Each year at this time, I take a look back at the things I’ve been thankful for in the world of food. Each year it’s different: Maybe everyone put biscuits on the menu, and they were really good. Maybe we’ve been through a world-changing pandemic and we’re finally able to go out to eat again. Although the lists look different from year to year, they are always, in essence, about the same thing: The people I connected with along the way. That’s the case this year, too. Here is what I’m feeling thankful for right now.
Yafa Bakery & Cafe
At this Palestinian bakery in Somerville, owner Abdulla Awad devotes himself to creating beautiful sweets and a genuinely warm space for all comers. Most of the recipes are traditional and old, from Jerusalem, where Awad’s family has lived for years in the Beit Safafa neighborhood. He sells olive oil from their own groves, rich and ripe and almost buttery. His staff in back works by hand making the date-filled cookies mamoul and flaky, snail-shaped pastries stuffed with spinach or potato. The sweets are studies in pistachio: This one uses red, this one green; in this one they’re chopped fine, in this one whole. The variety is kaleidoscopic. Everything is kissed with the sunny flavors of honey and orange blossom water. The lemonada is one of the loveliest beverages in town. But it’s Awad’s welcome that makes Yafa a truly special place to be.
594 Somerville Ave., Somerville, 617-616-5310, www.yafabakerycafe.com
Lehrhaus calls itself a “Jewish tavern and house of learning,” and it is equally both things. Visitors can snack on herring tartines and mac and cheese kugel, or pull up at the bar for cocktails like the Some Like it Harif (a margarita made with the spicy condiment s’chug and sumac) and the Yemeni espresso martini goosed with the spice mixture hawaij. There are also shelves and shelves of books, and classes on everything from the Talmud to how to write a Jewish joke. It’s a space for everyone: non-Jews and every kind of Jew alike. After it opened, cofounder Joshua Foer told me they hope Lehrhaus will be a “place where your identity can be grounded in learning, debate, and argument. We have a feeling that not only is that something that appeals quite broadly, but also that a little bit of the world needs to get better at right now — engaging with difference and ideas and argument and debate without being disrespectful.” Truer words, I don’t know them.
425 Washington St., Somerville, www.lehr.haus
Is there a more satisfying place in the world than an Italian deli? People line up for top-quality cold cuts and sandwiches heaped with them. There are umpteen delicious premade dishes to pull from behind glass doors: marinara, manicotti, fresh pasta of all shapes and fillings. On the shelves, you might find torrone (my weakness) or excellent olive oil or coffee beans or fizzy digestives. Everyone seems to know each other, and some of them are catching up in Italian. The air smells perfect, of fresh-baked bread with an edge of pepperoncini. In recent months, in search of the best Italian sandwiches, I got to visit a lot of places like this — from Tutto Italiano in Hyde Park to Bricco Salumeria in the North End to Bob’s Italian Foods in Medford to New Deal Fruit in Revere. I loved them all.
Ice cream stands
This summer I set out on a glorious task: a tour of the state, via its old-school ice cream stands, or dairy bars. (I had to limit myself, sticking within and around 495 and not venturing to the Cape. “Save something for the next time,” as my dad always says.) I ate an embarrassing amount of amazing ice cream, while visiting places like Hornstra Dairy Farm in Norwell, Rota Spring Farm in Sterling, and Shaw Dairy Farm in Dracut. I dream about the mint chocolate chip at Bedford Farms in Bedford, the perfect chaser to a Walden Pond swim. I also dream about the gorgeous fruit ice creams, made with what’s available from local farms, at Benson’s Homemade Ice Cream in Boxford. Is it gluttony to visit as many dairy bars as possible? No, it’s firsthand, experiential historical research. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Food with a view
I love a restaurant with a water view. I don’t love a restaurant where the water view is the best thing going. This year I reveled in two very different places on two very different bodies of water, both of which excelled. The menus are pretty different, too; weirdly, both serve stellar ribs. The first is Woods Hill Pier 4, a great answer when you’re wondering where to take out-of-town guests, birthday celebrants, and that friend who wants to eat on the water in the Seaport. Restaurateur Kristin Canty also runs Woods Hill Table and Adelita in Concord; her Farm at Woods Hill, located in New Hampshire, supplies the restaurants with pasture-raised meat and other ingredients. Cocktails are great, and chef Charlie Foster’s kitchen is remarkably consistent. Don’t miss the lamb ribs with red wine glaze, Urfa pepper, mint, and cilantro. Perhaps there’s some occult meaning to the number 4? Because Four Winds Pub & Grill, by the shores of Lake Lynnapesaukee (a.k.a. the sparkling Sluice Pond), is my other winner on the water for this year. Outside, it’s an unremarkable-looking dive bar. Inside, it’s a lakeside lodge with a festive beach shack spirit. Sunset is impossibly pretty, drinks are reasonably priced, and the candied garlic spareribs are both delicious and strikingly familiar. Owner Patrick DeBoever used to be the chef at the long-lost Pho Republique, where I — and maybe you — ate my share of them.
A really good salad
I give peas a chance every chance I get. Not the mealy, frozen-from-a-bag kind, which taste like green crayons. Snap peas, shelling peas, snow peas — the kind that taste like spring. When the season rolls round again, I’m heading to Gufo in Cambridge. The Italian cafe-restaurant is from the folks behind standbys SRV and the Salty Pig, so I expected to like it, and I did. I didn’t expect to love a Caesar salad that replaces lettuce with sliced pea pods coated in a creamy, anchovy-celebrating dressing and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs. It was simple and great.
660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-945-9734, www.gufocambridge.com.
Bars to visit again and again
Dang I was happy to see Deep Ellum again. The well-loved Allston watering hole closed during the pandemic, then opened anew in Waltham. The comfort food — poutine with porcini gravy, smash burgers — is on point. The beer and cocktails are as good as ever. The prices kind of feel like 2007, when Deep Ellum first opened. I’ll take it. Then, on the other side of the world in East Boston, there’s the Quiet Few, a “neighborhood whiskey tavern” that puts caviar on everything, including hot dogs. There are smash burgers here, too, and frozen drinks with paper umbrellas. It’s all a good time.
Boston has a bunch of reputations, among them 1. it is a nightlife-scorning city that goes to bed early and 2. it is unfriendly and inequitable when it comes to business diversity. We all can change (remind yourself of this should Thanksgiving conversation take a turn for the insufferable). I was convinced of that this year as I ate seafood gumbo and listened to live music at Grace by Nia, a swank and soulful club-restaurant in the Seaport, a partnership between Black entrepreneur Nia Grace (Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen) and hospitality group Big Night. And in Back Bay, a diverse ownership team puts on a festive, fancy dinner party with a great soundtrack at the gorgeous speakeasy Hue. It’s enough to make you want to stay up late.