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Nov 16, 2013 09:12 AM

Debunking Boston restaurant myths

It's incredibly hard to debunk a myth or change a reputation, even if at one point it was well deserved. I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of these myths and no-longer-deserved reputations in order to educate people on the CURRENT state of the Boston restaurant scene, not some outdated or never-existed state. Here's a few off of the top of my head. Obviously some will disagree with mine. Please add your own.

1. Boston doesn't have good Mexican food. Certainly this once was kinda true, but certainly no longer is. We may not be L.A., but if you want Mexican, we have some places to send you.

2. Boston is a great seafood town. If that's true, why do we have such crummy seafood restaurants? Of course you can get good seafood in numerous Boston-area restaurants, and the addition of places like Island Creek certainly have upped the ante, so maybe this myth is soon to become a reality!

3. Teatro is loud. Ok, the place is not quiet, but the addition of carpeting and acoustic ceiling tiles resolved the deafening noise problem years and years (and years) ago.

What else you got?

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  1. 1. Loud restaurants happen by accident; restaurateurs are surprised when their new places feature deafening noise levels that force customers to shout at peak periods.

    Truth: this is a deliberate design choice driven by economics. Customers don't camp on tables at noisy places, enabling an extra turn per service.

    2. Inexpensive traditional restaurants with modest dining rooms are dirty and put diners at higher risk of food-borne illness.

    Truth: you're just as likely to catch something unpleasant at a high-end restaurant, where dubious food-handling practices are equally common. This one especially sticks in my craw in reference to Chinatown.

    Okay, neither of those are Boston-specific, but they're pernicious nonetheless.

    18 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      Slim, I've seen you write this about dining room noise before (point 1 above), and while I'm sure there is some truth to it, as an acoustics professional I can tell you that loud restaurants very often happen by accident. Many restaurants are designed with the thought that they'll be pleasantly "lively," and the proprietors are surprised and disappointed when the result is louder than anticipated and their customers describe it as "deafening."

      Why does this happen? Because most restaurateurs and many architects simply don't know how to design a dining room to be not-too-loud and aren't willing to pay the relatively small fee to an expert to help them hit their target.

      Sometimes the accident is to our benefit, like at Bergamot, which inherited a high-ceilinged space and an acoustical tile ceiling which they touched up to look nice rather than removing. The result is a very nice sounding room, more or less by accident.

      I will name one dining room that I know was designed with acoustics in mind, and with very good results: ICOB. (I was not involved.)

      1. re: jajjguy

        But what about the restaurants that are have been deafeningly loud for years and years?

        1. re: jajjguy

          I have a tough time buying this notion of unintended noise if the restaurateur is not a first-timer.

          Aquitaine Group offers a good example: it built Gaslight, stealing a concept / design / website template from a famous New York restaurant (Balthazar) and created a punishingly loud restaurant. Then it built Cinquecento, stealing a concept / design from another famous New York restaurant (Maialino) and built another punishingly loud restaurant.

          Management claimed early on that it would "fix" Cinquecento to make it less deafening. A year later, I'm still waiting to see anything different on that score. I don't believe it's unintentional.

          1. re: MC Slim JB

            Do you have proof of these accusations that they stole architectural etc? That's a pretty rough thing to post, unless the Aquitaine Group has admitted to all of the things you just posted.

            1. re: Bellachefa

              You may say they "took inspiration" from those restaurants, if you prefer it to "stole". It's not like Danny Meyer or Keith McNally is suing for copyright infringement, but to my eye, the lifts are pretty obvious if you've been to the originals, and the Aquitaine Group doesn't hide the fact that it trawls Manhattan for ideas. (I say, if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.) The virtual cloning of Balthazar's website by Gaslight was noted with some amusement here when it debuted.


              1. re: MC Slim JB

                I go to Balthazar more than I go to Gaslight (which is on my never again list at this point) and it's pretty clear that gaslight is a poor aspiration of Balthazar.

              2. re: Bellachefa

                am sorry, but your post made me actually lol. gaslight and cinquecento are mini-me's.

              3. re: MC Slim JB

                Most of the places I'm thinking of are first or second timers. You may be right about certain large owners. But I can think of at least two larger-owner places where excessive loudness was a surprise and steps were taken to improve things (Wagamama Harvard Sq, Tavern Burlington). It's not always cynicism driving things in the wrong direction, it's often simple ignorance or inattention.

                1. re: MC Slim JB

                  As a one time investor in a small resto myself, I disagree with your view. Folks often just don't think of it. They buddy I invested with had 3-4 prior restos that did not have an issue. The spaces themselves just weren't noisy.

                  His 4th establishment was a problem, eventually some well place acoustic materials on the ceiling helped the problem.

                  I think other than at the very high end, most folks building out a resto just hope for the best on the noise score and then put out fires after the fact if they have the dough.

                  I don't doubt that SOME like it noisy for the afore-stated reason, but for most I think it is just a case of noise roulette.

                  1. re: StriperGuy

                    as mentioned in the op, teatro has taken measures to address the din. who else has done so after-the-fact? when designing a space full of hard surfaces and mostly devoid of textiles? um... duh. if a designer can't put this simple equation together, than what the what?

                    i know steak-houses are purposefully designed to be loud, but most of those (here anyway) are chains and know exactly what they are doing.

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      Not to mention that cookery, FOH service, and acoustical analysis aren't always a bundled skill set.

                      1. re: StriperGuy

                        Exactly. Of course it doesn't have to be noise roulette. There are people who know how to do this (ahem), and they can be brought on quite affordably.

                      2. re: MC Slim JB

                        I haven't been to Gaslight but I have been to Balthazar; which I enjoy.

                        The concept of Balthazar is not unique and is quite common in Paris. It seems that if Aquitaine copied the concept from Balthazar, you'd have to say that Balthazar copied the concept from it's French predecessors.

                        1. re: 9lives

                          of course balthazar copied from places in france. so did restaurant zinc here back in the day and now bar zinc in lenox. imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that.

                          however, copying even the website design is a bit much. :P

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            I've always thought of Eastern Standard Kitchen as the better copier of Balthazar in Boston, anyway.

                            In a good way.

                    2. re: MC Slim JB

                      Sorelina is a huge space that is readably quiet. Somebody did great job with the acoustic treatment of this space.

                    3. All restaurants charge too much for wine.

                      Truth: While most do, there are some trend setters trying to change that. Silvertone, Legal (Park Square) and Troquet are just a few attempting to debunk this.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: csammy

                        all those places have had their pricing policies in place over 10 years. very few others have followed suit.

                      2. I'd say we need to put to rest the myth that there is actually any clam in a clamcake

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: grant.cook

                          I thought "clam" cakes were a RI thing, not Boston.

                          1. re: Allstonian

                            They are but last year the Cod Squad Truck did some clam cakes that were full of clams and wonderful!


                          2. re: grant.cook

                            Well, clamcakes are RI, not Boston, and I've had bits of clam in clamcakes in RI. Not much, but definitely bits.

                          3. with island creek, neptune, belle island, summer shack, the Chinese restaurants with fish tanks, various sushi places, Boston has plenty of good seafood.

                            31 Replies
                            1. re: cambridgedoctpr

                              I sort of disagree. Both Portsmouth NH, Cape Cod and the entire Maine coast has so much terrific seafood. Personally, I wasn't impressed with Belle Isle finding it a notch below of at least a dozen places on the Cape or the North Shore. And not everyone is as enthralled with Neptune, although I'll admit to only a small sampling of 2 hot lobster rolls. The first was nirvana, the second disgusting. I can see where visitors coming to the city could have higher expectations than reality when it comes to seafood-centric choices in the city.

                              1. re: CapeCodGuy

                                I know that you know the good places on the Cape, but the Cape certainly does not have terrific seafood across the board. Just about every restaurant on the Cape serves some seafood, and most of them are not so good.

                                Boston has some top notch oyster bars where you can get a great variety of East Coast oysters that you probably can't find at more than a handful of other restaurants anywhere, including from lots of smaller Massachusetts oyster farms and some from Maine and Rhode Island as well. I think this has had some positive spillover effects, and now you can get Island Creeks or Wellfleets or other good local oysters at most good restaurants in Boston/Cambridge. Similarly, most good restaurants in Boston/Cambridge have a very good fish (and/or shellfish) entree on the menu at all times.

                                San Fran still has touristy not-so-great seafood places near Fisherman's Wharf, but I would not say that vitiates San Fran's claim to having good seafood.

                                1. re: CportJ

                                  Oh, I never claimed that the Cape has great seafood restaurants across the board. In fact, out of the over 1,100 restaurants serving our population of only 220,000 folks, I'd say the far majority are severely lacking in quality ingredients or preparation. I was mostly commenting about the accolades given to Belle Isle, which pales compared to MANY of our summer shacks. And although most raw bar tends to focus on locally available options, you won't find fresher at our better places. There are dozens of places where if you order oysters or clams for dinner, they were harvested from local beds that morning. That's just not the case in the city. Sure, there are great restaurants in the city which have a few great seafood dishes, but not what a visitor expects or can find in almost every town on the Cape. There are many in the MidCape area alone, whose menus are primarily seafood (not of the fried variety) where you will have exquisite and varied preparations of local and non-local shellfish and finfish.

                                  1. re: CapeCodGuy

                                    I'm not sure I can count dozens of Cape restaurants in the morning-harvest category. If that is the case, I think it may well be a tribute to whoever is the predominant Cape shellfish supplier rather than many of the restaurants themselves, which for the most part don't seem to go out of their way ingredient-wise. I would love to see your list of exquisite seafood places in Mid-Cape, and not as a challenge but as a list for me to use next summer!

                                    Even within the clam shack category, I don't think Belle Isle is below the average place on the Cape, and to be fair, the best of the Cape places are among the best anywhere.

                                    1. re: CportJ

                                      I don't want to take this thread too far afield as it's headed there already. There's much discussion on the Southern NE board of Cape eateries, both good and bad. I will say for the best in seafood,in the mid-Cape area alone, try Fin in Dennis, Brewster Fish House, Regatta Cotuit, Cape Sea Grill and 28 Atlantic in Harwich. I agree with your assessment of Belle Isle, better than the average CC shack but falls short of our best ones, Marathon, The Original Seafood Restaurant, Sir Crickets, Cooke's, The Clam Shack, Cobies, Arnold's, Friendly Fisherman, Mac's, Chatham Fish, Spanky's, are all better by a healthy margin.

                              2. re: cambridgedoctpr

                                Agree boston has some good seafood, but i also do think there is this myth of Boston either being destination dining for seafood, or, more accurately, that (certain kinds of) seafood are our regional 'thing' the way NYC has bagels, LA has tacos, maryland has blue crabs, etc.

                                after all, how many visitors on this board ask where to go for clam chowder or similar? And, to speak to it being a myth, i imagine i'm not the only one who cringes at the question, because i don't have a great answer, and I also wish i could steer them towards all the other things i think we legitimately do well.

                                Of course, people in nyc always talk about how their bagels aren't good anymore either... but we won't get into that.

                                1. re: valcfield

                                  Friends from FL eat "schrod" almost daily when they visit since they just don't serve it like we do here down there. Baked Schrod or even the fish& chips that is popular around here is not popular/available everywhere apparently... (or if it is, it is very pricey)

                                  1. re: valcfield

                                    I always liked the Oyster Stew at Durgin Park, the raw bar and fried (belly) clams at Union Oyster House (preferably taken out in a white cardboard container) and eaten with fingers on a bench outside the Haymarket.
                                    Some may say that these things are not within their lexicon of "seafood"-many people seem more likely to think of lobster, flounder, cod, etc. as seafood-at least in my experience.
                                    However, good fried clams (the belly kind) are hard to find outside New England. Even in New England really great fried clams seem rare excepting some of the shanty (not meant pejoratively, just a description) type places that one sometimes discovers along the coast.

                                  2. re: cambridgedoctpr

                                    I have been arguing Blumie's basic point for years: that the gap between reputation and reality in seafood restaurants here has been huge for a long time.

                                    When you have to point to Chinatown for some of the best seafood in town (as I have long done), especially when you want locally-caught species, that bespeaks a weakness in the scene overall.

                                    Things got a *lot* better in just the past few years, arguably starting with the advent of Neptune -- consider the explosion in quality raw bar, for one thing -- and I think pending additions like Row 34 and Ostra will elevate the standard further. It's about bloody time.


                                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                                      Did it have anything to do with the priorities of the harbor traffic? Possibly, historically, Boston downtown recieved hard goods while Gloucester and New Bedford were "fishing towns".

                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                        What mainline "Boston" ie the touristy areas is missing - and what 80% of people who think of Boston as a seafood town are looking for when they visit, is a place like Moulton's. This is why the buses still pull up to No Name. If Moulton's or a place of that style opened a cheap fried seafood emporium anywhere on the Freedom Trail, it would rake and also be shockingly unique for the main parts of Boston. Why nothing like this exists boggles my mind.

                                        Btw, thanks Blumie - great thread.

                                        1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                          I completely agree, The Sail Loft is mediocre and does a great business in the summer with tourist, as does Joes next door.

                                          1. re: phatchris

                                            A view anywhere= a license to charge too much for mediocrity

                                          2. re: Bob Dobalina

                                            A while back i suggested to friends from Seattle to eat at Morses fish in the South End, then drinks at The Gallows and then a show at Johnny D's in Sommerville.

                                            You would have thought I had scheduled a tour of our finest establishments. They were thrilled.

                                            Granted, it was flawless late summer/early fall evening which can make the South End look like a set to people from out of town. I took the praise nonetheless.

                                          3. re: MC Slim JB

                                            Are their particular types of local whole fish and particular types of preperations at particular restaurants in Chinatown that you would recommend? I always find it a crapshoot because I don't know what I am doing.

                                            1. re: ScotchandSirloin

                                              If you are looking for whole fish, I like the steamed whole fish, usually bass or blackfish, at Peach Farm (at most good Chinese seafood places they'll have a version of this). I do not like tilapia and I can't swear that the bass is local. I also like the steamed oysters with black bean sauce and the spicy eel but that's not a "whole fish" answer!

                                            2. re: MC Slim JB

                                              ok, let me add that i think that O Ya and Uni Bar are really good. and there are plenty of others that are chow-worthy. And Courthouse and New Deal are great places to buy seafood - and there are a number of others. too.

                                              And I think that the seafood in C-town is the equal to what I have had in Manhattan or SF.

                                              And i have had good seafood dishes at other places, at which seafood is not the specialty.

                                              Wipe out the top tier restaurants in NYC; we look pretty good in comparison.

                                              And I lived in Palo Alto and Chicago and travel to NYC frequently and so am not a Boston booster by nature.

                                            3. re: cambridgedoctpr

                                              Well, we can all go round and round about whether Boston restaurants' seafood is up to the level we'd like it to be. But go eat in a bunch of middle-of-the-country restaurants and order their seafood and tell me ours isn't better. My husband grew up in Minnesota and a trip to Red Lobster for a birthday was literally their only option for getting lobster. This has possibly changed in the 20 years since he left, but you still can not just walk into a local supermarket and buy a live lobster. Of course there are some restaurants in the Twin Cities area where there is a good piece of fish to be had (although it's quite possibly walleye). And of course there are some bad pieces of fish to be had around here. But on the whole, our seafood is pretty darn good so I would have to say this one's debunked.

                                              1. re: Parsnipity

                                                I don't think anyone would argue that Boston's seafood scene is not better than the worst one can find, ie: the mid section of this country. I would no more expect to find a great wealth of excellent seafood in Minn. but I would expect to have many excellent choices for quality beef and pork. Just as hargu pointed out, his Florida guests feast on schrod. That's not because they don't fry or broil fish in FLA, it's because what is local is warm water species like grouper and snapper. that don't taste like our cold water haddock, cod and flounder. I think the point is, Boston is close to the source so one could reasonably expect it's seafood to be on par, and even surpass, that available in New Bedford, Fall River, The Cape, and the North Shore and beyond. It's not. Myth lives on......

                                                1. re: CapeCodGuy

                                                  Heads up: Great fish can be had here in "the mid section of this country;" it's flown in next day air from both coasts. There are a handful of restaurants that feature fresh fish in my town, just about as good as any fish anywhere. (I recently had the best bluefish of my life served to me.) We pay a steep premium, however.

                                                2. re: Parsnipity

                                                  "This has possibly changed in the 20 years ..."

                                                  By and large the last 20-30 years has seen a tectonic shift in seafood availability throughout the country.

                                                  With flash freezing and all of that, if it's not literally fresh off the boat you're probably getting about the same quality here as you would anywhere else the fish might get distributed.

                                                  1. re: jgg13

                                                    True, but in many better seafood restaurants, it IS fresh off the boat. And that's night and day from flash frozen.

                                                    1. re: jgg13

                                                      yes, shipping and handling have improved but the populations have dropped precipitously. fish once considered trash, like skate and mackerel, now command premium pricing and good luck even getting local cod. this puts much local fish out of the realm of moderately-priced menus.

                                                      with 10's of 1000's of tourists cramming places like no-name and the barking crab is the seafood elsewhere still worse?

                                                    2. re: Parsnipity

                                                      There was a lobster restaurant south of the Twin Cities in the late 60's and 70's.

                                                      Even as a child I found that really odd.

                                                      1. re: C. Hamster

                                                        But now you know that Pan Am had added cold storage to its planes by then, forever changing food sourcing, so perhaps the restaurant wasn't that funky?

                                                        1. re: Bellachefa

                                                          Not that it makes much difference to your point, but I think the lobsters would have ridden the last 400 miles on a refrigerated truck from O'Hare in Chicago. I don't think Pan Am flew to MSP in the '60s and '70s. I do think that Pan Am Express (via Republic) did, but that was in the mid-'80s.

                                                          1. re: Bellachefa

                                                            Yes. Frank Abagnale probably trafficked in them back in the day,

                                                            You make a good point.

                                                            In addition to that lobster place, I remember my parents ordering lobster at a Minneapolis "supper club" in the mid-1960's

                                                        2. re: Parsnipity

                                                          My experience growing up in Michigan in the 80s and 90s is that every big name supermarket (Kroger, Meijer, etc) has had a tank of live lobsters, and they still do.

                                                          1. re: Parsnipity

                                                            Forget about seafood, just post a pic of a decent pizza on your Facebook page, and watch your friends castaway to flyover country come circling evil dead style and intoning "pizza!". And if you can't trust the pizza, would you even think of trying the seafood?

                                                        3. But does Boston have Mexican food worth trying for out of towners who come from places with *excellent* Mexican food and are seeking the same here? I am not so sure. Boston doesn't have a notable Mexican ex-pat population, for a variety of reasons I won't dilate on here; our Latino population is dominated by other nationalities.

                                                          As for seafood: a lot of our finfish is From Away rather than closer waters, given the collapse of so much of our notable fin fisheries (while you can get lovely finfish, we simply don't have anywhere near enough to satisfy local demand). Shellfish is a different story, but even then demand for some classic local items (local clams) far outstrips local supply in the peak season, for example. The best thing some of us can do is to be careful not to encourage the further depletion of local seafood. It's sad to think that Boston's Fish Pier used to be an international lodestar for fish; not anymore (but it's much prettier now!).

                                                          10 Replies
                                                          1. re: Karl S

                                                            Boston does not have a widely-available selection of high-quality authentic province-specific Mexican food, no. The better-quality Mexican you'll find in the area is usually either just "Mexican" or creative-fusion style sort of thing. Someone used to the easy access of high quality Mexican street food, taquerias, and restaurants in LA, San Francisco, or San Diego will be disappointed here, and anyone looking for good quality Tex-Mex or New Mexican/Southwestern style food will definitely miss out.

                                                            1. re: Boston_Otter

                                                              Some of the best Mexican food in the US is found in Chicagoland.

                                                              1. re: C. Hamster

                                                                Yes. Big Mexican ex-pat presence in that region, unlike here. Also excellent Mexican food can be found along the northern shores of Lake Erie in Ontario's agricultural wonderland.

                                                                1. re: C. Hamster

                                                                  i am from chicago and lived near SF; i agree with you C. Hamster. In my mind there is no comparison; Boston is not a destination for Mexican food. That said, i like Tenoch.

                                                              2. re: Karl S

                                                                Boston has Mexican worth trying if you are an out-of-towner from say New Hampshire.

                                                                1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                                  That's a nice example of damning with faint praise.

                                                                  1. re: Uncle Yabai

                                                                    No worse that declaring our fish restaurants are better than those in Minnesota.

                                                                    1. re: CapeCodGuy

                                                                      I don't know, the idea of an "out-of-towner" from "say New Hampshire" has that hick-from-the-sticks ring to it that "Minnesota fish restaurants" doesn't have.

                                                                      Besides, Minnesota may have some good fresh-water fish restaurants, for all I know. Don't know, never been there, and have no intention of going, either.

                                                                2. re: Karl S

                                                                  if i came from a place with a vibrant mexican food scene, it wouldn't be my first stab for meals out in another city.

                                                                  i don't look for clam chowder while in denver or bbq while in oregon either.

                                                                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                    Well, I am with you on both points, but we get a ton of out of towners over the years looking here for their own local specialities when visiting Boston. This dynamic is not unique to Boston, I should hasten to add.