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Just down the road in Cambridge’s Central Square, PAGU is one of the most innovative and thrillingly delectable restaurants to emerge in the Boston area. Chef Tracy Chang mixes tradition and modernization in her dishes, often inspired by memory and serendipitous experiments. While living in northern Spain, she crafted food and experimented in the communal kitchens of Basque gastronomic societies. She also pulls from a childhood spent in her grandmother’s Japanese restaurant. The resulting Spanish-Japanese fusion is intoxicating; the bao options, especially the squid ink oyster version, are transformative. She’s also collaborated with Harvard students specializing in food science to play with the gastronomy of some of her creative dishes (such as the Cheesy Wafflato). Many dishes on the menu surprise and delight, and the vegetables change with the season. Be ready to be blown away by something new.
Similar in concept to Sarma (small plates, delicious), Little Donkey is a bit harder to pin down. Instead of focusing on a single cuisine, it draws culinary inspiration from all over the world; think Istanbul meat ravioli, vindaloo short rib and octopus a la plancha, to name a few. While on paper it may sound disjointed, the team nails it. Each dish transitions into the next, and the knowledgeable waitstaff won’t let you go astray.
As the name implies, this Charlestown spot is serious about its beer. But unlike a lot of specialty beer bars, this one has food and ambience to match. Neapolitan-style pizzas are the perfect complement to its unique beer list, which includes local favorites and Belgian craft brews. It’s also an ideal place to stop for a mid-afternoon bite. The oysters, charcuterie boards and other daily small-plate specials (scribbled on the chalkboard on the wall) are always top-notch. Outdoor patio seating is hard to beat on warm days.
O Ya receives high praise from just about everyone who eats here and is consistently in the conversation when foodie magazines deliberate the best sushi restaurants in the country. Its multi-course omakase menu is legendary, and by Boston’s standards, so are the prices. But those who have enjoyed a meal here will swear to you that it is worth it. Now with locations in New York City and Mexico City, this culinary hotspot requires reservations far in advance.
If O Ya is a bit pricey for you, head over to The Verb Hotel and check out its casual sister restaurant, Hojoko. The izakaya-inspired menu lists a mix of small plates, sushi rolls, ramen and other delicious staples. Like The Verb, Hojoko takes inspiration from rock’n’roll, its walls lined with vinyl records. Its love of vinyl doesn’t stop there. The restaurant opened a separate and dedicated “hip vinyl den” called The Groove, which pays tribute to Japanese underground vinyl bars. If that isn’t enough to pique your curiosity, a snack menu and sake are available as well.
NAHITA is further proof of Boston’s growing international foodie presence. This blend of Asian and Latin American dishes creates ingenious fusions that will make visitors realize the brilliance of ceviche with sashimi and sea urchin in guacamole. Influenced by the many Japanese and Chinese people who immigrated to Peru starting in the 1800s, chef Efe Onoglu says his dishes are inspired by what he believes those people’s descendants actually like to eat on a regular basis. The chef handmakes tortillas, and the restaurant purchases some fish fillets from Japan. The restaurant is conveniently located in the middle part of Boston and offers high ceilings with large glass windows and many plants, a central bar and private dining. If you’d rather avoid large crowds, it’s better to visit on weekdays.
Sure, it’s in every tourist guide you’ll ever read about Boston, but if you come early before the crowds swell, you’ll understand why. Regina Pizzeria is a classic checkered-tablecloth venue. The curt waiters will keep your dinner moving along, but the pizza is absolutely amazing.
Australian transplants bring one of the British Commonwealth’s finest culinary staples, meat pies, to East Boston’s waterfront. For those uninitiated, these aren’t your typical dessert pies. These are handmade, savory, single-serving-size pies that you eat with your hands. They come in all kinds of meat and veg varieties. Together with a side of mushy peas, they’re the ultimate quick lunch. Even though East Boston is off the typical tourist track, be sure to explore the area as many of the buildings in this old shipyard are now cool businesses, such as Downeast Cider House and the seasonal art gallery ICA Watershed.
Another Boston pizza legend, Santarpio’s Pizza has maintained its hole-in-the-wall East Boston digs for decades. Its pizzas taste like your best memories of pizza growing up – no unusual toppings or pretension, just incredible pizza with a unique blend of herbs and spices. Located right near Logan Airport, Santarpio’s makes a great first meal in town – or last before you fly out.
Merengue, as its name suggests, is a place where music and decor complement the flavorful food. Painted-on palm trees adorn the windows, and inside, a sky-blue moped hangs over the bar. Merengue rolls out excellent Dominican food and a pleasant ambience. You’d be mistaken not to try one of its house specialties, especially the mofongo, which is a dish of mashed-up plantains stuffed with chicken or pork and served with broth. The walls are lined with photos of Boston sports heroes and politicians visiting the restaurant. And in this town, the seal of approval from Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martínez and Big Papi is worth more than a handful of James Beard Awards.
The multi-course tasting menus and excellent sake list at Kamakura will impress you. This small, high-end Japanese restaurant located downtown follows the centuries-old Japanese practice of kaiseki – small plates but with modern styles to inspire innovation. Apart from the tasting menus, options include bento boxes, sushi, sashimi, pickled vegetables and wagyu beef. Plus, it uses seasonal and sustainably sourced ingredients from the Boston region. The sake is served in small cups according to traditions of sharing and camaraderie. Also, different sakes are served at different temperatures, following the saying, “Like a traveler walking up and then back down a mountain, the sake is changed for its journey, despite ending up back where it started.” Named after the coastal home town of chef Youji Iwakura, Kamakura features decor inspired by ocean waves, with understated, geometric and elegantly simple designs.
Located in the South End, The Beehive is the best choice in Boston for live music during your meal. The restaurant regularly books jazz acts that set a classy mood amid the buzz of quiet chatter. With exposed brick, red-velvet curtains, antique chandeliers and a stage surrounded by dining tables, the restaurant’s interior offers an excellent background for a date or chic gathering. Menu options are fairly standard with well-made salmon, tuna tartare, grilled skirt steak, summer squash farrotto and standout fall-off-the-bone ribs.
The main appeal at ReelHouse is its view of Boston’s skyline. As it’s located just across the harbor in East Boston, visitors can take a ferry to the restaurant for a picturesque and romantic glide across the water. The interior boasts large corner windows with sweeping views of the ocean’s inlet and a ceiling that resembles the hull of a ship to complement its mostly seafood menu. Its outdoor space is also ideal for summer days by the water.
If you want a French dining experience with numerous wines and the option of a tasting menu, Troquet on South is an excellent choice. Its wine cellar downstairs boasts around 8,000 bottles, plus another 3,000 located off-site, that range from $39 to $15,000. Each dish comes with a wine pairing suggestion, so take advantage of its comprehensive selection. Standout menu items include the duck, strip steak and black bass. As with other shops in the industrially expansive buildings of the Leather District, the restaurant sits in a converted warehouse that used to be an American shoe company. The resulting decor is spacious and chic with soft, incandescent bulbs and a few tasteful pieces of art placed against exposed brick.
For a quick lunchtime bite, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything as flavorful or delicious as a torta campechana (a sandwich of carnitas, avocado, tomato, black beans and chipotle sauce) from Tenoch Mexican. It also has a variety of meat and vegetarian tacos, burritos and other American-Mexican staples. With three brick-and-mortar locations around greater Boston, plus a food truck, chances are there will be one close by no matter where you’re staying.
Danielle Hallock contributed additional reporting to this article.