The 2015 Boston-area restaurant awards
So long, 2015. This was the year that juice bars appeared en masse, the fro-yo shops of today. Taquerias such as Chilacates, Lone Star, and Naco Taco continued to open and expand, a boon in an area where many lament the lack of good Mexican fare. (More well-rounded representations of the cuisine, like Amuleto Mexican Table in Waltham, remained few and far between.) And in a region with a significant Greek population, Greek flavors finally arrived on the fine-dining scene, as horiatiki and spanakopita cropped up on menus at Committee, Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar, and others.
Alden & Harlow chef Michael Scelfo became a hero to many when he took on Yelp! bullies, posting on Instagram the photo of two customers who threatened bad reviews if they didn’t get their way. Dumpling Daughter, Nadia Liu Spellman’s Weston restaurant, sued a group of former employees when they opened Millbury’s Dumpling Girl, the restaurant’s menu as suspiciously familiar as its name. Chris Kimball, the bowtied force behind Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, left the Brookline company after a management shakeup. There were happy returns — e.g., chef Matt Jennings, back in Boston with Townsman after years in Providence — and successful sequels like Bergamot sibling BISq. And favorite restaurants, from Hungry Mother to James’s Gate to Xinh Xinh, closed their doors.
Before we look ahead to 2016, let us recognize some of this year’s biggest and brightest restaurants, chefs, and developments.
Restaurant of the year: Tasting Counter
Chef Peter Ungár opened Tasting Counter inside a Somerville brewery, serving one tasting menu each night to whoever occupies the restaurant’s 20 seats. Over nine courses, guests are treated to thoughtful, inventive dishes that demonstrate creative and technical prowess. Scallops served in their own shells with citrus and avocado-oil cream, seaweed pasta with hen of the woods mushrooms in bonito broth, dry-aged beef sirloin cap with red curry sauce and a salad of crisped ginger — dishes like these deserve plaudits and swoons. But it’s not just culinary merits that make Tasting Counter the restaurant of the year. It’s the business model. The restaurant sells tickets online, tip included, rather than serve up a bill at the end of the meal; sets prices according to demand, higher at peak times and lower midweek; creates an atmosphere where chefs interact with diners; balances tasting menus with inexpensive late-night offerings; and aims to use natural, local ingredients and create no carbon footprint. It is by no means the only local restaurant making such moves, but it reflects and embodies changes taking place as the industry looks toward the future. 14 Tyler St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-299-6362, www.tastingcounter.com
Chef of the year: Susan Regis
Once featured in a New York Times story headlined “Understudies by Choice” she is now front and center at Cambridge restaurant Shepard, sharing the spotlight with co-owner Rene Becker of Hi-Rise Bread Co. and chef de cuisine Peter McKenzie. No one who has followed her career at the likes of Biba, UpStairs on the Square, and Pava will be surprised at the new restaurant’s excellence. Infused with smoke, distinctly of the season, frank about heads and bones and exulting in fresh herbs, the food is downright poetic — from charred baby leeks with green romesco to beet cappellacci with lobster and Thai basil to perfect, simple chicken. 1 Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-714-5295, www.shepardcooks.com
Restaurateur of the year: Garrett Harker
This year, Eastern Standard — one of Boston’s essential restaurants — celebrated its 10th anniversary. A second branch of Fort Point’s Row 34 opened, in Portsmouth, N.H.; Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar will soon spawn in Burlington. Branch Line brought rotisserie chicken and more to Watertown. What they all have in common is Harker, who despite this burgeoning empire always keeps the emphasis on training and hospitality. Thanks in large part to him, we can now get a good cocktail and well-prepared local seafood in many corners of the region.
Cuisine of the year: Asian small plates
This year it seemed like you couldn’t take a step without bumping into a cheekily reimagined pork bun, chicken wing, or rice bowl. Banyan Bar + Refuge, Hojoko, Koy, Night Market, and Tiger Mama opened. Strip-T’s introduced an izakaya-themed dinner menu. Clio is closing, making way for an Uni expansion. And there are more to come, like Little Big Diner in Newton. Hope you know how to use chopsticks.
Most promising trend: Rethinking tipping
In October, influential New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer announced he would eliminate tipping in all 13 restaurants of his Union Square Hospitality Group. Many in the restaurant industry nationwide are exploring similar measures. Locally, Select Oyster Bar opened with a 20 percent gratuity included. Yvonne’s implemented a 3 percent “kitchen appreciation charge” to address disparity in earnings between the front and back of the house. Restaurants like Tasting Counter and Journeyman include the tip in the purchase price of a ticket to dinner. Finding a way to ensure fair and equitable wages for all restaurant workers is, and may always be, a work in progress. We are headed in the right direction.
Most interesting restaurant: Loyal Nine
History informs the menu. Everything is made by hand. Everything has a back story. And the team, led by chef-owner Marc Sheehan (Brasstacks, Bondir, Menton), is talented and smart. Not everything works, but there are many moments of glory, from wee and delicate bites like a raw scallop with pear and poppy seeds to a generous platter of confit chicken legs for the table. It makes perfect sense that the restaurant is named for a secret group of Bostonians — distillers and braziers and jewelers — who organized protests against the Stamp Act of 1765: a small group of tradesmen in an uprising. 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-945-2576, www.loyalninecambridge.com
Most welcome arrival: Dudley Cafe
It’s surprising that Dudley Square is still up-and-coming rather than discovered, but that is the case. Residents Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury, behind the Shanti Indian restaurants in Dorchester and Roslindale and Naga in Central Square, opened this cozy cafe and provided a real hangout for the neighborhood. It’s not some weird, gentrified island of yuppie latte sippers. Everyone is here — artists, politicians, Walgreens workers, BPS brass, young hipsters, and church elders. Along with the arrival of Dudley Dough, a pizza place affiliated with nonprofit Haley House, it is a promising sign for the square. 15 Warren St., Dudley Square, Roxbury, 617-445-1000, www.dudleycafe.com
Biggest transformation: Yvonne’s
Yes, this was Locke-Ober, for some 130 years. You can recognize the ornate dark wood and hand-carved bar. But that was an old boys’ club, where power brokers feasted chummily on steaks. Women, in fact, weren’t allowed until the 1970s. What an about-face. Yvonne’s has a prevailing feminine aesthetic — sexy but respectful, appreciative but not objectifying. It couldn’t be more welcoming to women, who therefore come in droves, dressed up to please one another. The men don’t seem to mind. 2 Winter Place, Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-267-0047, www.yvonnesboston.com
Most craveable: Meju
What do they put in the food at this stylish little Korean restaurant? Well, meju, dried, fermented soybeans that infuse every dish with umami. But that doesn’t account for the sheer deliciousness of the dumplings, spicy pork bulgogi, galbi, and more. Every time I come, I leave painfully full and already looking forward to my return. 243 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-764-3053, www.mejudavis.com
Best healthy lunch: Whole Heart Provisions
Whole Heart Provisions combines a chef’s sensibility with food that is actually good for you. Chef and co-owner Rebecca Arnold has worked at both Sarma and Alden & Harlow, and the influence of both is recognizable in the mix-and-match vegan bowls on offer here — from the Mission (shiitake mushrooms, edamame, shaved Brussels sprouts, Japanese eggplant, smashed cucumber, tahini sauce, and Sichuan dukkah crunch) to the Seeta (pickled cauliflower, chickpeas, cured tomato, green beans, currants, coconut curry, and crispy lentils). 487 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-202-5041, www.wholeheartprovisions.com
Biggest surprise: STRIP by Strega
Part of Nick Varano’s growing restaurant group, STRIP feels more like a club than a restaurant, with a Vegas vibe and plenty of female skin on display. The surprise comes when the food arrives. It is a restaurant, and a fine one too — from the showy seafood platters (dry ice!) to the excellent pork chop Milanese to the whiskey cotton candy with house-made “Oreos” and Pop Rocks. 64 Arlington St., Boston Park Plaza, Back Bay, Boston, 617-456-5300, www.stripbystregaboston.com
Best suburban restaurant: The Backroom
Chef Joshua Smith expands his Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions, opening adjacent restaurant the Backroom, and meatheads rejoice. The food isn’t fancy: salads and flatbreads, grilled steaks and slow-roasted porchetta. But if there are meatballs, they are the best meatballs you’ve ever had. A frisee salad with duck confit manages to be memorable. There is a strong, California-oriented wine list, and the space is warm and handsome. Don’t let the casual atmosphere fool you. As Moody’s is a serious deli, the Backroom is a serious restaurant. 468 Moody St., Waltham, 781-216-8732, www.moodyswaltham.com
Best neighborhood hangout: Worden Hall
Directly across from the Broadway T, a comfortable home away from home, from the group behind Five Horses Tavern. The kitchen does many things — from deep-dish pies and deli sandwiches to upscale bistro fare — and does them all well. There are also more than three dozen beers on tap, and even more kinds of whiskey. A fine place for all of South Boston to convene. 22 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-752-4206, www.wordenhall.com