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How do I replace Hamersley's as my "go to" special occasion restaurant? (Very detailed list of criteria inside!)

I *love* Hamersley's Bistro.

I live a little over an hour away, west of Boston, and for every special occasion, or when I just want a great evening out, I book a table at Hamersley's. Now that it is closing, what would you recommend as possible alternative?

I am really fussy, so please consider the following:

1) What I love about Hamersley's is the convenient location, beautiful ambiance, professional waitstaff, stellar wine list, gracious service, comfortable dining room, great food, and Boston institution.

2) Before Hamersley's, L'Espalier was my go-to place, until they moved from their romantic townhouse to a boring generic hotel. I hate hotel restaurants with a passion. I loved the ambiance of eating in a brownstone; in a hotel, no way.

3) I love Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain, but it's a pain to drive there.

4) I've been to Sorrelina, Troquet, DeuxAve, Mistral, Toscana, and Menton, and I liked them; I'm happy enough to eat there. But none of those places has the comfortable special occasion vibe that Hamersley's has. Sorrelina is too trendy, Troquet is a little off, DeuxAve too casual, Mistral too formulaic, Toscana not special enough food, and Menton is a pawn in an business empire.

5) I liked Lumiere in Newton, but it didn't feel special enough. More like a place that I would go to all the time if I lived in Newton, but wouldn't travel far to go to.

That being said, here are my criteria for my next "go to" restaurant:

- It cannot be in a hotel, or a second restaurant of a famous chef. I want this to be a standalone restaurant, not part of an empire.

- It can't be a "seafood" restaurant, or asian. It has to be American, French, or Italian please.

- It has to have excellent service. No exceptions.

- It should have a good wine list. It should have Champagne by the glass.

- I am not crazy about the Cambridge dining scene, and would greatly prefer to avoid Cambridge. Suburbs of Boston are acceptable, such as Newton, etc. But the more convenient to the Mass Pike, the better.

- It has to have great ambiance, and feel romantic. Definitely dark, definitely not "family friendly". Noisy is fine. Again I should point out that I consider Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain to have great ambiance, and I consider Hamersley's to have great ambiance.

- I have to be able to wear a jacket and tie, and not look like a freak. I understand that every restaurant nowadays has someone in a t-shirt and jeans, but I shouldn't look out of place wearing a tie.

- It should feel like Boston. If I'm in a restaurant that looks like NY, Chicago, or Miami, I'm not interested.

- I'm considering these places, based on a list of "best" restaurants in the area that I haven't been to yet...
Bondir - Pros, looks cool. Cons, Cambridge, worried it's a "scene".
Bergamot - Pros, looks cool. Cons, Cambridge.
Asta - Pros, location, sounds awesome. Cons, website is secretive, no idea what it looks like inside.
Erbaluce - Pros, location. Cons, not sure it's a special occasion type place.
Sycamore - Pros, seems nice. Cons, looks a bit casual. Wine list is weird, and not in a good way.

(I considered Ribelle, but it looks too much like a cafeteria. Also checked out The Gallows, but they don't take reservations, and they sound super obnoxious on their website.)

Based on all of that, I am leaning toward trying Asta. Maybe Sycamore. Maybe Bergamot. Otherwise, I may need to get used to making the trek to Ten Tables.

Any advice? Let me have it!

Thanks in advance...

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  1. Boston: what are your specific issues with La Voile or Bistro du Midi for French, maybe Lucca for Italian, dunno what fits your American criteria? I'm going to guess Sorellina is too Miami-feeling, Stella too casual for your tastes?

    Can you explain your preoccupation with Cambridge being a "scene" requiring scare quotes? What's wrong with the Harvest or Rialto, for example?

    24 Replies
    1. re: youngho

      Ah, La Voile, especially Bistro du Midi, probably Rialto, possibly Harvest are all probably too well-lit, sorry. Good luck with your search.

      1. re: youngho

        I had lunch at La Voile today, and I thought that the room to the right was quite dark. In fact, we were a bit worried that our "event" might not have enough light.

        1. re: youngho

          Notwithstanding the lighting, I was going to suggest Rialto, which seems to check all the right boxes, is plenty formal enough if you want it to be, has great food, has been around for decades, etc., etc.

          1. re: cjd260

            It's also in a Cambridge hotel, which seems to be a no-go for whatever reason.

            Otherwise, I agree too.

            1. re: cjd260

              cjd260: I'll check out Rialto, but yeah, if I liked hotel restaurants, I'd probably just go to L'Espalier.

              1. re: johnblacksox

                I guess that's a question: what's a "hotel restaurant"? If it means "a restaurant that's an integrated part of a hotel, with foot traffic between the restaurant and the lobby, a shared aesthetic, and the dumbing-down necessary to accommodate the common denominator taste of travelers getting off of long-haul flights," I understand - but Rialto is none of those things (though, I'd argue, nor is L'Espalier for the most part). If it means "a restaurant that happens to share rent with a hotel," it seems like an odd approach, but to each his own.

                Anyway, I think you should be pleased by Rialto. Try the duck.

                1. re: cjd260

                  Add Meritage, Clio/Uni, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Brasserie Jo, The Bristol, Artisan Bistro, Scampo, Cafe at the Taj, and (hopefully) Hojoko and Bar Boulud to that list.

                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                    Not to mention that some on your list are the second or third restaurant of a famous chef or ... part of a chain ...

                  2. re: cjd260

                    A hotel restaurant is a cold business venture. It has nothing to do with the heart and soul of a chef cooking for people.

                    I'll try to explain like this:

                    L'Espalier was in a gorgeous brownstone, with romantic exterior, and interior, fireplaces, odd quirky rooms. The kitchen was a claustrophobic nightmare, I've heard. But, as a diner, it was insanely romantic.

                    They moved to a hotel...

                    I'm sure they spent millions of dollars on the new dining room. It's opulent, comfortable. There is a faux library room. You enter through a stainless steel and glass elevator. There are no windows on the street. There is a faux gas fireplace. There is faux paneling. The food and service are the same as the old place. IMO, the original L'Espalier was a labor of love, and the new one is a soul-less corporate business venture.

                    I am actually really happy for the L'Espalier owners that they cashed in on a great business deal. But for me, personally, I would never go the new place again. It's fake.

                    1. re: johnblacksox

                      I'll try not to snicker too loudly when I think of this broad-brush-tarring the next time I enjoy a lovely meal at Brasserie Jo, which I consider the warmest, coziest and most enjoyable-as-a-room restaurant in Boston.

                      1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                        I checked the website for Brasserie Jo, and it looks like a corporate hotel restaurant. It actually touts the fact that the chef owns the "Eiffel Tower Restaurant" in Las Vegas.

                        So...Yeah, not what I'm looking for. But if you enjoy it, great.

                        1. re: johnblacksox

                          Well, as we all know, looking at a website is an exact equivalent of an actual experience, so...good luck with your choice. I'm sure you'll be absolutely delighted and won't find any kind of fault at all.

                          1. re: johnblacksox

                            It *is* a hotel restaurant, but very good of its kind. The original and only other one is in Chicago. I quite like it: it's a versatile crowd-pleaser with a good bar in a corner of town with scant worthy options, e.g., if you're heading for or coming from Symphony. I don't use "underrated" very often, but I think it fits this one.

                            Somewhat workmanlike, unpretentious fare, e.g., one of the better steak-frites in town, helped by wonderful frites. Nice version of Alsatian flatbread, called by the French name tarte flambée here. Good liver and onions: who else does that? The choucroute is better at Sandrine's, but that's a quibble. A fine onion tarte, steak tartare, frisée salad. Good private dining rooms for groups of 20 or so, too.

                            That said, it might be a bit too Generic Brasserie for your very specific purposes. But I think it's far truer to the traditional concept than the Americanized urban "bistro" notion to which most our our mid-priced French places hew.

                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                2. re: youngho

                  Doesn't necessarily have to be dark like a cave. I just meant nice ambiance. So for instance, I prefer tablecloths, though it's not a deal breaker.

                  1. re: youngho

                    I just checked out La Voile, and it looks very nice. I may check it out. Not sure it's special enough though. It looks more like a great place to eat if I happen to be in Newbury St. area.

                    The wine list posted on-line is unusually sparse. They don't even list wines or Champagne by the glass.

                    1. re: johnblacksox

                      i like la voile's food, but you're right it is not a a special occasion kind of place and it's tiny so the tables are on top of each other. wine list is small, nothing great. obvz they do have wine and champagne btg.

                  2. re: youngho

                    In spite of the lighting (warm, but certainly not dark as the OP requests), I think Bistro du Midi is a fabulous choice. It's our special-occasion restaurant and so lovely. Excellent food, lovely service, great view of Boston Common. In spite of not being dimly-lit, we find it romantic and certainly special.

                    1. re: marketpeach

                      I agree, I would have thought it would have filled the major criteria expect for the lighting issue. Perhaps the chef's table at Bistro du Midi could be adjusted to fit

                      1. re: marketpeach

                        marketpeach: Thanks for the additional recommendation for Bistro du Midi!

                        Again, I think I may have overstated the lighting issue when I said "definitely dark". I didn't mean that I want to wear a miner's lamp on my head, I just meant "pleasantly lit". I like warm lighting, maybe a candle on the table. As opposed to a place with awesome food, but set up like a brightly lit counter-style seating.

                      2. re: youngho

                        youngho: Thanks for the recommendations of La Voile, Bistro du Midi, and Lucca! I will check them out. (I have no reservations about them, have never been.)

                        I don't have a preoccupation about Cambridge. I said I'd prefer to avoid Cambridge and the suburbs, but if there was an amazing place that was a clear winner, I would go to Cambridge or the suburbs.

                        1. re: johnblacksox

                          Sorry, I had assumed that you had done your research and already discarded these three options. I would certainly suggest the La Voile and Bistro du Midi based on personal experience. Although Bistro du Midi is not a Boston institution, the space it occupies certainly is. No tablecloths, either, but I think it fits your other criteria quite well. Images at https://www.google.com/search?q=bistr.... Both Sorellina and Lucca are multiples, rather than only children.

                          Sorry again, I misunderstood "I am not crazy about the Cambridge dining scene, and would greatly prefer to avoid Cambridge" meaning that your number concern about Cambridge was the dining scene, which is why I wrote "Can you explain your preoccupation with Cambridge being a "scene"?" You had seemed to virtually cross off two places without even having tried them, apparently, for the single con of "Cambridge" (plus "worried it's a "scene""). Harvest is a Cambridge classic (or institution) that would, I think, also fit most of your criteria, including the tablecloths. Rialto, except for the hotel setting, too.

                          1. re: youngho

                            Well, my impression of Cambridge dining is that there are more restaurants that are a scene than normal. Honestly, the same can be said of the South End these days. Still, you can't deny the comments I've heard about dining in some of the trendy Cambridge restaurants.

                            Logistics are also a major concern. It is so incredibly easy to get to Hamersley's, and the old L'Espalier. It's a pleasure to go there.

                            Cambridge is a PITA to drive in. If I have to get off the Mass Pike, sit in traffic for 30 minutes, then illegally park on a distant side street, that is a deal-breaker. Any place that has valet parking automatically gets moved to the front of the line.

                        2. Not in a hotel, yet not odd to be well-dressed is a tough combo in Boston. I will ponder when I'm home.

                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                          1 Reply
                          1. I hate to steer anyone away from Asta, because it is awesome and seriously putting out some of the best food in the city right now, but the ambiance is probably not what you are looking for.

                            Bondir is the closest you are going to get based on your criteria. Not sure what the Cambridge thing is all about, but I would not call it a "scene" type place at all.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: Matt H

                              Agreed. I think if you prefer great indie chefs, crossing off Cambridge and Somerville, though they do lean casual, is a serious mistake. Dress up anyway -- I almost always do, and near as I can tell, nobody gives a damn -- and go for the terrific food and (often informal but generally quite skilled) service and beverage programs.

                              Without a lot of deep consideration, I'd say Bondir Cambridge (for one) comes pretty close to Gordon's sensibility, albeit on a much smaller, more intimate scale: it's not remotely scene-y. The food is similarly unshowy, intently focused on ingredients and straightforward technique, and often sublime. I see a lot of folks who are clearly celebrating occasions there. Tiny room requires making weekend reservations weeks in advance.

                              I'd look at parking some place easy and using UberX to get to/from Camberville places with tough nearby parking.

                              A shame for Boston proper that its ridiculous startup costs have driven so many indie talents across the Charles, but that's the reality.

                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                I've not been to Bondir since the Concord outpost opened. Has the food quality changed at all?

                                1. re: jgg13

                                  Only been back to the original once since the new place opened, but I'd say its virtues remain intact.

                                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                2. re: MC Slim JB

                                  Thanks for the Bondir's recommendation. I'll check their website again. There was something about it that didn't appeal to me the first time, but it sounds like there is a consensus that it fits the bill.

                                  (That's why I appealed to CH, because I know you guys can give me info that I can't get on my own.)

                                  As a side rant: Why do restaurants post almost no pictures of their dining rooms? All restaurants do this. Some literally have zero. They have fancy websites, no pictures of the room. They'll have a "gallery" that shows 200 pictures of a piece of lettuce on a white plate. Or a blurry chef throwing something in a pot. It's like, yeah, thanks, I know what lettuce looks like. You spent a million dollars creating a restaurant space, and then don't put one picture of it on your website.

                                  1. re: johnblacksox

                                    If you do a Google Images search for the restaurant, you will often find dining room photos, a mix of press coverage, food blogger shots, and amateur photography. Sometimes OpenTable, Yelp, and UrbanSpoon have pics, too.

                                    For example, Google "Bondir Cambridge" and click on "Images": tons of interior photos there.

                                    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                        Yes, MCslimJB, I agree. But since the restaurant spends boat loads of money on marketing, photos, and a website, why don't they show pictures of the decor? Why do I have to rely on some tourist with an iPhone to take a grainy blurry picture of the dining room, and post it on Instragram? It's insane, really.

                                        1. re: johnblacksox

                                          I don't know: preserving the mystery? I can think of a lot of rooms with great ambiance that doesn't translate well to still photos. Likewise, many rooms with slick professional photos on their websites don't measure up in person.

                                          Small rooms and rooms with purposefully dim lighting are tougher, I think. For one example, Bogie's Place is really cozy, but the photos I've seen of it don't begin to capture its intimate charm.

                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                3. TW Food and Bondir were the first places that came to mind, but alas...the Cambridge dining "scene", whatever that means.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. Bergamot is not in Cambridge.

                                    What does a Chicago restaurant "look" like to you (for that matter, what does a Boston one look like? Are you talking about local ingrediants or something else?)

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: LeoLioness

                                      I meant look and feel. There are restaurants in NYC that have a style that would never fly in Boston, and vice versa. There are no restaurants like the old L'Espalier in NYC, for example. Nor in LA or Miami.

                                      1. re: johnblacksox

                                        Nor are there really any left in Boston....

                                        1. re: LeoLioness

                                          I never went to the old L'Espalier, but if the defining characteristic was townhouse, could Mamma Maria be similar?

                                          1. re: addiez

                                            Good call. I haven't eaten there in years, but yes, it is a lovely old room.