Boston ate well in 2014. Wood-fired pizza, handmade pasta, and octopus appetizers were often on our plates, with a surge in Asian street food toward the end of the year. Bartenders served Yuengling (again) and embraced lower-alcohol cocktails and slushies. “Top Chef” came to town. Barbara Lynch won a James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurateur. Chains declared they weren’t. We never got our Pepe’s. We lost a few old friends. Before we move on, let’s take a look back at the highs and lows — the tastes, restaurants, and people that made 2014 a year to remember.
Restaurant of the year
Casablanca occupied this space for more than 50 years, the quintessential Harvard Square haunt for artists, intellectuals, and neighborhood eccentrics. Chef Michael Scelfo opened Alden & Harlow here in early 2014, picking up the mantle. The restaurant is a worthy successor, the neighborhood hangout of its time, with small plates based on local ingredients (charred broccoli with squash hummus, pickled corn pancakes with shishito peppers, a stellar burger); fine-tuned cocktails; and hospitality that makes everyone feel at home. This is the kind of place, and these are the flavors, we want right now. Yet it operates on a classic Harvard Square frequency, creative and independent.
40 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-864-2100, www.aldenharlow.com
It is hard to imagine what Boston’s restaurant scene would look like without Hamersley and the restaurant he closed this year. Hamersley’s Bistro began as a breath of fresh air in a much grittier South End, and over the course of 27 years it became a blueprint for the kind of place we take for granted today: not stuffy or formal, serving simple, seasonal food. Now the chef moves forward with characteristic grace and generosity, continuing his work with young people through nonprofits like Future Chefs, helping them enter the culinary workforce. Once again, a model worth emulating. (He’ll also become a regular contributor to the Globe; look for his column starting in mid-January.)
Vegetables take center stage
Long relegated to supporting roles, in the shadow of pork chops, steaks, and roast chicken, vegetables this year got their due. We found kale salad on every menu in town. Carrots commanded the plate: served with yogurt, honey, and a mix of pistachios and other seeds at Alden & Harlow; with ricotta, sunflower seeds, maple-tea glaze, cranberries, and black sesame paste at Mei Mei; roasted, pickled, and grilled with carrot custard at Liquid Art House. Cauliflower arrived as whole heads, or cross-sectioned into “steaks.” Given general interest in local, farm- and market-inspired eating, combined with the health benefits of a plant-centric diet, it’s about time.
It’s a cafe. With cats. Inside. Roaming free. It was tolerable when we had to travel to Asia or Europe to visit one. But now they are spreading rapidly, arriving in Montreal, New York, and more — within wheezing distance. And sure enough, there is now an Indiegogo campaign to fund one for Boston, to be called Le Chat Noir. Don’t get me wrong: I want all stray cats to find forever homes and be the darling fur children of loving human-species life forms. I just don’t want them hacking up hairballs into my French roast. Now somebody pass me my inhaler.
The former feeds the area surrounding Porter Square, offering well-made, pretension-free food. It’s a follow-up to the restaurant of the same name in Brookline, with much of the same slam-dunk fare: bison Bolognese, a solid burger, and fish dishes a little more elegant than you would expect. The latter serves a stretch of Broadway free of hipster outposts. Locals were hungry for this kind of place, relaxed and welcoming with well-made cocktails and international flavors combined in intriguing ways — spicy Thai fried chicken, carnitas tacos, and soba with pork belly all on the same menu, for example.
Dave Becker, the man behind Italian restaurant Sweet Basil in Needham, understands his audience. His new place, Juniper, also offers good food and quirky charm, this time focusing on Eastern Mediterranean flavors. In a year when octopus appetizers were almost as common as kale salads in area restaurants, Juniper’s version was the best, charred tendrils slowly cooked in olive oil, served with apple-jicama slaw in a warming, spicy broth. Red Bird, from an alum of the Franklin Cafe, does for Waltham what that restaurant did for the South End years ago, adding a fine, comfortable New American staple to the mix. You might find great mussels or grilled hanger steak. Plus, the fried clam strips are surprisingly some of the best around.
Davis Square’s classic diner car shuttered last spring. Joe Cassinelli’s Alpine Restaurant Group took over the space and gave it the remake it deserved. Chef John Delpha’s menu is a cheeky salute to American comfort food classic and current — from meatloaf to the “it’s not ramen” noodle soup. And of course there is pie, too.
381 Summer St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-629-9500, www.rosebudkitchen.com
You might expect a Burlington steakhouse to be run-of-the-mill, but the Bancroft provides a lesson in keeping an open mind. The space is sophisticated and modern, decorated with Pop Art prints, industrial antiques, and touches of whimsy (bright blue lockers with gold animal-head knockers). Executive chef Mario Capone serves steakhouse fare for the present day, with a farm-to-table approach. (The Bancroft is run by Webber Restaurant Group, which also operates Gibbet Hill Farm in Groton, where much of the produce is grown.) Don’t miss the gorgeous steak tartare or the unusually flavorful and tender bone-in filet. You’ll also find a clever bar program and top-notch hospitality. What a pleasant surprise.
15 Third Ave., Burlington, 781-221-2100, www.the-bancroft.com
Visit the Central Square branch of Korean-owned supermarket H Mart to stock up on kimchi, rice cakes, giant mushrooms, green tea Kit-Kats, and much, much more. It closes at 11, but don’t stay so late you miss dinner: Head across the street to Italian-ish restaurant Viale for charred, thin-crust pizza and handmade pasta dishes. (The kitchen closes at 10 Sunday through Wednesday, but Thursday through Saturday you’ve got until 11, and the bar menu is available until midnight.) Then it’s time for cocktails at the bar.
Viale is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. But we are still mourning the closure of Rendezvous, which occupied the space before, from 2005 until it closed this year. It was one of Central Square’s most essential restaurants, and owner Steve Johnson one of Cambridge’s most essential chefs. He was often spotted in-house, overseeing a menu filled with Mediterranean flavors and local ingredients. Happily, anyone missing grilled sardines and lemon-buttermilk pudding can take a road trip to Tiverton, R.I., to visit his new restaurant, the Red Dory.
Former Wall Street investment banker Ruta Laukien is not afraid to take risks. She opened this gallery/restaurant on the edge of Back Bay, a vast and lavish space filled with Murano glass chandeliers, a circular marble bar, and art for sale. She brought on acclaimed chef Rachel Klein, who creates food that looks like art, too: pelmeni-esque dumplings that incorporate sour cherry and foie gras or wild mushrooms, vivid sweet pea veloute, and more. The desserts are showstoppers, too. The place is experimental and expensive, with an atmosphere that falls somewhere between Boston, underground Berlin, and the Capitol of “The Hunger Games.” It may not be to everyone’s taste, but one still has to admire its nerve.
100 Arlington St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-457-8130, www.liquidarthouse.com
The folks from Hungry Mother created their version of a dive bar in Kendall Square. It has wood paneling and neon beer signs, Nashville hot chicken and gumbo poutine, Pimm’s cup pitchers and intriguing beers. But most important, it has pinball, pool, and table shuffleboard. A night here is all fun and games.
1 Kendall Square, Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-848-4355, www.stateparkcambridge.com
When locals expressed skepticism about a New York-based chef opening a place on Boylston, I was certain they were wrong. Daniel Boulud is a master chef, and chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers won high praise in past posts. I believed they would be able to ensure quality and consistency. But on my visits, food and service were uneven. One night would bring gorgeous pate and boudin blanc, another overcooked, flavorless pasta and alarmingly undercooked offal. I hold out hope that Bar Boulud will become the restaurant it should be. In the meantime, L’Espalier isn’t all that much more expensive, and Bistro du Midi isn’t far away.
776 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-535-8800, www.barboulud.com/boston
Tourists come to the North End for Italian food. North Enders sometimes want a little variety. They really lucked out with this offshoot of the Medford restaurant with the same name. Tenoch serves intensely craveable tortas, tacos, and other Mexican fare. The friendly folks who work here talk so lovingly of the food of their homeland, you’ll want to book a ticket. Or at least come back the next day for another torta spiked with vibrant chile de arbol salsa.