The days when restaurant snobs in Boston sniffed that they had to go to New York to get a decent meal are long gone. Especially in warm weather, when excellent local produce appears on menus in every price range, Boston-area restaurants hold their own. Celebrity chefs and rising stars spice up the dynamic scene, students seek out good value at countless ethnic restaurants, and traditional favorites -- notably seafood -- occupy an important niche. And year-round, many visitors just want to know where they can get a lobster. This guide aims to help every visitor find something that hits the spot.
Very Expensive $41 and up
Inexpensive Under $20
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; www.paramountboston.com), is a classic for pancakes and eggs with a side of neighborhood gossip. At the Centre Street Café, 669 Centre St., Jamaica Plain (tel. 617/524-9217; www.centrestcafe.com), locals tough out long weekend waits for strong coffee and delicious specials made (when possible) with local and organic ingredients.
Boston Restaurant Weeks
During Boston Restaurant Week, dozens of places serve a three-course prix-fixe lunch for the decimal equivalent of the year -- in 2012, $20.12 -- and many offer dinner for an additional $10 to $13. The third week of August was the original Restaurant Week; it's now 2 weeks, as is the March incarnation. I 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; www.bostonusa.com/restaurantweek) 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; www.chacarero.com). 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; www.theothersidecafe.com), 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 (www.pfchangs.com), 8 Park Plaza (tel. 617/573-0821), and in the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/378-9961); and Wagamama (www.wagamama.us), 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; www.abeandlouies.com). Devotees of the national chains can choose from the Palm, in the Westin Copley Place Boston, 200 Dartmouth St. (tel. 617/867-9292; www.thepalm.com); the Capital Grille, 359 Newbury St. (tel. 617/262-8900; www.thecapitalgrille.com); Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 217 Stuart St. (tel. 617/292-0808; www.flemingssteakhouse.com); Morton's of Chicago (www.mortons.com), 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; www.ruthschris.com), in Old City Hall, 45 School St.; and Smith & Wollensky, 101 Arlington St. (tel. 617/432-1112; www.smithandwollensky.com).
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; www.darwinsltd.com), 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.
The Great Outdoors: alfresco Dining
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; www.jplicks.com); Ben & Jerry's, in the Garage mall, 36 John F. Kennedy St. (tel. 617/864-2828; www.benjerry.com); or Lizzy's, 29 Church St. (tel. 617/354-2911; www.lizzysicecream.com) -- all in Harvard Square -- or Christina's, 1255 Cambridge St., Inman Square (tel. 617/492-7021; www.christinasicecream.com). Favorite Boston destinations include Emack & Bolio's, 290 Newbury St., Back Bay (tel. 617/536-7127; www.emackandbolios.com), 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.
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.