1. Black Olive Bagels with Roasted Tomatoes
You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu at this Porter Square storefront, where owner Mary Ting Hyatt creates chewy, stretchy bagels using a decades-old sourdough starter. Pairing the black olive bagel with spicy cream cheese and juicy roasted tomatoes makes for the Tom Brady of breakfasts: It fires on all cylinders, from spicy to sweet; familiar yet lavish, it never lets you down (and has no plans to move to Florida that we know of). Plus, people wait in line for it (and other items, like the BLT pictured) every weekend.
Location: 1796 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 857-285-6103, bagelsaurus.com
2. Ma Po Tofu
Where: The Baldwin Bar
Nothing warms the soul quite like tongue-tingling Sichuan cuisine, preferably washed down with a transportive tropical cocktail. Baldwin offers both: craggy, fried Chengdu chicken wings awash in chilies; crunchy pickled vegetables ideal for snacking absentmindedly on the couch; and a glossy, thick ma po tofu swirled with savory minced pork that tastes like a fiery hug. Tiki drinks incorporating unlikely ingredients, from miso butter to jackfruit, bring an extra layer of escapism to the proceedings.
Location: 2 Alfred Street, Woburn, 781-935-8488, thebaldwinbar.com
3. Honey-Glazed Biscuits
Where: Buttermilk & Bourbon
Buttermilk & Bourbon channels the food of New Orleans, offering a hedonism sorely needed these days. Creamy onion dip and fried chicken are caloric fun, but the sleeper hits are biscuits: Buttery and shiny as a toddler’s chin, these soft, mountainous, honey-glazed carb bombs are more comforting than a nap (and they might make you sleepy). Drag them through a sweet cloud of whipped cinnamon butter and dream of good times ahead.
Locations: 160 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617-266-1122; 100 Arsenal Yard Blvd., Watertown, 857-760-7128; buttermilkbourbon.com
4. Chicken and Waffles
Where: Brassica Kitchen + Cafe
Known for its wildly creative, wildly delicious dinner menus, this JP gem also serves a winning weekend brunch. Dinnertime’s flaky, crispy fried chicken gets matched with waffles, maple syrup, and hot sauce, a perfect sweet-salty-spicy dish to fuel you for outdoor cavorting or taking it easy at home. While you’re ordering, don’t miss the breakfast sandwiches, doughnut French toast, and ever-changing pancake flavors like five-spice buttercream and apples poached in maple syrup.
Location: 3710 Washington Street, Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4519, brassicakitchen.com
5. Chocolate Chunk Cookie
Where: Clear Flour Bread
Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to execute. Take the chocolate chunk cookie, which is often too sweet or not sweet enough, too doughy or too crunchy, too thick or too thin. But at Clear Flour, it’s always just right: crisp at the edges, substantial, with the perfect ratio of dough to chocolate — a mixture of smaller semisweet and larger dark pieces. Don’t miss the bakery’s World Peace cookies, either. (Or its gorgeous loaves of bread, assorted croissants, morning buns, and much more, all of it excellent.)
Location: 178 Thorndike Street, Brookline, 617-739-0060, clearflourbread.com
6. Fried Chicken
Where: The Coast Cafe
This Cambridge takeout spot is all comfort food, all the time: Its tagline is “Food From the Soul.” Accurate. The fried chicken has a justified reputation for being one of the best versions in town, and it’s available in every permutation: Just thighs, wings, or breast meat, or a mix; boneless fingers; BBQ, Buffalo, jerk, or hot wings. Add mac and cheese, candied yams, and collard greens with smoked turkey and you don’t just have comfort food — you have a comfort feast.
Location: 233 River Street, Cambridge, 617-354-7644, coastsoulcafe.com
7. Cheese Dip
Where: Condesa Restaurante Mexicano
A friendly surprise tucked inside the Arsenal Yards complex, with two other locations in Rhode Island, Condesa specializes in authentic dishes created by the León family, which hails from Jalisco and Mexico City. The chilies en nogada, a poblano pepper piped with savory ground beef and fruit, and topped with creamy walnut sauce, is a soul-warming treat hard to find in these parts. But the smooth, tangy cheese dip — a shamelessly American movie-theater classic — is worth driving for. Served with warm, salty chips, it’s just right with a night of Netflix.
Locations: 80 Arsenal Yards Blvd., Watertown, 617-402-5315; 970 Douglas Pike, Smithfield, Rhode Island, 401-349-3935; 721 Quaker Lane, West Warwick, Rhode Island, 401-828-1005; condesarestaurant.com
8. Spaghetti Carbonara
Carbonara unto itself would be enough: Coppa’s al dente spaghetti, rich with egg yolk, pancetta, and Parmesan. But the South End enoteca adds in Maine uni, and the result is a briny, funky, unctuous, umami-laden dish that will make you swoon. It’s just one hit on a full album of pasta bangers here, from rigatoni with spicy tomato vodka sauce to tagliatelle Bolognese to cacio e pepe bucatini with red kuri squash.
Location: 253 Shawmut Avenue, South End, 617-391-0902, coppaboston.com
9. Nine-Hour French Onion Soup
Nestled on the menu among lobster gnocchi fricassee, spiced duck breast, and other sophisticated elegance is this onion soup, wherein Deuxave distills the essence of comfort directly into a crock. Piping hot, slow-cooked, deeply beefy broth is topped with nutty, stretchy melted Comte for that perfect cheese pull. Breathe in the steam and the fragrance; this dish is a whole cozy mood.
Location: 371 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617-517-5915, deuxave.com
10. Ropa Vieja
Where: El Oriental de Cuba
Since 1994, this beloved JP restaurant has been serving up some of the city’s best Cuban sandwiches, along with homey soups, plates of roast pork and oxtail, tropical fruit shakes, Cuban coffee, and more. For simple solace in a complicated world, try the ropa vieja, tender braised, shredded beef in a savory sauce of tomato, onions, and peppers, with rice and beans and fried plantains on the side. Proprietor Nobel García, a pillar of the community, passed away in November. His welcoming spirit still feels very present at El Oriental.
Location: 416 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6464, elorientaldecuba.net
11. Thin Crust Pizza
Where: Florina Pizzeria & Paninoteca
This below-the-radar hideaway on the edge of Beacon Hill serves thin-crust pizza dabbed with sweet tomato sauce, pooling in the middle with oil — the kind of floppy, foldable triangle that New Yorkers dream about (and can’t usually find here). Charred, sooty, with burbles of crisp dough dotted like savory mini-volcanoes throughout, this is a hand-held wedge of simple satisfaction. Florina has all your favorite toppings, but the straightforward margherita lets its perfect dough shine. As of this writing, Florina is temporarily closed for repairs, so call before heading out — it’s worth the wait until reopening.
Location: 16 Derne Street, Beacon Hill, 617-936-4494, florinapizza.com
Where: Ganko Ittetsu Ramen
There are plenty of ramen variations around town: minimalist and maximalist, traditional and experimental, brawny pork power chords and serene vegan tone poems. Ganko Ittetsu’s Sapporo-style ramen hits the dish’s sweet spot, impressing without showing off. The spicy, hearty Gankara miso, laden with tender chashu pork, bean sprouts, egg, and more, is an excellent, warming choice. But every bowl at these two restaurants, from the soy sauce flavored Gantetsu shoyu (pictured) to the sesame-infused tan-tan, is made with attentive care (and Japan’s excellent Nishiyama noodles).
Locations: 318 Harvard Street, Unit 4, Brookline, 617-730-8100; 215 Thayer Street, Providence, 401-808-6383; gankoramen.com
13. Hand-Pulled Noodles
Where: Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe
Strappy, chewy hand-pulled noodles based in tongue-twirling hot oil: Gene’s will clear your sinuses and fill your belly with its thick, spicy (and easily shareable) soups, cut with garlic and cilantro. Friendly owner Gene Wu, originally from Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi province, lovingly re-creates his grandfather’s recipes — which also include flatbreads stuffed with cumin-laced morsels of lamb and pork belly.
Locations: 86 Bedford Street, Boston, 617-482-1888; 466 Main Street, Woburn, 781-938-6888; 175 Littleton Road, Westford, 978-692-3406; genescafe.com
14. HK Double Cheeseburger
Where: Highland Kitchen
Since opening in 2007, Highland Kitchen has been doing so many things well: mixing balanced cocktails, stocking Somerville’s best jukebox, making pitch-perfect dishes worth returning for. Come here for the HK Double Cheeseburger and you’ll see what we mean. It’s a glorious, saucy tower with two beef patties, melted cheese, and caramelized onions, with fries and pickles. Of course you can add bacon; why wouldn’t you, at this point? For a smaller dose of comfort, don’t miss the ricotta and mozzarella fritters, golden, crisp, and pillowy, to be dipped in spicy honey.
Location: 150 Highland Avenue, Somerville, 617-625-1131, highlandkitchen.com
15. Silken Tofu Stew
Where: Kaju Tofu House
Behind a nondescript storefront in Allston, Kaju Tofu House serves up piping-hot bowls of the Korean favorite sundubu jjigae — or silken tofu stew. Featuring delicate tofu swimming in deeply-flavored broth, the stews arrive bubbling in stone pots, along with vegetable side dishes and rice. While known for its spicy food, the restaurant offers varying levels of heat, including a mild version. If you’re extra hungry, order up a sizzling plate of Korean grilled meat, such as kalbi (beef short rib) or bulgogi (thinly sliced, marinated beef) to round out your meal.
Location: 58 Harvard Avenue, Allston, 617-208-8540
16. Beef Massaman
Where: Mahaniyom Thai Tapas Bar
At American Thai restaurants, massaman is often the insipid curry on the menu, sweet and earnestly stocked with root vegetables, subordinate to its vibrant green and red counterparts. At Mahaniyom, run by Thai expats in Brookline, the massaman is an entirely different story. Made with tender beef shank; rich, spicy, and complex in flavor; and served with a stack of flaky roti, it will win you over. To really warm your heart, add the gorgeous crab curry to your order, too.
Location: 236 Washington Street, Brookline, 617-487-5986, mahaniyomboston.com
17. Pastrami Reuben
Where: Mamaleh’s Delicatessen Restaurant
For Jewish soul food, the deli’s where it’s at. When friends are going through a difficult time, have a platter of Mamaleh’s smoked fish and bagels delivered. When you’re sick, order up some matzoh ball soup. But when it’s ... any average day during a pandemic, and you want to treat yo’ self, Mamaleh’s pastrami Reuben hits the spot. The deli piles seeded rye with pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and a schmear of Russian dressing. Doc, it ain’t good for the cholesterol, but I swear it boosts the old serotonin. Bites of half-sour pickle and sips of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda help cut the richness.
Location: 1659 Beacon Street, Brookline; 15 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 617-958-3354; mamalehs.com
18. Nutella and Strawberry French Toast
Milkweed, specializing in creative takes on comfort food, does us the solid of serving breakfast until 4 p.m. This means more Nutella French toast for everyone. Take an already delightful, traditional version of French toast, smear it with the chocolate-hazelnut spread, and garnish it amply with sliced strawberries and powdered sugar. It’s a Valentine’s Day-worthy indulgence available year-round. If for some reason that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there’s always the Lucky Charms pancakes.
Location: 1508 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-516-8913, eatatmilkweed.com
19. Tater Tot Poutine
Where: Moonshine 152
Tater tot poutine. The end. Good night. Need you hear more? Or are you already putting on your coat to head to this neighborhood joint par excellence in Southie? I’ll tell you the golden potato nuggets are topped with red-eye gravy, Chinese sausage, and melty bites of cheese, and that they’re on the brunch menu — but if you show up at another time, you can have party tots, served with kimchi butter, sweet chili, and truffled teriyaki sauce, so nothing lost. It’s hard to single out an item from a menu that includes jalapeño crab rangoon with honey sambal sauce, the creamiest Hungarian mushroom bisque, short-rib grilled cheese with spicy tomato soup, and a pulled pork and scallion pancake quesadilla inspired by Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. But: Tater tot poutine.
Location: 152 Dorchester Avenue, South Boston, 617-752-4191, moonshine152.com
20. Haitian Spaghetti
Where: Neighborhood Kitchen
If only there were a Neighborhood Kitchen on every street corner, a haven for Asian-Haitian comfort food with swagger. Throw caution to the wind with mac-and-cheese topped with lobster, or red velvet waffles with fried chicken and maple cream syrup, or maybe even the fried ice cream sundae. True gluttons should request the Haitian spaghetti, pasta slicked with spicy tomato sauce mixed with onions, peppers, discs of kielbasa, and sliced hard-boiled eggs. Too much? Definitely. Delicious, even eaten cold first thing in the morning before work? You bet.
Location: 84 Spring Street, Medford, 781-391-9000, nkboston.com
21. Oasis Ginger Bomb Juice
Where: Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor
The flavorful cooking is the main attraction at this plant-based restaurant in Dorchester’s Four Corners. But you’ll need something to drink alongside your grain bowl, exuberantly spiced lentils, veggie stew, and vegan mac ‘n’ cheese pie. And Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor’s juices and smoothies are worth a trip on their own. The Oasis Ginger Bomb Juice — a magical potion of fresh-squeezed ginger root, apple juice, and cayenne — will cure whatever ails you via a little extra hydration and sinus-clearing heat.
Location: 340 Washington Street, Dorchester, 617-237-9033, oasisveganveggieparlor.com
22. Phó' Dac Biet
Where: Phó' Hóa Restaurant
When you want phó', go to a specialist. This longtime Fields Corner restaurant serves stellar Vietnamese noodle soups. Phó' Dac Biet is a perfect choice for those who love texture or are simply indecisive. A bowl includes a half-dozen kinds of beef: eye round steak, brisket, flank, fatty flank, tendon, and tripe. But whatever variety you get — from phó' bo vien, with beef meatballs, to phó' ga, the chicken-based version — the indicator of excellence is the aromatic broth. At Phó' Hóa, it is clean, balanced, and restorative. So are garnishes of plentiful fresh herbs, lime, and chilies.
Location: 1370 Dorchester Avenue, Boston, 617-287-9746, phohoarestaurant.com
23. Stewed Oxtail
Where: Pikliz International Kitchen
Always order oxtail. But especially at Pikliz International Kitchen, where even on a menu filled with fresh, flavorful Caribbean classics — such as Haitian patties, jerk chicken, and fried goat — the stewed oxtail stands out. The meat is braised into unctuous tenderness with onion, garlic, chilies, green herbs, and coconut. Order it with savory black djon djon rice, Creole macaroni au gratin, sauteed okra, or fried plantains.
Location: 288 Broadway, Somerville, 617-625-6255, piklizint.com
24. Ice Cream Sundaes
Where: The Scoop N Scootery
What snow? Seasons don’t matter when desserts can be delivered to your door thanks to The Scoop N Scootery, which specializes in colossal sundaes topped with old-time favorites (rivulets of gooey hot fudge, towers of homemade whipped cream) or treats you might not find anywhere else (apple pie, cannoli shells). In a world where so little is in our control, it’s nice to engineer a wildly creative sundae. And while the rich, creamy ice cream is excellent (it’s Richardson’s), the endless toppings and speedy home delivery are icing on the cake — German chocolate cake ice cream, that is.
Locations: 112 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, 781-777-2830; 75 Linden Street, Allston, 617-208-8016; 360 Washington Street, Brighton, 617-208-8101; thescoopnscootery.com
Where: Sofra Bakery & Cafe
At this sunny oasis on Cambridge’s fringes with lines down the block, James Beard semifinalist Maura Kilpatrick and James Beard winner Ana Sortun craft inventive Middle Eastern sweets and savories, from syrupy cinnamon baklava with golden flakes to buttery hummus the color of honey. It’s all lovely, but for maximum solace, tuck into the shakshuka: runny poached eggs swimming in a stewed tomato broth with hints of coriander and cumin, topped with spicy green zhoug brightened with cilantro. Sop the yolk with a pita and exhale.
Location: 1 Belmont Street, Cambridge, 617-661-3161, sofrabakery.com
26. Goat Cheese Croquettes
Tashan specializes in elevated Indian dishes that go beyond standard curries (though familiar standards like gingery saag paneer and a cumin-forward lamb biryani make an ideal weekend meal). Of note: velvety goat cheese croquettes coated in semolina crust, crunchy on the outside and smooth within. They’re satisfying enough on their own, but swirled in an onion cream sauce with threads of crispy red chilies on top, it’s the perfect combination of richness and heat, ideally sponged up with buttery, garlicky naan.
Location: 213 Burlington Road, Bedford, 781-538-5100, tashanbedford.com
27. Tawakal Plate
Where: Tawakal Halal Café
This homey, spice-scented, family-run Somali restaurant serves plenty of satisfying dishes: spaghetti with meat sauce; samosa-like turnovers called sambusas; biryani with slow-cooked lamb shank. But perhaps the coziest is the Tawakal plate, strips of the flatbread chapati cooked until soft in a spiced tomato sauce with chickpeas and your choice of spinach, beef, or chicken — a bit like a Somali version of chilaquiles. It’s healthy, warming, and so flavorful. Cap your meal with a cup of shaah, milky, sweet Somali tea fragrant with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.
Location: 389 Maverick Street, East Boston, 617-418-5890, tawakalfoods.co
Where: Tony’s Market
At this old-school neighborhood butcher shop in Roslindale, opera-loving, ballroom-dancing octogenarian Tony DeBenedictis will trim the most delicious leg of lamb for you, sell you hot or sweet sausages made in-house, and grind your hamburger mix to order. Tony’s also makes killer sandwiches (get the classic Italian), heat-and-serve meatballs and chicken cutlets, and more. Here’s the pro tip: Shell out for a tray of magnificent lasagna, a layered symphony of fresh pasta, bechamel, meat sauce, mozzarella, and Parmesan. After dinner, cut the remainder into individual servings and freeze them. On those nights when you can’t quite think of what to eat, remember you’ve got Tony’s lasagna in the freezer. You will thank yourself.
Location: 4381 Washington Street, Roslindale, 617-323-7313, tonysmarketroslindale.com
29. Dim Sum
Where: Winsor Dim Sum
Dim sum unleashes our culinary hedonism; in normal times, gently priced plates of dumplings, noodles, and buns would arrive rapid-fire at round tables, encouraging gluttony, sharing, and happy over-ordering. You can almost replicate the ritual to-go, with clams in black bean sauce and shards of ginger; shrimp noodles splashed with sweet soy; and pork buns shimmering with fat, punctured easily with a chopstick and exploding with flavor. Open Styrofoam cartons one by one and the smells take you back to clattering platters, pealing laughter, and that sense of delicious communion we all crave.
Locations: Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, 10 Tyler Street, Boston, 617-338-1688; Winsor Dim Sum House, 706-708 Hancock Street, Quincy, 617-481-5383; winsordimsumhouse.com
30. Macaroni and Cheese
Where: The Winthrop Arms
Everyone who comes to local treasure the Winthrop Arms knows to order the mac and cheese. It’s that good: corkscrews of pasta smothered in a creamy sauce, heaped into a dome that’s baked to a crusty, craggy, golden-brown on top. It comes in bacon and Buffalo chicken versions, in addition to straight-up cheese. Another serious comfort-food contender: the pot pie, with bites of chicken, carrots, and peas swaddled beneath a flaky crust.
Location: 130 Grovers Avenue, Winthrop, 617-846-4000, winthroparms.com
FIVE TOP CHEFS REVEAL THEIR GO-TO COMFORT DISHES
Tiffani Faison on Chinese takeout
For me, comfort food is almost always Asian food. I order takeout from Kantin; it’s Hong Kong-style Chinese food, and it’s great. It just hits all the right notes. It’s always char siu pork, rice — they do an incredible wonton soup that I love there. I usually get salt and pepper pork chops, and then I also get a big yang chow fried rice. And that’s about half of what I get.
> Tiffani Faison is chef and owner of Fool’s Errand (foolserrandboston.com), Sweet Cheeks Q (sweetcheeksq.com), and Orfano (orfanoboston.com).
Douglass Williams on potato chips and onion dip
I love going to this place called Troquet — it has these potato chips that come with a little sour cream and onion, creme fraiche-y, yogurt-y, optimal dip. It’s just cool and refreshing. They’re just what you want. There’s a hint of nostalgia from it because of the Old Bay they put on the chips. And it’s just lovely, and it reminds me of Jersey, and it reminds me of the seashore where I grew up. Crab and Old Bay obviously go well together. So it brings back something from my childhood.
> Douglass Williams is chef and owner of MIDA (midarestaurant.com).
Giovanna Huyke on ramen
Ramen — I just love it. There are two places that I like: the Soup Shack and Mojo Ramen. There’s a lot of food that we eat fast and it gives you a satisfaction, but not as a soup does. In Puerto Rico, if I’m doing it at home, I would do a soup like an asopao or a sopón. Here, what I do is the ramen. And I think it’s because it reminds me of that starchy broth. And people talking at the same time that they’re slurping their soup. It reminds me of home, it reminds me of big parties. It reminds me of long hours of work and being really tired and having to have something before going to bed. It’s like that.
> Giovanna Huyke is executive chef of La Fabrica Central (lafabricacentral.com).
Joanne Chang on pizza
Pizza is definitely a huge comfort food for me and Christopher [Myers, her husband]. Picco in the South End is one of our favorites. Coppa does amazing pizza. I would say those are the two places that we gravitate toward when we’re needing a little something special to comfort us. We’re both pretty simple and traditional — I prefer just plain cheese or margherita. I really love a great crust. It’s crispy and then chewy on the inside. It’s super simple, but really well done. And just a great way to kind of relax, you know?
> Joanne Chang is pastry chef and owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe (flourbakery.com) and co-owner of Myers + Chang (myersandchang.com).
Jeremy Kean on Chinese spare ribs
I just order Chinese food; I get boneless spare ribs with extra duck sauce. Triple 8 [Hong Kong 888 Café] and Food Wall Chinese Restaurant in JP, but really, like, anywhere. I grew up eating it and loving it. We’re Jewish, so we were always eating Chinese food around the Christmas holiday. In fact, it was eating Chinese food and tasting the depth of flavor there that made me want to be a chef, to be honest.
> Jeremy Kean is executive chef and co-owner of Brassica Kitchen + Cafe (brassicakitchen.com).
–As told to Jules Struck
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst. Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.