Some things I recommend in Boston
I recently had a conversation with coworkers about what they look for in a restaurant: vibes or food. Most people answered, roughly, “mostly vibes as long as the food is at least decent.” This is wild to me; I’m very much optimizing for food quality. Even more recently, my wife and I tried a much recommended pizza place which turned out to be aggressively Not Good. From these and similar meditations I come to two conclusions:
- Most of the time, most people are optimizing for holistic experience rather than focusing on the direct quality of the thing they’re consuming, at least for food and drink. (This is okay! People should satisfy their preferences!)
- Even when focusing on quality, perceptions are heavily shaped by idiosyncratic preferences. We inhabit less shared reality than we’d like to think.
Most people won’t share my objective function, and my blog’s readership is definitely exclusive. Nonetheless, I am motivated to share some hometown recommendations, if for no other reason than writing and thinking about things I like sparks joy.
Food and drink
Bread and pastry
Flour Bakery has nine locations spread through Boston and Cambridge, and…I love them. Some of their food is really excllent, they consistently execute at a high level, and empirically, chef-owner Joanne Chang well understands my food preferences. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything bad from Flour, which is super impressive since I’ve been eating there multiple times a week since 2013. Some items are solidly “decent example of the genre, not really for me,” but many others are “wow, this is awesome, better than various trendy famous places, and so consistent: nine bakeries, seven days a week, no mistakes.” My first year in grad school I tried every pastry they make. Especially recommended items:
- Almond croissant
- Double chocolate cookie
- Blueberry muffin
- Pain aux raisins
- Chunky Lola cookie
- Carrot cake
- Chocolate cream pie
- Sweet potato sandwich
- Cauliflower sandwich
Forge Baking Co is turning out excellent viennoiserie. I like the chocolate croissant.
Forge Ice Cream Bar is next door and makes the best ice cream in the area. Pre-pandemic it was a great spot to have a sundae in store, seems to be mostly takeout now. The style is fully New England: rich, solid, nontrivial stretch and chew. Don’t miss it.
Bagelsaurus makes a mean bagel: chewy, defined crust, appropriately moderately dense, full of fermentation flavor. Pretzel and black olive are solid choices, cheddar garlic is a weekend special, everything is the best. Be warned: lines are long, prices are high, it’s probably worth it.
Vinal Bakery in Union Square puts out English muffin sandwiches with solid 2+2=5 energy.
Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery’s main bakery in Winchester is solidly all food, no vibes, which I guess is a vibe. There’s also a location in Arlington. Their breads are slightly on the dense side and very flavorful. I especially like the cranberry pecan and cheese loaves. Viennoiserie is tasty enough if you’re there but not worth a trip on its own. The oatmeal raisin cookie is variable but at times incredible.
Sadly, Boston is not much of a pizza town. Really good pizza can be found, but you have to look; stumbling in somewhere unknown will lead to disappointment. I am aware of two great options, depending on your style preference:
Picco (Pizza and Ice Cream Company) puts out bien cuit, bready pizzas. Great flavor in the crust, solid toppings, very pleasant. This is pizza for people who like hearty bread. The Alsatian with mushrooms in place of bacon is a good choice.
Area Four slings Neopolitan-ish (neo-Neopolitan?) pies. Tender crusts with leopard spotting, charred tender undersides, long fermentation. Mushroom is my favorite from the non-rotating menu, but don’t sleep on the marinara.
Talulla in north Cambridge is a delightful neighborhood sorta-fancy restaurant. Strong everything-just-so experience. Bread service: excellent. Cocktails: look like an afterthought on the menu, but excellent. Wine list: apparently excellent, if you’re into that kind of thing, which I am not. Crudos: punchy, and excellent. Vegetables: local, delicious, probably free range. Pastas: don’t miss. Dessert is a comparative weak spot at merely good. Don’t go too often though, it’s already hard enough for me to get a reservation. Do go in the late fall and early winter, when they have cute greenhouses for semi-outdoor dining.
Littleburg in Union Square is a casual takeout-only vegan Mediterranean spot with unpredictable hours. Sandwiches are a strong point, but I’ve never run into trouble on their menu. Filling, satisfying, delicious shawarma, no animals tortured for your dinner, what’s not to love?
Tasting Counter is a special occasion fine dining restaurant where you sit facing an open kitchen. Very thoughtful, very civilized, lots of care given to ingredient selection. Pairings are excellent; I like nonalcoholic over sake over wine. It used to be an absolute steal, but prices have risen along with their prestige. Still worth it for a splurge.
Backbar is a fun cocktail bar weakly-hidden in Union Square. Drinks are inventive, usually slightly-surprising slightly-improved riffs on cocktail classics. Don’t be afraid to go off menu, at least at off-peak times; the bartenders there will not lead you astray. To my taste cocktails tend ever so slightly too sweet, but never offensively so. The menu rotates frequently, and because the quality bar is very high, it’s a great place to explore new drinks without risking a bad drink. Also, I know I said I’m not a vibes guy, which is mostly true, but: their vibe is somehow the intersection of speakeasy and “really likes Star Wars,” and that’s an excellent place to be.
Mem Tea sells tea (dried, not as a tea room you drink in). It is good. I like the jasmine pearls.
The Boston Esplanade is excellent for people watching and enjoying views of the Charles River, MIT, and Kendall Square’s fast-growing skyline. The best section is between the Mass Ave bridge and the Longfellow bridge; north of Longfellow the path disappears, and west of the Mass Ave bridge the path narrows and gets too close to the regrettable Storrow Drive.
Riverbend Park: Much of Cambridge’s riverfront is, suboptimally, consumed by the Memorial Drive pseudohighway. Weekends from spring to fall, Cambridge and the Massachusetts DCR open parts of Mem Drive to humans and close it to cars, forming a linear park from Western Ave to Mt. Auburn Hospital. The result is 1.5 miles of prime riverfront linear park right by Harvard Square. Lots of families, couples fighting the geese for space, adults learning to rollerblade, joggers, just an all around good time. Side observation: when the road is closed to cars, people use the road adjacent spaces (sidewalks, strips of grass) much more than usual. Almost like being next to a dangerous noisy polluting highway usually makes those spaces less pleasant.