This month, Bon Appetit magazine named its 2018 Restaurant City of the Year: Portland, Maine.
So close, and yet so far. Seafood, charm, New England panache: What’s Portland got that Boston doesn’t?
Just two weeks earlier, the website Eater had released its annual 18 Best New Restaurants in America. There wasn’t a Boston-area restaurant on the list — nor in Eater’s most recent America’s Essential Restaurants package.
Boston wasn’t represented in Food & Wine’s annual Restaurants of the Year, or its Best New Chefs package. (Yume Ga Arukara, in Cambridge, was, however, a surprise pick for Bon Appetit’s list of 10 best new restaurants.)
And only two locals were nominated for 2018 James Beard awards in national categories (as opposed to the Best Chef: Northeast award): Ken Oringer of Uni, Little Donkey, Toro, and others for Outstanding Restaurateur, and Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra for Outstanding Baker. Neither won.
The Boston area is inarguably home to many wonderful restaurants and a wealth of culinary talent. But when it comes to national recognition, the city is often overlooked.
“There’s been amazing restaurants in Boston, but there doesn’t seem to be that kind of gonzo, let’s-just-go-out-and-wing-it kind of vibe,” says Bon Appetit editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton, who anointed Portland. “I wish there were a little bit more risk-taking. I’m looking for the ones pushing the edge and trying something new, and I don’t find that.”
As of last fall, there were about 346,000 independent restaurants in the country, according to market-research company the NPD Group. It is not enough to simply be excellent anymore. To stand out, a restaurant must have a point of view. It needs to express something resonant, be it deeply personal, cultural, or both.
It needs to tell a story.
“Boston doesn’t currently have a restaurant that catches my particular fancy from a narrative perspective,” says Food & Wine restaurant editor Jordana Rothman, who spends about half the year on the road, eating all over the country. “There is such a deep well of New England culture to explore, to take apart, to hold in your hand and see the different ways it can catch the light.”
Some of her favorite restaurants are in Boston, she says. And yet: “I desperately want the one that analyzes and explores New England and presents it in a context that’s delicious and illuminating and full of educational moments.”
It is not a coincidence, in 2018, that many of the restaurants garnering attention and accolades don’t just serve great food but through it tell stories embracing of diversity, immigration, themes of togetherness, cultural pride, and cultural interplay.
They remind us of the America that is welcoming and open. The narrative is, in fact, a counternarrative: a rejection of bigotry and intolerance on the rise elsewhere in the culture.
These are places like JuneBaby in Seattle, where chef Edouardo Jordan looks at Southern food through a specifically black lens; Maydan in Washington, D.C., which centers around a live-fire hearth and showcases the cooking of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus; Nyum Bai, a Cambodian restaurant in Oakland from chef Nite Yun, whose family came to California as refugees; and San Antonio’s Carnitas Lonja, a no-frills specialist in crisp-tender pork.
This is not to say that opulent steakhouses and French-inspired tasting menus are dead. But, unless there is some kind of reimagination or flourish involved, interest in classic, big-bang, upscale restaurants has waned on a national level. And this should come as no surprise, as it’s waned on the local level, too.
We want narrowcasting. We want individual tracks from a multiplicity of artists. We don’t want to buy that blockbuster album anymore. Unless it’s Beyonce. We’ll always buy the Beyonce album. And we’ll always eat at the Beyonce of restaurants, whenever and wherever one should open.
“I’m looking at the cities that feel energized from within and are putting forth something that feels fresh for the regional and national conversation. And right at this moment in Boston, I’m not seeing a whole lot of that,” says Bill Addison, the national restaurant critic for Eater.
This hasn’t always been the case. Chefs such as Todd English, Gordon Hamersley, Barbara Lynch, Lydia Shire, and Jasper White created plenty of Boston buzz as they rose to renown.
“I will always respect what [Oleana chef] Ana Sortun has put into the world. That’s one of the great legacies in modern dining for Boston, because now everywhere you look are Middle Eastern flavors in many different iterations,” Addison says.
Of course, there are Boston restaurants working to tell Boston stories. Perhaps the most interesting is Loyal Nine in Cambridge, where chef-owner Marc Sheehan and team bring Colonial cookery back to life using local ingredients. The food feels very modern and like a history lesson at the same time. But the restaurant is the exception, not the rule.
“It is interesting to me that as compelling as I thought Loyal Nine was, it didn’t beget other similar kinds of cooking in the Boston area,” Addison says.
So why — in a region rich with academics and artists, innovators and intellectuals — don’t our restaurants offer the kind of creativity, quality, and point of view critics are finding elsewhere? There’s certainly the audience for it.
For one thing, Boston isn’t just stuck between New York and Portland geographically. We have big-city aspirations, to be sure. But with about 8 percent of New York’s population, Boston simply isn’t big enough to support the same vibrant, varied, and visible high-end dining scene (although I firmly believe that Boston’s mid-tier restaurants are on par with New York’s). Yet, because it is a well-established East Coast city and cultural locus, the expectations are similarly high.
On the other hand, there’s scrappy little Portland, with a population that’s only about 10 percent of Boston’s. “What I saw this year was it coming into its own and having its own identity,” says Knowlton. “Portland always had a little more character to its restaurants and a little bit more point of view.”
Chef Andrew Taylor is co-owner of seafood restaurant Eventide Oyster Co., which expanded from Portland to open last year in the Fenway. “It’s like comparing apples and pineapples,” he says of the two cities. “They’re totally different, and one is just so much bigger.”
Portland feels like one big neighborhood: It’s easy to hop from restaurant to restaurant and feel there is an embarrassment of riches. Boston is segmented, its restaurant clusters far apart. “Getting across the river is like going to the moon,” Taylor says.
The city is segmented in other ways, too. It can be insular, the kind of place where people want to know how you are connected and woven into the fabric, not how you stand out. Last fall, as part of a Spotlight project on racism in the city, the Globe commissioned a national survey that found that among eight major cities, African Americans ranked Boston as least welcoming to people of color. In a city that is 53 percent white, in which people may be unlikely to visit neighborhoods with which they’re not already familiar, it is easy to miss out on the city’s myriad expressions of food culture, to fail to discover the local equivalent of a Nyum Bai or Carnitas Lonja.
This is where local media can play a role, boosting the signal of places they feel passionate about. And local media are shrinking. The Globe currently runs fewer restaurant reviews than it used to, with one starred review a month. The Improper Bostonian runs a review about every two weeks. Boston magazine has a monthly review and is currently between critics. The Herald no longer employs one. The Phoenix is gone. Oftentimes, reviews by city critics are what alert national food media to worthy new restaurants.
I fear I am complicit.
“You are complicit,” says Addison. “You are complicit by necessity. The city isn’t giving you anything super-juicy to celebrate as a critic, to expound upon as a critic. A local critic has to be a city’s champion, by default.”
I take responsibility for my failures here; I didn’t review Yume Ga Arukara, for instance. But I’m also mad at the city. Not because the chefs who work here are anything short of brilliant, creative powerhouses: They are brilliant, creative powerhouses. I’m mad at the city itself, its structures and its red tape and its often prohibitively high price tag.
“There’s always going to be the whole liquor-license issue, which prevents these small-time people from doing really cool [things],” says Oringer. A Boston liquor license can currently run an operator $400,000. “It has always held us back,” he says.
Take chef Juan Pedrosa. At 30, he oversees Yvonne’s, Ruka, and Lolita in Back Bay and Fort Point. He has been nominated multiple times for a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. In another city, he might be getting ready to open his own place.
“It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time,” he says. “I keep saying to myself, ‘Man, do I really want to go through a $5 million buildout?’ . . . When I look at making a living off of doing what I want to do, it’s scary to say I’m going to risk a lot for what could potentially be a small payoff.”
A few years back, pastry chef Justin Burke-Samson hoped to open a local shop with former “Top Chef” contestant Stephanie Cmar. Instead, wanting to start a family, Burke-Samson and his husband moved to North Carolina. Now Burke-Samson is pastry chef at the acclaimed Kindred and sister restaurant Hello, Sailor, one of Eater’s best new restaurants this year.
Before Andrew Taylor moved to Portland — where he is a partner in Hugo’s and the Honey Paw as well as Eventide — he worked with Oringer at Clio. He also wanted to have a family, open a restaurant. “It became evident so quickly that wasn’t going to happen in Boston,” he says.
He and his wife settled in Portland and bought a house for the cost of a one-bedroom condo in Boston. “We were able to strap a few bucks together and buy Hugo’s and build Eventide for virtually nothing, is what it feels like now.”
“You see a lot of more-polished restaurants in Boston. If you’re getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors, you have to do things a certain way,” he says. “In Portland, you’re going to see scrappier restaurants, younger chefs trying to make it happen. You can tell it’s homespun, but there’s a wonderful creativity to it.”
Unless costs magically go down in Boston — or there is a concerted effort to make entry into the market more accessible — we won’t be seeing much homespun creativity on the dining scene. We will continue to have wonderful restaurants, but also to lose talent to more-affordable cities. And on weekends, some of us may just get in our cars and drive north to eat in Portland, the restaurant city of the year.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of Boston that is white. The correct percentage is 53.