It was a delight to see Cambridge’s thoroughly delightful Dear Annie on Bon Appetit magazine’s annual list of 50 Best Restaurants in the country earlier this month. And it was doubly delicious to find it name-checked once more this week in The New York Times, on the newspaper’s list of the 50 US restaurants staffers are most excited about in 2022. Also recognized by the Times: the North End’s beloved Neptune Oyster.
It was also an illustration of how much the idea of what a restaurant should be has changed in the eyes of tastemakers. What does it take to receive the imprimatur of “best”? No longer is it about formal service, impeccable French cuisine, caviar and truffles, formidable cutlery. Those days are long gone, and in many ways for the best. I’ll never be among those who declare that fine dining is dead: Nothing is ever dead, the pendulum is only swinging. But right now it swings toward inclusion, accessibility, warmth, genuineness, story, personal meaning, point of view, a global panoply of tastes, an ethical conscience, a moral compass, an environmental awareness — and, above all, vibes.
Dear Annie’s got ‘em. When I took a summer intern out for a farewell meal, this is where we went: “I want to take you somewhere with vibes,” I told her. We ate a salad of tomatoes and stone fruit with purslane tzatziki; a flaky biscuit filled with tomatoes, trout roe, and basil aioli; the brilliant Sea Dog, a seafood sausage so light it’s almost fluffy, on a house-made bun. We fetched our own napkins and utensils, sat at a communal table, and left nourished.
Here’s what I said about the place in our May “Back to Boston” issue, in a piece about favorite restaurants old and new:
“Head to this Cambridge wine bar specializing in fish and vegetable dishes and natural wines. It’s a collaboration between Andrew Brady and Sara Markey of the locavoracious Field & Vine and Lauren Friel of Rebel Rebel, the Somerville wine bar powered by intersectional feminism and joyous attitude. For anyone wondering where hospitality is headed, well, Dear Annie is too — so it’s here to try to learn by doing, maybe shaping one path toward an equitable industry that’s good for humans and the earth. All spiritual philosophy aside, the food and wine are bomb. There’s snacky stuff like caviar deviled eggs, fish preserved in house, and cheese with accouterments, as well as a few more substantial dishes (smoked mozzarella panini with anchovy, baked polenta with spicy tomato sauce) and pie for dessert. Mondays are pizza night (Sicilian, plus chopped salads) and Wednesdays are pasta night (one offering, plus oysters and cheese).”
And here’s my take after an early visit back in December:
Where to: Dear Annie, a Cambridge wine bar specializing in fish and vegetable dishes and natural wines.
Why: For an experience that feels something like the Before Times — communal seating, intimate space, casual service (help yourself to utensils and napkins), personal interactions with staff and fellow diners — with masks and proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test required for entry. There’s also a heated patio.
The backstory: Dear Annie is a collaboration between Field & Vine’s Andrew Brady and Sara Markey and Rebel Rebel’s Lauren Friel. It is a work-in-progress answer to questions the three have about the future of their industry: How to be equitable? What should pub culture look like for the next generation? How should we meaningfully spend our time, and with whom? As the Dear Annie website says, the project “aligns the things we love most: intimate, communal spaces, thoughtful design, sustainable foodways, and natural wine.”
What to eat: So many delightful snacks, from bay scallop crudo to Jonah crab toast to cheesy onion rolls to buttery clam broth with homemade sourdough. There’s a “not tinned fish” section of the wall-size chalkboard menu devoted to house-cured and preserved local fish — think countneck clams with paprika oil and cod with Calabrian chiles. You’ll also find a “very crunchy + herby salad,” Rancho Gordo beans with green harissa and sunflower shoots, and assorted cheeses. If the daily specials include fluke en papillote, it’s a must-order, light and comforting in its paper package with celery root puree, Japanese greens, and shaved fennel. For dessert, have a slice of pie in a seasonal combination like apple, sweet potato, and miso.
What to drink: I can’t tell you, but the staff will help. There’s no wine list at Dear Annie. Saunter up to the counter; tell the masked person what you’re eating, what kind of things you like to drink, what you’re in the mood for; and they’ll offer suggestions. This is how I wind up with a glass of Hana Makgeolli’s Yakju, an artisanal Korean rice wine made in Brooklyn. It’s beautiful, on its own but particularly with the fluke dish, and I’ve never tasted anything quite like it before.
The takeaway: Dear Annie is a just-right wine bar, an intimate experience from the Before Times that’s as safe as an intimate experience can be right now. If that feels comfortable to you, head over at your earliest convenience: It’s open Thursdays through Sundays. If not, there’s always the patio.
1741 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, Cambridge, www.dearanniebar.com or on Instagram @dearanniebar
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.