Call 2019 the year of democratized dining. Star chefs have set up shop at food halls, offering gourmet burgers, fish tacos, and more, while others offer well-priced pizza and egg sandwiches in casual sit-down spaces. Along the way, flavorful upstarts have brought hard-to-find cuisines to new corners, from proper omakase in North Cambridge to Filipino in Union Square. The restaurants ahead, the most notable debuts since December 2018, spotlight all that’s fresh, exciting, and deliciously egalitarian about dining out in Boston right now.
Before opening this stylish little restaurant in Dorchester’s Savin Hill, chef-owner Chieu Nguyen ran a nail salon. But the Vietnam native always loved to cook — now, he has his dream job. The menu focuses on seafood (stir-fried crawfish with garlic and butter, grilled squid satay) and hot pots (chicken with chilies and egg noodles, goat with soft tofu and taro). In a neighborhood rich with Vietnamese restaurants, Ban Tôi stands out for the homiest fare, such as chicken and rice and pho bo dac biet, a beef noodle soup with brisket, bone-in short rib, and chewy segments of aorta.
1035 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester, 617-326-6073
Chef Colin Lynch and team are swiftly colonizing the South End: Italian coastal fare at Bar Mezzana; Shore Leave, a tiki bar; No Relation, a sushi omakase counter; and now Black Lamb, which shows us that duck frites was a bistro update waiting to happen. A classic neighborhood restaurant, it plies locals with the kind of easy fare diners crave day to day: oysters, salads, burgers, lobster rolls, boozy brunches, and a cocktail list that’s familiar without being boring.
571 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-982-6330, blacklambsouthend.com
This sophisticated spot in Porter Square is packed — with families, couples, and delighted locals eagerly trying Thai chef Palm Amatawate’s upscale takes on Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, and other southeast Asian dishes. Enjoy a proper sit-down meal consisting of plates rarely seen in these parts: steamed snapper dumplings in black vinegar-chili dressing; rich pork belly splashed with a sweet plum and tamarillo sauce drizzled with shallots; and creamy Indonesian chicken curry. It’s the right place to take an adventurous second date or out-of-town curmudgeon who thinks Boston is all lobster rolls and fried clams.
1790 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617-547-8888, thechalawan.com
Seasoned restaurateur Ron Suhanosky once owned popular restaurants on New York’s Upper East Side and on Nantucket. His 14-seat Ronsky’s, in The Street in Chestnut Hill, began as a breakfast-lunch pop-up that became permanent. Now he offers dinner in the classic Italian trattoria style: oil-dimpled focaccia, crisp arancini, pasta sciue sciue (“hurry, hurry”) in a quick tomato sauce. There’s cross-table conversation among diners, who all seem to know one another.
3A Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill, chefronskys.com
From the outside, you might think it’s an ordinary sub shop. But once inside, you see it’s something special. In Salem’s Bridge Street Neck neighborhood, chef Keenan Langlois, who worked in some of Boston’s elite kitchens, is producing simple, memorable food, such as a hearty roll filled with juicy pork and beef meatballs in a superb marinara, and the Monsieur Empanada, which is like a croque monsieur in a fried duck-fat pastry with aioli. ChezCasa, a 10-minute walk from the commuter rail, has some seating, and offers rotating, weekly take-out dinners, such as lasagna or barbecued chicken leg (meatballs are always in the case). Nothing about this place is ordinary.
97 Bridge Street, Salem, 978-744-2143, chezcasafood.com
Fox & the Knife
What to do after a James Beard award-winning turn helming the kitchen at longtime favorite Myers + Chang? Something completely different. Chef Karen Akunowicz opened Fox & the Knife in South Boston, embracing her love (and recognizing ours) of Italian cuisine. She lived in Modena for a time, and the menu showcases techniques she learned there, via heartfelt pasta dishes and entrees like chicken under a brick. Don’t miss the focaccia stuffed with Taleggio, one of the best cheese pulls in town.
28 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-766-8630, foxandtheknife.com
At L’Espalier, chef Frank McClelland spun New England ingredients into elegant, impressive tasting menus for more than 30 years. Now he’s freed himself of some of the rigors of fine dining, opening the eponymous Frank in Beverly. The all-day restaurant/cafe/market showcases North Shore produce, meat, fish, and grains, taking customers from breakfast through lunch and into dinner, with prepared foods to take home as well. The menu is ambitious but relaxed, stocked with the likes of well-conceived salads (sweet potato, charred romaine, smoked tomatoes, and blue cheese, anyone?), fried chicken sandwiches, sweet potato agnolotti with porcini mushrooms and garlic cream, and Cape Ann seafood bouillabaisse.
112 Rantoul Street, Beverly, 978-998-4946, farmtofrank.com
If we gave awards for the cutest new food establishment in the area, Goldilox Bagels would be at the top of the list. Husband-wife team Ed Thill and Lindsey Gaudet make their own chewy rounds and offer a variety of fillings: fried egg and cheese, cream cheese and lox, hummus, and peanut butter with bacon, Nutella, and banana (that one’s called Graceland). Lines can be long, but the counter help is always cheerful, and everything is just right.
186 Winthrop Street, Medford, goldiloxbagels.com
The Groove is a Tokyo record bar transported smack to the middle of the Fenway. This lounge within a restaurant (Hojoko) within a hotel (The Verb) serves up a cheeky take on Japanese culture, with sushi tacos served from a cart and Hello Kitty caviar service, sake bombs and highballs, retro decor and BYOV (Bring Your Own Vinyl) nights. In a landscape of restaurants that take themselves seriously, it’s refreshing to find a hangout that exists in the spirit of pure fun.
1271 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-670-0507, hojokoboston.com
Jamaica Mi Hungry
Chef Ernie Campbell created a hit on wheels with his Jamaica Mi Hungry food truck, warming Boston with curry goat and beef patties on coco bread since 2015. In 2019, he turned it into a brick-and-mortar restaurant operating under the same name next to the Jackson Square T station. Come for the fiery, moist jerk pork shoulder with dill slaw and plantains; stay for the warm, friendly energy of Campbell and crew.
225 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain, 617-708-0465, jamaicamihungry.com
The Landing — L’Approdo Pizza & Kitchen
There are only a handful of stools at The Landing (L’Approdo), a pizzeria that Massimo Ottani runs in Nonantum, Newton’s Italian-American neighborhood. Ottani, who always has a big smile, is from a town between Rome and Naples, so he comes by his exceptional thin-crust Neapolitan pies naturally. He also bakes bread for sandwiches filled with frittata, chicken salad, or meatballs. Check the board for daily specials and you might find bean soup, gnocchi, cannelloni, or tripe.
223 Adams Street, Newton, 617-964-7117, thelandingpizza.com
A Porter Square gem in the old, fabled Chez Henri space with an equally legendary face at the door: Rene Becker, the owner of Hi-Rise Bread Co. This is your neighborhood stop for simple, Italian-inflected food: local burrata, mushroom risotto, a handful of straightforward pizzas, and half or quarter bottles of wine curated by Becker — a former food critic who knows his stuff. The restaurant is named for his young daughter, and it feels like a grown-up place that’s suitable for kids, too.
1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, 617-714-5295, lucecambridge.com
The restaurant group behind Yvonne’s, Lolita, and Ruka puts forth a romantic vision of Havana with this downtown hot spot. Located in an old bank, it features murals, marble, and flattering lighting and draws a stylish crowd. You’ll want mojitos and daiquiris, of course, along with finessed tropical fare such as pork empanadas, fufu gnocchi made from plantains, and lechon asado (Cuban grilled pork) to share with your crew.
10 Post Office Square, Boston, 617-333-8776, marielofficial.com
Mass Hole Donuts
After a successful stint as a pop-up, Mass Hole Donuts has a cute little Arlington shop that specializes in donut holes rife with regional references: Pecan Hill with candied pecans; New-berry Street (blackberry or raspberry were featured recently); Mama’s Lil Mass Hole (with rainbow “jimmies,” not sprinkles, mind you). They pack a flavorful punch, and are cakelike without descending into doughiness. Biting into a Revere Peach is like eating an inside out peach cobbler cake. Open Wednesdays through Sundays.
2 Lake Street, Arlington, massholedonuts.com
Nightshade Noodle Bar
Chef-owner Rachel Miller worked in the kitchen of places like Clio and Bondir before starting pop-up restaurant Nightshade, a celebration of her love for Vietnamese cuisine. Miller lives in Lynn, and when a longtime coffee shop closed, she took over the space. Now, Nightshade Noodle Bar is an intimate, plant-filled space for serving up bone marrow fried rice, lobster glacé with smoked vanilla-chili sauce, New England seafood pho with Boston redfish, Nantucket scallops, and more. The bar is also strong.
73 Exchange Street, Lynn, 781-780-9470, nightshadenoodlebar.com
In a handsome dining room decorated with dark wood, rich fabrics, and golden chandeliers, chef-owner Tiffani Faison serves up a serious salute to Italian-Americana, with a little cheek on the side (after all, “sorry Nonna” is a motto of the restaurant). Garlic bread is served wrapped in red-and-white-checked paper inside a bag; there’s lobster bucatini and chestnut agnolotti and rigatoni Bolognese; roasted chops and pizza lasagna and duck Marbella for two round out the feast. For dessert, pastry chef Dee Steffen Chinn has you covered with the likes of Royal Chocolate Cake for Two, Kween. Between wine director Charlie Gaeta’s excellent list and a super-suave martini cart, drinking here is as much a pleasure as eating.
1391 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-916-9600, orfanoboston.com
The Oyster Club at the Heritage
A modern fish house with retro touches, the Oyster Club offers a vast menu of seafood classics: elegant chowders, oysters Rockefeller, shrimp scampi, raw dishes, and grilled fish. Chef Chris Parsons deploys his years of experience running Catch in Winchester with attention to impeccable ingredients and technique. The complimentary bluefish pate that starts each meal, served with jumbo oyster crackers, beats a basket of rolls any day.
79 Park Plaza, Heritage on the Garden, Boston, 617-426-6700, theoysterclubboston.com
A little boutique restaurant for a little boutique hotel, Peregrine roosts on the first floor of The Whitney Hotel in Beacon Hill. It’s run by the team that launched Juliet in Somerville, and Katrina Jazayeri’s and Joshua Lewin’s ethical compass stays true: Peregrine is as devoted to fair labor practices as it is to good food. Expect Sicilian-style pizza with preserved lemon, pappardelle with braised chicken and seasonal vegetables, local clams and mussels with tomato and mint, and more. The Mediterranean menu changes frequently, and there’s no need to tip; the menu is priced to reflect the cost of labor.
170 Charles Street, Boston, 617-826-1762, peregrineboston.com
Into the heated arena of fried chicken comes Pollo Club in Waltham, from the team at Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions. Crisp, golden pieces are accompanied by fluffy biscuits; you can add country collards, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, deviled eggs, and other snacks. Pollo takes its chicken seriously but the place has few pretensions. The restaurant logo is a woman riding a chicken with a giant fork for a polo mallet.
456 Moody Street, Waltham, 781-693-9191, polloclubwaltham.com
Another feather for Kendall Square’s culinary cap: Shy Bird, the poultry-focused, newest venue from people-pleasing restaurateur Andrew Holden (Branch Line, Eastern Standard). This is your ideal all-day cafe, serving unusual egg sandwiches at breakfast (stuffed with fried chicken and hot honey); a plate of leg or breast with fun sauces — get the juniper-pepper barbecue — and a side salad at lunch; and a wide-ranging dinner menu with clam toast, roasted fish, and cheap beer, too. It’s the right choice for a quick breakfast, important lunch meeting about your new startup, or leisurely dinner.
1 Broadway, Cambridge, 617-714-4200, shybird.com
Modern Israeli food comes to Sharon with Simcha. Chef Avi Shemtov, who founded the Chubby Chickpea and Tapped Beer Truck, serves up small plates such as hummus, roast cauliflower with tahini and honey, couscous arancini, and short-rib poutine, plus a few larger ones (Yemenite fried chicken, battered in chickpea flour). You’ll find local beer and a convivial scene at the bar.
370 South Main Street, Sharon, 781-867-7997, simcharestaurant.com
The Square Kitchen & Bar
Every town should have a bistro like The Square, where there are plenty of local brews, the burger on brioche is just right, the steak was raised by New England farmers (there’s a junior steak frites for kids), and there are plenty of small plates — nothing here is over the top or too trendy. Some nights it feels like a party rather than a restaurant.
1 Pond Street, Sharon, 781-867-7979, thesquaresharon.com
Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann earned fans for their Huron Village fine-dining restaurant, T.W. Food, but have since opened up their offerings with places such as Union Square’s Bronwyn (a German sausage parlor) and now T&B, the neighborhood’s best bet for quirky pizza. No oily triangles here: French-trained Tim has designed an endearing, eccentric menu of wood-fired Neapolitan pies with raclette cheese; thick, square slices piled with kielbasa and green peppers; and duck-leg calzones that hit the spot after a night on the town.
251 Washington Street, Somerville, 617-764-4054, tbpizza.com
With Tanám, the area finally gets the Filipino restaurant it has been waiting for. It features what chefs Sasha Coleman and Ellie Tiglao call “narrative cuisine”: Meals aim to tell a story about food, culture, and identity. The Bow Market restaurant in Union Square is an intimate space that encourages interaction, seating 10 at one shared table. You will get to know your neighbors and the staff over themed, multi-course meals as well as utensil-free kamayan feasts spread out on banana leaves. Don’t miss the fun cocktails and well-chosen wine offerings.
1 Bow Market Way, Somerville, 617-669-2144, tanam.co
Taqueria El Barrio
If you’re looking for tacos, tortas, and other soulful fare, head to Taqueria El Barrio near Boston University. This casual little restaurant from the people behind Bergamot and BISq serves flavor-packed food made with love, from co-owner Servio Garcia’s native Mexico. There’s an array of zippy house salsas, and corn tortillas are made by Springfield company Mi Tierra from locally grown corn. Weekend visits mean you can order bichi, a beefy, aromatic dish said to be a hangover cure.
1022 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617-860-6092, taqueriaelbarrio.com
Tawakal Halal Cafe
This East Boston restaurant opened early enough in 2018 to make last year’s best new restaurants list, but late enough for us to not be able to make it there. Now that we have, it’s worth grandfathering in, for the fragrant, headily spiced Somali dishes served up by Yahya Noor and family. The menu includes sambusas, samosa-like turnovers filled with ground beef; biryani with slow-cooked goat; chicken stew with coconut milk grits; and the Tawakal plate, which consists of chapati flatbread cooked in tomato sauce with chickpeas and spinach. The food is as delicious as the restaurant is tiny and unassuming. People are taking notice, including Bon Appétit, which included it among 50 nominees for the magazine’s annual “Hot 10” list of best new restaurants in the country.
389 Maverick Street, East Boston, 617-418-5890
Duck into this North Cambridge hideaway for pristine, precise plates of fish arrayed by twinkly-eyed sushi chef Gary Lei, formerly of the Back Bay’s Uni. Sit at the counter and listen to him delightedly explain the origins of his supple eel, king salmon, and torched scallop; this isn’t a meal to be rushed. Dishes are served omakase style; you’ll receive whatever’s freshest that day. And don’t even think about asking for takeout — this is a place to interact and linger.
2372 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617-868-2121, umamiomakase.com
Woods Hill Pier 4
In the Seaport location where Anthony’s Pier 4 once served lobster and popovers, owner Kristin Canty and chef Charlie Foster (Woods Hill Table, Adelita Taco and Margarita Bar) focus on healthful sustainability and creative dishes made from locally produced ingredients. You might find Rhode Island whelk with green apple in coconut-lobster broth, sunflower-seed risotto, squid ink casarecce with lobster and crab ragu, or pork butt with fall vegetables. You’ll definitely find breathtaking water views. The location is stunning.
300 Pier Four Boulevard, Boston, 617-981-4577, woodshillpier4.com
The Boston installment of a global chain of high-end Japanese restaurants, Zuma is located inside new Back Bay tower One Dalton. The crowd is a mix of all sorts, from Chanel-clad Europeans to co-workers blowing off after-hours steam — here for beautiful sashimi compositions, miso-marinated black cod, and tempura. But Zuma’s best event is robata-yaki, grilling meats and vegetables over charcoal, which infuses everything from lobster to rib eye with a deep and delicious smokiness.
One Dalton Street, Boston, 857-449-2500, zumarestaurant.com/boston
Food halls: Sample the work of city’s best chefs all in one place
Back in those halcyon 1980s, the mall’s heyday, food courts were the equivalent of gas station rest stops: meals of last resort. This was the provenance of chain fast-food: oily burgers, meat on toothpicks, and suspicious pizza.
In 2020, food courts are cool. They have a sophisticated new name — food halls, if you please — and that porous pizza and gloppy General Gao’s have been replaced by big-name chefs serving gourmet meals and indie upstarts sharing homespun recipes.
Around Boston, Bow Market led the way, opening in May 2018 with an array of stalls in Union Square peddling items such as Jaju Pierogi’s fat pillows of potato and jalapeño cheddar, wrapped by sisters Vanessa and Casey White; bar pizza from Hot Box; and for crackly, steamy empanadas and handmade jarred sauces, Buenas. For a sit-down meal, this year brought Ellie Tiglao’s Tanám, which offers a ticketed, multi-course Filipino experience. No room for anchor restaurant chains here.
It was joined in 2019 by Time Out Market Boston (401 Park Drive, Boston, 978-393-8088, timeoutmarket.com/boston), featuring a who’s who of local luminaries. Forget having to go to traditional sit-down restaurants for James Beard Award winners: Tony Maws (Craigie on Main) is selling hamburgers and chili fries at Craigie Burger; Tim Cushman (O Ya) is making nori-sushi tacos at Gogo Ya; and Michael Schlow — the mastermind behind one-time hot spot Radius — has his Italian Kitchen serving up tomato sauce and meatballs. Restaurateur Kathy Sidell’s wildly popular Back Bay fish emporium, Saltie Girl, has a stand here, too, doling out fresh lobster rolls. Thanks to food halls, fine dining has become democratized.
There’s more to come in 2020: In the West End, Hub Hall plans to welcome Boston icons such as Mike’s Pastry, Monica’s Mercato, and Sullivan’s Castle Island, juxtaposed against celebrity-chef-driven restaurants (Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina; Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Momosan Ramen). Downtown, High Street Place will host Dive Bar, a raw bar from prolific restaurateur Tiffani Faison (Orfano, Sweet Cheeks, Tiger Mama), and Bad Doughnut, with its quirky toppings (potato chips, anyone?), among others.
Best of all, this format allows curious diners to graze, sample, and stroll. No need to commit to a two-hour meal. And instead of chains, these restaurants truly show the best that Boston has to offer, no sticky mystery meat in sight.
— Kara Baskin
More, please: Extra helpings of restaurants we love
Some restaurants are so good that they deserve bigger stages. A few favorites gained those in 2019, switched to an easier-to-get-to location, or happily reopened after temporary closures. Ahead, eight reasons to applaud.
The former Moody’s Falafel Palace in Central Square was fixed up and reopened as Aleppo Palace. The falafel is still outstanding, as is any soup, and all the meze. Big plus: It’s open till 3 a.m. 25 Central Square, Cambridge, 617-945-7449
The bi-level Cambridge branch of Cuban restaurant Gustazo is flashier and splashier than its Waltham counterpart, with a longer menu and a more expansive dining room (it took over the old Elephant Walk space near Porter Square). Happy customers dig into uniformly exceptional small plates that you wish were this much bigger. Definitely reserve in advance. 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 855-487-8296, gustazo-cubancafe.com
Pho Viet’s II
Giant bowls of delicious pho and crisp, crunchy bánh mi sandwiches often make this Newton Centre spot a madhouse. The recipes are similar to the ones family matriarch Anh Tran uses in the original Pho Viet kiosk in Allston’s Super 88 food court. 51 Langley Road, Newton Centre, 617-527-8810, phoviets.com
One of Newton’s best neighborhood restaurants, from the team that also runs Sycamore and Little Big Diner, was shut down by a fire just months after it opened. Happily, it’s back, and very little has changed: Come here for small plates, creative comfort food, and great cocktails. 51 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, 617-928-5771, buttonwoodnewton.com
Coco Leaf Dessert Cafe
The project of a former O Ya chef, the first Coco Leaf opened in Dorchester, specializing in Vietnamese che — drinks composed of beans, jellies, coconut, and more — plus other snacks. This Back Bay cafe followed, a sweet hangout serving pandan cake, matcha cream puffs, and, of course, che, on Newbury Street. 305 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-506-0010, cocoleafboston.com
This beloved Brighton izakaya (Japanese tavern) moved to Porter Square, bringing its yakitori, sashimi, onigiri, and yakisoba along with it. Patrons line up for a meal that makes you feel like you might be in Kyoto, not Cambridge. 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617-608-3630, ittoku.org
For those who have come to love the irreverent Chinatown original, Shojo at the airport is excellent news. Congee, dumplings, and egg-and-bacon baos with “kimcheese” could become your new preflight tradition. Logan International Airport, Terminal C, East Boston, 617-418-9151, shojoboston.com
The Jamaica Plain restaurant gets a new Brookline branch, and now even more people get to enjoy its varied and delicious Asian soups, from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho to Thai khao soi. 401 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-383-5038, soupshacknoodles.com
—Devra First, Kara Baskin, and Sheryl Julian
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @devrafirst. Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @kcbaskin. Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.