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The Best of Boston

The city's famed puritanical streak seems to have faded to a barely visible smudge. Although a blue law or two survive--no liquor is sold on Sundays, for example--Boston is rife with opportunities for indulgence. Stylish luxury hotels are cropping up alongside the old-world, jacket-and-tie classics. A wealth of restaurants, from innovative to ethnic, are luring visitors away from clam chowder and boiled dinners.There's also great shopping, happening bars, and smoking jazz. Of course, the ur-American landmarks still stand, next to the gorgeous parks and outdoor cafés that give the city the air of a European capital. So pick your pleasure. Fun is no longer banned in Boston.

WHERE TO EAT

THE HOT TABLES

  • No. 9 Park 9 Park St.; 617/742-9991; www.no9park.com; dinner for two $120. Boston Brahmins and their progeny are flocking to Barbara Lynch's subtly sophisticated dining room for food that's rich, rich, rich--and divine, from the prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras to the crispy duck with Bing cherries.
  • Radius 8 High St.; 617/426-1234; www.radiusrestaurant.com; dinner for two $110. The canteen of the New Economy crowd is circular (get it?), modern (cool grays, contemporary art), and fabulous, with a menu of creative Continental fare (oxtail ravioli and celery-root crème fraîche) as finely tuned as the surroundings.
  • The Federalist 15 Beacon St.; 617/670-1500; www.xvbeacon.com; dinner for two $160. Think expense account. Foie gras on gingerbread with cherries is plenty good, but it's the setting that really counts: mahogany-lined walls, busts of founding fathers, and silver chandeliers make the XV Beacon hotel's dining room the best-looking one in town.
  • Blue Ginger 583 Washington St., Wellesley; 781/283-5790; dinner for two $90. The most talked-about restaurant in the Boston area right now isn't even in Boston--it's in suburban Wellesley, a 25-minute cab ride from downtown. Chilean sea bass marinated in sake is the can't-miss item on Ming Tsai's East-West fusion menu, but trust us: it's all spectacular.

THE CLASSICS

These erstwhile trendsetters are now members of the Establishment, but that doesn't mean they're not going strong. Lydia Shire's Biba (272 Boylston St.; 617/426-7878; dinner for two $85) still draws a loyal following to the swank Adam Tihany-designed room that looks as fresh as it did in 1990. The stellar Asian-French food at Back Bay's Ambrosia on Huntington [This restaurant is now closed] proves fusion is far from over. Hamersley's Bistro (553 Tremont St.; 617/423-2700; www.hamerslysbistro.com; dinner for two $90), the French-American standby that put the South End on the map in 1987, is better than ever, even compared with the worthy competitors that have sprung up around it. Among those newcomers: Truc [This restaurant is now closed], the low-key favorite that's matured into a great one with a market-fresh French-Mediterranean menu. Innovative Asian knockout Salamander reopens next month in a new location--with satay bar--at Trinity Place [This restaurant is now closed].

HOTEL DINING

The trend toward superb hotel dining may well have started in Boston. In fact, with some of the best restaurants found in hotels (the Federalist foremost among them), you'll see as many savvy locals at the tables as out-of-towners.

  • Aujourd'hui Four Seasons, 200 Boylston St.; 617/338-4400; dinner for two $120. Top-rated nouvelle cuisine with fabulous Public Garden views.
  • Anago [This restaurant is now closed] Less intimate (and confident) than it was in its original Cambridge location, Anago is still spot-on with its simpler dishes, such as wood-fired rack of lamb.
  • Ritz-Carlton Dining Room 15 Arlington St.; 617/536-5700; dinner for two $122. The city's most formal room has a menu that's far from stuffy, thanks to Mark Allen's fresh takes on French classicism.
  • Rialto Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge; 617/661-5050; dinner for two $100. Celebrated chef Jody Adams's never-boring Mediterranean cuisine is now paired with tango lessons on Thursday.
  • Clio Eliot Hotel, 370A Commonwealth Ave.; 617/536-7200; www.cliorestaurant.com; dinner for two $100. Leopard-print chic and New French fare.
  • Julien Restaurant Le Meridien Boston, 250 Franklin St.; 617/451-1900; dinner for two $100. Perfect-pitch French in a proper, subdued room.
  • Oak Room Fairmont Copley Plaza, 138 St. James Ave.; 617/267-5300; dinner for two $110. Steak, steak, steak, in the city's clubbiest space.

NEIGHBORHOOD GREATS

  • BEACON HILL Torch 26 Charles St.; 617/723-5939; www.bostontorch.com; dinner for two $84. A storefront bistro with more than pretty copper walls: Asian-spiced salmon tartare with wasabi rice impresses even the area's upper-crust crowd.
  • CAMBRIDGE Salts 798 Main St., Cambridge; 617/876-8444; dinner for two $80. Food & Wine named Steve Rosen one of the country's best new chefs in 1999; Eastern European--inflected dishes like golden trout flavored with dill and radish make this tiny place worth seeking out.
  • BACK BAY Parish Café & Bar 361 Boylston St.; 617/247-4777; www.parishcafe.com; lunch for two $25. Wait on line with the rest of Boston for a patio table and one of 21 unique sandwiches, each created by a different local chef. A standout: Chris Schlesinger's smoked ham and jack cheese on banana bread.
  • SOUTH END Aquitaine 569 Tremont St.; 617/424-8577; aquitaineboston.com; dinner for two $80. French bistro with a modern twist, done just as well as you'd expect from the owners of the superlative Metropolis Café across the street.
  • NORTH END Restaurant Bricco 241 Hanover St.; 617/248-6800; www.bricco.idevusa.com; dinner for two $84. The North End has always had the places to go for Italian food--good, hearty, and largely interchangeable. Bricco sets a new standard with its svelte design and beyond-red-sauce menu.

Best Brunch:

Harvest 44 Brattle St., Cambridge; 617/868-2255; www.the-harvest.com; brunch for two $58. Since reopening with a new muted, contemporary look, Harvest is once again the brunch spot of choice for Cambridge cognoscenti. Forget eggs Benedict: here the poached eggs sit atop biscuits and lobster hash.

Best Bakery

Hi-Rise Bread Co. 208 Concord Ave., West Cambridge, 617/876-8766; also at 56 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617/492-3003. Long a secret source for heavenly raisin-pecan loaves, potato bread, and babka. A second (more convenient) location has opened off Harvard Square. Great sandwiches too.

Best Foodie Corner

The intersection of Washington and Beacon Streets in sleepy Somerville, where you'll find not one but three gourmet meccas: Dalí Restaurant & Tapas Bar (415 Washington St.; 617/661-3254; www.dalirestaurant.com), longtime fun house for tapas and sangria; the whimsical Mediterranean newcomer Evoo (118 Beacon St.; 617/661-3866; www.evoorestaurant.com); and Panini [Now known as Toscanini & Sons] (406 Washington St.; 617/666-2770), where Harvard grad students get their scones and lattes.

Best Reasons to Find Cambridge's Inman Square

Chris Schlesinger's seafood classic East Coast Grill & Raw Bar (1271 Cambridge St.; 617/491-6568); super sushi at Jae's Café (1281 Cambridge St.; 617/497-8380); and a great, cheap breakfast at local institution S&S Restaurant & Deli (1334 Cambridge St.; 617/354-0777; www.sandsrestaurant.com).

Best Reason to Skip Legal Sea Foods

Kingfish Hall (Faneuil Hall, South Marketplace Bldg.; 617/523-8862), the new paean to fresh seafood at Faneuil Hall from Boston superchef Todd English.

Best Hotel Bar

Le Meridien's Julien Bar (250 Franklin St.; 617/451-1900), in a former Federal Reserve bank boardroom, now packs in the Financial District crowd for killer martinis and after-hours deal-making--proof that everything old is new again.

WHERE TO STAY

THE NEWCOMER

  • XV Beacon 15 Beacon St.; 877/982-3226 or 617/670-1500, fax 617/670-2525; www.xvbeacon.com; doubles from $395. Boston's most stylish boutique hotel, which opened in January, is a triumph of Federalist design updated for the 21st century, from the glass-cage elevators to the leather-lined walls, stainless-steel gas fireplaces, and spare, steel four-poster beds. The feel is that of a luxe pied-à-terre--which means smallish standard rooms and no views to speak of, but also unobtrusive service and a fleet of Mercedes S430's to chauffeur you around town.

THE OLD SCHOOL

  • Four Seasons Hotel 200 Boylston St.; 800/332-3442 or 617/338-4400, fax 617/423-0154; www.fourseasons.com/boston; doubles from $560. The exterior of this central business favorite is flavorless corporate modern, but inside it's all style: gleaming marble and fresh flowers, a near-perfect staff, and recently spruced-up Four Seasons-gone-New England rooms.
  • Ritz-Carlton Boston 15 Arlington St.; 800/241-3333 or 617/536-5700, fax 617/536-9340; www.ritz-carlton.com/hotels/boston; doubles from $445. Although a bit faded these days, the 1927 flagship of the Ritz-Carlton chain remains the city's classiest address, with stunning Public Garden views (ask for a suite ending in "09"), Newbury Street shopping just out the front door, and old-world grandeur.
  • Le Meridien Boston 250 Franklin St.; 800/543-4300 or 617/451-1900, fax 617/482-5684; www.lemeridien.com; doubles from $340. In a 1922 Renaissance Revival bank building with a modern glass mansard roof, the Financial District's premier hotel has anonymous decoration but smooth service and great views of Post Office Square (worth paying extra for).
  • Boston Harbor Hotel 70 Rowes Wharf; 800/752-7077 or 617/439-7000, fax 617/330-9450; www.bhh.com; doubles from $345. With expansive views, large rooms updated this year, a subdued atmosphere, and easy access to the airport via water taxi, the Boston Harbor almost makes you forget that its waterfront setting is somewhat out-of-the-way.
  • Fairmont Copley Plaza 138 St. James Ave.; 800/527-4727 or 617/267-5300, fax 617/247-6681; www.fairmont.com/copleyplaza; doubles from $229. Since being acquired by Fairmont in 1997 and totally renovated, the Back Bay's temple of gilt, mirrors, and crystal chandeliers has regained much of its luster, with over-the-top public areas and large, bright rooms.
  • The Lenox 710 Boylston St.; 800/225-7676 or 617/536-5300, fax 617/236-0351; www.lenoxhotel.com; doubles from $308. It's not as posh as the city's top hotels--expect anodyne furniture and floral-print comforters--but the redone Lenox has a warm atmosphere and a great Back Bay location.
  • Eliot Hotel 370 Commonwealth Ave.; 800/443-5468 or 617/267-1607, fax 617/536-9114; www.eliothotel.com; doubles from $255. Large suites furnished in typical floral-and-chintz country-house style and a hushed residential setting make up for a location that's near shopping if rather far from the center of town.

. . . and a B&B

  • Charles Street Inn 94 Charles St.; 877/772-8900 or 617/314-8900, fax 617/371-0009; www.charlesstreetinn.com; doubles from $240. A dangerously precious concept--each of the nine rooms is named for and decorated in the spirit of a local artist or writer--has been executed with panache in this 1840 town house on what is perhaps Boston's prettiest street.
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