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Jun 9, 2009 11:24 AM

For a city it's size, Boston has respectable Chow [moved from Boston board]

Found this ranking of U.S. cities by population, and considering the size of Boston we do pretty darn well chow-wise compared with most cities with comparable population:

In fact compared to quite a few cities with several times our size, we still hold our own.

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  1. That's at least partly because city population is not a good measure of Boston's size. The city of Boston is a much smaller part of the metro area than most "main cities" are in the US. Boston did not expand as much as other cities, so there are more large secondary cities/suburbs in the area (for example: Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, Somerville) than there are in many other cities of comparable size. Consider, for example the city of El Paso (606,913), which is larger than the city of Boston (599,351) in population. However, there is no comparison in the size of metro areas - Boston (4,522,858) dwarfs El Paso (734,699). Of course the large population of the greater Boston area is likely to support more chow.

    A more useful comparison is of metropolitan area sizes:

    Boston can more reasonably be compared to Miami, Atlanta, Washington DC, Detroit, Phoenix, and San Francisco-Oakland, to name a few of comparable size (all between 4 and 5.5 million people). Boston has its chow strengths and weaknesses, and it probably holds its own with some of the similarly-sized cities, but I don't think its the best in its size class. I'd definitely take SF and DC over Boston. I wouldn't say that it outperforms its size the way New Orleans does (or at least did, pre-Katrina).

    17 Replies
    1. re: overproofed

      This list, which reflects the conventional wisdom and has a big-city bias in the formula, puts us ninth:

      1. re: overproofed

        I don't think that is a fair breakout of beantown including as it does Worcester, Manchester, NH and RI. No Bostonian would consider any of those part of "Greater Boston." I'd certainly give SF the edge, but NOT DC.

        1. re: StriperGuy

          No Bostonian would use the term "beantown"

          1. re: PaulB

            Not sure I agree, but I guess I am busted, though I have lived in Boston quite a while I am originally from a large city to our south ;-).

            1. re: StriperGuy

              Would that be New Bedford or Fall River?

              1. re: StriperGuy

                Don't feel bad. I've lived here all my life and never used "Beantown", but Mayor Mumbles recently has.

            2. re: StriperGuy

              Actually, the 4.5 million figure is for the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy MSA, which does not include Manchster, Nashua, Providence, or Worcester. The Boston-Worcester-Manchester CSA (which includes all of those cities) is much larger - 5th in the US, putting it right between Baltimore-Washington and the Bay Area. Still, even the smaller government-defined metro areas doesn't represent exactly what most local residents might consider "Greater Boston". However, the same is true of the other metro areas in the list. They tend to be broader than what residents consider to be part of the central area. These numbers do provide one "apples to apples" type of comparison though, and give an idea of the population base that a city can draw upon to fuel its chow scene.

              My post was not trying to imply that the Boston MSA was the necessarily best way to measure population, but rather to make the point that city population is particularly misleading in the case of Boston - as the comparison with El Paso shows. You will find the same if you look at many other US cities of similar size. Even if you just included the suburbs inside 93/95/128, the Boston area would be much, much larger than the El Paso metro area. In fact, just including Cambridge and Somerville would push the totals past the entire El Paso metro area.

              1. re: overproofed

                I would love to know the 93/95/128 number cause that is really what I think of as greater Boston.

                1. re: StriperGuy

                  Yeah, I suspect many folks -- myself included -- think "inside 128" when speaking of Greater Boston.

                  1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                    I could see a case made for either 128 or 495. Being a city snob now, I tend to think 128 (if that), but i've also thought 495 at various times in the past.

                  2. re: StriperGuy

                    I don't think that's quite a fair boundary either, since there are plenty of suburbs outside of 128 that are clearly part of the Boston/Cambridge sphere of influence. Where do you think that most people in Needham, Wellesley, Weston, Lincoln, Braintree, or similar suburbs work and eat - inside or outside of what you would consider to be the "Boston area"?

                    In my experience, people who live in a central city often have a very narrow (and skewed) idea of the actual reach of that city. I'm not implying anything negative by this, just that people who live in the central area don't think about going out to the "sticks" to eat/drink, because there just isn't much reason; they sometimes forget that people in the "sticks" often head into the city. Ask a Manhattan resident about northern New Jersey, western Long Island, or Westchester County, and they probably will have a similar reaction. Actually, you could probably get the same reaction asking about parts of Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island. However, that doesn't change the fact that the large urban and suburban population surrounding the city contributes to the numbers and types of businesses that can be supported.

                    Look at the Boston board, and you will see quite a few posts about restaurants outside of 128 (it's almost summer - try looking at clam shack threads) - both made by people who live in the suburbs and those who live in the city, but venture outside once in a while.

                    Remember, a dining scene can be supported indirectly by people who live and work outside of the central city - even if they never come into town. Workers for restaurants may live in suburbs where they wouldn't live unless there were local businesses and development to support them. And those businesses may be run by people who live farther out of the city, and who rarely dine in the "big city". It's a complicated system, and, while MSA's aren't perfect, they do follow a standard set of rules that allow reasonable cross-area comparisons.

                    The true reach of the Boston "dining" area is probably dependent to a large extent on transportation options - it probably stretches farther out close major roads (the Pike, 93, 95, Rte. 9, Rte. 2, Rte. 3) that offer relatively easy access to the central city, and is probably more compact where transportation is harder to come by. Unfortunately, that's hard to measure and define, so you're not likely to get an accurate count. Moreover, to compare apples to apples, you'd have to follow the same methodology for all the other cities in the country - the number for Greater Boston inside 128 would not be meaningful unless you had something to compare it to.

                    1. re: overproofed

                      But "greater Boston" and "Boston metro area" are slightly different, although equally nebulous, terms. "Greater Boston" implies a central area that's ringed by burbs and satellite towns, while "Boston metro area" groups them all together. No one is disputing that Wellesley et al are part of the Boston metro area, but they don't really count as greater Boston.

                      Although I know what you're saying. I've heard people on these boards moan about going "all the way out to Allston" to a restaurant, despite the fact that Allston (unlike Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, etc.) actually IS Boston in a legal/political sense.

                      1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                        You can quibble about definitions all day - and since there is no giant moat around the Hub of the Universe, you're unlikely to come up with a single definition that pleases everyone. I'm pretty sure that if you asked someone in Wellesley or Needham if they were in Greater Boston, they would answer yes. The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau lists places in Concord and even Ipswich. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has members in places like Wellesley and Braintree. It's not an official place, so there is no one single definition. You may know what Greater Boston means to you, but that's not the same as knowing what it means to everyone else in the area.

                        In any case, debating definitions of nebulous place names has little to do with chow - and even less to do with what areas actually contribute significantly to the chow scene in Boston. I'm positive that the cities and towns outside of 128 are a factor in the dining scene just because so many people live there, and come into the city for various reasons. They may not dine in the city as much as someone who lives in the Back Bay, but there are a lot of them, and even occasional trips by such a large group can add up.

                        Regardless of whether you agree with any particular definition, I think you can probably agree that city populations are incredibly misleading. If you have ever been to Memphis, El Paso, Milwaukee, Louisville, or Nashville, I'm pretty sure you will agree that they do not really belong in Boston's peer group with respect to size, despite the similarities in city populations. Does anyone think that the Jacksonville, FL area is really more than 33% larger than Boston?

                        Valid comparisons across cities are not easy. Looking at where Boston is in the MSA and CSA lists, my feeling is that Boston performs about where it should based on size. It's not a culinary wasteland, but it's not a New Orleans type of overachiever (1.1 million in the metro area) either. Boston is strong in some areas compared to many cities of similar size (Seafood, Italian and some Asian cuisines come to mind), but is relatively weak in others (Mexican, anyone? How about central or eastern Europe, outside of Russia?). One thing Boston has going for it is a relatively low percentage of national chains, and a relatively high percentage of locally-owned restaurants. I'm nearly always underwhelmed by the preponderance of truly mediocre chains in most American cities.

                        P.S. If you really want to know, the population inside 128 is very close to 2 million (maybe 1.9, maybe 2.1). I don't think that will help you much with comparisons unless you can find numbers for similar regions of other cities.

                        1. re: overproofed

                          "You can quibble about definitions all day - and since there is no giant moat around the Hub of the Universe, you're unlikely to come up with a single definition that pleases everyone."

                          actually, the expansion of the city was severely limited by the charles and the atlantic, so it didn't sprawl off and out like many more modern cities-- cities where residents think nothing of driving 30 minutes just to grocery shop. our population is relatively dense, but the city planners have always had a height phobia too, so we never really went "up", either, like a lot of other cities.

                          thankfully that building density is what keeps out most chains -- they usually can't fit their footprint for a viable franchise.

                          the bridge and tunnel crowd may work in-town, but they are not the ones supporting smaller restaurants in boston, or cambridge, and what many here on chow would consider the local dining *scene*. those are the peeps driving into town on weekends, for a "special" dinner -- anniversary, birthday, what have you -- and spending at the higher-end spots that get lots of press, like no. 9 and clio. they're not driving to my hood of east boston and supporting the gajillion joints that make damn good pupusas for short money.

                          our city has also been largely defined by its waves of immigrants. we don't have a lot of mexicans, so no, we don't have taco trucks on every corner. those kinds of complaints are both tiresome and disingenuous. i'm not going to memphis and expecting day-boat lobster, ya know?

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            Yes, there's a giant moat to the east, but none to the north, west, or south. Saying that building area has been limited by the Atlantic is disingenuous at best. Chicago has similar limitations to the east, and LA to the west, yet sprawl still happened. The Charles River is hardly a barrier to expansion - some of the areas of densest population are north of it. Moreover, the point about the moat was not about the city of Boston, but rather about what defines the Greater Boston area, and since no one advocated cutting Cambridge out of the "Boston dining scene," I think it's safe to forget about the Charles River as an issue.

                            Many American cities are as large as they are because they annexed neighboring communities and large tracts of unincorporated land - and continue to do so to this day. In contrast, Boston hasn't annexed any major pieces of land since 1874. For whatever reasons, the city of Boston has not expanded the way that many other cities have. However, the metropolitan area has expanded greatly, and that has a major effect on the entire economy, including the restaurant industry in the city.

                            I'm not sure you got my point about other areas supporting the local restaurant industry. "Support" is not always as direct as you seem to think. For example, not all of the workers in Boston restaurants live in Boston. Some live in suburbs like Quincy, Malden, Medford, and even Framingham, just to name a few. Without the large populations living in these areas - and without large numbers of non-restaurant jobs in the area - we might not have the same diversity or numbers of restaurants. Restaurant owners and investors do not all live in the city. Many people who live outside of the city work in the city and support small restaurants at lunchtime multiple times per week.

                            I think you also might be surprised by how often people from the "burbs" eat in central areas of the city. Not everyone drives in just for a special dinner. Other posts have mentioned that there aren't many good dining options in the burbs, that they tend to be overpriced for the quality, and that they don't think of the burbs as part of the local "dining scene". Guess what? People in the burbs already know that. Don't you think those people might have some motivation to come into the city? It's much more likely for a suburbanite to go to the city to eat than for a city dweller to go to the suburbs.

                            Many posts also seem to ignore the effect of having a very large population just outside of the central city. Consider Boston at 600,000 people (keeping in mind that parts of Boston, such as West Roxbury or Mattapan are effectively farther from the "dining scene" than many suburbs, given transportation routes). Then consider that the rest of the population inside 128 is about 1.4 million. Now, let's say (just picking a number) that people inside 128 visit restaurants in the city about 1/4 as often as people in Boston. That would still mean that Boston residents would only account for about twice as many restaurant visits as those suburbanites. Maybe 1/4 is high - and maybe not - but the point is that even relatively infrequent meals by a large population can have a big effect on the city. Of course, we also haven't even begun to consider the direct effects of the large number of people in the rest of the metro area.

                            It's certainly believable that many suburbanites patronize higher-end restaurants and miss the small neighborhood spots. (Then, again, have you ever checked out the Chinatown parking lots on weekends? It's not just city residents crowding the local parking lots with giant SUVs and minivans.) However, I see lots of posts on the Boston board about high-end restaurants, too - I don't think chow or the dining scene is specifically restricted to the low end. If we didn't have as many high end places with as much business (or as large of a local economy), I think you would see an overall decline on the middle and lower ends, too, since immigrants might be less likely to locate here and eventually start their own restaurants. I'm also willing to bet that if the Boston area weren't as large as it is, you wouldn't see as many tourists and business travelers here, which would also negatively impact numerous restaurants in the central areas.

                            The overall size of the Boston area has a big effect on the restaurant scene; it's not just the residents of the Back Bay, South End, and Allston/Brighton who keep the local economy going.

                            "our city has also been largely defined by its waves of immigrants. we don't have a lot of mexicans, so no, we don't have taco trucks on every corner. those kinds of complaints are both tiresome and disingenuous. i'm not going to memphis and expecting day-boat lobster, ya know?"

                            Sure, and the same is true for many other cities in the US and elsewhere. But who was complaining? I was just stating facts. The fact is that I can find better Mexican a lot of places, but I can also find better Italian in the Greater Boston area than I can in many other US cities. It's not a complaint; it's the truth. More to the point, I think I can find a wider variety of good food in New York or Chicago, which are bigger places with their own "waves of immigrants". I think that Boston beats them in some areas, but that's to be expected. Every place of a reasonable size, and some of very small size, can have local specialties and strengths. However, as far as outperforming in general, that's an entirely different question, and I don't really think Boston does. I think it performs about on a par with its relatively large size.

            3. Here's my theory: this town has been dominated by the salt, pepper, butter taste triumvirate for way too long. It stunted the development of a thriving chow scene, because the bulk of the population breaks a sweat when faced with mild salsa. We're the anti-umami, more mashed potatoes please city. Ok, maybe not compared to St. Paul . . . but for the east coast, I find Boston the most boring place to eat. Montreal kicks our butt. My hometown of New Have, population be damned, does a lot more with what it's got. Providence, too. Boston eating makes me kind of crazy -- avoiding the overpriced big plate of boring is a challenge. But, it has improved in the 15 years I've been here. And I am very grateful for that.

              As far as where the metro area extends -- sure, there are good places to eat outside of the city limits and within 128, or 495, and so on. But, in my experience, your chances of getting hosed -- with a big, overpriced plate of blah -- are much higher once you move beyond say, the reach of the T. Why? Because garlic mashed still makes a lot of menus go around. And stay in business.

              Anyone want to offer a more hopeful, non-numbers based view?

              15 Replies
              1. re: SpicyTea

                Providence. I know Providence well, and it has it's highlights, but to say it is better then Boston is just another case of Boston bashing. How many high end places in Providence of any note... 10, maybe. Funky ethnic, unless you are treking to Cranston, maybe another 10. The comparison borders on absurd.

                Montreal is a different story. And I don't know New Haven. But seriously I think people just like to bash Boston.

                1. re: StriperGuy

                  New Haven does have soon very tasty pizza.. I love the white clam at Frank Pepe's. But I wouldn't exactly call it a food mecca, unless you like the meatballs at Ikea..

                2. re: SpicyTea

                  For the record, I'd leave Cambridge and Somerville (and others) out of the anti-umami category. Boston proper - definitely. The ex-urbs - definitely.

                  1. re: Bob Dobalina

                    Excellent clarification.

                    The rest of y'all, well . . .
                    I'm not making a direct, place-by-place comparison of Providence or Portland or even New Haven to Boston. I'm saying that for their size, they kick up a lot of good stuff. Per capita. Ratio-wise.

                    There's great deli, pizza, pasta, Japanese, Indian and good old diner food in a 15 minute radius in New Haven. Has been for years. Check the NY Times, Roadfood, etc.. Providence, well, for me it's Italian that wows at every price point. Again, over time. Portland was a wasteland in my teens, now it pops out with Standard Baking & Fore St., Duck Fat, and a handful of new places I've only been to once per last year, but that seemed to be trying hard, and to care about our experience with them.

                    I consider a place a good food city when I think it's possible to trip over something good by accident -- in my experience, in the metro Boston area, this rarely leads to a killer prosciutto situation. More like a tater tot attack. Speaking generally.

                    I'm not bashing, I'm noticing. Clarifying. Wondering what you all think. Chowhound matters here -- it's the best way to find the good stuff between pot roast and potato pushers. Maybe the only way if the Globe -- hard to believe -- actually gets shuttered.

                    1. re: SpicyTea

                      I truly wonder if you've ever even been to Allston. Where exactly are our pot roast and potato places here?

                      1. re: SpicyTea

                        You aren't walking around the Seaport district are you? If the center of your navigation focuses on Anthony's Pier 4, you are missing a lot. I see a whole lot more signs for "Ye Olde Chowder Shoppe" type places near New Haven and Hartford than I ever do around Boston.

                        1. re: SpicyTea

                          Ya, you obviously don't hit Allston, East Boston, Dorchester, Lynn, Lowell, Chinatown, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, or even Brookline in your Boston Forays. Might help if you leave the Freedom Trail for 5 minutes and see what Boston really has to offer.

                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            Barmy, swap 'burger, fries, Bud on tap' in for pot roast as regards Allston. I know it's gotten better around there. But I don't see the hordes of burger joints suffering.

                            All those other places, though? Check my posts. Consider decaf.

                            1. re: SpicyTea

                              You mean other than the ones that have closed? Yes, Boston sucks, we get it. And yet you're still here.

                              1. re: SpicyTea

                                With this dreary weather we've been having, you went and got me in the mood for some pot roast and potaoes. While on the hunt, I'll make sure to stop into Deep Ellum for some icy cold Bud on tap, dood!

                            2. re: SpicyTea

                              As someone who dines out in the Boston area (by which, incidentally, I mean within reach of the public transit system, not out of urban snobbery but because I don't have a car), I'm trying to recall the last time I saw pot roast and potatoes on a menu...

                              1. re: SpicyTea

                                besides durgin park, who still serves pot roast? and other than tourists (or bringing some there) what bostonian eats at durgin park?

                                as much as i enjoy portland, there are a handful of places that are very good. i have had atrocious meals at others that got great press from roadfood and such. it's hardly a culinary nirvana.

                            3. re: SpicyTea

                              your anti-umami rant was valid 20 years ago, which was when lydia shire opened biba and boston started to actually get great food. our diversity has also increased over these years, so blue-haired brahmins aren't the major dining force they once were.

                              but new haven? c'mon.

                              personally, i do agree that if the "t" doesn't go there, it stops being greater boston.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                Except that the "T" (on rails) does not go to Chelsea, most parts of Somerville and vast stretches of Roxbury and Dorchester, but that's a rant for another board entirely.

                            4. For their size, I think Portland ME and Charleston SC are both far superior to Boston, for its size.

                              Consider that those two cities are in the ballpark of Pawtucket (my hometown too), Cranston, and Warwick, RI, population-wise, what they have to offer is quite remarkable.

                              Obviously there are other factors at play, but just looking at population I rank those two small cities near the very top.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Bob W

                                Portland, ME is impressive for its size, but its size is small.. take Fore St. out of the mix, and then what? The Vegetarian Bistro? The comparison is like saying Ogunquit, ME is better than Boston because it has Arrows..

                                I love Portland, especially if its a lunch at Duck Fat on my way to get an afternoon lobster roll at Red's Eats, but I'll take being able to eat dinner at East Coast Grill or Craigie St. Bistro in a second..

                                1. re: grant.cook

                                  I agree, the comparison with Portland, like Providence, borders on ridiculous. Nevermind I have never been particularly impressed with ANY of the places in Portland with the exception of Duck Fat.

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    Are you taking Portland's Japanese restaurants into account? When comparing for quality/price/knowledgability/available options it is one area where I really think Portland exceeds Boston

                              2. Ugh, this is like, "The sports team from my area is superior to the sports team from your area." There's a reason these threads get shot or relegated to non-regional boards.

                                While it is true that Porland, ME, has some real virtues for a city its size (everyone's forgetting Hugo's), the issue of scale still holds. Bigger towns generally have more good options, as well as more mediocre places and more terrible places. I think if you're focused on good restaurants as your sole metric of a city's livability, than New York is better than Boston is better than Portland, ME. We all know there's more to it than that, but it's tough to argue the sheer numbers.

                                Now, if you want to argue Boston vs. certain cities of similar size, I'm happy to do that: I think our range and quality kicks the butt of that available in, say, Jacksonville or Columbus. I'm less sure of how well we stack up against Portland, OR or Seattle or Memphis, thanks to a dearth of recent visits. But even culinarily-benighted cities have their bright spots. I'm counting on you local Hounds to point them out to me when I visit your fair city. In the meantime, I will happily relieve you of your badly-dated stereotype of Boston as a "pot roast/potatoes" kind of town when you visit here.


                                1 Reply