What’s the best place to take a lovelorn brother-in-law? Where can I find a mind-blowing vegan soufflé? Why are there no decent bagels in Harvard Square? I field questions like this — pointed, exacting, sometimes downright particular — every week. Some of you e-mail. Some of you send pleading social media messages. Other times, you leave a comment questioning whether I know anything about restaurants at all. How could I have forgotten such-and-such a place? Do I ever even leave my house?
No, I have not devoured every morsel in Boston, or else I would never see my family. But I’ve experienced a lot: the delicious, the surprising, the struggling, the regrettable. And in an effort to streamline your dining decisions, I’ve compiled a list of favorites, some overlooked, for life’s key occasions. It isn’t exhaustive, but it’s honest — and, I hope, helpful.
AN OFFBEAT CELEBRATORY EVENING OUT
BLR by Shojo
You eschew stuffy. You don’t need white tablecloths or a cadre of waiters fluffing your napkin. No, you want to eat somewhere squirreled away — a location mysterious enough that you feel rewarded for your own good taste once you slip through the door. Someplace where the centrifugal force of the evening will propel you onward, later and later, fueled by otherworldly food and potent drinks, where you can stumble back out into the dark night feeling like you know this city so much better.
If this sounds appealing, the subterranean BLR in Chinatown is your place. Family-run since the 1980s, it’s been modernized by the team at Shojo and Ruckus, two other nouveau Chinatown places that serve things like French fries awash in spicy oceans of mapo tofu and fried pork bellies. BLR is narrow and dark, best populated by large groups at long tables beneath paper lanterns that throw a distorting crimson light upon people you once knew, turning them into alluring strangers. A food writer friend first lured me here months ago for a hedonistic family-style feast where we dined liked Vikings, devouring trays of electrifying lamb wontons, Dungeness crab awash in a rich Malaysian curry, gargantuan pig’s head folded into steamed buns, accessorized with kimchi and chilies — it went on and on and on, proffered by servers eager to explain each dish. You will leave here sticky and pleasurably exhausted. 13A Hudson St., Boston, 617-338-4988, www.blrbyshojo.com
Little Donkey, where Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer oversee a smorgasbord of flavors served in a setting that feels like a big, noisy wedding. Here is the rare restaurant where you can eat crispy tofu cheese puffs, fried chicken, pupusas, and Turkish ravioli in one swoop, all done well, no need for restraint. 505 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1008, www.littledonkeybos.com
Tiger Mama, Tiffani Faison’s playful homage to Southeast Asian cuisine, in a space that feels tropical and transporting, a bewitching room both verdant and neon, with walls crawling with leaves. Faison’s Japanese milk toast offset with chili-laced crab — a sticky, spongey pillow with caves of sweetness — is transcendent. 1363 Boylston St., Boston, 617-425-6262, www.tigermamaboston.com
YOU’RE THE TOUR GUIDE
Belle Isle Seafood
Most people coming to Boston want seafood with a view, sort of like they expect to see Matt Damon and assume everyone speaks with a thick accent. I get asked about seafood a lot. And I’m always cautious. I actually like Legal Sea Foods quite a bit for consistency — yes, even though it’s a chain! (Some chains are very good, and I confidently recommend that one, both in terms of service and for sensitivities to allergies.) But, oddly, for a waterfront city known for fish, the pickings are slim and sometimes even grim. That is, unless you’re willing to venture a bit farther afield to Winthrop and Belle Isle.
OK, so it looks like a shipping warehouse. There is no interior ambiance — picture your junior high school cafeteria crossed with a camp dining hall. But it’s right on the water, with skyline views, and some of the best fried seafood anywhere. Pile your tray with a golden tower of fried clams, onion rings, fries, and dewy lobster rolls with meat spilling out the sides. When visitors picture New England seafood, I think that this is what they’re imagining. 1 Main St., Winthrop, 617-567-1619, www.belleisleseafood.net
The Daily Catch in the North End, which will forever be my recommendation for seafood and local color. Yes, the lines are outrageous; yes, you will idle on the sidewalk and gaze longingly at chefs tossing squid ink pasta in the air and catching it on sizzling pans. But once you finally do squeeze in, you will guzzle white wine from plastic cups and bite into perfectly al dente tinta de calamari and inhale the aroma of garlic. The rare place where the lines are worth it. 323 Hanover St., Boston, 617-523-8567, thedailycatch.com
And Dali, in Inman Square, an oldie but goodie that continues to churn out flavor-bomb tapas in a festive atmosphere with a twist of Old Somerville quirk: the dark rooms, the people-watching, the cloud of garlic that hangs in the air. Is it new? Nope. Flashy? Nope. But it’s reassuringly of a place. 415 Washington St., Somerville, 617-661-3254, www.dalirestaurant.com
Little Big Diner
A date you’re tepid about, a networking catch-up with someone who won’t stop e-mailing you, a possibly awkward bite with a long-lost neighbor just passing through town. For whatever reason, you want to get in and out — but, hey, deliciously. You want to put thought into your suggestion and show you care (at least a tiny bit).
Little Big Diner is the casual sibling of Newton’s excellent Sycamore and Buttonwood, specializing in cauldrons of spicy ramen, rice bowls, and a true standout: a burger with pineapple sambal, crispy onions, and a hearty glop of mayonnaise on a squishy sweet King’s Hawaiian roll. Grab two stools in front of the window, dig in, and be done. 1247 Centre St., Newton, 857-404-0068, www.littlebigdiner.com
Fool’s Errand, which is Faison’s seat-free bar in the Fenway. (Yup, Tiffani Faison appears twice here, but she deserves it.) Feast on strange, snackable finger sandwiches in a tiny, mirrored room where chandeliers drip like diamonds and where the conversational din drowns out any lulls. Lack of seating provides an excuse to leave swiftly, if need be. 1377 Boylston St., Boston, www.foolserrandboston.com
And Jamaica Plain’s Tres Gatos, whose setup as a restaurant-slash-book and record store offers handy props to offset awkward conversation, and whose bite-size portions of charcuterie, cheeses, and vegetables make for an efficient yet delicious meal. 470 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-477-4851, www.tresgatosjp.com
Inside a little diner car on a hushed Watertown side street is La Bodega, a restaurant that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Co-owners Gabriel Bremer and Analia Verolo, formerly of Harvard Square’s beloved Salts, usher guests through the softly lit rail car to comfortable booths; nurse your sorrows with an orange Negroni and satisfying Uruguayan-Basque menu — grilled provolone cheese, fleecy potato leek soup, grilled carrots in romesco sauce.
Here, it’s possible to dine alone, with an intuitive amount of tending, watching bartenders shake and smile in the warm amber glow. Step back out into the night fortified. 21 Nichols Ave., Watertown, 617-876-8444
The Maharaja, with its tall windows overlooking the street life of Harvard Square two floors below. Duck in for the daily Indian lunch buffet (the crisp, airless vegetarian pakora curry in cumin-spiked yogurt sauce are the best), eavesdrop on professors complaining about the state of the world and students worrying about their next internship, and watch people scurrying far below. 57 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, 617-547-2757, www.maharajaboston.com
And Somerville’s Bow Market, at whose stalls you can explore the world while wandering aimlessly: stout pierogi, empanadas, fish tacos, simple North Shore roast beef blanketed with American cheese. 1 Bow Market Way, Somerville, www.bowmarketsomerville.com
A PROPER SEND-OFF
Oleana’s twinkly patio makes you happy to be in Cambridge. You are in just the right place and the right time — sitting outside, framed by greenery, tended to by servers who are just visible enough but know when it’s time to slip away. The cloistered location somewhere between Kendall Square, MIT, and Harvard adds to the gravitas: Maybe you are graduating soon, or leaving that fancy tech job; maybe Cambridge will someday become just a footnote. But for now, temporal awareness slips away; a few glasses of wine in the fading sun, and you’re firmly planted in your own suspended reality.
But the Boston area has plenty of patios. Not every patio has Ana Sortun’s food. She isn’t the loudest or most talked about chef in Boston (multiple James Beard nods notwithstanding), but she’s certainly one of the best, crafting deceptively simple dishes you just won’t find anywhere else in town. Something as simple as a dish of green olives, a scoop of creamy whipped feta, or spinach falafel distill the essence of each ingredient and pop to life — sticking with you long after you’ve ambled out the door, away from this place. 134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, www.oleanarestaurant.com
Luce, for its significant location in the old Chez Henri space down a side street near Avon Hill; it looks like the type of place you’d stumble into on a rainy night seeking shelter from some kind of storm, either personal or weather-related. Inside, it’s filled with groups hoisting wine and sharing plates of grilled fish and pizza, overseen by Rene Becker — a neighborhood character (and former local food critic) who also owns Hi-Rise Bread Company. 1 Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-714-5295, www.lucecambridge.com
And Uni, where you can order sushi and small plates and cocktails as though there’s no tomorrow, in a darkened room below the Back Bay’s proper Eliot Hotel, awash in sybaritic splendor. The buffalo mentaiko spaghetti — a rich, spicy, eggy tangle of noodles — is the stuff of fond, hazy memories. 370A Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, www.uni-boston.com
Vinny’s at Night
Long before Somerville became any kind of destination, there was Vinny’s, just over the Boston city limits: a plain brick convenience store that just happened to harbor a full-service restaurant in the back. Blood-red tablecloths, crimson curtains, wine stacked on shelves, low ceilings: It’s easy to blend in here, should you need to, hiding behind mountains of mussels or tripe in marinara sauce, rings of calamari, and lobster tails splashed in the spicy-sweetest fra diavolo in town.
When you’re craving red sauce in a below-the-radar hideaway, surrounded by clattering plates and laughter and perfume and garlic, this is a wonderful spot. 76 Broadway, Somerville, 617-628-1921, www.vinnysatnight.com
Antonio’s Bacaro, a worthy newish addition to quiet Hyde Park that’s quickly becoming a staple among locals for their accessible Northern Italian menu, warm service, and homey patio. 5 Fairmount Ave., Boston, 617-272-3028, www.antoniosbacaro.com
And Moona, a teensy jewel off of Inman Square, serving Eastern Mediterranean mezze — start with the creamy beet labneh — beneath a forgiving rainbow of dangling lights. 243 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-945-7448, www.moonarestaurant.com
DINNER WITH ELDERS
The Table at Season to Taste
Chef Carl Dooley often serves dishes himself at this nook on a quiet stretch of North Cambridge with, yes, on-street parking. There are only 20 or so seats and not much in the way of atmosphere; the real action happens in the open kitchen, where Dooley and his crew toil happily. (If you’re introducing a new paramour or discussing why you haven’t found a job yet, this provides a heartening distraction.)
The four-course prix-fixe menu — and servers genuinely delighted to explain it all — takes the guesswork out of ordering, but there are two choices per course, do you won’t feel totally hemmed in. Familiar dishes get unusual treatments: Why not a pork loin with Szechuan chili oil or asparagus paired with . . . sablefish? It’s challenging, yet satisfying. 2447 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-871-9468, www.cambridgetable.com
Talulla, in the soothing Huron Village space once occupied by TW Food. It is spare, sophisticated, and welcoming, with poised servers who deliver discourse on wine and food — the $58 three-course prix fixe is a steal — with the articulation of a thesis (and, who knows, this is right down the road from Harvard). Co-owner Danielle Ayer was a captain at Menton, so it’s no surprise. 377 Walden St., Cambridge, 617-714-5584, www.talullacambridge.com
And The Helmand, a regal Afghan restaurant in one of East Cambridge’s few remaining hushed corners: butter-yellow walls, plush high-back chairs, a crackling hearth, and dishes you simply won’t find elsewhere, such as aushak, an airy Afghan ravioli piped with leeks on a savory bed of yogurt, ground beef, and mint. Worth noting: This also the rare white-tablecloth restaurant where many dishes are under $20 — an endangered species worth supporting. 143 First St., Cambridge, 617-492-4646, www.helmandrestaurant.com
Tu Y Yo
On the far end of Somerville near the Medford line lurks the unprepossessing Tu Y Yo. No swanky bar scene or needless glitz; this is a fonda, meaning a no-frills, family-run restaurant. The food, however, is sophisticated: I dream of their poblano pepper dishes. There’s the almond-and-ground-beef version, sinking in a walnut sauce with — is it cinnamon? yup, cinnamon — sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Or the peppers filled with fresh shrimp and tangy goat cheese, topped with a creamy red bell pepper sauce that deserves is own jar. And the mole is unlike any other: richer, deeper, smokier, thicker. Families, solo neighborhood wanderers, and wise Tufts students line up here, for excellent reason. 858 Broadway, Somerville, 617-623-5411, www.tuyyorestaurant.coms
New Deal Fruit, for nailing the grocery store-slash-sandwich business. Full disclosure: I have yet to visit. But enough commenters and Revere natives have urged me to go that it’s next on my list. The Hercules — eggplant parm, chicken parm, and meatball parm, all in one sandwich — seems reason enough. 920 Broadway, Revere, 781-284-9825, www.newdealfruit.com
And Greek International Food Market, a wonderland of sausages, cheeses, olives, sweet and savory pies in West Roxbury. 5204 Washington St. West Roxbury, 617-553-8038, www.greekintlmarket.com
This rowdy aqua-and-orange room from restaurateur Kathy Sidell (The Met) is champagne come to life: bubbly, fizzy, life-affirming. Towers of raw seafood, an encyclopedic collection of tinned fish, fried lobster and waffles — how your companion approaches the food here just might reveal his or her personality. The only downside? No reservations. But once you slide into a booth and come face to face with a fat, briny oyster, all will be forgiven. If this place can’t propel your relationship further, it’s an omen. 281 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-267-0691, www.saltiegirl.com
Celeste, a spare little space off of Somerville’s Union Square, all white-washed and neon, the kind of place you slip into after a drink when you want to prolong the night but not at a bar. Instead, exceptional Peruvian dishes to share — bright, refreshing ceviches and cilantro stew with canary beans and lamb. 21 Bow St., Somerville, 617-616-5319, www.celesteunionsquare.com
And Gustazo, now in North Cambridge, whose salsa music, buoyant service, and elegantly composed little Cuban dishes — piquillos rellenos piped with warm, velvety pureed cod; a bouquet of yucca fries with a tub of cilantro aioli — makes the whole world seem cheerier and full of promise. 2067 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 855-487-8296, www.gustazo-cubancafe.com
Winsor Dim Sum
There’s a smaller Winsor in Chinatown, but you’ll have more luck getting into the larger one in Quincy, which has the freshest dim sum in the area. Arrive by 10 a.m. to avoid lines, and then go wild. Unlike many dim sum parlors, you can order off a menu here, and it’s easy to overdo it on supple shrimp dumplings, sticky-sweet barbecue pork buns (a kid favorite), and generous heaps of fresh clams in black bean sauce, hot and garlicky.
Food arrives quickly, and the room is crawling with kids. A wonderful way to eat with your hands and sample a variety of tastes — usually for under $20 per person. 706 Hancock St., Quincy, 617-481-5383, www.winsordimsum.com
Bartaco in the Seaport, which is a Mexican chain from the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. However, service (and food) is personal and warm, right down to the servers who will stop to chat about their favorite nonalcoholic sodas and the pleasures of guacamole. Where did they find these people? A thoughtful kids’ menu with lots of healthy options — and even mocktails — is a nice touch. And the location just down the street from the Boston Children’s Museum is a bonus. 25 Thomson Place, Boston, 617-819-8226, www.bartaco.com
And La Brasa, a cavernous East Somerville hangout by night and a neighborhood clubhouse before 7 p.m. or so. The room is big enough that parents can enjoy empanadas and fried chicken (prepared by L’Espalier alum Daniel Bojorquez) while their kids toddle nearby — and nobody looks askance because they couldn’t find a baby sitter, either. 124 Broadway, Somerville, 617-764-1412, www.labrasasomerville.com