One of Boston’s many charms is its concentration of small, walkable neighborhoods. Discovering each locale through its restaurant scene is a delicious reminder of the generations that fueled one of America’s greatest cultural melting pots.
An adored South End spot, known for traditional Puerto Rican plates, has served top-notch mofongo since 2012. A low-key Jamaica Plain restaurant, which doubles as a Euro-inspired gourmet cafe by day, just scored a James Beard nod for its comforting, seasonal dishes. In Lower Mills, a lively Irish tavern ups the ante on pub grub, dishing up braised lamb shank and Atlantic cod Provençal.
Bostonians are just as likely to drop into these 12 restaurants on a random weeknight as they are to mark a special occasion. Read on to book a table at these faithful local spots now.
South End Buttery (South End)
This beloved bakery, with an original location on Shawmut Avenue (one of the South End’s most stroll-worthy streets), expanded from its signature cupcakes, seasonal soups, and flaky breakfast sandwiches to offer dinner service in 2008. Owners Richard Gordon and Andrew Barker haven’t looked back since, serving up European-accented plates such as Atlantic haddock on a perfectly crisp fish-and-chips plate or steak frites. The Buttery serves comfort food at its finest, all year round. Regulars are known to stop in for an iced mocha on summer days and spend icy afternoons watching snowflakes from the cafe windows or by the dining room fireplace. A similar ambience makes up its annex location on Clarendon Street, closer to Back Bay Station.
Vejigantes (South End)
Puerto Rican favorite Vejigantes is steered by Hector and Nivia Pina, who also run the popular Doña Habana, a Cuban spot close by. Like Doña, this restaurant draws the area’s diners for its family-friendly atmosphere. But it’s the highly rated Puerto Rican mofongo—fried and mashed plantains, mixed with garlic paste and pork skin—that that has earned it neighborhood star status since 2012. Save yourself a hard decision by opting for the mofonguito sampler: three small mofongo stuffed with beef, shrimp, and lobster. And don’t sleep on the arañitas de plátanos de Doña Felita, or green plantain fritters, fried to crispy perfection.
Brassica Kitchen + Cafe (Jamaica Plain)
Jeremy Kean and Philip Kruta, the powerhouse duo behind this Jamaica Plain haunt, earned James Beard Award nominations as best chefs in the Northeast in 2022. It’s a nod that won’t surprise anyone who has visited Brassica Kitchen + Cafe. The low-key, self-proclaimed “neighborhood joint” went from pop-up to permanent fixture in 20162, but it retains its original commitment to invention and seasonality. Cases in point: menu standouts such as beets with kale, yogurt and pistachio, and Maine mussels with red curry and beef sausage. Other favorites that keep the crowds coming include fried sweet rice with fermented veggies, highlighting the chefs’ commitment to comfortable but creative cuisine.
La Voile (Back Bay)
La Voile’s Swiss American owner, Pierre Honegger, wanted to bring a taste of France to the Back Bay in 2008. So he didn’t just import ingredients. The multi-talented reporter-photographer and sailor, also imported the restaurant’s zinc bar, tables and chairs, wooden wine fridge (an old butcher’s fridge), and vintage chandeliers. The result is a transportive retreat that keeps the regulars flocking, complete with an impressive wine list and bistro classics such as foie gras, roasted duck breast, and crème brulée for dessert.
Mamma Maria (North End)
Mamma Maria, a quintessentially North End restaurant established in 1973, delivers quality fine-dining in a 19th-century townhouse. Locals come for enchanting North Square Park views, plus a compact menu that changes daily. Mamma Mia’s ultra seasonal, old world plates have previously included pumpkin gnocchi, clam and bay scallop pasta, and Piemontese-style pasture-raised veal ossobuco. With a four-diamond rating from the AAA Travel Guide, it’s no surprise this Italian charmer is a neighborhood mainstay.
Chalawan Asian Eatery (Cambridge)
After a 2019 opening this immersive Southeast Asian restaurant quickly became a Cambridge fixture thanks to its design-forward digs and expansive menu. The crowd pleasing offerings have options for meat lovers, seafood fans, vegetarians, and gluten-free diners. Bonus points for thoughtful menu notes that mention the place of inspiration for each dish: The crispy calamari with kaffir lime, lemongrass, and chile jam sauce traces its origins to Penang, Malaysia while the duck in red curry is a nod to central Thailand.
Moeca (Harvard Square)
Chef Michael Pagliarini (of Giulia fame) says neighborhood restaurants are his bread and butter. He’s earned plenty of new fans since opening this seafood spot, halfway between Porter and Harvard Squares, in 2022. The inviting 60-seater spotlights fresh catch in its crudo, oysters, seasonal stews, and fish roasted whole in a Neapolitan-style brick oven. In addition to the stellar seafood, plenty of Bostonians come for top-notch drinks by beverage director Charles Coykendall, a longtime veteran of Somerville’s famed Independent pub, who makes cocktail magic behind the hand-hewn wooden bar.
Somerville locals lucked out when La Brasa chef Daniel Bojorquez freed up the restaurant’s market and cafe space for another concept. Now, residents and visitors have the distinct pleasure of choosing from two solid restaurants that sit within the same building. For wood-fired, seasonal dishes such as grilled flank steak with cilantro chimichurri, diners can head to La Brasa; for modern Italian tasting menus with plenty of homemade pasta, go for Fat Hen.
Tsurumen (Davis Square)
Ramen and college students are inseparable, which explains Tsurumen’s Tufts University backdrop. But the address isn’t the only reason this spot is a hit. Chef and owner Masuo Onishi, who opened Tsurumen’s first edition in Japan circa 2010, serves chewy-thin noodles and creamy broth in a casual, no-frills setting. The spicy tan tan ramen is a crowd favorite for its balanced flavors, an umami-rich blend of heat, chicken broth base with chile oil, ground pork, crisp bok choy, and spicy seasoning. While Boston has no shortage of Japanese soup shops—with wrap-around-the-block lines to prove it—Onishi’s large, Osaka-style bowls win rave reviews in the form of repeat diners.
Dalí (Somerville-Cambridge line)
The gray area where Cambridge ends and Somerville begins, dubbed “Camberville” by locals, is as fuzzy as one of Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist paintings. So it’s fitting that this neighborhood favorite, which opened in 1989, is named for the renowned Spanish artist. The Basque-accented plates pay homage to Dalí’s home country, featuring Catalonia tapas, ideal for sharing. Dalí is a date-night standby for its intimate tables and quirky setting—the upside down lamps make great conversation starters, for instance. But it’s the restaurant’s heartwarming origin story (the owners visited banks all over Boston to secure loans and painted and sewed the interiors themselves) that makes it a revered local icon.
Lower Mills Tavern (Lower Mills)
Lower Mills Tavern has all the trappings of a classic Boston pub: Stellar wings, live Irish music, and burger and beer specials. But it stands out from its fellow bars and attracts the area’s young families for its thoughtful perks, including a commitment to local sourcing and a dedicated kids’ menu. There’s plenty of clam chowder for traditional palates, but pub grub gets a sophisticated spin here with inventive plates such as braised lamb shank, Atlantic cod Provençal, and a vegan-friendly roasted acorn squash with onion jam.
Yellow Door Taqueria (Mission Hill)
Ken Casey has plenty of fans as frontman for the Celtic punk band, Dropkick Murphys. But the native Bostonian scored more admirers thanks to his clutch of Yellow Door Taqueria restaurants. The latest edition is an intimate, 28-seat dining room in Mission Hill, joining a South End spot and the flagship Dorchester location. Each is designed by Taniya Nayak, whose Boston-based design firm has been featured on HGTV and the Food Network. Despite the big names it’s linked to, Yellow Door is an approachable, neighborhood hangout highlighting casual Mexican street food such as elote nachos, and tacos, which come in chile duck and scallop frito versions. Don’t miss the tequila and mezcal list, featuring 90-plus varieties in unique flavors including cucumber and pineapple.
Carley Thornell-Wade is a Boston-based food, travel, and technology writer who’s been to more than 70 countries and delighted in tasting the regional delicacies of each.
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