Let’s set the record straight: contrary to what you may have heard, there’s more to Boston than American Revolution trivia, and its restaurant scene is far from staid. In this brownstone-lined waterfront city, you’ll have to go beyond the tourist-catering seafood spots and take the less-trodden (cobblestone) path to realize there’s much more coming out of the kitchens than lobster rolls and clam chowder.
Stroll through East Boston, and you’ll find a decades-old Colombian restaurant serving enormous meat-laden bandeja paisa. Visit South End, one of the city’s buzziest dining neighborhoods, and you might chance upon the spicy-sour, tongue-tingling flavors of China’s Yunnan cuisine. And yes, as the salty ocean breeze reminds us, there’s plenty of New England’s freshest catch to enjoy—in the form of a spicy Greek-island fish stew in Back Bay, or as deep-fried seabass with housemade red curry in Brookline.
I’ve been coming to Massachusetts regularly since college, and now that I live here, I have a front-row seat to how the restaurant scene is evolving. With this list of local restaurants to guide your eating exploits in Beantown, I hope you discover that the historic city you thought you knew is a far more vibrant mosaic than meets the eye. Though you might come for the fisherman’s platters, you’ll end up staying for the moqueca, rambutan salad, and octopus mortadella.
249 Pearl St., Somerville, MA 02145
Like its acclaimed sibling restaurant—the Turkish-inspired Oleana in Cambridge—the newer Sarma in Somerville also roots its menu in Mediterranean meze. But Chef Cassie Piuma plays up affinities among other global flavors, too: She laces her famous cornbread with feta, honey, and spicy peppers, while her muhammara, a spicy Middle Eastern red bell pepper dip, takes a page from Central and South American cookery by blending in avocado. Oleana may be a special-occasion darling, but Sarma, with its uptempo music and walls hung with cheery painted plates, make for a more relaxed, tee-and-jeans kind of night out.
1721B Washington St., Boston, MA 02118
If the spicy, sour, and all-around striking flavors of China’s Yunnan Province are new to you, you’re in for a treat at Yunnan Kitchen. Mala—the numbing, fiery seasoning of Sichuan pepper and chiles—tantalizes the tongue in dishes like boiled pork in chile oil. Chef Yisha Siu’s fried mushrooms make a satisfyingly crunchy showcase for Yunnan’s love of fungi, while offerings like the fish fillets with mustard greens channel the region’s penchant for pickled vegetables.
611 Dorchester Ave., Boston, MA 02127
This cozy restaurant is the crown jewel of Dorchester’s Polish Triangle—the “Little Poland” between Boston Street, Dorchester Avenue, and Columbia Road. One of the only sit-down eateries serving a Polish menu in the city, the tiny spot has been cooking traditional fare like dill pickle soup, kiszka (blood sausage), and sobieski (breaded chicken cutlet) since 2002 in what feels like a family dining room (the founder carved the furniture by hand). I love ordering the Polish plate, a tasting platter with bigos (meat and cabbage stew), stuffed cabbage rolls, pierogies, and kielbasa.
48 Gloucester St., Boston, MA 02115
I thought I was familiar with Greek food—until I dined at Krasi, a wine and meze bar where lesser-known dishes take center stage. Curate your own starter board from a selection of cheeses and cured meats you won’t find at your average grocery, like kalathaki (a soft sheep-milk cheese from Lemnos island) and octopus mortadella. Then, go island-hopping with regional dishes like skioufikta, a cheesy and creamy Cretan pasta, or bourdeto, a saucy fish dish hailing from Corfu. Krasi means wine in Greek, so it’s no surprise that the selection of Greek wines here—from rare vintages to piney retsinas (made with actual resin)—is the second largest of any U.S. restaurant. (That’s why the seats at the marble-topped bar are some of the best in the house.)
1052 Dorchester Ave., Boston, MA 02125
This takeout-only restaurant and market has been slinging bành mí and selling Vietnamese pantry staples in Dorchester’s Little Saigon, for more than three decades. There’s frequently a wait, which means more time to peruse the ready-to-eat cases—sticky-rice treats and pillowy steamed buns, anyone? Everybody should order what the bakery does best: bánh mì. Choose from a variety of meats like pork floss or BBQ beef, then watch a sandwich pro generously layer up your order fresh.
1008 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02141
What to eat at this Inman Square restaurant? Moqueca, of course—a Brazilian seafood stew brimming with fish and shrimp and heady with the scent of tomatoes and coconut milk. Cooked on the stove in a clay pot, it’s especially popular in Espírito Santo, the southeast Brazilian city from which owner Maria de Fatima Langa hails; now, she’s introducing the dish to Bostonians in nautical-themed quarters that always feel relaxed and rarely get too noisy or crowded. Try the moqueca “Bahia-style,” enriched with palm oil and coconut milk, for a particularly rib-sticking take.
If you’re looking for fish, shellfish, and crustaceans—what Boston visitor isn’t?—Row 34 keeps things simple with all the New England classics on your to-eat list. You would be remiss not to start with Island Creek’s sweet, plump oysters from Duxbury (owner Skip Bennett was a founding partner of Row 34). Then try what I think is one of Boston’s best lobster rolls, either hot with melted butter or cold with creamy mayo. You won’t be disappointed with the fried oysters and griddled crab cakes, which the kitchen crisps to perfection. Pair your marine feast with a cold beer—the restaurant’s extensive list focuses on drafts from around the Northeast. (You’ll find me nursing a malty, zesty witbier from Allagash Brewing Company.)
258 Saratoga St., Boston, MA 02128
The North End may be our Little Italy—a mishmash of red-sauce joints, pizza parlors, and pastry shops—but longtime Bostonians often head in a different direction for a great Italian meal. Legendary for its huge portions and warm, sincere hospitality, this family-owned-and-run East Boston restaurant makes all dishes to order (nothing gets frozen). A creamy tomato sauce spiked with brandy bathes the fan-favorite lobster ravioli, which burst with fresh crustacean meat. You can also expect deeply flavorful Italian crowd-pleasers like linguine Bolognese and pollo Parmigiana—and to leave with a lot of leftovers to enjoy.
389 Maverick St., Boston, MA 02128
Somali-born chef and owner Yahya Noor opened Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston to pay homage to the East African food he grew up eating. The Tawakal plate—crispy chapati strips cooked in an herbaceous tomato sauce—is a must-order, and don’t leave without trying the saffron-scented biryani with tender lamb shank. The restaurant also bottles its mango-habanero hot sauce, which I drizzle over everything from rice dishes to pizza. The restaurant is close to Logan Airport, making it an ideal first meal in the city, or a culinary grand finale before you depart.
300 Pier Four Boulevard, Boston, MA 02210
Most of what comes out of the kitchen here—be it blueberries, lamb, or lion’s mane mushrooms—is grown 150 miles north at The Farm at Woods Hill, which the same owner, Kristin Canty, operates. The thought that goes into the sourcing is mirrored in chef Charlie Foster’s menu, which spotlights local raw-milk cheeses, grass-fed proteins, and seasonal local produce (think morels, celtuce, and zucchini blossoms). The “Caesar-style” salad makes an unexpected but delightful vehicle for grilled chanterelles, and it’s impossible to eat just one of the urfa-pepper-scented lamb ribs. Back in the day, this waterfront stretch of South Boston was mostly industrial, but now, the shiny, newly renovated Seaport District is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the city. Be sure to ask for a window table to admire the harbor views while you eat.
236 Washington St., Brookline, MA 02445
Before Thai childhood friends Chompon Boonnak and Smuch Saikamthorn opened Mahaniyom, Bostonians in search of dishes like yum ngoh (rambutan salad), nang kai tod (deep-fried chicken skin), and kang puu (a coconut-milk crab curry from Southern Thailand) were out of luck—but not anymore. Eschewing the choose-your-protein format and customizable spice level common in Thai American restaurants, this joint focuses instead on shareable small plates with unapologetically bold flavors. The craft cocktail line-up makes Thai ingredients the main cast, so it’s worth coming just to sip booze at the bar. Start the night with a shot of ya dong—herb-infused moonshine—and don’t skip the Sazerac stirred with Thai-tea-infused rye.
1166 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02139
From the moment you sit down, this Inman Square restaurant feels like a celebration of New England, from the rotating seasonal gems grown on chef Will Gilson’s family farm in Groton, to the farmhouse-chic accents like wooden liquor cabinets and slat-back chairs. It’s also a reminder that New England fare isn’t just baked beans and fried seafood—it’s always evolving. The menu echoes regional staples but comes with modern, seasonal touches: Think tender cod wrapped in crispy phyllo, chive-infused clam chowder loaded with fried clams, and tuna crudo served (unexpectedly) atop watermelon slices.
Colombian-born owner Marina Balvin came to Boston more than three decades ago, but it took her several years to open her own place in East Boston (called “Little Colombia” by some). Locals agree: It was worth the wait. A case in point is Balvin’s bandeja paisa, a combo platter piled with rice, carne asada, chicharrón, plantains, arepas, and fried eggs—so enormous it could easily feed a small family … or one ravenous Celtics player. Wash down the mega-meal with a fresh tropical juice like soursop and passionfruit. If taking the T out east isn’t in the cards, consider dropping by one of El Peñol’s newer outposts in Brookline and Revere.
Every Boston dweller seems to have a key memory revolving around this beloved mini-chain. Mine is eating one of chef Joanne Chang’s famous sticky buns the first time I ever visited this city, and a decade later, its pecan-studded, caramel-topped decadence still stands up to its lofty reputation. In fact, it’s hard to go wrong with any of the sweet treats here—I’m also partial to the light-as-a-cloud coconut cream pie and the maximalist carrot cake (it’s got raisins, walnuts, and candied carrots). For a nourishing pick-me-up between strolling the Freedom Trail and catching a Red Sox game, go for a savory option like the roast beef sandwich (Flour’s take on a Massachusetts classic) on fluffy focaccia—or try one of the daily specials handwritten on the chalkboard. No matter where you go in Boston, there’s a decent chance you’re just a baseball throw away from one of Flour’s several bright, airy locations.