The Boston area is the home of the first Thanksgiving and of bountiful autumnal harvests. It's also America’s seafood capital. In this era of creative culinary discovery, many Bostonians are reclaiming their roots in one crucial way: through appreciation of local, seasonal and organic products. This thriving 'locavore' movement highlights the bounty of local waters and rich New England farms.
With a nickname like Beantown, you know that Boston is into food. Culinary historians believe that Native Americans cooked beans with fatty bear meat and molasses in earthenware pots. Early settlers likely adapted this recipe by substituting pork for bear meat, resulting in the famed Boston baked beans. Despite the name, you'll have some trouble finding baked beans on a menu in Boston today. Look for it at restaurants specializing in old-fashioned fare, such as Durgin Park and Union Oyster House.
Evolving from its environment, Boston cuisine has always featured plenty of seafood, especially the 'sacred cod,' halibut and various shellfish. Lobster – once so plentiful that it was served to prisoners – is now a recognized delicacy that appears on most local menus. Many restaurants have 'raw bars' where they serve local oysters and clams on the half-shell. The most traditional preparations of seafood are boiled and fried, but nowadays creative chefs are calling on new techniques and all kinds of international influences to present the seafood in even more delicious ways.
Italian & International Influences
The international influence on Boston cuisine cannot be underestimated. A tight-knit immigrant enclave, the North End is an upholder of old-fashioned Italian-American cooking, with tomato sauces simmering and pasta boiling on every stove. This neighborhood is still packed with ristoranti, enoteche (wine bars) and pasticcerie (bakeries) – making it one of the city's best eating destinations.
In the 20th century, a new wave of immigrants arrived from South America and Asia, bringing the flavors of Brazil, China, India, Korea and Vietnam. The Asian element is most evident in Chinatown, but the international influences show up on menus all over the city.
Boston has dozens of food trucks cruising its streets, serving up cheap, filling fare to hungry patrons who are short on time and/or money. There's a full range of meals on offer, from noodles and tacos to burgers, hot dogs, lobster rolls and vegetarian food.
In Boston, you'll find food trucks on the Rose Kennedy Greenway and on the Boston Common, among other places. In Cambridge, look for trucks on the plaza in front of the Harvard Science Center or on Carleton St across from the Kendall Sq T station. And on summer weekends, head for the Food Truck Bazaar at the SoWa Open Market along Harrison Ave. Find out more at the Boston Food Truck Blog (www.bostonfoodtruckblog.com) or Hub Food Trucks (www.hubfoodtrucks.com).
Need to Know
Breakfast is usually 7am to 10am; lunch 11:30am to 2:30pm or 3pm; and dinner starts around 5pm with last service 9pm or 10pm. Exceptions are noted in reviews.
Reservations are recommended for most top-end restaurants, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings. Make reservations at www.opentable.com.
In restaurants with sit-down service, customers should leave a 15% tip for acceptable service and a 20% tip for good service; tipping at a lower level reflects dissatisfaction with the service.
Edible Boston (www.edibleboston.net)
Boston Vegetarian Society (www.bostonveg.org)
Boston Foodies (www.boston-foodies.com)
Boston Chefs (www.bostonchefs.com)
Nowadays you can eat seafood anywhere in the world, even when the sea is hundreds of miles away. So what's so special about seafood in Boston? A local restaurant used to boast that the fish is so fresh it jumps out of the water and on to your plate – this means the texture is preserved and the flavor is enhanced. And a view of the harbor or a breeze off the water makes it all the more delectable.
Ask 10 locals for Boston's best chowder and you'll get 10 different answers. This thick, cream-based soup is chock-full of clams or fish, although clam chowder, using the meaty insides of giant surf clams, is more prevalent.
Clams & Oysters
Many seafood restaurants showcase their shellfish at a raw bar, where a dedicated bartender works to shuck oysters and clams to be served on the half-shell. Any self-respecting raw bar will have a selection of hard-shelled clams, or 'quahogs,' including littlenecks and cherrystones. The most famous type of oysters are Wellfleet oysters from Cape Cod; they're eaten raw, with a dollop of cocktail sauce and a few drops of lemon juice. Nowadays there are loads of raw bars around town, including Row 34 or Neptune Oyster.
You can also get clams deep-fried (great hangover food) or steamed (aka 'steamers'). They also get tossed into spicy seafood stew, like those served at Giacomo's Ristorante.
Back in the day, the seemingly endless supply of lobster was the food of poor people and prisoners. Times have changed, as seafood lovers now pay big bucks for the crustaceans. Traditionally, lobsters are steamed or boiled, then it's up to the hungry patron to crack the shell to get the succulent meat out. A less labor-intensive choice is a lobster roll, where the lobster meat is lightly dressed and stuffed into a grilled, buttered hot-dog roll. Some fantastic options for lobster include James Hook & Co, Eventide Fenway, Luke's Lobster, Pauli's and Saltie Girl.
Lobster also makes a decadently delicious bisque, and it's downright sinful when tossed into pasta, such as lobster mac 'n' cheese (Yankee Lobster Co) or lobster fra diavolo (try Daily Catch). The lobster roe noodles at Island Creek Oyster Bar is one of the best dishes in the world.
Atlantic codfish has played such an important role in the region's culture and economy that it is known as the 'sacred cod,' and a carved wooden effigy hangs in the Massachusetts State House. Cod, haddock, hake and other white-fleshed fish are sometimes called 'scrod.' Other fresh local fish appearing on Boston menus in summer include bluefin tuna, bluefish and striped bass.