Fancy! Beantown’s finest restaurants


The Harvest during the day.
Photo by Ezra Rosser/RECORD
Perfection at The Rialto.
Photo by Ezra Rosser/RECORD

Until 1970, women could not enter the dining room of the venerable New England dining institution, Locke Ober. Today, a woman (Lydia Shire, one of Boston’s hottest celebrity chefs) runs the restaurant.

Shire’s takeover of Locke Ober exemplifies the changing nature of fine dining in Boston. It is still possible to experience wonderful renditions of Lobster Thermidor and Boston Cream Pie. But today the top restaurants of Cambridge and Boston are more likely to depart from classic New England fare, and instead showcase the influences of cultures that span the globe. When celebration is in the air, a wide array of spectacular dining options (often at spectacular prices) are readily available. While by no means a comprehensive list, the following restaurants offer some of the best opportunities to sample “new” New England cooking, and experience this evolution for yourself.

Three wonderful — and very different — dining options are in the immediate vicinity of Harvard Law School. Situated on the second floor of the Charles Hotel, Rialto offers some of the finest food in Cambridge. Chef Jody Adams, a past recipient of the prestigious James Beard Best Chef (Northeast) award, creates dishes that reveal their Spanish, French and Italian roots. Signature items include the Provencal-inspired soup de poissons, a slow roasted Long Island duck served with braised escarole and fingerling potatoes, and hot chocolate cream with bruleed bananas and cinnamon ice cream.

Across the street from North Hall, Chef Paul O’Connell masterfully melds French and Cuban influences to create unique creations at Chez Henri. While locals may pass many an evening eating his masterpiece Cubano sandwich and sipping mojitos at the bar, the restaurant’s dining room menu offers many excellent options. The steak frites, topped with a foie gras-cognac cream sauce, and the seared tuna accompanied by a shrimp tamale are standouts.

Tucked away in an alley between Brattle and Mt. Auburn streets, Harvest feels a bit more “clubby” than other Harvard Square options. Seafood lovers will delight in a seared Alaskan halibut accompanied by a pan roast of lobster, ramps, and tarragon while carnivores can choose between steak, rack of lamb, pheasant, veal, or Cornish game hen. Harvest is also famed for its Sunday brunch, including the griddled Maine lobster salad sandwich.

But fine dining in Cambridge is not limited to Harvard Square. Salts, a 45-seat Central Square establishment, is one of Cambridge’s hidden gems. Chef Steve Rosen’s menu is influenced by Eastern European traditions and changes seasonally. On a recent visit, a mixed greens salad topped with a warm walnut and goat cheese crepe was delicious. But the meat entrees are the true stars of Salts: The mixed grill of Neiman Ranch beef includes succulent short ribs and tender slices of filet, and the lamb loin, gently smoked in a tea base, is a unique treatment that highlights Rosen’s talents.

Next to the Kendall Square Cinema, the Blue Room feels casual but offers fantastic food in a funky setting. Sushi lovers will adore the No. 1 Tuna. This thick cut of ahi tuna, quickly seared on the outside, is certainly one of the best in the city. Cheese lovers will appreciate the “One Perfect Cheese” appetizer/dessert (a selection from the famed Formaggio’s cheese shop that changes nightly). The Blue Room also may offer the best brunch in the city. A multitude of creative dishes are served buffet style (with food constantly freshened by the busy line chefs). A recent brunch included chilled octopus salad, a flank steak with a spicy rub, avocado quesadillas, pancakes topped with sautéed bananas, and kahlua cheesecake. However, if you want bloody marys or mimosas, arrive for the afternoon seating (for the Blue Room is not exempt from Massachusetts’ stringent blue laws).

For many, L’Espalier and Aujourd’hui are the twin pillars of the Boston restaurant scene. Located in a three-story townhouse just steps from the Prudential Center, L’Espalier offers a brilliant fusion of French and New England cuisines. For a true splurge, try Chef Frank McClelland’s ever-changing degustation menu. Drawing on local ingredients, a representative tasting menu includes an artichoke and asparagus broth with a warm salad of Maine crabmeat, the sautéed liver of a spring lamb, dayboat halibut with a sunflower seed crust, filet served with gnocchi and sweetbreads, a cheese course and dessert selection (including a delectable molten centered chocolate lava cake).

It is hard to top Aujourd’hui, the restaurant of the Four Seasons. With window views overlooking the Public Garden, Aujourd’hui’s dining room simply exudes elegant sophistication. From tuna tartare with oscetra cavior to seared foie gras with beef short ribs to roasted lobster with crabmeat wontons to rack of venison with wheat berry pilaf, the food is exquisite. For the more budget conscious, the Bristol lounge downstairs offers up arguably the best cheeseburgers and martinis in Boston.

Several other restaurants in this part of the city deserve mention. Near Beacon Hill, Chef Barbara Lynch was the 2002 James Beard award recipient of the Best Chef (Northeast). Her No. 9 Park dishes out excellent fare steps from the State House. The menu changes seasonally, but past standout items include the steamed black bass with a truffle emulsion, a butter poached lobster, the crispy duck with a blood orange glaze, and the double rib lamb chop with white asparagus.

Another top restaurant, Radius, resides in the heart of Boston’s financial district, near South Station. True to the name, the dining room is a chic semicircle. Chef Michael Schlow’s specialties include escargot with potato gnocchi, New Zealand venison with chestnuts, and loin of pork with a truffle butter sauce.

Two wonderful downtown destinations are located in hotels. Appetizers at the Federalist, situated in the 15 Beacon hotel, include oyster tartare and carmalized sea scallops. Standout entrees include roasted black sea bass with porcini risotto fritters and pan seared tenderloin with a Dungeness crab stuffed mushroom. You can enjoy a self-described “esoteric cheese presentation,” or skip straight to desserts including a vanilla bean crème brulee. In the Meridien hotel, Julien offers some of the finest classic French cuisine in the city. Summer entrees included halibut with roasted tomato and a block olive crust and rack of lamb with tapenade. The Meridien is also well-known for its decadent chocolate buffet.

One should not overlook dining options in the hip South End. Drawing on French bistro influences, Hamersley’s Bistro is a South End institution. Gordon Hamersley is famed for his roast chicken (allegedly, it was one of Julia Child’s favorites), as well as other classics such as his grilled mushroom and garlic sandwich on country bread. Continuing the French bistro theme, Aquitaine offers a stylish interpretation. Mussel fans will enjoy this version cooked in Sancerre with shallots and thyme. Meat lovers will salivate over perhaps the best steak in the city: a filet au poivre topped with cognac cream.

Finally, two excellent restaurants are located a touch outside of Boston proper. If you visit Todd English’s flagship restaurant, Olives (in Charlestown), be prepared to wait… and wait… and wait. Olives does not accept reservations (except for parties of six or more), and throngs begin lining up outside at 4:45. If you don’t mind sipping a cocktail (or three) at the bar, Olives will not disappoint. True to its name, ri
ch black and green tapenades accompany excellent bread. The tuna tartare is divine. A column of tuna is tossed with a warm sesame dressing and surrounded by a thin strand of cucumber. Rock shrimp, hidden in the soft layers of tuna, provide a surprise both in texture and flavor. In addition, the roasted chicken may sound humble, but this moist version bursts with flavor and puts many of its competitors to shame. While portions are big, save room for dessert: the warm chocolate cake is worth the caloric ramifications.

If you’re a Food TV fan of Ming Tsai, it is worth a visit to Blue Ginger in Wellesley. While more inconsistent than other top Boston restaurants, Tsai’s interpretation of Asian fusion can produce divine results. Appetizers include tempura soft shell crab with a miso avocado puree and shitake and leek spring rolls with a three chile dipping sauce. Entrees include a Maine crab crusted halibut and a Long Island duck breast accompanied by an Asian duck confit.

At HLS, there will inevitably be times when studying a disastrous tort seems less interesting than studying a delectable tart. Fortunately, in these moments, you will find that Boston and Cambridge offer no shortage of wonderful dining destinations.

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