It’s a question I get at least once a week: Where can I have dinner without shouting or popping three Advil before my appetizer? To be sure, crowded restaurants are a wonderful thing for business after three pandemic years, but they might not be conducive to actual conversation. I’ve even heard one urban legend of a woman who agreed to a marriage proposal when she thought her date was asking her to pass the bread.
Chefs get burnt out, too. “I ate at a loud [restaurant] this weekend for a fancy friend dinner out. We all agreed to do takeout sushi and wear sweatpants next time,” admits Dave Punch, chef-owner of Newton’s often soothing, if not hushed, Sycamore.
And so, if it’s quiet dining you crave during a hectic holiday season, remove your earplugs and read on.
How could you not feel cozy in a restaurant called Alcove? Owner Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli suggests asking for tables 81 (his favorite, where he seats his own parents when they visit) or 94, which is tucked into the restaurant’s actual alcove.
“Table 81 is cozy and intimate. We refer to it as the ‘alcove’ within Alcove,” he says. It’s also sentimental, with one of his favorite photographs on the wall: a shot from Peter Vanderwarker of one of the Zakim Bridge obelisks toward the West End — Alcove’s current home — in the days before the Big Dig.
Settle in and order Schlesinger-Guidelli’s current favorite dish: Persian meatballs with cherry sauce and lavender as prepared by chef Chuck Draghi, who used to run an intimate spot of his own in Bay Village, Erbaluce. 50 Lovejoy Wharf, Boston, 617-248-0050, www.alcoveboston.com
Banyan Bar + Refuge
The name says it all: This South End Asian gastropub radiates energy without being overwhelming. Owner Rebecca Roth Gullo recommends her sidewalk-facing, widely spaced lounge tables (numbers 91 through 96) for maximum reclusive potential, complete with overhead branches wrapped in twinkling lights. A menu designed for sharing, from Thai chicken cabbage wraps to crab Rangoon dip to dollar dumplings, helps to fuel conversation — that you can actually hear. 553 Tremont St., Boston, 617-556-4211, www.banyanboston.com
Owner Will Gilson calls table 205 the “hot tub,” though you don’t need to strip down to sink in at this Italian restaurant. However, the booth’s shape does facilitate togetherness and offers a spectator-friendly view of the dining room’s doings.
“It’s one of the quietest spaces in town,” he promises. Of note: The restaurant has ceiling panels disguised as picture frames with custom art, felt-lined to absorb extra noise. Really need silence? Tuesdays through Thursdays tend to be the “chillest” nights at the restaurant, he says. Less chill: Their spicy lobster fra diavlo spaghetti, which Gilson ranks as his most popular dish. 100 North First St., Cambridge, www.thelexingtoncx.com/geppetto
MarketStreet Lynnfield is anything but sedate, as anyone who’s tried to park there can attest. However, a soothing corner can be found at La Gallina, the marketplace’s newish Mediterranean restaurant, which is home to a brick-walled alcove (tables 17 through 19, seating up to 8, with views of the dining room) and a year-round heated, covered patio. On Wednesdays, a flamenco guitarist takes up a post by the pizza oven. Warm up over seafood paella and earthy wild mushroom risotto. 1150 Market St., Lynnfield, 781-776-7600, www.lagallina-lynnfield.com
The ultimate for a Beacon Hill tryst — you feel like you’re wrapped in Gruyère from the moment you step inside this brick-walled, low-lit cavern. For optimal discretion, owner Sam Sosnitsky recommends table 38, a corner booth at the very end of the restaurant.
“It’s the most romantic, quiet, amazing table. Lots of couples get engaged there. Or else longtime couples come and look like lovebirds again,” she says. Right now, she’s ordering the “divine” cold-weather short rib beef bourguignon with a potato croquette. I’m partial to the Swiss-coated French onion soup, a vermouth-scented revelation that smells like wintertime and magic. 272 Cambridge St., Boston, 617-725-8855, www.mamaisonboston.com
The North End isn’t exactly known for subdued relaxation, but Mamma Maria owner Phoebe McGee points privacy-seekers to her celebratory Piccolo Room, overlooking North Square. The space, nestled on the second floor of a row house, can fit up to six (cozily), and there are two seatings — typically at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — with a $300 minimum on weekend evenings. Weekdays are a bit more flexible, so inquire when you reserve.
“The décor is reminiscent of an old house without being too stuffy,” McGee says.
She’s currently enjoying mushroom carpaccio with caviar, bay scallop and clam pasta, carbonara with white truffles, and Christmas pudding from chef Geraldo Andrade. 3 North Square, Boston, 617-523-0077, www.mammamaria.com
There is an episode in the long-gone “Sex and the City” (the original, not the awkward remake) where Mr. Big takes Carrie to an out-of-the-way restaurant where diners bring dates they’d never want to be seen with in real life. Qingdao Garden reminds me of that, but in the best possible way. You won’t be bothered. The dining rooms are spacious. The service is attentive when you want it to be, but you could also be forgotten in a corner for three hours with nobody hurrying you along. This is the kind of place where absolutely no one looks askance if you linger over “A Gentleman in Moscow” and juicy dumplings for three hours while soy sauce dribbles down your chin. The exterior is plain. You could drive right on by, which is exactly the point. 2382 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-7540, www.qingdaogardentogo.com
The Thirsty Scholar
This venerable, newly reopened Somerville pub is home to its very own “snug” — also known as Table 9. It seats five (or six if you squeeze), has its own TV, and is popular with trivia-night competitors on Wednesday evenings. “It’s very private, and when I say cozy: You’re squeezing in there,” says manager Jeremy Scanlon. If this sounds a little awkward, well, that’s why they invented beer. Scanlon recommends Bolognese or the “delicious, consistent” burger. 70 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-497-2294, www.thirstyscholarpub.com
This is where I picture a rumpled PI ducking in for sustenance during a sideways rainstorm: homey and narrow, with a friendly glow and absolutely no pretense. Owner Erin Miller recommends table 7, the restaurant’s standalone banquette with a window seat. “People have proposed there. It’s a great place for intimate conversation,” she says. (Table 6 is the other window seat, and not too shabby, either.) Come in from the cold with her current favorite: fennel-and-orange-scented lamb sausage tortelli in leek and laurel broth with pickled chanterelles. 2263 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-682-7295, www.urbanhearth.net
This sweet spot in Jamaica Plain has just 10 tables (not to be confused with its neighbor down the block, Ten Tables) and exudes a mellow, welcoming vibe. While floor manager Daniel Tebo is quick to point out that the restaurant can get busy — at its size, how could it not? — the energy is more “sophisticated dinner party” than frat party. Tebo’s current favorite menu item: Icelandic cod with green crab nage, root veggies, and saffron mayo. “Loads of delicious fall and winter flavors in a light seafood dish,” he says. 763 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-0145, www.veeveejp.com