When people describe Boston to those who don’t know it, they often say that it is a city of neighborhoods. But it is also a city of families, legacies, and connections. All of this is particularly true of its restaurants. The who and the where of a business are what can make it feel particularly “Boston” — but “Boston” is a notion that comes in many different flavors.
So, where to eat to get a true taste of the city, to become enamored of it for the first time or the millionth? Here are some restaurants — favorites old and new — that will draw you in, feed you well, and tell you something about where you are, whether it’s your inaugural visit or a long-awaited return to dining.
This is the South End, at least as much as any stylish bistro, stroller-filled bakery, or buzzy new watering hole. It’s a neighborhood dive bar. It’s a super-affordable Italian restaurant. It’s a reminder of a time when the South End was quirkier, gayer, artier. Some regulars have been frequenting Anchovies for decades, and customers from all walks of life mingle here. Joke: “A drag queen, a police officer, and a psychiatrist walk into a bar.” Punchline: “Was it Anchovies?” Order a strong cocktail and something covered in garlicky red sauce for me, would you?
433 Columbus Ave., South End, Boston, 617-266-5088, www.anchoviesbar.com
Belle Isle Seafood
In Winthrop, this casual, cash-only restaurant/fish market is one of the best places to eat seafood in proximity to the city. I often send visitors for lunch on their way out of town, a last stop before the nearby airport, so they leave with the proper taste in their mouths. Order the famous lobster roll, of course, brimming with big bites of mayo-coated knuckle and tail meat. Some house-made clam chowder wouldn’t hurt. And don’t miss the fried seafood plate, with haddock, shrimp, scallops, squid, and clams. Get a cold beer and wait for your lobster-shaped buzzer to light up; if it’s a nice day, eat outside, right on the water, and watch the planes fly low in the sky. (It’s an excellent spot for kids.)
1 Main St., Winthrop, 617-567-1619, www.belleisleseafood.net
The Moy family has been making Chinatown delicious for more than 60 years. Its China Pearl, on Tyler Street, is a dim sum institution. On the ground floor of the building is Shojo, another family-owned business. This one, from 30-something entrepreneur Brian Moy, looks to the future. Decorated with graffiti-inspired art and blasting hip-hop, the restaurant serves current spins on traditional fare: fried eggplant bao with fermented black bean aioli and yuzu salsa, fried chicken with Hong Kong egg puff waffles and five-spice butter, duck fat fries topped with mapo tofu and “kimcheese.” The bar mixes incredible, original cocktails made with ingredients like pandan, Sichuan peppercorns, and pho spices. They’re worth a stop on their own.
9a Tyler St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-482-8887, www.shojoboston.com
The Banks Fish House
At the intersection of “swank Back Bay restaurant” and “New England seafood shack” lies the Banks Fish House, opened in July. This is the kind of place you might celebrate a family occasion, take an out-of-town business client, or head for an upscale brunch. It is also a real-deal celebration of regional seafood. Owner Chris Himmel, whose Himmel Hospitality Group is behind Bistro du Midi, Grill 23, and Harvest, is a seasoned restaurateur; executive chef and partner Robert Sisca has worked at the likes of Le Bernardin in New York. They’re also avid fishermen with close ties to people like Skip Bennett of Island Creek Oysters, Mike Geraty of Wulf’s Fish (he and Himmel grew up fishing together in Marblehead), and Larry Trowbridge of Snappy Lobster. Come for chowder and fried whole-belly clams, fishermen’s platters and lobster bakes. Or for tuna tartare and mussels in vadouvan curry, cuttlefish ink spaghetti with uni and salmon with pork belly, spring peas, fava beans, and fiddleheads in a carbonara emulsion. Whichever mode you choose, a platter of East Coast oysters is in order.
406 Stuart St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-399-0015, www.thebanksboston.com
For an entirely different pescatarian experience, 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).
1741 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, Cambridge, www.dearanniebar.com
For 20 years, visionary chef Jose Duarte shared his love of Peruvian cuisine at Taranta, an Italian-Andean hybrid in the North End. Chelsea restaurant Tambo 22 is a natural next step. Opened just as the pandemic began, it deserves recognition, showcasing a more purely Peruvian cuisine and all manner of regional ingredients — from yellow potatoes to an agave-based spirit used in some of the cocktails. The nutritious tarwi bean is the basis for a vegetarian take on ceviche, while “Better Than Buffalo” wings are made with aji amarillo and rocoto chiles. The meat blend on the “Tamburguesa” includes alpaca, and the Amazonian fish paiche is served wrapped in banana leaves. If you come on a Sunday, you can get the pan con chicharron, a sandwich/hangover cure of pork belly, fried sweet potatoes, and mint salsa. Pisco sours, Peruvian craft beer, and chicha morada are all here, perfect for sipping on the spacious patio.
22 Adams St., Chelsea, 617-466-9422, www.tambo22chelsea.com
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.