Picture Boston with the unsightly Central Artery hanging over it, without the flowering gardens along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, or the towering Zakim Bridge, or the thriving Seaport District. In the late 20th century, the city didn’t look exciting, it wasn’t lively, and nothing much was happening at night.
Into this dreary atmosphere came Hamersley’s Bistro, a small, chic French restaurant that opened in 1987. Chef and co-owner Gordon Hamersley and his wife, Fiona, had to lure the dining public to the South End, where there were few eateries like theirs. Local residents didn’t generally eat out if it wasn’t a special occasion. “Boston was pretty buttoned-up,” says Gordon Hamersley, who ran the bistro for nearly 30 years.
Bostonians went to restaurants the way they did everything else — cautiously. For celebrations or business meetings, they headed to a hotel, or perhaps the stately French establishment Maison Robert in Old City Hall, or Locke-Ober, one of the city’s oldest dining rooms, or Cafe Budapest, Edith Ban’s ode to the food of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Then Hamersley and other young chefs began opening their own places, with artsy decor, exposed beams and ductwork, and tableware carried home from Europe or bought in an industrial warehouse. “What was happening in Boston was a sea change of attitude as much as anything,” says Hamersley.
The public had already embraced Harvest (1975), opened by Jane and Ben Thompson and filled with Design Research decor; Jasper’s (1983), Jasper White’s seafood haven on the waterfront; Grill 23 & Bar (1983), a club-like steakhouse with a celebrated wine list; and Michela’s (1986), where Todd English cooked modern Italian fare long before Kendall Square was built up.
The young chefs made dramatic plates with new ingredients — or old ingredients rediscovered and introduced a farm-to-table movement that has become so exaggerated, you half expect the grower to serve your salad. Like their counterparts in other cities, they became celebrities. Eating out was a new lifestyle, hopping from one place to another a recreational activity. Some restaurants were in gentrifying neighborhoods, so part of the dining experience was the adventure of getting there.
Today, even with exorbitant long-term leases and the high cost of opening, new talent is around every corner, which can suck the life out of those gutsy and talented chefs who turned the city’s dining landscape around.
You wouldn’t think a town our size could support the number of steakhouses it does — The Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, and STRIP by Strega among them. Every tourist wants fish, and they can take their pick from Legal Sea Foods (founded in 1968, now in 37 locations) as well as Jasper White’s Summer Shack, Row 34, Atlantic Fish Company, the Daily Catch, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Saltie Girl, and Eventide Oyster Company. New York celebrity chefs have outposts — Bar Boulud Boston from Daniel Boulud, Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca from Mario Batali (who recently stopped running his restaurant group after sexual misconduct allegations). Boston chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette went in the opposite direction, taking Toro, their Spanish-influenced tapas spot launched in the South End, to New York, then Bangkok and now Dubai. And young chefs are still finding investors to back them.
Boston is a madhouse of eateries and all the online citizen reviews you could ask for. Even with new places opening all the time, favorites that have endured since the 20th century keep customers coming in. Surviving for so long takes grit and a winning formula.
“Twenty years in restaurant years is like dog years,” says Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Some 30 percent of restaurants in the state close in the first year. A 20-year-old (or older) restaurant, says Luz, “has stayed relevant and reinvested.”
The recipe for long-term success starts at the door, with a host who is genuinely welcoming, not just moving you along (the worst feeling). Classic restaurants have regulars who turn up regardless of the forecast, and those diners aren’t finding new servers every time, because the staff stays in place. And even if most of the menu isn’t cutting-edge, there’s enough new to keep everyone interested. Most ingredients don’t require a Google search, service is attentive, your meat is cooked the way you like it, the bar carries your brand of whiskey, and sommeliers pour you tastes of wines without an eye roll. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Here are 10 places that launched in the 20th century and have kept us coming back for decades.
224 Boston Street Restaurant
In business since 1987
In the heart of the Andrew Square neighborhood in Dorchester, behind a gated garden, sits 224 Boston Street Restaurant. Opened in 1987, the packed spot specializes in American classics. Eric Aulenback, who co-owns Capo, Loco, and Lincoln in neighboring South Boston, bought the place last year. It couldn’t be friendlier or more likable. Even after three decades in business, it has a make-do quality, with mismatched plates, which might have been borrowed from Grandma, holding delicious, hot crusty rolls, and service that is lax by one waiter and sharp by another. Enter the dining room through the crowded bar and you’re looking at an open kitchen and a high-spirited room. Ordinary meat loaf soars, with crusty, golden seared slices, an aromatic red-wine mushroom sauce, and ultra-smooth mashed potatoes. This kitchen is going for a little fun, with spiked tastes and plenty of umami. It’s hitting the mark.
224 Boston Street, Boston, 617-265-1217, 224boston.com
Bristol Restaurant and Bar
In business since 1985
Everyone who knows this town well knows that the place to raise a glass of bubbly to toast a success is the Bristol Restaurant and Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Boston. It’s not just the champagne in a handsome flute and the gracious servers. It’s the cushy chairs, the expansive tables, the space between them, the lighting. Even with renovations since the hotel went up and the restaurant opened in 1985, the 200-seat space is designed for elegance and comfort. Sink in as if into the seat of a Lincoln Town Car. Bristol is part lounge with low tables, part dining area. Ideally, you’re sitting at a table overlooking the Public Garden. With your champagne, order a single lobster slider on toasted brioche — a few rich, creamy bites. Then a luxurious Bristol Burger, juicy meat with melted local cheddar, bacon, and a layer of onion jam, and crisp truffle fries. Come here twice and you’ll probably be recognized. The staff is that well trained.
Four Seasons Hotel Boston, 200 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-338-4400, fourseasons.com
In business since 1961
Pork ribs — so big and meaty you’ll gasp when they’re set down — are such a favorite among Golden Temple customers that they’re now shipped to snowbirds in Florida, says manager Eric Hornfeldt, a 34-year veteran of the Brookline restaurant. Opened by Alphonse Taw in 1961, it is now run by his sons, Frank and Fred. The menu is strictly throwback Chinese-American, which means that these classics — sweet and sticky General Gau’s chicken, chop suey, egg foo yong — might have roots in similar Asian dishes, but restaurateurs have manipulated them over the years to appeal to an American audience. The 235-seat space is bright, with golden hues and a towering cupola in the center. In the E Room, you can dine on kung pao beef or moo shi pork to the beats of the house DJ.
1651 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617-277-9722, healthyfreshfood.com
In business since 1975
If you listed all the chefs who have come through Harvest’s kitchen since its opening, you’d find a who’s who of Boston culinary talent that includes Barbara Lynch, Frank McClelland, Chris Schlesinger, and Lydia Shire. Tyler Kinnett runs today’s kitchen, and the dining room is filled with folks who might have been here from the beginning, now with grandchildren in tow. The 200-seat place, in an offbeat location off an unnamed Harvard Square walkway between Brattle and Mount Auburn streets, feels intimate; it envelops you with warmth. The patio is a big draw in good weather. The menu has local specialties such as clam chowder and Georges Bank fish, and few unrecognizable ingredients. Some little things, such as the homemade potato chips, are exquisite. A tiny cocktail bite, lobster gougere — Scituate lobster salad on a cream puff round, with a spoonful of creme fraiche at the bottom — delights kids and grannies alike.
44 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617-868-2255, harvestcambridge.com
In business since 1995
Another Cambridge dining room with mixed-generation customers, Henrietta’s Table is more casual than nearby Harvest. The sprawling restaurant in The Charles Hotel overlooks a courtyard, where herbs and greens bound for the kitchen grow. Chef Peter Davis, who has run the place since its opening in 1995, embraced a farm-to-table philosophy in the farmhouse-chic dining room that wasn’t as common then as it is now. On the menu are New England classics such as Yankee pot roast and salt-cod cake. The restaurant serves breakfast through dinner, so it’s a popular rendezvous spot early in the morning, too, when red flannel hash is on offer beside house-smoked salmon on a bagel. Though it has nothing to do with the university, Henrietta’s Table might be considered Harvard’s classiest dining hall — with table service.
The Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street, Cambridge, 617-661-5005, henriettastable.com
In business since 1981
Chef and owner Rich Barron could give a course on keeping regulars happy. It all centers on “a little courtesy,” he says. Il Capriccio’s many small dining rooms are bustling, and Barron seems to know everyone. He brushes this off as part of being in business since 1981, but he and his staff work at it. Manager Nahatai Pumarintara Harris remembers names and never forgets a face. Many staffers have been here for more than a decade. Barron cooked for Il Capriccio founder Enzo Danesi, whose specialty was Northern Italian. The younger chef followed suit. He’s coming up on 40 years in the kitchen, sending out homemade pasta, smashing Bolognese, and succulent meats like lamb loin chops and roast duck. A winning menu fills seats; courtesy keeps them that way.
888 Main Street, Waltham, 781-894-2234, ilcapricciowaltham.com
Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill
In business since 1995
Persian cuisine, the specialty at Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill, is centuries old. Sumac, dried limes, barberries, and verjuice are familiar today, but when the restaurant opened in 1995, they were not. Sister-brother team Azita Bina-Seibel and Babak Bina built their menu around variations of their mother’s food from her family in Iran, and their mother brought the ingredients over in her suitcase. The result was exotic, beginning with mazze (called mezze elsewhere), little dishes with vibrant flavors. Some entrees are based on aromatic rice drizzled with saffron-infused liquid so it’s bright yellow here and there. The space, in a historic building, was renovated three years ago; it’s a warren of rooms with tan walls, tan barstools, and persimmon banquettes. When the duo updated, they added caviar service and offal (like slow-cooked lamb tongue) to the menu. The siblings, whose restaurant group, BiNA Family Hospitality, now includes jm Curley (and Bogie’s Place) and Bin 26 Enoteca, rolled the dice 20 years ago. Their hunch paid off.
97 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, 617-720-5511, lalarokh.com
In business since 1978
Established in 1978 on Boylston Street, L’Espalier became a Back Bay darling under Tunisian-French chef Moncef Meddeb, who moved it into a quirky townhouse on Gloucester Street. In 2008, with chef-owner Frank McClelland at the helm, it moved back to Boylston Street. Now you enter at street level next door to the Mandarin Oriental, Boston hotel, and an elevator takes you to the second floor. Upstairs is hushed and plush, with soft tones, rooms that seat 100, and solicitous waiters. The food isn’t as staid as the sophisticated decor. A thin slice of foie gras torchon is garnished with pretty curled shavings of tart raw rhubarb; Parker House rolls are mixed with ash made by charring and pulverizing vegetables; grilled quail is set over semolina porridge with an olive gremolata and a little heat. It’s quiet here. The experience feels like a visit to a genteel speakeasy.
774 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-262-3023, lespalier.com
In business since 1994
Up a half-dozen stairs in a historic building in the Leather District, Les Zygomates (French for the muscles around your smile) consists of two dining rooms with two bar areas: a live jazz spot on one side, a quiet French bistro on the other. The after-work downtown crowd does the early shift, and an older clientele settles into the jazz side when the music comes on. Opened by Ian Just, “Les Zyg” has been owned since 2014 by Mark Tosi, president of Canton-based Pastene Foods. The menu is mostly French classics — you’ll recognize all of it — including outstanding French onion soup with a thick golden crust of bread and gruyere, France’s contribution to curing hangovers. The restaurant’s been going strong since 1994, the soup for at least three centuries.
129 South Street, Boston, 617-542-5108, winebar129.com
No. 9 Park
In business since 1998
Walk up to No. 9 Park at night, with the State House lit up behind you, and you feel as though you’re in a film. The bar, with its low ceiling, taupe hues, and hanging bronze-colored lights, embraces you. Barbara Lynch’s first property, the restaurant opened in 1998 (she now has seven and a demonstration kitchen). As you’d expect from a Lynch restaurant, nothing on the menu is ordinary. A bitter green salad, with ham, hard cheese, and pine nuts, is tossed with a vinaigrette made with the Filipino citrus calamansi. The signature house gnocchi, stuffed with prunes and served in a rich vin santo sauce with slices of foie gras and almonds, is as good as it’s ever been. Ask where the restroom is, and a host will walk you over. Ashley Waugh), who oversees the place, sets the warm, welcoming tone.
9 Park Street, Boston, 617-742-9991, no9park.com
THE GENERAL MANAGER: ASHLEY WAUGH OF NO. 9 PARK
Ashley Waugh, 32, is so passionate about No. 9 Park that she pops in when she’s not working. “I love to come in and sit at the bar, even on a day off,” she says. She thinks of the staff as family. Now general manager, Waugh started as a waitress at the restaurant, where she met her fiance, Gregg Guertin, who was a waiter. They had their engagement dinner at No. 9, and they’ll be married there in the fall. She didn’t jump into the top role; she became a service manager, then assistant GM, and finally GM. The California native works an 11- to 12-hour day, beginning by making sure the restaurant is set up, and that she’s looked at all the reservations — and looked ahead a week — and noted special requests or celebrations. After work, she might catch up with Guertin, now bar manager for Terra in Eataly Boston, if they’re getting off work at the same time, or sit down with chef de cuisine Heather Neri for a glass of wine.
A successful manager needs instant recall, and Waugh has it. “I can remember faces and what people like to drink,” she says. The bar area fills with regulars the staff knows. “Some have been coming here for 20 years,” says Waugh. Customers who moved away come back when they’re in town. OpenTable software helps the GM take notes on customers’ whims, and a little notebook behind the bar, which all the bartenders contribute to and take advantage of, keeps track of cocktail preferences and personal tidbits. Waugh knows the secret to running a successful restaurant: work hard at it.
THE MANAGER: NAHATAI PUMARINTARA HARRIS OF IL CAPRICCIO
The dining rooms at Il Capriccio hum. If restaurants have moods — and they do — this one’s is happy all the time. That’s partly due to the veteran dining room manager, Nahatai Pumarintara Harris, 57. For more than 20 years, the Bangkok native has been at the door of the Waltham establishment. She’s the one who works with diners who have special requests or events, confirms reservations, and plans seating. She began as a bartender and worked her way up, and like many good managers, she has a knack for recalling who has come in before. “I see a face and I always remember it,” she says.
Because of her seniority, she isn’t the person who locks up at night anymore. She typically comes in at 2 p.m. and leaves at 10. Before the restaurant opens, Harris and other employees sit down with owner Rich Barron for a staff meal and dine on something that might be on the menu (unlike in many other kitchens, which concoct employee meals from leftovers). Harris likes the time together with everyone. The warm feeling in the dining room begins before anyone walks in the door. “It shows when you care and you’re happy with what you’re doing. People notice it,” she says. “The kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, the dining room is like the soul; it has to be together, and that makes it work.”
Sheryl Julian is the former food editor of the Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.