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What is a "Bostony" experience and does it represent good chow?

Bob Dobalina Mar 6, 2008 07:57 AM

Seems I have seen this request on so many threads lately - My visiting relatives want to go to a "typical" Boston place. What is that exactly?

History tells me that "typical" Boston and good chow often did not often intersect.

My chowhound instinct tells me that the places generally regarded as "typical" Boston that still exist - Union Oyster House, Durgin Park, Anthony's Pier 4, No Name Restaurant, and the more recent Summer Shack - are not currently where a "typical" Bostonian EVER eats, except with said relatives, i.e., they are touristy places. Moreover, they represent some nostalgic, but warped vision of Boston that may have existed at one point, but certainly does not now. At least not for us hounds.

What really is "typical" Boston? Must it involve seafood? Chowda?
For me, it would be a place which, through the FOOD, and the ambience, I can get an accurate sense and even a connection with the people and heartbeat of a cross-section of our city - its sounds - its smells - its moods.

So my hope, hounds, is that we can re-define the paradigm of "typical" Boston and point some folks, respectfully, to this thread when the topic comes up in the future, to some more accurate FOOD choices.

To start off...I would suggest that Eastern Standard is "typical" Boston. Range of food, range of people - Sox to suits - chow that is not too adventurous, but very satisfying. The prices have a moderate range.

On the downbeat, for me, Santarpio's is also a great example.

Thoughts?

  1. l
    lulula Mar 9, 2008 06:31 PM

    Yes - drinks at the old Ritz bar (now the Taj) is a must!

    1 Reply
    1. re: lulula
      lipoff Mar 10, 2008 07:52 AM

      Great question! I think that there are a few types of places that I would put under this theme:

      1) No-nonsense "local" places:

      Santarpio's
      Mike's Roast Beef
      Charlie's Kitchen
      Bartley's Burger Cottage
      Cafe Pamplona
      Rosenfeld's Bagels

      2) Upscale Bostony Places

      Oleana
      Salts
      Oishii
      Ten Tables
      Cragie Street Bistrot
      Locke-Ober

      3) Best of Boston's Ethnic Restaurants

      Wang's Fast Food
      Fuloon
      Sichuan Gourmet
      El Pelon
      Tacos Lupita
      Mittapheap
      Asmara
      Helmand
      Reef Cafe

      Maybe my categories are a little subjective here, but I tried to come up with places that represent a food style or "vibe" that's very specific to its location.

    2. intheq Mar 9, 2008 05:28 PM

      local is open to many interpretations... i agree with posters about franklin cafe. there is a definite local feel there. green street grill is another low-key place that fits that mold. good food, good people and not over-the-top.

      if visitors are truly set on being tourists, it is off to the hingham lobster pound on 3a (seasonally dependent, of course). is true throwback and people will stand in line for an hour to get a plate of fried clams.

      1. b
        bachslunch Mar 9, 2008 01:41 PM

        One probably needs to define "typical." I'm thinking that means "food indigenous and/or unique to the area," and to me that's Yankee cooking and seafood -- the best available if not necessarily everyone's idea of "the ideal meal." In the immediate Boston vicinity (for me at least), the former means Locke-Ober for upscale and Durgin Park for downscale (or Green Street for a modestly updated wrinkle on this), while the latter means Neptune Oyster or B&G Oysters for moderate-to-upscale and places like Dolphin Seafood, Morse Fish, and Yankee Lobster for downscale (outside the area, one can hit spots in Ipswich and Essex).

        For me, that's important to know when I travel, as it'll be of very major interest. In Dublin, for example, that meant I made sure I hit a pub like Brazen Head and a restaurant like Gallagher's Boxty House (a few times for the latter, actually) -- traditional Irish stew, colcannon, boxty, and bacon and cabbage may not be everyone's idea of great food, but I'm not concerned about that. Unless it's a specialty of the area (like perhaps Italian or Portuguese cuisine here or Indian food in London), I'm usually less interested in hitting something I can get that's good in my home city. In short, I'm especially keen to have local cuisine or something I can't get at home.

        I may be a minority of one, but I find it helpful to know stuff like this. I'm planning a trip to London in the foreseeable future, and yes, I'm expecting to try stuff like fish and chips, treacle pudding, seafood pie, mushy peas, yorkshire pudding, spotted dick, a classic big breakfast complete with bubble and squeak and kidney, and maybe even jellied eels while I'm there -- and it doesn't matter if some Brits think it's bad school-dining-hall cuisine. I'll also make sure I have at least one Indian meal, as this is something they do really well there, notably better than what I can get at home. There may be some dynamite sushi and Thai spots there too, but I can get that in Boston. Maybe that makes me an anti-Chow cretin, but if so, that's the way it goes.

        1 Reply
        1. re: bachslunch
          applehome Mar 9, 2008 07:04 PM

          I agree. Regions, countries, cities are all known for specific foods for a reason - you will generally find the best versions of certain foods in those places. This may be because of indigenous ingredients, cultural heritage, climate, or a combination of complex reasons. The idea that we have become so homogeneous that we can ship anything anywhere and that the best of a particular food can be made in some random place in the world, is one that both goes against the current desire for ecological sustainability, and leaves people without the ability to have pride in a local product.

          We're saddled with lobsters, steamers, fried clams, cherrystones, wellfleets and yes - chowder - let's see what we can do with it, rather than try to invent a new heritage. If you have visitors that want great food and don't care about the local heritage, fine - bring them to a steak house (although, one should remember that porterhouse is named after porter square, a one-time famous place for beef processing). But people who think that steamers and a lobster aren't truly delicious fare - well I would guess that you guys would root for the Yankees or God forbid, the Giants.

          In the old days, my parents used to take all visitors to the Willow Pond Kitchen in Concord. Then to Legal's in Inman Square (in the paper plates and chalkboard days). I don't know what's as good any more. Summer Shack has been a disappointment for us at least 2 times, and that's about the limit for me (without specific known reasons). No Name is no longer (in terms of quality - it's still there, but I don't know why).

          I actually had my brothers from NYC meet me in Quincy Market and the three of us sat at the Walrus and Carpenter and ate plate after plate of wellfleets and cherrys, then we headed over to the Salty Dog for a decent meal. I've also taken them to Neptune, B&G, ECG, and The Daily Catch - but those aren't "traditional", other than that they are seafood. If a relative or friend comes for a visit looking for the true local heritage food experience, I'm not going to tell them that it's no longer lobster and chowder - I'm going to try and find the best example of that food for them - even if it's at my house. In the summer, I'm likely to cook lobsters, steamers, corn and chowder on my deck.

          The best chowder I ever had was a regular event on the Captain's Lady, a charter bottom fishing boat that leaves form the northern point of Plum Island. Back in the day when we would actually catch lots of cod and haddock, people would volunteer some of their catch to the beer counter lady, who would cook as fresh a chowder as is possible, on the way in - salt pork, onions, potatoes, butter, milk and fish - lots of it. Wow. My home made is really good - but that one holds a special place in my memory.

        2. steinpilz Mar 9, 2008 12:50 PM

          ECG, ESK, Bartleys, and Regina, are all good choices. Legal Seafood is very "Bostony," and pretty good, even though it is a chain. I think Miracle of Science, with it's lab bench tables, is a pretty good and unique tribute to the Boston science scene. The Burren is a pretty good Boston Irish pub. Cafe Vittorio is a classic in the North End. What would be iconic for Chinatown?

          3 Replies
          1. re: steinpilz
            kobuta Mar 10, 2008 07:57 AM

            I'd nominate King Fung Garden. While there may be other Chinese restaurants elsewhere who can make an equally good peking-style duck, I think the "atmosphere" (read: space the size of a shoebox, the feel of decor from from the early 80s, amongst other things) combined makes it uniquely Boston.

            1. re: kobuta
              steinpilz Mar 10, 2008 10:30 AM

              I thought of King Fung, also Peach Farm, then thought it might be a bit extreme for tourists. Then I thought Grand Chau Chow, but I decided I'd just leave it open.

              1. re: steinpilz
                kobuta Mar 11, 2008 10:44 AM

                As much as I like them, I don't find Peach Farm and Grand Chau that different from good Chinese restaurants in other cities though (major cities with a decent Chinese population, that is). Maybe to the folks in Peoria, but certainly not to someone from San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Toronto, etc.

          2. n
            nightsky Mar 9, 2008 08:09 AM

            I second Franklin Cafe. Good food with a very local non-touristy vibe, and out of towners i've brought enjoy walking around the neighborhood. Beacon Tavern is similar, though I think it's pricey for what you get. Audubon Circle is another good one. (I'm partial to these two because they are so near my apt.) Some ethnic places feel very Boston to me, e.g. India Quality and Cafe Brazil.

            I wish I could like Eastern Standard but it feels very cavernous, chain-like and suburban to me. Kind of ersatz in the way Maggiano's is. Maybe I'll feel different when the Kenmore bus station is completed so patio dining will be more enjoyable.

            1. e
              Elyssa Mar 7, 2008 07:11 PM

              When I took my boyfriend to my home town of Boston for the first time this summer I took him to 3 places that scream Boston to me---a great Italian restaurant in the North End (we went with Il Panino), a pizza lunch at Figs, and the Revere Beach Kelly's for a late night lobster roll. (We also had a Fenway frank at a Sox game, but that's not always available).

              1. Rabbit Mar 7, 2008 12:34 PM

                Love this question... I'm a recent-ish part-time transplant to southern NH (if that makes any sense), and I've been slowly introducing myself to Boston over the past couple of years. I've had some great experiences eating in Boston, but the ones that come to mind as most Boston-seque (the spots where I want to take my friends and family when they come to visit the NH house) are:

                1. Eastern Standard - before I even got to the end of your post Bob/Dob, I was already thinking ESK. I dunno exactly what it is about the spot... Sox fans, raw bar, just the feeling??... but there's a very Boston-y vibe here IMHO.
                2. Locke-Ober - I don't think it's the most excellent spot, but it's old-worldness (even stuffy-ness) is pilgrim-cool (Indian pudding!!). I like it despite the food.
                3. The North End - I don't have a favourite here yet, but the area is really special and unique (if kinda tourist-y).
                4. The bar at the Taj (formerly the Ritz) - cocktails overlooking the Common... never gets old.
                5. Central Kitchen - I can't exactly explain why... just like I can't exactly say why ESK feels like Boston... it just does... maybe because it's the kind of place where I would be a reg if I lived in Boston (and it's that kind of feeling that makes me feel like I've caught a bit of what typical Boston might be like).

                1 Reply
                1. re: Rabbit
                  Bob Dobalina Mar 7, 2008 01:49 PM

                  Thanks, Rabbit. I know what you mean about CK - I have the same feeling about River Gods - The good chow + communal atmosphere + youth + vegetarian chow + good drinks = Boston (at least for the 21-35 age range)

                2. kobuta Mar 7, 2008 05:06 AM

                  I agree. "Typical Boston" really means tourist stereotype of what they think Bostonians eat, when in fact our eating habits aren't that different from the rest of the country. The only thing I find truly Bostony (or New Englandy) is the summer seafood shack - something a lot of locals look forward to and I've found hard to replicate outside of the region. My faves are the typical mentions on this board, including Tony's Clam Shop in Quincy (closer to me) and e the likes of Woodman's (boo all you want) and the others up in Essex.

                  1. gansu girl Mar 6, 2008 04:19 PM

                    Bob, you have eloquently described my plight - this is exactly the problem we face regularly with out of town visitors - my firm belief is that "Bostony" and "Chowish" do not intersect.

                    One of the reasons we love Chowhound is exactly what you're suggesting here - when we travel, we want to experience a destination through its food. That's the way I was raised - a family whose first question when you returned from a trip (and we are world travelers, all) was "what did you eat?" And it was presumed you'd dug up all the back-ally, hole-in-the wall, authentic locations you could muster. In the "old days" it involved a lot of trial and error, unless you knew some like-minded folks in the area. Nowadays, thank goodness, there're local Chowhound boards.

                    But that's the problem. For us, much my husband's side of the family defaults to "Disney Boston" or really "Disney anywhere." They explicitly do not want to go somewhere w/unfamiliar ingredients on the menu or unfamiliar looking people dining nearby . . . .

                    So if there's anywhere around here where the two do intersect, please make a note, someone, please!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: gansu girl
                      t
                      taxi Mar 6, 2008 04:39 PM

                      For the familiar kinds of people and food, I would suggest the Continental on Route 1 in Saugus. For Bob's and Gansugirl's relatives, it has been around for years and years and looks the same as it did 35 years ago! Plus, they, I am sure, would love all the 'free' apps they come around with before dinner.
                      Also, Bob, I thought of the Warren Tavern in Charlestown as it is very historical as the old boys used to down a few there many eons ago! Have fun.

                      1. re: taxi
                        chowciao Mar 7, 2008 07:15 AM

                        I used to love those popovers! Now that brings back memories...hmmm..may have to make a little trip north o' boston! :-)

                        1. re: chowciao
                          gini Mar 7, 2008 07:23 AM

                          the popovers served at Legal's Sunday brunches are actually really great.

                      2. re: gansu girl
                        Bob Dobalina Mar 7, 2008 10:43 AM

                        I hear ya, Gansu. Luckily, my finnicky eaters are partial to Italian, so even if I lose, I WIN!

                      3. c
                        cheesenose Mar 6, 2008 03:26 PM

                        I think the oysters and lobster roll for lunch at B&G are some especially good bostony fare - exposes people to the south end (and ain't too far from the copley/newbury touristy visuals)... then make your way through the liberty trail stopping at several pubs along the way, and end up having dinner in the north end (we like luca's)

                        1. m
                          mvi Mar 6, 2008 11:39 AM

                          Great topic. (Elsewhere in MA., we have the same issue on Martha's Vineyard where every visitor wants to go to The Black Dog as soon as they step off the boat. The Black Dog is not known for its innovative food in the local community.)

                          I wonder if it is a combination of marketing, history and the desire of the visitor to embrace local culture as they see it? So, if they are visiting Boston from out of town, where can they go that will be fun to talk about when they get home in terms of a really true Boston experience? Even if they say they went and did not like it.....The experience may be just as important as the chow.

                          Maybe some of us become less fastidious when we travel, hoping to embrace the local ambiance and lowering our standards a bit as we share brief time with family and explore a new place?

                          As someone who likes good food and the experience that goes along with the discovery, that is one reason I like Chowhound so much. I can dig a little deeper when I travel, asking others for their advice about places that may be under the radar.

                          Lots of people want to experience chowder, lobster, Boston Cream Pie and Fenway Franks when they come to Boston, for sure. I know that sometimes when I meet out of town friends in Boston and do the typical tourist thing, I sometimes have unexpected fun with the whole chowda thing, even if it's not my usual fare. I even do the duck boats with them.......But I do not quack.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: mvi
                            yumyum Mar 6, 2008 11:52 AM

                            Your comment about the Black Dog reminds me of all the business that Cheers does, selling t-shirts mainly.

                            Your points are well taken. When I travel I want to eat what the locals eat, not at a Faneuil Hall-like Disney food court -- chowhound helps with food research, and I just posted a Mexican find on that board to add to the collective database.

                            When I'm hosting, I might succumb to the wishes of my guests and we hit up the summer shack and enjoy the lobster tanks. And going to the Daily Catch and then grabbing a pastry at Modern is a lot of fun with visitors but not something I'd do on my own.

                            But we all have our different hopes for people visiting our city ... I assume if they are looking here that they are 80%** likely to want some "off the radar" food. Otherwise they'd be looking on Zagats and yelp.

                            Bottom line: I think if someone is looking for a DisneyBoston experience, that's fine. They'll find plenty of sites to help them find that. Here we try to point folks to chowish food and hope they post back their experiences. Sometimes they do and that makes it all worthwhile.

                            ** Disclaimer, I know we get our influx of one-time posters who somehow found the site, but I'm giving generous benefit of the doubt.

                            1. re: mvi
                              l
                              lergnom Mar 6, 2008 02:15 PM

                              More of a question, but do people there remember the original dog(s)? They used to hang out in back. We played with them. You can guess how old I am.

                            2. l
                              lergnom Mar 6, 2008 10:44 AM

                              Though my posts tend to be shorter than many others here, I've often noted that Boston is neighborhoods and that one can best grasp the various truths of this place through true neighborhood places. These places often don't involve particularly good food - e.g., Doyle's in JP, which is a treasure but for the ambiance of the old barroom and for the local crowds.

                              Many people when they travel are interested in places locals eat on ordinary days. An example is The Paramount on Charles Street or Charlie's Kitchen in the South End but not on a Saturday.

                              Most people don't appreciate good food. Most don't particularly care about local burrito arguments and would much prefer standing in line at Anna's to Lupita's because the former is an experience of a crowd in a city of young people and young families.

                              When I'm in Dallas, for example, I go to a couple of old places from the 50's, old roadhouse places where the food is basic and the crowd is all either Texans or people who have genuinely put down roots. When I go to my family's home in Florida, I go to the Main Bar, which has been serving sandwiches since 1958 and has autographed pictures of circus performers on the wall.

                              So for a lot of people Eastern Standard, which is a pretty good place, isn't a "place" that says much about Boston. The true charm of Durgin-Park, on the other hand, is that despite decades of rampant mall-ism it is still Durgin-Park and when you sit at the tables you know that you have entered a place.

                              As for food, I've long contended that Boston's true culinary culture has been mediocre food prepared without much care, a land of overcooked schrod and indifferent produce. This culture of not caring much about food was deeply, deeply ingrained and we've seen significant erosion only in the last decade or so.

                              1. m
                                mr mangia Mar 6, 2008 10:32 AM

                                Here is one from my Umass days. A "Cheeseburg Sub" ! Not a Cheeseburger Sub (which I think is weird anyway) but you have to leave off the er at the end of the word. This would also relate to a "Hamburg Pizza". Since I did not grow up in MA I thought a Hamburg Pizza was something unique to Germany. If those don't work there is always the ubiquitous Chicken Broccoli Ziti or Scallops wrapped in Bacon". Having said that, all these things taste good but they just annoy me sometimes !!!!!

                                1. b
                                  boppiecat Mar 6, 2008 09:56 AM

                                  small detail but my personal rule of thumb. if a menu lists "chowda" as opposed to chowder i know i'm not dealing with the genuine deal. it's a cutesy faux appeal to regionalism that irks me as a native bay stater. it's a pitch to tourists. a kind of parody that rarely bodes well for the food. but that's just me. i wish i could come up with some great, authentic dining options for you but - my POV - the truest new england "dining experience" is an oceanside lobster shack.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: boppiecat
                                    BarmyFotheringayPhipps Mar 6, 2008 10:13 AM

                                    Exactly. Ditto "lobstah." Seeing either of those on a menu is an iron-clad guarantee that your meal is gonna suck. Although personally, I think the clam shack is more canonically New England than the lobster pound, but that's only because I prefer clams to lobster.

                                    I'm sure I've told this story here before, but I once found myself in an ongoing battle with a regular on another food site who repeatedly insisted that Boston's streets were paved with restaurants that served fishcakes, baked beans and brown bread, and that it was the canonical meal of Boston. I gently pointed out that in fact this was not a combination you were likely to see on local menus anymore (you see places that have fishcakes, and places that have baked beans and brown bread, but not both), he went absolutely bonkers and spent the rest of the (brief) time I spent as a regular there attacking me personally for not appreciating the local cuisine of my home.

                                    The kicker is that this was a guy from New Jersey who once admitted that the last time he'd been in Boston was 1983. But he just KNEW that one every street corner in Boston, there was a diner that served fishcakes, baked beans and brown bread!

                                  2. lissy Mar 6, 2008 09:55 AM

                                    This is a fun question Bob. My idea of a typical Boston experience is to show friends and family what is typical to me. That means taking them to all of the places where I like to go. Lucky for me, my friends and family who visit are always willing to go along with the program. I've taken my family to Hong Kong Eatery for wonton noodle soup (just had that for lunch today, yum), Vinny's at Night, B&G, Butcher Shop, Franklin Cafe, Via Matta. All of these places have gone over well and all represent places that I like to go regularly.

                                    1. yumyum Mar 6, 2008 09:27 AM

                                      I think you can find an intersection between Boston-y AND good food but you need to be houndly. But then, why else would you be here?

                                      For example, many of my out of town guests enjoy the oysters at Union Oyster House, but I wouldn't make them eat a whole meal there. Our North End is unique to Boston, and much better than the little Italy's elsewhere. But again you must be selective. We have a tiny Chinatown which pales in comparison to other cities, but guests have always enjoyed Peach Farm when they want that kind of food.

                                      Other places that usually get the visitor nod are East Coast Grill Grill, which I consider typical Cambridge. Bartley's Burger cottage is typically Harvard. Summer Shack for the Jasper-groupies, etc. The cafe at the Gardner museum is another good call, gini, especially if it's a visiting mom or aunty. And then it depends on who your guests are. Friends from college like to visit B-side with me. Friends from New York dig our Portuguese offerings. I think there's something in the "read this first" document that helps to orient people to our neighborhoods and other FAQs but we don't remember to point people there often enough, IMO.

                                      1. p
                                        Pegmeister Mar 6, 2008 08:52 AM

                                        For me "typical" Boston would be a slice of pizza at Regina's, maybe that's because it was the scene of my very first date and all these many years later I can still go in and experience the same flavors. The only difference now is I can sit at the bar! Speaking of bars, Pete's Pub was a great Boston dive bar. The type of place where you could get a cheap beer and a hot dog that had been on the steamer all day. Renamed Durty Nellies it still brings in a variety of people from all over but it lacks it's once "charming atmosphere". Depending on the day you can even get an Irish breakfast there. Typical Boston is difficult to define, but I think everyone would agree that a hot dog at Fenway qualifies.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Pegmeister
                                          gini Mar 6, 2008 09:00 AM

                                          Good call on Regina's, Pegmeister.

                                          1. re: Pegmeister
                                            9
                                            9lives Mar 6, 2008 10:09 AM

                                            1 of my favorite "Boston experiences" and 1 I always do when I've been out of town for a while is 1/2 dozen clams at Haymarket followed by a slice of Haymarket Pizza and or Umberto's. Oysters at the bar at Union Oyster House.

                                            At the other end of the spectrum, lunch at Locke Ober is right up there.

                                            These (to me) are unique to Boston experiences..that represent good chow.

                                            Pizzeria Regina is always a hit..and if my out of town friends are from cities without vibrant Chinatowns or Italian communities..the North End or Chinatown is a treat..Neptune for high quality, Daily Catch for a unique atmosphere. Plenty of options in CTown.

                                          2. gini Mar 6, 2008 08:47 AM

                                            That's an interesting inquiry, Bob. I still don't understand why people don't take their out of town relatives to restaurants that just serve good food. That's what mine always ask for and that's where we go. Trattoria Toscona, Namaskar, the Cafe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Gargoyles have all been really well received.

                                            Bruni just noted that O Ya is an experience one can't get in NYC - does that make it typically Boston?

                                            I think Craigie Street Bistrot is a typical Cambridge sort of place - higher end cuisine in a relaxed, almost academic atmosphere; a focus on locally raised, seasonal food; simple yet perfectly executed concepts; and a neighborhood restaurant to boot.

                                            On another note - what about Locke Ober?

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: gini
                                              Bob Dobalina Mar 7, 2008 11:22 AM

                                              I like your thought about Locke Ober but hard for me to say it is "typical." Historic, definitely. :D Definitely about as close one can get to the crossroads of history and good chow.

                                              1. re: Bob Dobalina
                                                m
                                                mvi Mar 7, 2008 01:00 PM

                                                Although I can not personally comment on the food, this comment makes me think of the Oak Room for drinks as part of the Boston experience.

                                              2. re: gini
                                                applehome Mar 7, 2008 01:27 PM

                                                Has Bruni reviewed O Ya yet? I just saw the 3/5 article about Guy Savoy, Coi and Fraiche, but haven't seen the write up on O Ya. I can't believe that he would say that this level of food wasn't available in NYC. It is most certainly anything but typical for Boston.

                                                1. re: applehome
                                                  finlero Mar 7, 2008 01:32 PM

                                                  The review hasn't run yet, meaning O Ya was in Bruni's top five for the trip.

                                                  He was careful to say that it's not about food of a certain "level", but rather about variety and fresh perspective. From the first article:

                                                  "My trip didn’t shake my conviction that New York is the finest restaurant city in the nation, with an unrivaled range and depth of options. But it was a fresh reminder of all the exciting dining experiences that aren’t duplicated here, and it was a challenge to the smug superiority New Yorkers sometimes feel."

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