This was the year that robots made us lunch, restaurants became venues for protest, and we all decided enough with the plastic straws. We celebrated the longevity of places that have shaped our local food scene, like No. 9 Park and Formaggio Kitchen, both marking major anniversaries (20 and 40, respectively). We said goodbye to Les Sablons, Strip-T’s, Townsman, and — soon — Erbaluce, along with Papa Gino’s and others. (The Sky Bar!) Here are the award-worthy restaurants, people, and trends that made 2018 one to remember.
Restaurant of the year: Chickadee
Chickadee owners chef John daSilva and beverage director Ted Kilpatrick have taken a gamble opening in the far reaches of the Seaport. The two met working at No. 9 Park and have recruited many fellow alums. The result is the most-polished restaurant opening of the year, in a neighborhood that’s still a work in progress. I suspect it will catch up. In the meantime, we’ve got daSilva’s refined yet craveable food, vegetable-friendly and incorporating many Middle Eastern and North African flavors. Think chickpea panisse fries with Calabrian chile aioli; semolina gnocchi with smoked chestnuts and mushrooms; lamb harira; and an estimable porchetta that was one of my favorite dishes of the year. At lunch, don’t miss the sandwiches in perfect, pillow-y house-made pita.
21 Dry Dock Ave., Seaport, Boston, 617-531-5591, www.chickadeerestaurant.com
Chef of the year: JuanMa Calderón
Somerville’s Celeste feels more like a dinner party thrown by friends than a restaurant, and maybe that’s because chef JuanMa Calderón until recently wasn’t a chef at all but a filmmaker, hosting pop-ups at the home he shares with life and business partner Maria Rondeau, who is also an architect. At tiny Celeste, Calderón prepares dishes learned from his mother in his native Peru — arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), lomo saltado (stir-fried beef) — with a sure hand and plenty of heart. Don’t miss the ceviche, the causas (cold terrines of mashed potato layered with various fillings), or the complex and soulful stews.
21 Bow St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-616-5319, www.celesteunionsquare.com
Best concept: Fool’s Errand
In between her two large-scale, crowd-pleasing Fenway restaurants — barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks and the Southeast Asia-inspired Tiger Mama — Tiffani Faison has sandwiched a tiny, distinctive venture that gives zero figs about pleasing crowds. The perfectly named Fool’s Errand exists for those who get it: a standing-only snack bar serving food and drink that seem designed to appeal to stoned chefs (so of course the rest of us love it too). Gluttony, whimsy, and carefully chosen ingredients commingle on each plate. You might find finger sandwiches of smoked beef tongue, raclette, hot peppers, and crushed potato chips; crisped potato mille-feuilles with lobster gravy; crudités with sour cream and chive labneh; and Mexican shrimp cocktail. The place is decorated in mismatched crystal chandeliers and French-y (via Williamsburg) toile wallpaper, a framed portrait of Snoop and Martha in the bathroom. Fool’s Errand is the cocktail party you want to throw, but better, and all you have to do is show up.
1377 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, www.foolserrandboston.com
Most drinkable: the cocktails at Blossom Bar
Ran Duan’s opera-singer parents opened Sichuan Garden 20 years ago to support the family. Their son, an award-winning bartender, first turned their Woburn restaurant into a craft-cocktail destination, the Baldwin Bar. Now he’s done the same with the Brookline location. Serving fiery and numbing Sichuan fare alongside American Chinese classics, it is a destination that pleases kids and grown-ups alike. But the main attraction is for adults only: a roster of out-of-the-ordinary drinks with a tropical bent, such as the Angie Valencia (anise-scented aguardiente, Aperol, papaya, and aromatic citrus) and the Broken Spanish (tequila with avocado, coconut, Thai basil, and lime, rimmed in chapulines, a.k.a. powdered grasshoppers). Duan and crew are inventing new ones all the time.
295 Washington St., Brookline, 617-734-1870, www.blossombarbrookline.com
Most likely to enter your regular rotation: DakZen
What happens when Thai expats get fed up with the lack of good Thai food in the area? If you’re lucky, they open a place of their own. That’s how DakZen came to be in Davis Square. Fast-casual, affordable, cheerful and sweet, the little spot serves dishes such as khao soi and boat noodles that taste like they do back home. You’ll want to stop by every week.
195 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-718-1759, www.dakzen.com
Best trend: great new wine bars (that happen to be run by women and focus on women winemakers)
This category exists to salute Haley Fortier and Lauren Friel, both creating delightful new spaces in which to drink and learn about wine. Fortier, who is also behind downtown’s haley.henry, this year added Fenway’s nathálie (now with a new chef, Peter McKenzie, previously of Strip-T’s and Shepard). And Friel, whose work you may know from places like Oleana, Sarma, and New York’s Dirt Candy (where she created a list exclusively featuring women winemakers), opened Rebel Rebel inside Somerville’s Bow Market. Both places celebrate natural wine and elevate the women who make it. Come for the deep knowledge, stay for the fun.
nathálie, 186 Brookline Ave., Fenway, Boston, 857-317-3884, www.nathaliebar.com
Rebel Rebel, 1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville, www.rebelrebelsomerville.com
Truest labor of love: Talulla
This used to be T.W. Food, and owners Conor Dennehy and Danielle Ayer worked here: he as chef de cuisine, and she as general manager and wine director. Now the couple returns to the intimate space to run their own restaurant, the sweet Talulla, named for their daughter. The staff is kind and generous; the food is precise and lovely — delicata squash soup with scallop, spiced pine nuts, cocoa nibs, and black olive; foie gras torchon with crab apple, cider, and pain d’epices; cod with miso glaze, lentils, and sour beet puree. Everyone is welcome, whether you are in preschool or teach at the Kennedy School.
377 Walden St., Huron Village, Cambridge, 617-714-5584, www.talullacambridge.com
Most welcome return to the kitchen: Tim Maslow at Whaling in Oklahoma
Tim Maslow gained local attention when he stepped in at father Paul Maslow’s beloved (and much missed) Watertown restaurant, Strip-T’s. He cemented his reputation with Ribelle, which closed in 2016. Since then, he’s cooked here and there, but Whaling in Oklahoma represents his first real return to the kitchen. In Ribelle’s last days, Maslow began an exploration of Japanese cuisine that he continues here, with dishes like charred mackerel with truffle ponzu, thick-cut noodles with king crab, delicata squash tempura, and a pork katsu sandwich. It’s good to have him back.
647 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-266-4600, www.whalinginoklahoma.com
Surest sign that robots are our future overlords: Spyce
The robots are here, and they want to make us lunch. Fast-casual restaurant Spyce eliminates the middleperson: Humans prep the ingredients and garnish the finished dishes, but the machines do everything else. This robotic kitchen is the brainchild of MIT graduates, of course. It is efficient in terms of both time and resources, and thus the bowls it creates are reasonably priced. Think the Latin bowl, with chicken, black beans, cabbage slaw, corn, radish, and avocado crema over brown rice, or the vegetarian Lebanese bowl, which contains lentils, feta, kale, tahini, and more. Lord help us, they taste good too.
241 Washington St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, www.spyce.com
Most intellectually stimulating: Buffalo Jump
Now on hiatus for the season, Cape Cod’s Buffalo Jump served up wild, farm-fed inventions pulled from the brain of chef Brandon Baltzley — dishes like “You Can’t Smoke in the Tomato Garden,” a composition of charred tomatoes and fresh raspberries with wheatgrass mayonnaise, Earl Grey tea, and sesame. Or “Painting It Black,” a dark, rustic bowl filled with even darker ingredients — nori, cherry, tuna, tuna blood. The flavor combinations didn’t all speak to me, but even when I didn’t like something, I admired it. It was a joy to see this kind of risk-taking and envelope-pushing, all happening on a beautiful farm in East Falmouth.
277 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth, 508-361-2361, www.thebuffalojump.com
Best pizza: Rabottini’s
It’s cruel, I know, to name Rabottini’s the best pizza of the year and then tell you that currently it is unavailable. The Allston pop-up just ended its residency, taking its stellar pies with it. Chef Dan Roberts, who fine-tuned his craft at pizza-nerd favorite Apizza Scholls in Portland, Ore., brought a bread baker’s sensibility to these pies — which were essentially excellent, rustic loaves flattened and topped with seasonal produce. (He was previously a farmer at Waltham Fields Community Farm, and wife Erinn Roberts is manager there.) I would be surprised if Rabottini’s doesn’t rise again, and soon: Keep your eyes open.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.