bay (tel. 617/536-7127), and 255 State St., across from the New England Aquarium (tel. 617/367-0220); and JP Licks, 352 Newbury St., Back Bay (tel. 617/236-1666), and 659 Centre St., Jamaica Plain (tel. 617/524-6740). Ben & Jerry's also has stores in Boston at the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/266-0767); 174 Newbury St., Back Bay (tel. 617/536-5456); and 20 Park Plaza, a block from the Public Garden (tel. 617/426-0890). Check the JP Licks and Emack & Bolio's websites for addresses of locations in Somerville and Brookline.
“Take the Cannoli”
Cannoli—flaky, deep-fried, filled with sweet ricotta cream—are a specialty of the North End Italian neighborhood. And just as Montréal has a bagel war over which of its great bagel shops is best, there’s a minor cannoli battle here between The Modern (257 Hanover St.; tel. 617/523-3783) and Mike’s Pastry, across the street at 300 Hanover (tel. 617/742-3050). It’s a little too tidy to say “tourists go to Mike’s, locals go to the Modern,” since both are terrific options for an espresso and cannoli—if you can snag a seat (most people get their pastries to go). On the other hand, if you get your hankering at 2am, there’s only one option: Bova’s, a 4-minute walk away at 134 Salem St. (tel. 617/523-5601). It’s open 24 hours, 7 days a week—and some swear Bova’s cannoli are best.
Reservations -- At restaurants that take reservations, it's always a good idea to make them, particularly for dinner. To make reservations at any hour, visit www.opentable.com, which handles many local restaurants. If you strike out, consider eating at the bar. It won't be as comfortable as the dining room, but the food and service tend to be roughly comparable.
When To Dine -- Boston-area restaurants are far less busy early in the week than they are Friday through Sunday. If you're flexible about when you indulge in fine cuisine and when you go for pizza and a movie, choose the low-budget option on the weekend and pamper yourself on a weeknight. Note that many chefs have Sunday or Monday (or both) off. If you plan to eat at a particular restaurant to check out a specific chef, call ahead to make sure he or she is working that night.
Bargains -- Lunch is an excellent, economical way to check out a fancy restaurant. At higher-end restaurants that offer it (many don't), you can get a sense of the dinner menu without breaking the bank. To get a bargain at dinner, investigate group-buying sites such as Groupon (www.groupon.com), Living Social (www.livingsocial.com), and BuyWithMe (www.buywithme.com). Sign up for Boston alerts when you start planning your trip, and you may land a great deal.
Dress Codes -- As you might expect in a city overrun with college students and tourists, just about anything goes. Even at pricier establishments, being clean and neat suffices, but you -- and the couple at the next table who just got engaged -- will probably feel more comfortable if you change out of the shorts and sneakers you wore for a day of sightseeing.
Ingredients -- At almost every restaurant -- trendy or classic, expensive or cheap, American (whatever that is) or ethnic -- you'll find seafood on the menu. A quick introduction: Scrod or schrod is a generic term for fresh white-fleshed fish, usually served in filets. Local shellfish includes Ipswich and Essex clams, Atlantic (usually Maine) lobsters, Wellfleet and Island Creek oysters, scallops, mussels, and shrimp. If you're worried about overfishing, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org and download the Monterey Bay Aquarium's pocket guide to buying and eating fish in the Northeast.
Lobster ordered boiled or steamed usually comes with a plastic bib, drawn butter (for dipping), a nutcracker (for the claws and tail), and a pick (for the legs). Restaurants price lobsters by the pound; you'll typically pay at least $15 to $20 for a "chicken" (1- to 1 1/4-lb.) lobster, and more for the bigger specimens. If you want someone else to do the work, lobster is available in a "roll" (lobster-salad sandwich), stuffed and baked or broiled, in or over pasta, in a "pie" (casserole), in salad, and in bisque.
Well-made New England clam chowder is studded with fresh clams and thickened with cream. Recipes vary, but they never include tomatoes. (Tomatoes go in Manhattan clam chowder.) If you want clams but not soup, many places serve steamers, or soft-shell clams cooked in the shell, as an appetizer or main dish. More common are hard-shell clams -- littlenecks (small) or cherrystones (medium-size) -- served raw, like oysters.
Traditional Boston baked beans, which date from colonial days, when cooking on the Sabbath was forbidden, earned Boston the nickname "Beantown." Durgin-Park does an excellent rendition.
Finally, Boston cream pie is golden layer cake sandwiched around custard and topped with chocolate glaze -- no cream, no pie.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.