When I decided to write about Beacon Hill’s food scene, I expected a few pretty good dishes in charming places. But I also had modest hopes. Part of it is that I grew up outside Boston. In my suburban childhood mind, Beacon Hill was a place for history field trips and gawking at townhouses. As a kid primarily acquainted with split-level cul-de-sacs, those steep hills seemed untouchable.
Now, as a grown-up journalist, I know that this is a section of town whose dining options have been overshadowed in recent years — by new openings in the South End, the Seaport, Union Square. When you think “hotbed of culinary intrigue,” Louisburg Square probably isn’t what comes to mind. I even received one recent e-mail that referred to the neighborhood as a “dud.”
And so, I was not sure how this tale would end. But I am here to tell you that I had four of the best dishes of my Bostonian eating life in this neighborhood. Five, if you count the fro-yo. Each for under $15, too.
I start at the Paramount (44 Charles St.). Outside, I am nearly mowed down by a woman with a weaponized steel-gray hairdo walking three dogs. Inside, the restaurant is narrow, cramped, and brimming with a motley crew: neighborhood parents holding squirming babies, Lululemon models, and a swarm of British visitors clutching maps. “They even have avocado toast!” one of them squeals.
This arrangement wouldn’t be a problem, save for the fact that the Paramount has a very specific ordering system: Get in line, yell your request to the cook, pay, pray for a table — and don’t even try to sit down before someone hands you your food. Wait behind the counter.
A framed sign explains the policy: “It may be hard to believe, but it’s been working well since 1937.”
And, somehow, it really does work. There’s an unspoken camaraderie among the guests jammed against the wall, watching the line cooks perform their oil-splattered acrobatics with fried eggs and pancakes. Nobody cuts or lingers too long. And when my fried egg and American on an English muffin appears, well, it is perfect. The eggs (yes, there are two!) are soft but not runny, crispy brown at the edges, the way a good fried egg should be. The cheese is stretchy but not gooey; it doesn’t turn into a second skin. And my muffin is fresh, not a cardboard afterthought. There are even fried potatoes on the side, lightly salted and lots of them, a bonus I wasn’t expecting. For $6, I’m completely satisfied.
Next it’s on to a place that I’m reluctant to even write about — the lines are long enough as it is: Florina Pizzeria & Paninoteca (16 Derne St.), on a crooked side street in the shadow of the State House, across from a construction zone. Nothing to see here, except crowds spilling onto the sidewalk. There are a few tables (a young woman raps energetically at one of them, entertaining the small dining room), but mostly it’s just a line and a counter. A bewildered gent in khakis and loafers lingers in the doorway.
“In or out!” yells co-owner Barry Proctor.
He and co-owner John Cucinatti opened the tiny shop almost three years ago. (Cucinatti also runs Slice Pizza & More in Wakefield; Proctor has been a line cook at Grill 23, a manager at the Upper Crust Pizzeria, and a bartender at the Miracle of Science.)
I feel comfortable saying it: This is the best thin-crust pizza I’ve had in this town. Actually, to call the crust thin is an exaggeration; it’s almost imperceptible, existing only to prop up whisperingly sweet, pulpy tomato sauce and three types of cheese (Proctor won’t say which) with molten mini-volcanos of char, cooked on a stone deck. It is droopy, gloopy, not quite greasy; it is perfect. And one slice would be three at most other places. Florina won the people’s choice vote at the Boston Pizza Festival in 2018 and 2019, and it’s easy to see why.
There are all the traditional toppings — plus pastas and hot and cold panini — but if you leave with just a mere $3.25 slice of cheese folded in half and eaten in a few elated bites, well, you’ll be happy.
Cut to Ma Maison (272 Cambridge St.) on the other side of the hill. Red awning, white tablecloths, people for whom time seems to have stopped on this humid Friday afternoon. A scene from a movie. Black-vested waiters glide through the dining room. A woman sits alone like a proud seagull, pecking at a pot of steamed mussels.
Ma Maison looks like it has been here forever, but really, it opened in 2015. Before that, it was Pierrot Bistro Francais. Today, owner Sam Sosnitsky runs it with French chef Jacky Robert of the Petit Robert bistros.
I’m squired to a buttery back booth by a waiter who takes his role seriously. He wants to know the origins of my name. He unfurls my napkin with flourish. He pours my water as though he were dispensing gold.
I order the French onion soup. His eyes dance.
“It is famous,” he says.
It does not arrive immediately. Ma Maison is not an express lunch. Ma Maison is two glasses of wine and maybe you’re not going back to work at all. Nobody is in a hurry here, and that is fine. They are eating veal kidneys at noon.
At last, the soup materializes, a cauldron of Swiss and muenster topped with snipped chives.
“Take time for the digestion,” monsieur twinkles, setting it down like a baby.
I pierce the top layer of cheese and a beefy brown broth erupts, with bobbles of soaked French baguette rising to the top, wrapped with strings of soft caramelized onions. The scent of vermouth perfumes the air. Where am I? Do I even care? I sit alone with my treasure, warm and aromatic, the cheese folding over itself like an origami blanket, watching a trio of men in suits discuss the finer points of wine. This is living.
Soon, though, it is time to leave. I do not belong to this world. I leave my money on the tablecloth and head for the door.
“Goodbye, Kara!” my waiter cries. Goodbye, Gallic wonderland.
Hello, The Sevens (77 Charles St). Beacon Hill is not all stately elegance. No, it has its share of deliciously divey bars; this is the essence of its counterintuitive allure. Where else can you buy cuff links and listen to “Doin’ the Butt” while eating a delicious Reuben, all on the same block?
It’s mid-afternoon when I land at the 43-year-old Sevens, which is playing a booty-themed soundtrack to a crowd of amiable barflys, families, and two teenage girls who scurry in and then run back outside, laughing. Manager Lily Lowry is behind the bar, chatting with regulars. Whereas Ma Maison was sun-splashed and light, the Sevens has the air of a casino. It could be noon; it could be midnight. A sign warns that the jukebox turns off at 1 a.m.
But I’m not here for the music. I’m here for the Reuben ($12.50), ready in minutes, one of the finest you’ll encounter anywhere: a monument of marbled rye stacked with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and creamy Russian dressing with an ice cream scoop of mayo-laced coleslaw. It is a shame that most people eating this sandwich are not sober, because it is a revelation. The corned beef? Thin, tender — not grainy or tough. The sauerkraut? A crunchy, tangy tangle. The Swiss? Melted into a blanket of perspiring nuttiness, splashed with a sea of dressing that spills out the sandwich’s sides. No stingy dots of artisanal condiments here. More, more, more. Actually, maybe it is best enjoyed in an addled state. Any rational person would flash on their cholesterol levels before taking a bite.
One last stop: Café Podima (168 Cambridge St.), a little late-night pizza shop at the top of Cambridge Street. A friend who used to live on Beacon Hill still dreams of the frozen yogurt with a Butterfinger mix-in, and she joins me for my final foray. I’m suspicious. This looks like the type of place that’s good for a 2 a.m. calzone, not dessert. I see no fro-yo apparatus. I haven’t even eaten frozen yogurt since 1999 or so. But I trust her.
“Do you still have Butterfinger?” she asks hopefully.
The happy fellow behind the counter confirms that it’s true, even though it’s not listed on the mix-in menu. We’re presented with towering spirals of yogurt, mine with peanut butter cups, hers with the candy bar of her dreams, dripping out over the Styrofoam carton.
Five bucks. Bliss.
Ah, Beacon Hill. There is something very satisfying about pulling off of Storrow Drive and taking that serene right turn onto Revere Street — the gas lamps, the brick sidewalks. You have slipped into another world of rarified luxury and lore.
And great food, too. Walking back down the hill, a Grateful Dead song sticks in my head: “Shakedown Street.” Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart; you’ve just gotta poke around. In this neighborhood, the same is true for pizza and sandwiches.