Plenty of things elevate Boston to one of the best cities in the country: the history, the fanatic sports fans (not to mention Fenway), and the incredible food. The city may be small, but it has a mighty food scene with a list of must-eat dishes. Oysters, lobster rolls, Italian food and pastries are just a few of the city’s iconic culinary gems.
Seafood is the main staple, as it should be in a city so close to the water, so don’t be surprised to see it on almost every menu. But take advantage! It’s fresh and it’s fantastic. But there’s more to the city than just seafood.
So where are the best restaurants in Boston to have those can’t miss culinary icons?
Where to Eat in Boston
1. Neptune Oyster
If you’re anything like me, whenever I plan a trip to the Northeast I immediately start craving lobster. So I usually search out a lobster roll as soon as I arrive. In Boston, that means heading to Neptune Oyster in the North End. It’s one of those must go places that’s insanely popular — but with good reason. It makes just about every “Best Lobster Roll in the Country” list and I have yet to be disappointed. Plan to wait several hours for a table, but once inside the tiny oyster bar, you’ll be glad you did.
Order :: What else? A lobster roll. Available hot with butter or cold with mayo, served with a salad or deliciously crispy fries. Pair it with a crisp glass of Albariño and you’re set. As you’re munching on the luscious lobster goodness, reflect on the irony that the executive chef has never actually eaten a lobster roll.
Related :: Why Neptune Oyster in Boston is a Must Do
2. Saltie Girl
Disguised among brownstones in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is a little New American spot called Saltie Girl. If you’re not careful, you’ll walk right by without noticing it. Or, in our case, you’ll walk by it even when you are looking for it! Snag a seat at the big wooden bar and snack on fresh fish, served in inventively creative sashimi-style dishes like Kanpachi with pickled mustard seeds ($16) and Sea Urchin with quail egg yolk and caviar ($25). Jump around the menu to try the Saltie Girl Burger ($26, at top) with fried lobster and pork belly or the charred octopus with serrano ham ($19).
Order :: The Toasted Handmade Gnocchi with Caviar ($18). The plump balls of dough have an ever-so-slight crust to them, topped with dollops of salty caviar to create a savory salty burst of flavor. These elevated Saltie Girl to a must go restaurant whenever I’m in Boston.
3. The Merchant
Back in the Financial District, I’ve gotten lost trying to find The Merchant not once, but twice. Located on one of those winding little streets Boston is known for, The Merchant is a part bar, part restaurant with a large wooden bar and dim lights serving French American cuisine with plenty of seafood. Both brunch and dinner don’t disappoint and the staff was friendly when I was the first person in the restaurant and the last person to leave (albeit on different days!). Oh, and did I mention they have $1 oysters on Mondays?
Order :: The Croque Madame ($13) during brunch, it’s mind-blowing. Partner it with a brunch cocktail to start your weekend off right. At night, you can’t go wrong with the Pan Seared Dayboat Scallops with sweet potato and apple bacon jam ($31) or take advantage of their late night menu (10 pm – midnight), full of elevated bar food.
4. Stephanie’s on Newberry
Stephanie’s on Newberry, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, is billed as a place for comfort food, but the entire place is as comforting as the cuisine. The casual spot has stood for more than 20 years and the interior was recently renovated in 2015, but the patio is still the best for perfect people-watching. (Which pairs nicely with a pitcher of Sparkling Watermelon Sangria, $49.) Stephanie’s is known for home style mac and cheese with prosciutto and truffle oil ($25) and lobster pot pie ($28), but the new brunch menu is equally as drool-worthy. And if you’re not near Newberry, there’s Tremont and Southie locations too.
Order :: For brunch, get the Eggs Shakshuka ($19), eggs baked in a North African tomato sauce with onions, jalapeños, peppers and garlic served with grilled bread. Or the Truffled Croque Madame ($22), a stack of ham, gruyere cheese and brioche bread topped with truffled bechamel and a fried egg, was amazing.
5. Island Creek Oyster Bar
Get your oyster fix at Island Creek Oyster Bar, where there’s an energetic atmosphere, great cocktails and even better seafood. The oysters are grown about an hour away at their namesake farm, Island Creek Oysters, one of the country’s largest oyster companies. Start with fresh oysters, graduate to sensational seafood like the Crispy Whole Black Bass ($31 ) and end with Cinnamon Sugar Donuts ($9). All while indulging in their cocktails with creative descriptions, like “learned man in foreign lands” (the Esperanto: crema de mezcal, manzanilla, vermouth, bitters, $14) and “warm sun on calm water” (Green Horizon: jalapeno tequila, cucumber, pineapple, lime, $12).
Order :: A plethora of today’s fresh oysters, mixing some from Massachusetts with Maine, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Opt to try them “Pearl” style, paired with an ounce of gin ($6), mezcal ($6), Talisker scotch ($8) or absinthe ($7). Don’t forget their famously crispy biscuits with honey, butter and rosemary glaze.
Side note :: If you can’t get enough great cocktails, a few doors down The Hawthorne has excellent libations in a dark, library-like setting.
Townsman feels like a neighborhood brasserie that got lost downtown. Or maybe that’s the point: to transport you outside of the hectic downtown hustle by creating a dining oasis. I discovered Townsman when I was in Boston for work and let me tell you: all my worries went away as soon as I began to devour my house made pea pasta. But don’t take my word for it; Food & Wine named it one of the 10 best restaurants in the country in 2016, echoing Esquire’s 2015 sentiment.
Anyway, Townsman’s menu is a little eclectic, but love that or hate it, there’s good to be found on it. House-cured charcuterie and pâté, like the Smoked Bluefish Pâté ($12) is a strong choice, but don’t shy from the grilled sardines with pistachios and cured egg yolk ($10) or the crispy chicken leg with mole verde ($16).
Order :: Anything off the crudo section, like scallops with watermelon and sesame ($16), beef tartare ($15) or main lobster ($18). Or go all out with the seafood tower, three giant plates of shellfish, terrines, cheeses and more for $125 (you’ll want to bring your friends for that one).
7. Mamma Maria
Mamma Maria has been an Italian staple in Boston’s North End since 1973. Steps away from Paul Revere’s house (and Boston’s oldest residence), Mamma Maria is in a former home and feels just as cozy. The dishes derive from classic Italian, with hearty pastas decorated with rabbit or lobster and slow-cooked ribs, pork and chicken.
Order :: Mamma Maria is best known for the Osso Buco Veal Shank, served in the classic style with saffron risotto ($48). It’s memorable enough that you won’t forget it even years later (I sure haven’t!).
8. And your pick of the Pastry Debate :: Mike’s Pastry or Modern Pastry
Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry are two bakeries battling it out in the North End for their famous canolis. The small shops are easily identified by the lines dragging out the door and tourists and locals alike can be spotted throughout the neighborhood carrying boxes from both spots. Instead of telling you which one to go, try both and decide for yourself!
Or skip the debate altogether for the original Boston Cream Pie, created — and still served — at the Omni Parker House hotel. The confusingly named pie (that’s actually cake) was first served here in 1856 and is now sold in the gift shop to go or the lobby restaurant. Ask the hostess nicely and she just might sit you at the table where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie.
Places on my list that I didn’t get a chance to try (in case you want to do my research for me): Buttermilk and Bourbon, Ruka for Peruvian-Japanese fusion, Sarma for Mediterranean and Pabu for Japanese.