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  • Legal Sea Foods (Boston, MA, and other locations; tel. 617/266-6800): Newcomers ask where to go for fresh seafood, then react suspiciously when I recommend a world-famous restaurant instead of a local secret. No, it's no secret -- but it's a wildly successful chain for a reason.
  • Mamma Maria (Boston, MA; tel. 617/523-0077): The best restaurant in the restaurant-choked North End is a far cry from the spaghetti-and-meatballs workhorses that crowd this Italian-American neighborhood. The Northern Italian cuisine at this elegant town house is something to write home about.
  • 902 Main (South Yarmouth, Cape Cod, MA; tel. 508/398-9902): With fabulous service, an elegant atmosphere, and to-die-for food, this is the place to go for fine dining in the Mid-Cape. Entrees like filet mignon with portobello mushrooms, rack of lamb with truffle mashed potatoes, and haddock with organic beets range will set you swooning.
  • Atria (Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, MA; tel. 508/627-5840): This fine-dining restaurant set in an 18th-century sea captain's home gets rave reviews for its gourmet cuisine and its high-quality service. This is one of those places where you can just relax and have a fantastic and memorable meal, because the staff knows exactly what they are doing.
  • Centre Street Bistro (Nantucket, MA; tel. 508/228-8470): Two of the best chefs on the island, Ruth and Tim Pitts, combine their talents at this cozy little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The best part is that this place features wonderful, creative cuisine at fairly reasonable prices, compared to other island fine-dining restaurants.
  • Zinc (Lenox, MA; tel. 413/637-8800): Setting the Berkshires culinary standard ever since its opening, this stylish, contemporary bistro impresses on every repeat visit. It looks great, for starters, with its zinc bar, buffed woods, and flowers everywhere. Most everything that arrives on a plate is supremely satisfying, joining familiarity with the French repertoire with cunning twists in execution. There are 24 wines by the glass and an irresistible five-cheese tasting.
  • Bespoke (New Haven, CT; tel. 203/562-4644): The preeminent new-ish restaurant in Connecticut, Bespoke has been open since 2006. Food arrives in one dazzling display after another: seafood chowder in a coconut milk broth; roasted sea bass in a carrot-curry broth; and "Two-Way" duck, an Asian-style leg confit and breast with rhubarb-celery salad. The chef is from the late-lamented Roomba, a revelatory exercise in the then-fresh Nuevo Latino arena.
  • Union League CafĂ© (New Haven, CT; tel. 203/562-4299): This august setting of arched windows and high ceilings is more than 150 years old and was long the sanctuary of an exclusive club. It still looks good, but the tone has been lightened into an approximation of a Lyonnaise brasserie.
  • Scales & Shells (Newport, RI; tel. 401/846-3474): Ye who turn aside all ostentation, get yourselves hence. There's nary a frill nor affectation anywhere near this place, and because the wide-open kitchen is right at the entrance, there are no secrets, either. What we have here are marine critters mere hours from the depths, prepared and presented free of any but the slightest artifice. This might well be the purest seafood joint on the southern New England coast.
  • Chantecleer (Manchester Center, VT; tel. 802/362-1616): Swiss chef Michel Baumann has been turning out dazzling dinners here since 1981, and the kitchen hasn't gotten stale in the least. The dining room in an old barn is magical, the staff helpful and friendly. It's a great spot for those who demand top-notch Continental fare but don't like the fuss of a fancy restaurant.
  • T. J. Buckley's (Brattleboro, VT; tel. 802/257-4922): This tiny diner on a dark side street serves up outsize tastes prepared by a talented chef. Forget about stewed-too-long diner fare; get in your mind big tastes blossoming from the freshest of ingredients prepared just right.
  • Hemingway's (Killington, VT; tel. 802/422-3886): Killington seems an unlikely place for a serious culinary adventure, yet Hemingway's will meet the loftiest expectations. The menu changes frequently to ensure only the freshest of ingredients. If it's available, be sure to order a bowl of the wild mushroom and truffle soup.
  • Arrows (Ogunquit, ME; tel. 207/361-1100): The emphasis at this elegant spot is on local products -- often many ingredients from nearby organic vegetable gardens. Prices are not for the fainthearted, but the experience is top-rate, from the cordial service to the silver and linens. Expect New American fare informed by an Asian sensibility.
  • White Barn Inn (Kennebunkport, ME; tel. 207/967-2321): The setting in an ancient, rustic barn is magical. The tables are set with floor-length tablecloths, and the chairs feature imported Italian upholstery. The food? To die for. Start with lobster spring rolls, then enjoy entrees such as roasted duck with juniper sauce or Maine lobster over fettuccine with a cognac coral butter sauce.
  • Fore Street (Portland, ME; tel. 207/775-2717): Fore Street is one of northern New England's most celebrated restaurants. The chef's secret? Simplicity, and lots of it. Some of the most memorable meals are prepared over an apple-wood grill.
  • Hugo's (Portland, ME; tel. 207/774-8538): Chef Rob Evans has performed a CPR job on this once-proud bistro that's been nothing short of amazing; it now stands among Maine's finest restaurants. The tasting menus are especially wonderful, and there's an affiliated Belgian-fries shop just down the street for guilty-pleasure dining as well.

The Best Local Dining Experiences

  • Durgin-Park (Boston, MA; tel. 617/227-2038): A meal at this landmark restaurant might start with a waitress dropping a handful of cutlery in front of you and saying, "Here, give these out." The surly service usually seems to be an act, but it's so much a part of the experience that some people are disappointed when the waitresses are nice (as they often are). In any case, it's worked since 1827.
  • Woodman's of Essex (Essex, MA; tel. 800/649-1773): This busy North Shore institution is not for the faint of heart -- or the hard of artery, unless you like eating corn and steamers while everyone around you is gobbling fried clams and onion rings. The food at this glorified clam shack is fresh and delicious, and a look at the organized pandemonium behind the counter is worth the (reasonable) price.
  • Black Eyed Susan's (Nantucket, MA; tel. 508/325-0308): This is extremely exciting food in a funky bistro atmosphere. The place is small, popular with locals, and packed. Sitting at the diner counter and watching the chef in action is a show in itself. No credit cards, no reservations, and no liquor license are all an inconvenience, but if you can get past all that, you're in for a top-notch dining experience.
  • Louis' Lunch -- The Very First (Well, Probably) Burgers (New Haven, CT; tel. 203/562-5507): Not a lot of serious history has happened in New Haven, but boosters claim it was here that hamburgers were invented in 1900. This little luncheonette lives on, moved from its original site in order to save it. The patties are freshly ground daily, thrust into vertical grills, and served on white toast. Garnishes are tomato, onion, and cheese. No ketchup and no fries, so don't even ask.
  • Pizza (New Haven, CT): The city's claim to America's first pizza is a whole lot shakier than its claim to the first burgers, but New Haven has few equals as purveyor of the ultrathin, charred variety of what they still call "apizza" in these parts, pronounced "ah-peetz." Old-timer Frank Pepe's, 157 Wooster St. (tel. 203/865-5762), is usually ceded top rank among the local parlors, but it is joined by such contenders as Sally's, 237 Wooster St. (tel. 203/624-5271), and Modern Apizza, 874 State St. (tel. 203/776-5306).
  • Abbott's Lobster in the Rough (Noank, CT; tel. 860/536-7719): Places like this frill-free lobster shack abound along more northerly reaches of the New England coast, but here's a little bit o' Maine a Sunday drive from Manhattan. Shore dinners rule, so roll up sleeves, tie on napkins, and dive into platters of boiled shrimp and steamed mussels, and dunk hot lobster chunks in pots of drawn butter.
  • Johnnycakes and Stuffies (RI): Most worthy regional food faves eventually become known to the wider world (witness Buffalo wings). But the Ocean State still has some taste treats that are mysteries beyond its borders. "Johnnycakes" are flapjacks made with cornmeal, which come small and plump or wide and lacy, depending upon family tradition. "Stuffies" are the baby-fist-size quahog (KWAH-og or KOE-hog) clams barely known elsewhere in New England. The flesh is chopped up, combined with minced bell peppers and bread crumbs, and packed back into both halves of the shell.
  • Blue Benn Diner (Bennington, VT; tel. 802/442-5140): This 1945 Silk City diner has a barrel ceiling, acres of stainless steel, and a vast menu. Don't overlook specials scrawled on paper and taped all over the walls. And leave room for a slice of delicious pie, such as blackberry, pumpkin, or chocolate cream.
  • Bove's (Burlington, VT; tel. 802/864-6651): A Burlington landmark since 1941, Bove's is a classic red-sauce-on-spaghetti joint that's a throwback to a lost era. The red sauce is rich and tangy, and the garlic sauce packs enough garlic to knock you clear out of your booth.
  • Al's French Frys (South Burlington, VT; tel. 802/862-9203): This is where Ben and Jerry go to eat french fries -- as does every other potato addict in the state.
  • Lou's (Hanover, NH; tel. 603/643-3321): Huge crowds flock to Lou's, just down the block from the Dartmouth campus, for breakfast on weekends. Fortunately, breakfast is served all day here, and the sandwiches on fresh-baked bread are huge and delicious.
  • Becky's (Portland, ME; tel. 207/773-7070): Five different kinds of home fries on the menu? It's breakfast nirvana at this local institution on the working waterfront. It's a favored hangout of fishermen, high-school kids, businessmen, and just about everyone else.
  • Silly's (Portland, ME; tel. 207/772-0360): Hectic and fun, this tiny, informal, kitschy restaurant serves up delicious finger food, like pita wraps, hamburgers, and pizza. The milkshakes alone are worth the detour.

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.