This past year in Boston-area dining, large-scale projects took center stage, from Fenway food hall Time Out Market to the Encore casino, with more than a dozen places to eat and drink. But there was still plenty of room for the personal and the passionate: The Bergamot and BISq team opened Taqueria El Barrio, for example, serving flavorful food made with love, from co-owner Servio Garcia’s native Mexico. Ramen-restaurant-as-performance-art Tsurumen continued its planned 1,000-day run, offering a lesson in impermanence along with noodle soups that correspond to chapters in chef Masuo Onishi’s life. Clio and Bondir alum Rachel Miller brought her take on Vietnamese cuisine to Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, while chef Avi Shemtov’s Simcha gave Sharon a place to eat modern Israeli food.
Japanese cuisine reached new heights with Zuma, located in the One Dalton tower. Woods Hill Pier 4 reclaimed the waterfront site that was for so long Anthony’s Pier 4. And Guy Fieri came to town with his Tequila Cocina at North Station. Meantime, we lost some good ones, including classics like Durgin-Park and Doyle’s.
Each year we recognize the standouts. Here are the people and places that had our attention in 2019.
Cuisine of the year: Italian
Italian cuisine is eternally popular, but this past year it inspired two of Boston’s buzziest restaurant openings: Fox & the Knife and Orfano. Fox & the Knife comes to us from chef Karen Akunowicz, who spent time living and working in Modena. Her festive little South Boston spot celebrates the cuisine of that region, with pasta a particular strength. (Don’t miss the earthy and ethereal tagliatelle bolognese.) Chef Tiffani Faison’s Big Heart Hospitality is behind Orfano, a glam and handsome riff on Italian-Americana. Martini cart! Nonna’s garlic bread wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper! Lobster bucatini! These were the restaurants that grabbed the most attention, but plenty of other new Italian spots made waves, too, from Tony & Elaine’s and Table by Jen Royle in the North End to Basile Fine Italian Kitchen in Bay Village and Chef Ronsky’s in Chestnut Hill.
Fox & the Knife, 28 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-766-8630, www.foxandtheknife.com. Orfano, 1391 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, 617-916-9600, www.orfanoboston.com.
Restaurateurs of the year: Big Heart Hospitality
Faison’s restaurant group continues to grow, in the process remaking the Fenway neighborhood. In 2018, building on the success of barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks and the Southeast Asian-inspired Tiger Mama, Big Heart added Fool’s Errand, a quirky snack bar for grown-ups. And this year, Orfano showed the group’s more-polished side, albeit presented with a cheeky sense of humor. Soon they’ll take on downtown, too, with Tenderoni’s Pizza and seafood-focused Divebar in food hall High Street Place.
Concept of the year: Tanám
Chef Ellie Tiglao brought us the Filipino restaurant we've been waiting for with Tanám, featuring what she calls “narrative cuisine”: Meals here aim to tell a story about food, culture, and identity. Tiglao previously hosted a pop-up series called Pamangan. As part of Olio Culinary Collective, a worker-owned business largely run by women of color, she turned it into the Bow Market brick-and-mortar, an intimate space that encourages interaction. You will get to know your tablemates and staffers over themed, multicourse meals as well as utensil-free kamayan feasts spread out on banana leaves.
1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville, 617-669-2144, tanam.co
Best sequel: Gustazo Cuban Kitchen & Bar
Patricia Estorino and Adolfo De La Vega opened the first Gustazo in 2011, moving it from Belmont to Waltham a few years later. This year they opened a second branch of the Cuban restaurant near Porter Square in Cambridge. The food and the mood are warm and festive. Enjoy tapas such as ceviche, empanadas, and oxtail tacos and classic main dishes (ropa vieja, the seafood stew mariscada) while sipping daiquiris and mango mojitos. The drinks are as good as the food, the staff is friendly, and the space is stylish. It’s the kind of place that just makes you feel good.
2067 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-714-5267, www.gustazo-cubancafe.com
Rebel of the year: Lauren Friel
Lauren Friel opened wine bar Rebel Rebel at the end of 2018, pouring an ever-changing, always intriguing selection that got the attention of local oenophiles. Then she used her bar to take a stand. When Alabama passed a near-total abortion ban in May, she decided Rebel Rebel would donate 100 percent of rosé sold through Memorial Day to the Yellowhammer Fund, which provides financial support to women seeking abortions at one of that state’s clinics. Distributors rallied, donating wine. A hashtag was born, #RoseforResistance. And a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $32,000, exceeding its goal.
Rebel Rebel, 1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville, www.rebelrebelsomerville.com
Most welcome addition to Logan: Shojo
When Shojo opened at Terminal C, flight delays and long layovers became more bearable. There’s not a lot of ambiance, but the menu makes up for that with dumplings, duck fat fries, all-day congee, and egg puff waffles with fried chicken. The bacon and egg bao with “kimcheese” may become your new preflight tradition.
Logan International Airport, 300 Terminal C Road, East Boston, 617-418-9151, www.shojoboston.com
Happiest return (tie): Buttonwood and the Sky Bar
Buttonwood: Born 2018, died 2018, reborn 2019. One of Newton’s best new neighborhood restaurants could have fallen victim to a fire, but it reopened nearly a year later, as good as ever. The staff barely changed, and the kitchen still serves up pizza shop Greek salads, plump moules frites, roast chicken, and a worthy cheeseburger. Plus, now there’s Sunday brunch.
Buttonwood, 51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands, 617-928-5771, www.buttonwoodnewton.com
We also almost lost the Sky Bar, that original New England candy bar with four differently filled compartments: caramel, vanilla, peanut, and fudge. When maker Necco closed in 2018, it sold all its brands at auction. Most went to candy companies. But local entrepreneur Louise Mawhinney was the one to save the Sky Bar. The former biotech executive runs gourmet gift shop Duck Soup in Sudbury, which now features a compact adjacent factory producing the confection. After testing all the recipes, Mawhinney chose one from the 1970s. The Sky Bar tastes better than it has in years.
Sky Bar Confectionary Co., 365 Boston Post Road, Sudbury, 978-443-3825, www.skybarcandy.com
Dish of the year: Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich
Apologies to all the chefs working hard to create clever, delicious, beautifully plated food made with perfect technique. The dish of the year was a mass-produced fast-food sandwich we stood in line for, joked about, fought over, and, if we were lucky, finally savored. Popeyes, that is one excellent fried chicken sandwich. The classic take would have been enough, with its craggy golden batter, slick of mayonnaise, and tart pickle slices. And then you gave us the spicy version too. We’re not worthy.
Most admirable debut: Kamakura
At the tail end of 2018, a restaurant opened downtown, specializing in the artful, multicourse Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki. Chef Youji Iwakura named his first restaurant after his hometown of Kamakura. It was sincere, ambitious, and expensive, with multiple floors and a beautiful view. Not everything was perfect, but much of the food was wonderful, and there was a strong sake program to support it. Whether taking a serene bento lunch break or going all out with pristine sashimi and robata-grilled wagyu, it was always exciting to eat here, because Kamakura is like nothing else in the city.
150 State St., Boston, 617-377-4588, www.kamakuraboston.com
Best success story: Tawakal Halal Cafe
After closing in 2011, East Boston Somali restaurant Tawakal Halal Cafe reopened in a new location last October. Yahya Noor and his family and friends run the place, serving fragrantly spiced sambusas, samosa-like turnovers filled with ground beef; biryani with slow-cooked goat; chicken stew with coconut milk grits; and more. The food is as delicious as the restaurant is tiny and unassuming. People took notice, including Bon Appetit, which included it among 50 nominees for the magazine’s annual “Hot 10” list of best new restaurants in the country. Head there for the Tawakal plate, strips of chapati cooked in spiced tomato sauce with chickpeas and spinach; a cup of chai-like shaah; and the zippy house hot sauce and you will understand why.
389 Maverick St., East Boston, 617-418-5890
Best street on which to eat double dinner: Mass. Ave. in the South End
At the corner of Mass. Ave. and Tremont, you'll find Mida, the cozy and welcoming restaurant that chef-owner Douglass Williams has steadily turned into one of the city's most delicious places for Italian food. At the corner of Mass. Ave. and Washington, you'll find Bar Lyon, the neighborhood-y bistro from Jamie Mammano and crew (Mistral, Sorellina, Ostra, etc.), serving up great French fare and equally great hospitality. That two such delightful restaurants should exist so close to each other (about a five-minute walk), be decently priced, and offer exceptionally convivial bar scenes seems almost too good to be true. It would be wrong not to take advantage of one, or the other, or even both on the same night, if you're so inclined.
Mida, 782 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-936-3490, www.midaboston.com. Bar Lyon, 1750 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-904-4020, www.barlyon.com.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.