By Marsha Fottler
For the culinary traveler who wants more than food discovery to fuel a memorable urban vacation, Boston has to occupy one of the top spots on your list. I go at least every other year to savor the sights and flavors of this wonderful old place. Boston is full of Colonial history (walking tours plentiful as well as by bus or boat), rich in varied architecture and in top-ranked museums. Of course there’s an abundance of intriguing restaurants many of them within a short walk or subway ride from your in-town hotel. And this vital city is changing and enriching itself constantly. Eating in Boston is more than “the bean and the cod.”
The most recent change is the number of Asians and Asian restaurants and Asian farmers markets that are downtown. Boston has always had a thriving Chinatown, which is on the edge of the financial district and not far from Tufts Medical Center. People who work in Boston routinely head to Chinatown for a quick counter lunch at one of 200 eateries in this bustling community or they enjoy a leisurely sit-down dinner after work. Retail gift and clothing shops (some specializing in medicinal herbs) and residences enrich the food scene. China Pearl and Imperial Seafood House are two of the larger restaurants that are popular with tourists and locals in Chinatown.
But what is noticeable right now in Boston is that Asian populations have become much more diverse (student accounts for a lot of this) and widespread. Asian eateries are sprouting up all over the city – fashionable Newbury Street, theater district Boylston Street, on Northeastern University’s Huntington Avenue, near Symphony Hall and around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – everywhere. Many of these places are tiny basement or unpretentious street-level noodle houses and almost every one is a winner. Food is authentic, flavorful and inexpensive. Choices are Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Japanese, Chinese, you name it. You could probably eat seven days straight at a different place that is in walking distance of where you are staying and not ever be disappointed.
In venerable Copley Square there’s now an Asian open-air market at least once a week. Line up behind Asian women carrying big woven baskets or string bags and observe what produce they select. You’ll be amazed at the number of fruits and vegetables that will seem strange and wondrous. And oh the Asian languages you’ll hear as buyers haggle with vendors or lift a piece of fruit into the air to extoll its goodness.
The Art of Museum Eating:
Boston’s art museums have realized that art lovers want high quality places to eat inside the museums at venues that cater to several different several price points. The new 70,000-square-foot addition designed by architect Renzo Piano to the Old World Mediterranean-style Gardner museum features a modern and bright restaurant. Upscale Cafe G embraces a global menu realized in refined casual dishes artfully presented. Simply delightful as you relax in a modern glass room that overlooks a garden which is the transition space between the new addition and Mrs. Gardner’s quirky palace of fine art and odd artifacts.
At Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, (MFA), sophisticated and intimate Bravo presents seasonal cuisine with an emphasis on sustainable, local ingredients. The setting is hushed and refined and showcases a menu that is American with offerings such as braised pork cheeks, pan-seared scallops or grilled swordfish. Very good wine list. Al fresco dining on the patio is available, weather permitting.
In the MFA’s soaring glass-enclosed courtyard that is part of a new addition designed by Sir Norman Foster, is the New American Café. This light and airy venue showcases a menu that features creative regional dishes from the Americas. Choose from hot and cold small plates, entrées and salads, with beverages that include North and South American wines and craft beers. Garden Cafeteria is inexpensive and casual. It’s ideal for families – a comfortable cafeteria offering a salad bar, pizza, sandwiches, hamburgers, soups, snacks, desserts. Outdoor eating when the weather’s nice.
More Eating Options:
Never dismiss a restaurant in Boston because it happens to be a chain. Case in point, Legal Seafood. There are over a dozen scattered around the Boston area, one at the airport. This big convivial restaurant and bar is always crowded with visitors to the city and locals who crave a diverse menu of New England specialties. Every one a palette pleaser. Start with the authentic clam chowder. Some people who routinely visit Boston only eat at Legal Seafood (and get their breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts) and there’s nothing wrong with that. As the locals will tell you both places are “wicked good.”
Joe’s American Bar & Grill was a convenient walk for us since we were staying at the Newbury Guest House. Joe’s is a big (with both indoor and patio seating) American bistro with traditional burgers, great cocktails and seafood specialties too. Noisy and loud music, it caters to families, date crowd and people who like a lot of action around them. Regina Pizza is another reliable and hugely popular chain for pizza. There are three locations but the one at Faneuil Hall Marketplace gets the most tourist traffic. If you’re wandering around in the North End, ducking into the city’s most famous bakery is an absolute must. Mike’s Pastry has the best and richest tasting Italian cookies, cakes and cream-stuffed traditional goodies in the state. There are always as many locals in line at Mike’s as there are tourists and that’s a good sign. There are two locations both putting your baked treasures in a while box with blue string. You see people carrying those boxes all over Boston.
The Barbara Lynch Empire:
Twenty years ago when it opened, I ate at Chef Barbara Lynch’s first restaurant No. 9 Park (the name is the address) which is right near the gold-domed Statehouse and the Boston Common. A small and quiet jewel of a place, it has consistently maintained its standards of impeccable service and cuisine creativity, I’ve eaten there many times since and a trip to Boston wouldn’t seem right without reservations at No. 9 Park. Over the years this smart and talented woman has added other restaurants to her collection. Menton (which I so admire) offers a tasting menu as well as a menu of entrees that blends Italian and French ingredients. Both these places are formal and fairly expensive. Then there’s Sportello that replicates the comforts and the foods of an Italian trattoria. B&G Oysters is a kind of a clam shack but elevated in offerings and ambience. And The Butcher Shop is just that and more. It’s a neighborhood butcher shop with a full-time butcher behind the counter ready to custom cut something for you. But the place is also a full-service restaurant and excellent wine bar. Make sure you eat at one of these Barbara Lynch places during your stay in Boston. As a kid from Southie who grew up to win culinary awards and to celebrate her city with fine food and exceptional hospitality, Barbara Lynch knows food and she knows Boston. She can introduce you to the best of its many flavors.