This has been a rollercoaster of a year for restaurants, yet again. Rollercoasters: the new normal. After a while, the ups and downs, highs and lows, changing rules and shifting realities become a blur. Some of it is best forgotten, left behind with a clink of glasses at midnight. But there is, as ever, much to celebrate, cultivate, and bring with us into the future.
Finding positives amid the challenges can feel a bit like painting lipstick on a whole roast pig. But some of the changes from this time will last, shaping dining for the better. For instance: As COVID continued, so did the evolution of the outdoor dining scene, bringing more, and needed, fun to our streets. With labor and supply chain issues making headlines, the general public became more aware of the difficulties and realities of the restaurant business. (Would that this created across-the-board empathy among customers, but it’s a start.) A need for new, nimble business models and added revenue streams led to innovation, from meal services to pop-ups to restaurant subscriptions to gourmet convenience stores. And local restaurateurs, chefs, and entrepreneurs created moments, experiences, spaces, and dishes that truly shine, brightening our lives and preserving the spirit of hospitality and graciousness in a fractious world.
Here are some of the standouts:
Best local flavor: Mahaniyom
The “local” is Brookline. The “flavor” is Thai. Mahaniyom is what happens when a couple of expats — co-owners Chompon Boonnak (formerly of Shojo) and Smuch Saikamthorn — join together to share what home tastes like to them. This little restaurant with the pared-back menu made us swoon with its rambutan salad, coconut-milk crab curry, pork-rice sausage, and beef massaman — to say nothing of standout cocktails and herb-infused spirits served with pickled mango and pandan-leaf water. It’s also the rare spot that’s perfect for both eating in and taking out.
236 Washington St., Brookline, 617-487-5986, www.mahaniyomboston.com.
Most welcome debut: The Pearl
This seafood restaurant brings style, scene, and shrimp cocktail to Dorchester’s South Bay shopping center. If you never expected to find a glam Miami vibe amid the Target and Home Depot, you’re not alone. But the crowds show just how overdue The Pearl was — and the raw bar, lobster rolls, brunch, and craft cocktails make waiting for a table worth your while.
20B District Ave., Dorchester, 617-288-8810, www.thepearlsouthbay.com
Restaurant neighborhood of the year: Chinatown
A historic treasure, Chinatown was one of the first neighborhoods to feel the effects of COVID. Banquets were canceled, foot traffic dwindled, and business plummeted by as much as 80 percent for many restaurants. But Chinatown perseveres, with its seafood tanks and steamers of plump dumplings and strong sense of community. If you haven’t visited or gotten takeout recently, this is a good time to do so.
Trend of the year: Plant-based possibility
Acclaimed New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park made headlines when it announced it would no longer serve animal products. It was an important symbol of the headway plant-focused dining has made in recent years, with more people opting for vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian diets in the interest of their own health and the planet’s. Locally, we saw the arrival of such varied businesses as Dear Annie (a pescatarian wine bar), Double Zero (a vegan pizzeria), Littleburg (a vegan Mediterranean takeout counter), and PlantPub (serving vegan pub grub and craft beer). It feels finally that meat-free restaurants can be anything their creators want, from the most casual bar to the most elevated temple of fine dining.
Most deserved recognition: Boston Little Saigon
In May, a section of Dorchester’s Fields Corner was officially designated a cultural district. Called Boston Little Saigon, the area has long been a center of Vietnamese community, commerce, and cuisine. With restaurants, cafes, and markets from family favorite Anh Hong to palace of dessertly delights Sweet Sip, this is one of Boston’s best neighborhoods in which to eat. Now it also has a fitting name.
Best experience: Open Hearth Gatherings
Chefs have been touting farm-to-table dining for years, but the diner rarely gets transported to the farm. Open Hearth Gatherings shifts the emphasis of the meal, bringing groups to the land to experience harvesting, preparing, and consuming food where it is produced. Participants work together, get to know one another, then feast in a beautiful outdoor setting. It’s COVID-friendly, it’s communal, and it feels meaningful.
For information about Open Hearth Gatherings’ upcoming events, go to www.openhearthgatherings.com or follow them on Instagram @openhearthgatherings.
Best bite: Atlántico’s erizo de mar
The open secret at this South End tapas spot is that it’s really a seafood restaurant. The best dishes focus on the fishes. For one single bite that encompasses the glory of the sea (with a Spanish accent), order the erizo de mar from the “crudo” section of the menu. It’s toast topped with sherry butter and fresh, gorgeously briny Maine sea urchin. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s perfect (but while you’re there, don’t miss the alcachofas & boquerones, fried baby artichokes with white anchovies over chive aioli).
600 Harrison Ave., South End, Boston, 857-233-2898, www.atlanticoboston.com.
Most beautiful: Contessa
It’s no surprise that the restaurant atop swank hotel The Newbury (formerly the Taj and the Ritz-Carlton) is a total stunner. But it is a total stunner. New York-based Major Food Group’s first Boston foray, the Italian-focused Contessa, is a plant-filled, pastel-tiled, glass-enclosed space where diners take in Back Bay views from pink velvet banquettes. It’s a feast for the eyes, both inside and out.
3 Newbury St., Back Bay, Boston, www.contessatrattoria.com
Most lovable: Cicada Coffee Bar
Combine artistic vision, Vietnamese flavor, and Cambridge sensibility, and put them in the hands of warm, creative, passionate, quirky humans, and you’ve got Cicada Coffee Bar. The Central Square spot operated by Vinh Le and Duong Huynh specializes in pho noodle salads, banh mi, and excellent coffee drinks by day; cheffy Viet deliciousness (lemongrass duck tartare, monkfish with turmeric, dill, and vermicelli) and natural wine by weekend night; and an eternal, preternatural ability to pull people into its orbit in a lasting way.
106 Prospect St., Central Square, Cambridge, www.cicadacoffeebar.co
Best outdoor oasis: Tambo 22
In a vast lot in Chelsea, nestled beneath toasty heaters, enjoy artful takes on Peruvian fare from chef-owner Jose Duarte, who long ran North End favorite Taranta. Tambo 22 appears like a mirage, an outpost of the Andes, featuring native ingredients like the tarwi bean, the Amazonian fish paiche, and a panoply of chiles and herbs. They make their way into cocktails like the chicha morada sour, too.
22 Adams St., Chelsea, 617-466-9422, www.tambo22chelsea.com
Best new neighborhood standby: Fresh Food Generation
Co-owners Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw create a brick-and-mortar version of their food truck of the same name, and Dorchester’s Codman Square gets a delicious addition. Fresh Food Generation serves a menu of healthful, flavorful dishes you want to eat on the regular, from empanadas to jerk chicken to kale salad to mac and cheese.
185 Talbot Ave., Codman Square, Dorchester, 617-362-8995, www.freshfoodgeneration.com.
Thank-you-for-your-service award #1: Eastern Standard
Eastern Standard closed permanently in February after more than 15 years in business. The news was a blow for so many who have spent time in Boston. The Kenmore Square standby was beloved, and people from all walks came for pre-game drinks and snacks, dates, birthday dinners, family brunches, or (most likely) all of the above. There was something here for everyone, from the pickiest child to the most discerning gourmand to the craft-cocktail aficionado looking to expand her knowledge. So long, Eastern Standard, and thanks for all the bone marrow, baked rigatoni, and butterscotch bread pudding.
Thank-you-for-your-service award #2: Craigie on Main
Craigie on Main got its start as Craigie Street Bistrot in 2002, moving to Main Street in 2008. In October, chef-owner Tony Maws put the Central Square restaurant on the market. These days we take things like farm-to-table dining, frequently changing offerings, market-driven dishes, nose-to-tail cookery, and “chef’s whim” menus for granted. It’s easy to forget how wild and welcome this all was when Craigie debuted, and how pioneering the restaurant’s approach was for the area.