2023 was a rich year for Boston’s dining scene. We saw the debut of restaurants serving both delicious dishes and new ideas. We tasted flavors from all over the world and watched inclusive nightlife flourish. Some old friends returned, while longtime standbys sadly closed for good. Here is a look back at some of the year’s most standout developments.
Restaurant of the year: Comfort Kitchen
In Uphams Corner, there is a restaurant that expresses with depth and deliciousness what food can mean to us: It can nourish and delight. It can tell a story. It can create community. At Comfort Kitchen, both food and drink menus are built around the concept of diaspora, tracing and connecting ingredients and dishes dispersed by slavery, trade, immigration. Cafe by day and restaurant by night, it serves its neighborhood at a range of price points. A Black-, immigrant-, and woman-owned business, it invites everyone in with warmth and welcome. And in a city where culinary creativity and the stretching of boundaries can be stifled by exorbitantly expensive liquor licenses, high rents, and other hurdles, it is thriving, independent and one-of-a-kind. In other words, it is proof of concept. This is the kind of restaurant Boston wants and needs.
611 Columbia Road, Dorchester. 617-329-6910, www.comfortkitchenbos.com
Restaurateur of the year: Nia Grace
Nia Grace made a splash when she took over Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in 2018. As cofounder of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition during the pandemic, she showed herself to be an industry force and advocate. This year, teaming with hospitality group Big Night, she brought soul and style to the Seaport with Grace by Nia. The restaurant and nightclub argues that we can have fancy cocktails, upscale soul food, live music, and a diverse, welcoming scene all in the same swank space. More to come soon: Grace is closing Darryl’s at the end of the year to reenvision the historic space. And another project she has been involved with, Jazz Urbane Cafe, is moving ahead in Nubian Square.
Barlette, debuting the concept of a BYOB bar in Brookline. It provides the glassware, the mixers, the garnishes, the bartenders, the wee jewel of a space, and the option of a few fancy snacks. You bring the booze — or don’t. The mixers work as zero-proof cocktails, as well. For people who love the bar experience but aren’t partaking in alcohol, Barlette offers a welcome alternative.
318 Harvard St. #11, Coolidge Corner, Brookline. 601-301-2024 (text only), www.drinkatbarlette.com
Lehrhaus, celebrating the best of Jewish culture — food and learning — under one roof. Come for the herring tartine, mac and cheese kugel, and themed cocktails with names like Eight Nights and Tree of Knowledge; stay for classes about the Talmud, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” the legal cases that will help define the future character of Israel, and much more. Kosher and closed for Shabbat, Lehrhaus — started by rabbi Charlie Schwartz and author Joshua Foer — is a place for all. As Schwartz says, “You don’t have to be French to go to a French restaurant. Why would you have to be Jewish to go to a Jewish tavern?”
425 Washington St., Somerville. www.lehr.haus
Park-9, a bar for pups and their people. Restaurants are getting a bit more dog-friendly, but here is a venue that puts the pets front and center. Along with two bars, there is an indoor-outdoor dog park where Buddy and Bella can frolic while their owners sip a local IPA or a Dog Dare cocktail. Dog treats are available, and visiting restaurants and food trucks provide the human food. It’s like being inside Puppy Bowl, but with refreshments.
48 Waters Ave. #1, Everett. 617-294-8048, www.park9dogbar.com
Most Boston story: Eastern Standard
The beloved Fenway restaurant got its start on scrappy Comm. Ave., drawing loyalists for brunch and gameday shenanigans, introducing generations of Boston diners to the joys of craft cocktails and bone marrow. After closing during the pandemic, Eastern Standard then staged a triumphant comeback, in luxury residential complex the Bower. Fancier digs, Fenway Park view: not too shabby. Familiar menu and vibe: same kid at heart.
775 Beacon St., Fenway, Boston. 617-530-1590, www.easternstandardboston.com
Splashiest arrival: Amar
When Amar opened in September, it became one of Boston’s most coveted reservations. (Dinner at 9:30 on a Tuesday night? Don’t mind if I do.) Located on the 17th floor of the new Raffles Boston hotel, the restaurant is headed by chef George Mendes, who previously owned the Michelin-starred Aldea. Prestigious view plus prestigious resume equals plenty of attention. But Mendes’s modern Portuguese dishes are the real draw: Maine lobster with Azorean pineapple, duck with rice, an elegant version of bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, the traditional casserole of salt cod with potatoes, onions, olives, and egg, and more.
Raffles Boston, 40 Trinity Place, Back Bay, Boston. 617-351-8888, www.raffles.com/boston/dining/amar
Most essential arrival: Nubian Markets
Formerly an MBTA bus yard, Roxbury mixed-use development Bartlett Place is becoming a place to live, gather, work out, and send children to an African-centered Montessori school. The neighborhood needed a market and cafe that would serve everyone who spends time here. So chef Ismail Samad and general manager Yusuf Yassin opened one. Nubian Markets sells fresh produce, African grains, gluten-free frozen waffles, products from more than 30 Black-owned brands. The in-house halal butcher shop offers everything from fancy steaks to goat heads. And the cafe serves up flavors from the Caribbean, Africa, the American South, and beyond: croissant-inspired pastries filled with plantains and cardamom caramel or collard greens and cheddar; crispy chicken with Hoppin’ John; ginger beef with injera; lamb couscous. It’s just what the neighborhood needed.
2565 Washington St., Roxbury. 617-608-4940, www.nubianmarkets.com
Happiest return: Deep Ellum
An Allston watering hole called Deep Ellum opened in 2007, with a great beer list, perfect cocktails, and satisfying comfort food. Its closure during the pandemic was a sad moment for people who appreciate solid hangouts. This year, it reopened in Waltham, serving up more of the same at a gentle price point that allows regulars to actually visit regularly.
467 Moody St., Waltham. www.deepellum-waltham.com.
Happy place: Moon Bar
Chef Carl Dooley serves some of Boston’s best tasting menus at Mooncusser, an upstairs restaurant on the edge of Back Bay. But one isn’t always in a tasting menu mood. Now, downstairs, there’s Moon Bar, serving an a la carte selection of fun and delicious bar fare in a very Mooncusserian vein, thrumming with the flavors of the world: house-made milk bread with chorizo curry butter, mahi mahi ceviche with coconut and aji amarillo, tandoori chicken thighs with cucumber raita, black bass wrapped in banana leaf with pineapple sambal. Mooncusser sous chef Nelson Whittingham oversees the food, with Jake Smith (Uni) at the bar.
129 Columbus Ave., Boston. 617-917-5193, www.mooncusserboston.com
Best use of space: The Eaves
Though it be but little it is fierce. The Eaves is a pocket of a space in Somerville’s Bow Market, but it serves up outsize personality, atmosphere, and flavor. Dim, lush, hand-hewn, with a curving wooden bar, it offers a Vietnamese-inspired menu that might include rice noode dish Bún chả Hà Nội made with Hudson Valley duck, lemongrass steamed clams, and ginger shrimp papaya salad. If you’ve been to Cicada Coffee Bar in Cambridge and sense a similar spirit, you’re not mistaken. Both are run by architect/chef/visionaries Vincenzo Lê and Duong Huynh.
1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville. Instagram @midnight_eaves
Best new neighborhood Italian:
Gufo, a cafe and restaurant bringing comforting, sophisticated pasta, pizza, and small plates to East Cambridge. Think cacio e pepe arancini; chestnut agnolotti with apple, cabbage, sage, brown butter, and truffle; and pepperoni pizza with vodka sauce and olives. It’s from the people behind Salty Pig and SRV in Boston.
660 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-945-9734, www.gufocambridge.com
Tonino, offering a similar service to Jamaica Plain. Co-owners Claire Makley (O Ya, Hojoko, the Koji Club) and chef Luke Fetbroth (Sarma, Giulia) teamed up with longtime neighborhood restaurateurs David Doyle and Mari Perez-Alers (Tres Gatos, Casa Verde) to open the place. The pizza is a highlight, made with dough that’s been fermented for several days. But don’t miss salads, clams with guanciale and chile, or pastas such as agnolotti with honeynut squash and brown butter or bucatini with anchovy chile butter, bottarga, and bread crumbs.
669a Centre St., Jamaica Plain. 617-524-9217, www.toninojp.com
Warmest hospitality: Bar Vlaha
From Xenia Greek Hospitality, the restaurant group behind spots such as Krasi, this Brookline restaurant focuses in on the cuisine and culture of the Vlach people, nomadic shepherds of central and northern Greece. The menu of traditional spreads, pies, stews, and charcoal-grilled lamb makes it worth the visit. But the embracing spirit of Bar Vlaha, where staffers exude genuine warmth and welcome, might be its most compelling feature. Like other Xenia concepts, Bar Vlaha runs on philoxenia, a Greek notion of hospitality wherein strangers are treated as friends.
1653 Beacon St., Washington Square, Brookline. 617-906-8556, www.barvlaha.com
Most missed: El Oriental de Cuba
This year saw the closures of neighborhood fixtures like Ashmont Grill, Atwood’s Tavern, and the Dogwood. And it was a shame to see Tanám in Somerville close its doors just as the worker-owned, narrative-driven, Filipinx-influenced restaurant was earning some deserved national attention. But it was the last days of El Oriental de Cuba in JP that felt perhaps the saddest. This was the perfect spot to bring just about anyone, for Cuban sandwiches, plates of ropa vieja, and conversation. A center for Boston’s Latino community and a gathering place for all of Jamaica Plain, it was a heartbeat of its community.