Where do chefs like to eat when they’re not working in their own restaurants? It’s a question we pose periodically to members of Boston’s culinary community. Sure, it’s fun to find out whose cooking the cookers like eating. But it’s also a nice way to shine a light on establishments we might not otherwise be talking about (and some that we definitely would).
Ask around and themes start to emerge. People in the restaurant industry may work hard preparing elaborate dishes for demanding diners, but what they really respect and enjoy is simplicity. Never mind a 12-course tasting menu. They want beautiful, seasonal ingredients prepared without a lot of fuss. They want dishes that reflect the maker’s heart, soul, and roots. They want to go to their friends’ restaurants and feel at home. They want Thai food, Brazilian churrascaria, and a great sandwich from the little place right near home. And most of them, it turns out, really want to eat at the same Cambridge sushi bar.
Read on to find out where you’re having your next great meal.
Scampo’s Shire is a local legend. She became chef at Maison Robert in 1974, when women were almost unheard of in high-end French kitchens, then went on to open Biba, Pignoli, and more. She later took over the historic Locke-Ober before opening Scampo in the Liberty Hotel. Shire recently moved to Charlestown and is searching for new favorites there, although she says Todd English’s Figs is still delicious: “I had an amazing plate of asparagus there a week or so ago.”
Where she likes to go: Mexican restaurant Casa Romero. “When I was living on the corner of Gloucester Street and Comm. Ave., my husband and I would many nights walk across the street and have dinner there. I always ordered the same dish: camarones al huitlacoche. The huitlacoche is in the sauce. Honestly, that sauce is one of the best sauces I have ever had, so rich and ‘creamy,’ though I do not believe there is any actual cream in the sauce! Also, the chef never overcooks the shrimp. They are spot on.”
Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “The chef there is Brian Arruda. His food is very good! He put quenelles on the menu but took them off rather quickly, in my opinion. He said people did not get it.”
Casa Romero, 30 Gloucester St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-536-4341
Bar Boulud, 776 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-535-8800, www.barboulud.com/boston
The executive chef of BISq is having a busy summer. In late June, a mini BISq opened in Boston’s new Time Out Market, specializing in sandwiches and charcuterie. And this month, Saenz, BISq owner and general manager Servio Garcia, and chef Luis Figueroa debuted Taqueria el Barrio near BU. The taqueria is special to him. “Not to have a favorite child per se,” Saenz says. “It’s like your baby. You want to make sure it lives and breathes. You put all your love into it. We’re not made of money. We’re not trying to overdo it. We just wanted to open a place that can be successful and homey, and the people who work there can be proud of it.”
Where he likes to go: Seta’s Cafe in Belmont, where everything from the lavash to the perennially popular roast chicken with garlic sauce is handmade. “It’s just unique. I’m not an expert in that food, but I love that freshness and cheese and lavash. She [chef Seta Dakessian] has all the herbs and Aleppo pepper and spices; it’s just so delicious with all the fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. I’ve been sending all my cooks and Servio. As soon as I’m done, I’m already craving it. I can taste the past and present in her food. You can tell she has that family tradition and ‘grew up with it’ that you can’t teach. There’s a lot of love there. I know Sofra is everyone’s go-to around there, but they’re missing out.”
Sycamore, the Newton restaurant owned by Saenz’s friend Dave Punch, the first person Saenz met when he moved here in 2004. “I’m biased. Me and Dave go all the way back. I used to always go to support him, but you’re lucky if you can get a seat it’s so busy. I love that. The staff is just so happy. It’s hard sometimes to find a place where the staff is happy and you can tell they’re excited, even just to clear your plate. There’s always great wine, the menu is always delicious, [chef Lydia Reichert] is doing a phenomenal job. I like that place so much. It feels like walking into your own home. You never feel rushed or pressured, you just feel like you had a nice meal.”
Seta’s Cafe, 271 Belmont St., Belmont, 617-484-7823, www.setascafe.com
Sycamore, 755 Beacon St., Newton, 617-244-4445, www.sycamorenewton.com
Lujares first ate at Myers + Chang when her best friend worked there as a server: “I ate here and I was in love. I told my best friend, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get here, but I’m going to get here.’” Today she’s the executive chef. Her current goal: incorporating more Filipino food into the menu of the South End restaurant. Her family is from a part of the Philippines famous for chiles and coconut. Her grandmother owned a noodle factory; her grandfather raises ducks for balut, cooked, fertilized eggs. She’s been heartened to see more chefs bringing Filipino food to the Boston area. “We just want people to know how great our culture and our food are,” she says. “Filipino food coincides with how our people are, really warm and welcoming. The food’s really bright and filling and delicious.”
Where she likes to go: Wai Wai, a hidden gem in a Chinatown basement. “I usually like to eat at mom-and-pop places. Wai Wai is one of my favorites. I’ve been going there since college. They have different kinds of rotisserie meats they make every day. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown. My best friend’s dad owns it. Their ginger-scallion sauce is the best. Everybody tries to replicate it, and my best friend’s like, ‘Nope, that’s not it.’ It’s a family secret.”
South End Italian restaurant Coppa. “You really feel all the work they put into the dishes. I love the uni carbonara and the grinder. You just dream about it.”
Wai Wai, 26 Oxford St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-338-9833
Coppa, 253 Shawmut Ave., 617-391-0902, www.coppaboston.com
The Select Oyster Bar chef is at work on a new project. Grand Tour, a Parisian bistro on Newbury Street, is currently under construction. “It’s at the fun point where it looks like a restaurant a little bit,” he says. The space, a former smoothie shop, is even smaller than the already pretty cozy Select, also in Back Bay. “I think people like something that has a little character, that’s quirky and charming. People are intrigued by weird old dorky buildings, and I am too.” He plans to open Grand Tour “sometime before 2021.”
Where he likes to go: Cafe Sushi, the restaurant most frequently mentioned by local industry folks as a favorite. “Cafe Sushi is the most beloved restaurant among food-world people. The vibe is great and the people are great. I like the salmon belly. I get that every single time. They do a great job with basic sushi, and they also get cool stuff: the good sea urchin, cool fish. You can get a mix of really simple sashimi and nigiri, and then also Japanese horse mackerel or needlefish. It’s such a good value for what you get, I think, and people recognize that.”
Oliveira’s Steak House in East Boston. “We live in Eastie. Oliveira’s is close by and solid. We don’t have to ‘come into town.’ It’s a churrascaria. There’s a buffet with stews and veggies and all this stuff, and the guy cuts whatever you want. The chicken hearts are awesome. They do lots of chorizo, chicken, a brisket, a top sirloin. You get this huge plate of flavorful meat and vegetables, and it’s like 15 bucks and the place is packed. Brazilians go there, Colombians go there, all these construction dudes go there. It’s super neighborhoody. They have beer. We end up going there when we’re hungry and running errands and [thinking] ‘where should we go, where should we go?’ Let’s just go there. It’s going to be good.”
Cafe Sushi, 1105 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-0434, www.cafesushicambridge.com
Oliveira’s Steak House, 297 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-561-7277
Miller has worked making desserts all over town: Radius, Deuxave, Liquid Art House, Cafe ArtScience. She’s been the pastry chef at Barbara Lynch’s Menton since April 2018. On the menu are creations such as mango vacherin with coconut, calamansi, ginger, and Thai basil sorbet, but that’s not always the sort of dessert she craves: “I love simple sweets for dessert, and the frozen yogurt at Sarma with their seasonal accompaniments just does it for me!” When she wants Korean food, she heads to the North Shore. “K Restaurant in Peabody is hands down the best Korean food I’ve ever had,” she says.
Where she likes to go: For pizza, Ciao! in Chelsea. “I used to live in Chelsea, and I ended up passing through out of curiosity. I wanted to see how it was. My boyfriend ordered a hot pepper with sausage. We really enjoyed it so we kept going, and now we’ve tried almost all of [the pizzas]. I really like the prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese with fig.”
For ramen, the intimate Oisa, where chef Moe Kuroki crafts bowls of noodle soup at the counter. “Oisa has the best ramen! I do love that place a lot. I try to go as much as I can. I’ve had a lot of ramen, and that definitely is topnotch in Boston. Her flavors and her broth are absolutely delicious. I like to speak to her about her travels to Japan. It’s nice to interact with her.”
Ciao! Pizza & Pasta, 59 Williams St., Chelsea, 617-286-9346, www.ciaopizzaandpasta.com
Oisa Ramen, 1¾ Broad St., Boston, 617-670-0126, www.oisaramen.com
Originally from Maryland, Quon arrived in the area by way of the Cape: She came to work at Wellfleet’s PB Boulangerie. Then pastry chef Frederic Robert decided to leave PB to open Cafe Madeleine in the South End. “He asked me if I wanted to go on a big adventure and open a place for him in Boston. I was really young, 27, and we did it. I had no idea how much work it was going to be and how scary, but also fun.” The pastry chef and general manager at the French cafe, she is known for her flaky, buttery croissants. As a transplant to the area, she also loves to incorporate seasonal fruit into tarts and pies. “I didn’t know about donut peaches, sour cherries, gooseberries, all the New England-y things, all the varieties of apples. Our season, the bountiful part is really short, but I think it’s so beautiful and abundant.”
Where she likes to go: Thai restaurant Dakzen in Somerville. (She also likes Watertown’s Cha Yen Thai Cookery.) “I like how the flavors are really bold. They change their menu to rotate different Thai street food. The khao soi is really, really good. I always have to get a side of the crispy pork belly. I think it’s so delicious. A couple of times they’ve had a crushed-ice dessert with jackfruit. I love that their system reflects the challenges of a small business. They do self-service and don’t seat you until you order. It’s a give-and-take situation — you need to help them as they’re trying to keep the quality of the food up. I like how informal and casual it is, and the flavors are really bright and spicy and strong.”
Japanese restaurant Pabu. “It’s so straightforward and simple but also modern. They change up their menus quite often to reflect the seasonality of the different fish. They have a map menu to show you what came in and where it’s from, and there are menu items that change just because of the chef’s whimsy or passion, which I appreciate. It’s so consistently good, and the ingredients are so consistently good. It’s a staple of mine. I also like their shaved-ice mochi sundae. You can always get me with a really good dessert. I work with making simple things shine, and so I appreciate the hard work they do with things like the rice, which is always perfectly cooked.”
Dakzen, 195 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-718-1759, www.dakzen.com
Pabu, 3 Franklin St., Boston, 857-327-7228, www.michaelmina.net/restaurants/boston/pabu-boston
His restaurant, Cafe Sushi, is clearly already known for its food. These days, Imura and GM/wine pro Zach Lieberman are working on boosting the profile of its wine program. “He’s super into natural wines,” Imura says of Lieberman, “and I don’t know how many sushi restaurants in the States have a solid natural wine list or wine list in general that is interesting and producer-focused. I love offering something different and letting someone who is really good at what they do shine.” So where does the chef who runs everyone’s favorite sushi spot like to go? Imura’s mentions include Field & Vine, Myers + Chang, and Mamaleh’s. “I grew up in Cambridge and Brookline, and I’ve been going to delis since I was a shorty with my dad,” he says of the last. “It’s the most well-crafted deli food in all of the Boston area. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.”
Where he likes to go: Chef Douglass Williams’s Italian restaurant MIDA. “The sleeper hit is [Williams’s] salad. It has the right amount of dressing, and the herbs give it such an elegant lift. It’s this confidence and being able to completely edit: This is simple, but that’s why it’s so good. He loves the elegant. His fine-dining background really shows. It’s comfort food done really well. Everything is soulful, too, that’s really what it is. When I go out to eat, I just want things to be soulful, you know?”
Virginia’s Fine Foods for a quick fix. “My local favorite is picking up a chicken shawarma wrap at Virginia’s on Cypress Street in Brookline. It’s warm, juicy, and a touch spicy. I’m a regular there because that is right next to my house. As I go out to work, if I haven’t eaten anything, I’ll just call in. It’s so good. It’s the right amount of spice, it’s got pickles — that is my jam.”
MIDA, 782 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-936-3490, www.midaboston.com
Virginia’s Fine Foods, 8A Cypress St., Brookline, 617-566-7775, www.virginiafinefood.com
Interviews were condensed and edited.