Your pompous cousin is in town, and nothing but the iciest martini and juiciest steak will do. Your friend caught her beloved in flagrante with a colleague, and she wants to drown her sorrows in a platter of spaghetti and copious wine. It’s your second date, and you aim to sup somewhere fancy — but not too fancy! — with ample distractions should something go sour.
But occasion restaurants often fall flat. How many stuffy lounges, pandering girls’ nights out, or supposedly romantic boites that prize atmosphere over food have you endured? You felt taken advantage of, swindled even. You vowed never to return. Until the next time.
It needn’t be thus. Here are 10 restaurants to match pivotal dining scenarios. Each serves as a backdrop for life’s inevitable moments and also offers exceptional food. Choose wisely; eat well.
You’re making new couple-friends: Sarma
Friendship is on the brink of blossoming, and you want to seal the deal. This Turkish meze parlor has the notable-chef factor (Ana Sortun), making it feel like an occasion. The small plates menu — za’atar fried feta? pork gyros? — is sprawling enough that appetites tame and frisky will feel acknowledged. Strolling waiters toting platters of impromptu treats like sesame fried chicken spark conversation. And the price point is fair, so splitting the tab won’t reveal anyone’s darker side.
249 Pearl St., Somerville, 617-764-4464, www.sarmarestaurant.com
You’re soothing a brokenhearted pal: Vinny’s at Night
You might be tempted to find a thumpy, slinky cavern with birdbath-size martinis. But really, your friend needs a few hours of Sicilian suspended reality. Vinny’s is a throwback to a time when portions were husky and prices were fair. Dissect what went wrong over a bottomless swirl of eggplant parm and goblets of wine, and accept opinions from fellow diners. (Tables are cozy and seemingly filled with everyone’s favorite doting auntie.) This is the kind of joint that restores your faith in humanity, and the convenience store out front adds to the charm.
76 Broadway, Sullivan Square, Somerville, 617-628-1921, www.vinnysatnight.com
You woke up with someone you don’t really know: Tres Gatos
Tres Gatos is a little unusual — you can browse their intellectually sound selection of records and books to keep tentative conversation at bay. The menu is just this side of standard — chicken liver toasts with kumquat marmalade cement your status as a paramour both memorable and adventurous. Plus, they take reservations, so you needn’t loiter in the cruel sunlight while nursing a throbbing wine headache.
470 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4851, www.tresgatosjp.com
You’re celebrating, but tired of the usual suspects: The Table at Season to Taste
Urban glamour has its place. But if you want quality food without pretension or parking problems, trek to this 20-seat nook on the northern fringes of Cambridge. Here, humbly energetic “Top Chef” contestant Carl Dooley prepares prix fixe dishes that straddle the line between challenging and reassuring — charred Spanish octopus with avocado; spiced beets with merguez and feta; pork belly in morel mushroom stew — and walks them to your table himself, just to banter for a bit. Complimentary bites between courses make you feel like a treasured guest, not an interloper who’s paying for a privilege. It’s special without being snooty.
2447 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-871-9468, www.cambridgetable.com
You’re hosting a Most Important Brunch: MA France
Pass off their flaky bistro sandwiches (tomato and olive is the best), croissants, and quiches as your own. Pick up a few rare cheeses and imported jams. Do a shot of espresso for the road. The jaunty, beret-wearing cashiers will make you feel proud of your purchases — and offer those affirmations in French, if you desire.
46 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington, 781-862-1047, www.mafrancegourmet.com
Your wayward spawn or sibling needs a lecture: Little Big Diner
The room is noisy and upbeat enough to make even difficult conversations take on a festive undertone, and each splashy, sharp East Asian dish (papaya salad! squishy grilled shrimp buns!) tastes like an accessible vacation treat. It’s easier to demand unpaid rent over a humble ramen propelled by bacon-washed bourbon — you’re on the same level, you see. Plus, most portions are big enough that your struggling companion will have leftovers.
1247 Centre St., Newton, 857-404-0068, www.littlebigdiner.com
You’re on a second date: Meju
Meju’s unusual cocktails indicate that you’re a savvy diner, and possibly savvy in other ways, too: Many are made with soju, a vodka-like spirit that makes most interludes fare better, often swirled with pear or honey. Korean snacks like a duo of spiced pork buns and dumplings are shareable; if things falter, you can finish speedily — and soothing servers are attentive enough to notice when a bill needs to arrive, fast.
243 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-764-3053, www.mejudavis.com
Your blowhard uncle is in town, and only the finest will do: Uni
Whisk your demanding relation to the lower depths of the Eliot Hotel, where Ken Oringer’s Clio once stood. He’s transformed it into a rowdy two-story version of his popular sashimi bar, Uni, and now it’s larger and pricklier than ever before — a spice carnival in Technicolor. Dazzle Blowhard with buffalo mentaiko spaghetti, swirled with hot sauce and silky egg yolks. Render him speechless with smoked hamachi tartare and caviar. Order once and order some more; the staff takes special glee in gluttons. He’ll stagger back to Commonwealth Ave. having forgotten all about his car, his club, and his martini.
370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, www.uni-boston.com
You’re dining with kids, and you crave wrapper-free food: Tu Y Yo
The Chipotles of the world serve their purpose. But if you want to legitimately go out — without alienating the mature dining population with your progeny — try Tu Y Yo near Teele Square. This place does an admirable job of balancing kid-friendly stuff (quesadillas, flautas) with greaseless, intriguing items for parents (olive-spiked shrimp crepes; chiles rellenos stuffed with almonds and raisins). And, speaking from experience, nobody will look askance when you arrive with a tub of plastic Ninja turtles and a stroller.
858 Broadway, Somerville, 617-623-5411
You’re impressing out-of-town gourmands: Ritu Ki Rasoi
“Boston food is so predictable. Are you taking us for clam chowder?” they sniff. Oh, no: Pilgrimage to Burlington on a weekend morning and pull into a gravelly parking lot. Lead your charges up a rickety ramp, grin smugly, and inhale. Behold the majestic buffet at Ritu Ki Rasoi, showcasing an array of vegetarian Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes. No heavy curries here: Feast among families elbow-deep in chile fried rice, spiced potatoes with cauliflower, and crisp, hot dosas served tableside splashed with pulpy mint chutney by the bowlful.
207 Cambridge St., Burlington, 781-229-8349, www.ritukirasoi.com