Illustration by Natalie Dee
It’s time once again for my annual mapping of the peaks and valleys of Boston’s dining and drinking scene. Here, I summarize the research I’ve accumulated in the past twelve months writing my fine-dining restaurant review column for Stuff Magazine (as well as its annual Dining Awards), budget restaurant reviews for the Boston Phoenix (including my retrospective "2011: The Year in Cheap Eats"), and bar reviews for Serious Eats -- not to mention my own devoted, non-paying pursuit of good food and drink.
As another extraordinary year for Boston’s industry scene wanes, I come not only to praise the worthy individuals, dishes, trends, and venues, but also to highlight the lowlights: the frauds and the hucksters, the follies and fiascoes. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and the bygone Esquire Dubious Achievement Awards, I present for the third year running my personal take on the awe-inspiring and the awful in Boston’s dining and drinking scene: the 2011 Devil's Dining Awards!
CELEBRITIES, MOGULS, AND MEDIA PERSONALITIES
- Well-Scuffed Media Punching Bag Award: to Todd English. English’s travails with Olives Charlestown (which nearly lost its liquor license for English’s dithering on a post-fire rehab), Kingfish Hall (where he was $40K in arrears on his rent), the Sal DiMasi corruption trial (in which he was subpoenaed as a defense witness), the New York Post’s Page Six (for his telenovela-worthy love life) made him a tabloid staple this year. Even Boston Magazine, long a shrieking fangirl, tore down her Todd poster this year, writing an acidic “Dear Todd” breakup letter. Can’t a handsome, globetrotting, millionaire celebrity chef get a break? That would be a no: we’ll be back slinging the snarky cheap shots as soon as English, who once shilled for the execrable Michelob, proceeds with bruited plans to turn Kingfish Hall into a beer-geek bar.
- Purple Heart on a Paper Napkin Medal: to Heidi Watney, NESN’s intrepid on-field reporter during Red Sox broadcasts, for her series on concession-stand specialties at ballparks around the country. Watney earned her combat pay during one standup segment at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, where a bite of a disgusting-looking fried chicken and waffle sandwich caused her to painfully, visibly gag. “Not my first choice,” she diplomatically opined after regaining her composure, “But I got it down.” Just barely, it seemed. That’s taking a bullet for the squad. We hope NESN bought her a big shot of Fernet-Branca afterward. (Best of luck with the Lakers, Heidi!)
- Yogi Berra Award for Fractured Food English: to Billy Costa, host of NECN’s weekly restaurant-review show TV Diner, for consistently mangling common food words. We’ll give him a pass on künefe, but how does a kid from East Cambridge mispronounce the Portuguese sausage chouriço as "chew-ree-ko"?
- Charles Bukowski Award for Entertaining Literary Drunkenness: to Anthony Bourdain, whose late-winter No Reservations visit to Boston blended a three-day Southie dive-bar bender with a loving pastiche on overlooked Boston-lowlife crime novel and 1973 Robert Mitchum vehicle The Friends of Eddie Coyle. To the chagrin of local Chowhounds, Bourdain barely talked about our food, though visits to East Cambridge Azorean spot O Senhor Ramos and Eastie’s Belle Isle Seafood were appreciated. But by the abysmal standards of most food-TV programming, this episode was funny and original, a wide-lapelled, bleary-eyed travelogue of a grittier Boston that few tourists ever see.
- Grand Mulligan Award: to Dave Andelman for his advocacy work on behalf of Massachusetts restaurants. Andelman owns The Phantom Gourmet, a local restaurant-review TV show whose ethos might best be summarized as The Deep-Fried, the Honey-Glazed, and the Ugly, one which suspiciously gives endless rave reviews to its advertisers. But we want to give Boston's Pay-For-Play High Priest of Lowbrow Foods a bit of a pass. After all, Andelman successfully campaigned this year for the Restaurant Rejuvenation Act, which legalized pre-noon alcohol service hours for weekend brunch, a profit booster for Massachusetts restaurants in a stricken economy, and is now advocating for a restaurant tax holiday. We believe it was Mary Poppins who sang, "A spoonful of good deeds helps the smarmy pimpin’ go down."
- “Mariah Carey in ‘Glitter’” Award for Most Unintentionally Hilarious Vanity Project: to “The Strega Life with Nick Varano”, Nick Varano’s video love letter to all things Nick Varano, starring, you guessed it, Nick Varano. A monthly episode of Dirty Water TV, a phenomenally cheesy-looking NESN show that covers Boston nightlife, “The Strega Life” debuted with Varano narrating a mawkish tribute to his humble upbringing that segued into a wannabe Rat Pack-style look at the ring-a-ding swingingness that is his Strega Waterfront restaurant. The show devotes plenty of screen time to the sundry sports celebs that bob in Varano’s considerable wake (see the Anything for a Comp Award below). Along for the ride is gushing sidekick Christina DelGallo, a crossed-eyed, cantilevered, Real Housewives of Revere styled blond with a smoker’s rasp and a thick Chicago accent. Must be seen to be believed.
- Anything for a Comp Award: to Red Sox captain Jason Varitek, who proposed to his new bride-to-be over dinner at the kitschy, Vegas-ish Strega Waterfront, which cultivates the custom of local sports celebrities with copious freebies. We hope the horse head scene or the various bloody assassination scenes (like Moe Green’s bullet through the eyeball) from The Godfather Saga, a DVD of which runs on a continuous loop on Strega's many TVs, didn’t spoil the romance of the moment.
- Cronus Award for Devouring One’s Own Children: to Charlie Sarkis, for firing his sons and daughters prior to the sale of his Back Bay Restaurant Group after they’d spent decades working for him, as outlined in a July Boston Globe feature.
- Tobacco Institute Award for Dubious Science: to Roger Berkowitz of Boston-based megachain Legal Sea Foods, who jumped into the local fishery sustainability fray with a deliberately provocative “Blacklisted” press dinner in January that served many species currently considered overfished. Berkowitz used the event to evangelize Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing, a new technology for assessing at-risk seafood populations that is promising but hardly proven, leaving critics to wonder whether his attack on long-established sustainability science was driven by altruism or profit.
- Most Anticipated Episode of Law & Order: Boston: the pending legal actions against highly-profitable gourmet pizza chain The Upper Crust, which was convicted in 2009 of ruthlessly exploiting its Brazilian ex-pat kitchen crews, resulting in a six-figure-settlement for unpaid back wages. This year, UC is the subject of a new US Labor Department suit for not only failing to pay the old settlement, but continuing to abuse its immigrant labor. Further, a separate action accuses owner Jordan Tobins of withholding the wages and threatening the life of a former manager turned whistle-blower. The result will either vindicate Tobins or earn him a first-ballot entry into Boston’s Asshole Restaurateur Hall of Fame. We’ve already set the DVR.
NOTABLE CHEFS, BARTENDERS, AND RESTAURATEURS
- How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? Award: to Tim Maslow, the new chef at tiny family-owned Watertown joint Strip-T’s, taking over from his veteran-chef father. To a solid but dull American menu (most popular entrée: plain grilled salmon), Maslow has added a range of far more innovative fare, like charred baby octopus in smoked-tomato / wasabi sauce, and grilled romaine with oxtail and poached egg. Turns out that Maslow Fils just came off a five-year stint in Manhattan superstar David Chang’s restaurant empire, most recently as chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Who could do just turkey tips, tuna subs, and quesadillas after that experience? Expect this extravagantly talented young man to get offers at bigger, shinier spaces in Boston very soon.
- Nice Guys Finish First Award: to chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa Enoteca, who competed earlier this year on Chopped!, the Food Network's cooking-competition reality show, and refused to let its producers goad him into trash-talking his fellow contestants. (Compare with fellow Boston-area chef Stephen Brand of UpStairs on the Square, who came across in the same episode as kind of a hyper-competitive dick.) Biss won, then used his $10K prize to buy his wife the engagement ring he couldn’t afford when they got married. We were also gratified to see him win Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” Award. Pretty good year, chef!
- Jacoby Ellsbury Award for Most Welcome Comeback: to Michael Leviton of suburban Newton's Lumiere, for returning to the in-town restaurant scene with his new Kendall Square restaurant Area Four. (Leviton’s first crack at urban fine dining, the star-crossed Persephone, appeared to be slightly ahead of its time in the Seaport.) Fans are also ecstatic that he has revived the Persephone baked-to-order pretzel – now nugget-sized and served with pimiento cheese – a dish we once called the Bar Snack of the Year.
- Light the Pyre of Saugus Wings Award: to the memory of William Wong, founder of unutterably tacky Route 1 eyesore and landmark to gloppy Sixties-vintage American-Chinese food that is The Kowloon. Wong went to that Great Steam-Table Trough of Moo Goo Gai Pan in the Sky this past summer.
- Nice Work If You Can Get It Award: to Will Gilson, who retired from his role as chef of Garden at The Cellar to open a summer-long pop-up restaurant at Adrian’s, a waterfront motel restaurant in Truro.
- Amen, Chef! Award: to Jasper White, for his loving appreciation of the soupe de poisson, a/k/a fisherman’s soup, at Jody Adam’s Rialto, as reported by Grub Street Boston. Local celeb-chef White is America’s foremost expert on the preparation of Homarus americanus (Maine lobster). Of Adams’s rendition – whose deep flavor she attributes to the use of codfish frames and lobster bodies -- he observes, “She just nails it. It tastes like you're in Marseilles.” We have no pretensions to Chef Jasper’s discriminating taste, but heartily concur, making an annual pilgrimage to Rialto just for this dish.
- Bartender of the Year Award: to Scott Marshall, formerly of Drink, now behind the stick at the Hotel Commonwealth’s brand-new basement bar The Hawthorne. Like most of his brethren in the top tier of Boston’s craft bartenders, he has encyclopedic knowledge and amazing technical chops. What separates him from that elite company is a welcome sense of humor and lack of self-seriousness that the best of the best occasionally could use a little more of.
- Tavern Proprietor of the Year Award: to Jeremiah Foley of J.J. Foley’s Café. Grandson of the original J.J., he’s a living repository of the Runyonesque history of the South End, and hard-working owner of its most egalitarian hangout, still a watering hole for cops, Herald and Weekly Dig staffers, Gillette factory workers, and residents of the nearby upmarket condos. If you find yourself being hustled bodily out the tavern’s side door by one of Foley's strong sons, you’ve been 86’d, and had better find somewhere else to drink for a few months. Foley's has served more gangsters, toughs, grifters, and sharpers than you’ll ever know, and Jerry knows how to keep an orderly public house (with surprisingly good food).
- Iggy Pop, Godfather of Punk Award, Cocktail Edition: to master mixologist and musicologist Brother Cleve, whose pioneering work at the Lizard Lounge and especially the bygone B-Side Lounge spearheaded Boston’s craft cocktail revival. Youngsters who want to drink at the feet of the master should check out the old-school Tiki drinks and classic cocktails he's now slinging at Think Tank. (He still spins a mean DJ set, too.)
- Welcome Diaspora of the Year: the ongoing migration of veteran bartenders from Drink, Boston's premiere craft cocktail bar, to new posts around town. For example, bartending stalwart and B.A.R. graduate Misty Kalkofen just relocated to Central Square’s new Brick & Mortar; Sam Treadway and Bryn Tattan surfaced at Union Square, Somerville's new Backbar. With his nonpareil training ethos, manager John Gertsen will backfill their ranks with fresh talent. This ongoing cross-fertilization of the city's craft cocktail revival has a happy result: expanding the number of bars where cocktail geeks can enjoy delicious, exactingly-made drinks. Now do your part, and bring an Extra-Dirty Grey Goose "Martini" drinking friend to one of them for a tipple upgrade.
FOOD WRITING AND INDUSTRY PR (NOT THE SAME THING, AT LEAST FOR NOW)
- Brillat-Savarin Award for Meritorious Service in Restaurant Criticism: to Mat Schaffer, who took an austerity-minded Boston Herald’s offer of early retirement this summer. We long admired Mat for his honesty, efforts to remain anonymous, obvious pleasure in eating, penchant for the pithy turn of phrase, and aplomb reviewing everything from luxury fine-dining palaces to Chinatown dives. Friday mornings feel strangely empty without a witty Schaffer review to kick them off. The sharp old pro will be much missed. And no, having local industry celebrities contribute to the Herald’s Fork Lift food blog doesn’t quite fill the void.
- Elvis/Beatles Award for Legendary Meeting We’re Sorry We Missed: to the May evening that Jonathan Gold dined at Craigie on Main, the day after Craigie’s chef/owner Tony Maws won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northeast. Gold is the brilliant restaurant critic for the LA Weekly and the only food writer in history to win a Pulitzer. (We think every aspiring food writer should be reading his work religiously.) Maws, as he had promised in his acceptance speech in New York the night before, was already back on the line cooking. Our hero dining at one of Boston's best? Wicked.
- Umberto Eco Award for Whimsical Restaurant Semiotics: to local food writer Jolyon Helterman, who offered a hilarious taxonomy of Boston restaurant menus in a December 2010 Boston Magazine piece. Do Boston restaurants really fall into only four basic types signaled by their menu typography and design: locavorish, Francophilic, gastropubby, and upscale-minimalist? No, but avid restaurant-goers had to chuckle in recognition of how much ground Helterman’s satirical archetypes covered.
- Mitt Romney in Overalls Award for Flimsy Blue-Collar Shtick: to Alex Beam for a comically awful anti-foodie rant ("He's had his fill") in his Boston Globe column in March. In it, Beam took weird, off-kilter potshots at the sustainability movement, food-TV programming, and general foodie pretentiousness while bragging implausibly about his Panda Express intake. And here we thought Howie Carr owned the prep-school-alum-posing-unconvincingly-as-Joe-Sixpack beat.
- Annoying Industry PR Buzzphrase of the Year: “farm to table”, essentially another way to mouthe that old hobbyhorse, “seasonal and local”. Our favorite ridiculous variants included “farm to fork” (used by Ken Oringer’s new Kennebunkport restaurant Earth) and “oven to table” (from Area IV’s new restaurant Area Four). For PR flacks running out of ideas for 2012, we’re here to help: how about “mud to maw”, “field to pharynx”, or “grange to gullet”?
- No Shit, Sherlock Award: to the embarrassingly brain-dead October article in Forbes.com (“Restaurant Foods That Are The Worst Deals”) on allegedly overpriced restaurant food, which touted ten variations on the premise that restaurants mark up food over retail costs to make a profit. There’s some Upton Sinclair-worthy muckraking for you.
- Virgil Award for Hell's Tour Guide of the Year: to Luke O’Neil’s "Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown", an entertainingly written and thoroughly researched crawl through the short hairs of Boston’s fetid underbelly. Thanks to O’Neil’s vivid and harrowing field work, you can experience the brain-numbing existential purgatory and threat to life and limb that is Parrotta’s Alpine Lounge in Chelsea without hazarding a visit there yourself.
NOTABLE OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
- HGTV Award for Best Repurposing of a Hall Closet: to Avery Bar, a cozy small bar with gorgeous fireplace and comfy lounge seating that the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common installed in a formerly disused corner of the hotel’s main lobby.
- About Effing Time You Showed Up, Godot Award: to Island Creek Oyster Bar, for providing a long-overdue counterpoint to the argument that -- outside of Neptune Oyster and Chinatown live-tank Hong Kong style joints like Peach Farm -- Boston has been seriously overrated as city with great seafood restaurants.
- Saddest Closing Award (tie): to Ken’s Ramen, whose owner took Boston’s greatest bowl of noodle soup back to Japan; to Scup’s in the Harbor, a humble, charming eatery set in an Eastie shipyard, sunk by family medical difficulties; to Tawakal Halal Cuisine, a rare local outpost of Somalian food that only lasted an eyeblink; and to Don Ricardo's, a South End Brazilian / Peruvian / Mexican place that was modest, high-value, run by the sweetest old couple in the neighborhood, and criminally underpatronized by locals. R.I.P, all.
- Most Anticipated Opening Award: to Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, the new pop-up venture (location still TBD) recently announced by folks affiliated with downtown luxury avant-Japanese restaurant O Ya. In addition to the obvious (it will serve Japanese noodle soup at odd hours), the owners are promising serious broths, tares, and handmade noodles. Might ease some of the pain from the closing of Ken's Ramen.
- Top of the Bandwagon Award: to the South End’s El Centro, one of a dozen new restaurants that jumped on the year’s most overheated restaurant trend, upscale Mexican. El Centro created some separation between itself and the rest of the pack with an actual Mexican-native chef/owner and more traditional cuisine than most.
- Amy Winehouse Memorial “Talent Ain’t Enough” Award: to Rocca Bar & Kitchen, the upscale South End Italian restaurant that had all the ingredients to be a long-running success -- a beautiful space, great patio, award-winning chefs, and veteran management -- but shuttered last New Year’s Eve, undone by an inability to deliver a consistent service experience.
- Best New Gastropub Award: to The Abbey in Washington Square. Brookline will never have enough neighborhood joints with excellent upscale-tavern fare and good drinks that serve till 1:30am.
- Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya Award: to Shangri-La, the oh-so-seedy Beacon Hill temple of terrible Chinese food, every underage Suffolk and Emerson student’s favorite place for a sure-to-be-regretted-tomorrow Scorpion Bowl. It was also notorious for allegedly hosting a brothel in its basement for years. Its replacement, the forthcoming Tip Tap Room, cannot help but be less unsavory.
- Mobile Restaurateur of the Year Award: to Staff Meal Truck. In a year where Boston finally got a raft of worthy food trucks, Staff Meal served innovative, delicious, yet budget-priced food like head cheese sandwiches, Chinese sausage and choy in mu-shu wrapper, foie gras baklava, chicken paprikash sub with bacon jam and fried shallots, and trotters and sardo with preserved-lemon vinaigrette and spicy kale on a roll. Consistently original and astonishing. This ain’t your grandfather’s dirty-water-dog cart.
- King’s Chapel Burial Ground Award for Most Interesting Ghosts: to The Wholy Grain, the South End bakery / café that opened this year in the former "social club" where notorious local mobster Philip "Sonny" Baiona held court for decades. With the once-thriving (and now also-defunct) Waltham Tavern down the block as his primary retail outlet, Sonny was doing a brisk business in drug dealing, bookmaking, and loan-sharking in 2006 when the DEA and FBI put him in MCI-Walpole on a five-year bid; the 83-year-old wiseguy died there a year later. We’re guessing that few of the yoga moms and other new South Enders who have quickly popularized this now-charming spot have any idea of its sordid history.
- Manny Ramirez Award for Least Likely Future Comeback: to Anthony’s Pier 4, the Waterfront institution that was Boston’s It Place in 1976, but 35 years later has still not gotten the memo that the restaurant world has moved on. Slated for demolition to make way for another glitzy Seaport redevelopment project, it promises to relocate nearby. With its fly-in-amber menu, welter of fresh new Waterfront competitors, and longstanding troubles with the tax man, we’re thinking that ain’t happening.
- Franz Kafka Award for Nightmarish Bureaucratic Malevolence: to the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Division, which has crushed eat-in business at South End Spanish deli/grocer Las Ventas by forcing it to remove its table seating. The reason? An opaque certificate-of-occupancy issue that ISD’s own inspectors apparently cannot explain themselves. Said one regular customer who must now find another place to eat Las Ventas’s excellent bocadilloes, “It sounds like a naked attempt by ISD to solicit some graft.” We suppose the good news is that owners Julio de Haro and Lara Gaffigan, who also own the popular Spanish restaurant Estragon next door, have not yet awoken to find themselves turned into giant cockroaches.
- Cracked & Moldy NKOTB Lunch Box Award: to Helen Mont-Ferguson, longtime director of food and nutrition services for Boston Public Schools, who was removed from her post in May after it was discovered that frozen foods with 2008 expiration dates were being served to school children. “Thanks, but Mom wants me to eat healthy, so she brown-bagged me a Fluffernutter, Ritz Handi-Snack, and some Hostess Sno Balls.”
- Better Five Years Behind New York Than Never Award: to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, for finally getting behind the food truck trend, with very happy results for local eaters-about-town. Next on your to-do list, Your Honor: make that long-promised Boston Public Market, an in-city farmer’s market akin to Manhattan’s Greenmarket, happen next year in Boston.
- NIMBY D-Bags of the Year Award: to the "North End Ten", members of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, for getting the already BRA-approved Doc’s Restaurant on Long Wharf un-approved, after restaurateur Michael Conlon had spent years and tens of thousands of dollars developing it. Already home to a hulking, hideous Marriott, the tourist-trap-chain Chart House restaurant, a welter of vendor carts, and an otherwise-unused building that hides an emergency egress from the Blue Line (which Doc’s would have supplanted), locals complained the new burgers-and-lobster-rolls joint would have “eliminated prime public space” and “spoiled the view”. Another explanation? The neighbors are just control-freak pricks.
- Hipster Jets vs. Sharks Award: to the Jamaica Plain residents who packed Neighborhood Council meetings to conduct unruly, rancorous debates on the merits of a Whole Foods replacing longstanding Latino-focused Hyde Square grocer Hi-Lo Foods. Turns out that even as diverse and progressive-seeming a community as JP can struggle unattractively with gentrification issues.
- “Sam Bowie Drafted Ahead of Michael Jordan” Award for Tragically Botched Opportunity: to the City of Boston for awarding the Pink Palace, a long-disused Boston Common structure it offered for use as a restaurant, to dull airport-food-court chain Earl of Sandwich. Of all the things we might have done to show off Boston’s culinary uniqueness to tourists, this is the best we could do? As the kids say, Fail.
- Cast of Jersey Shore Award for Most Hoped-For Early Death: to Groupon, the coupons-by-email phenomenon that has been the bane of many local restaurateurs. It puts butts in seats, but is a drag on profitability, and few coupon-clippers ever return to pay full price. Our prayers for Groupon to run out of cash before it could get to an IPO went unanswered, but at least its stock price has tanked, so it may yet meet its deserved fate.
- Hooters on the Waterfront Award: to Seaport chain steakhouse Del Frisco’s, for its gimmick of maintaining a squad of comely female servers in fishnet stockings and micro-minis. Their primary role appears to be delivering highly profitable side dishes like $11 creamed spinach to tables of lecherous businessmen on expense accounts. Classy!
- “Bite the Wax Tadpole” Award for Brand Blundering: to Back Bay restaurant Mass Ave Tavern. The space formerly known as Match relaunched under new owners in January simply as Mass Ave, which made it impossible to find online, then swiftly changed its name to 94 Mass Ave, then almost as quickly renamed itself as Mass Ave Tavern. As of press time, that last one has stuck, but don’t hold us to it. Pretty sure Restaurant Branding 101 these days opens with, "Think about The Google first".
- Count to Ten Award: to Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge, which generated a mini-firestorm by engaging in a real-time Twitter flame war in August with an unhappy jerk of a customer. Probably felt good at the time, but this move earns a failing grade in Fundamentals of Restaurant Social Media.
- PT Barnum Award: to the prankster who punked the Boston Globe’s biweekly online food chat by posing as Barbara Lynch and promising a free tasting at Menton, one of Boston’s costliest one-percenter hangouts. We love a deal as well as anyone, but our bullshit detector is sensitive enough to recognize that Babs and Free Food are two things that do not go together.
- Donald Trump Award for Profligate Bad Taste: to David Schuler, a Massachusetts native now living in Mississippi, who drove 1400 miles to spend $1200 on 150 frozen pizzas from Stoughton’s Town Spa Pizza. Dude, seriously: we get nostalgia, but frozen pizza?
- Silly Bandz Award for Fad That Was Cute for About Three Minutes: to Temazcal Cantina, the Seaport upscale Mex joint, for its iPad-based menus. Presumably these can be praised for making the kitchen live up to high plating standards (so the dish that arrives at your table looks as good as its food-porn menu photograph), but quickly wear out their welcome once you get to the cocktail menu and are forced to Peruse. Only. One. Drink. At. A. Time. Worst application of technology in a restaurant setting since the Keno feed.
- Charlie Sheen Award for Grandiosity of Self-Delusion: to ancient North End tourist trap Joe Tecce’s Ristorante, which blamed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last May on the Big Dig, which ended in 2007. It couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Tecce’s menu of superannuated red-sauce-and-melted-mozzarella clichés, featuring specialties like batter-fried sweet and sour chicken and veal, could it?
- As If! Award for Restaurant Futility: to Canadian pizza chain Boston Pizza, which temporarily changed its name to Vancouver Pizza as a show of support for the Canucks over the Boston Bruins in the 2011 NHL Finals. It didn’t help: the Bruins took the Stanley Cup in seven games anyway. If only Boston Pizza had changed its name to Somebody Wake Up the Sedin Twins Pizza.
- Pu Pu Hot Pot Award for Dubious Restaurant Naming (tie): to Blue Inc., which begs the question, “Which marketing genius thought it would be a good idea to ask Herald readers for naming suggestions, and then actually use what they came up with?”; to Sweet Caroline’s, the Fenway-adjacent eatery which unwisely references Neil Diamond’s numbingly overplayed stadium anthem and creepy adult mash note to an 11-year-old girl; and to A @ Time (we’re not making that up), a new Thai joint in Allston that sounds like a pad gaprow-induced case of the hiccups.
- Bull & Finch Award for Worst New Tourist Restaurant (tie): to Max Brenner’s, the Israeli chain whose chocolate-overload novelty concept might be more interesting if its food weren’t so uniformly mediocre; and to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill at Patriot Place, which combines a theme based on a schlock-country anthem with a menu worthy of a Ninety-Nine, complete with potato skins and fried mac ‘n cheese. Pro tip: most restaurants with entertainment or sports figures on the marquee suck hard.
- Right Idea, Wrong Place Award: to pop-up restaurants in hair salons. Ew.
- You Can Dress Them Up Award: to Mike Andelman of the Phantom Gourmet, for engaging in an ugly public spat in January with a Grill 23 hostess who refused to seat him in the dining room before it opened. On the Phantom’s weekly radio program, Mike petulantly referred to the “dumb hostess” as a “little monkey” and a “never would talk to me in high school type girl”, then slagged all hostesses as attractive incompetents. When the story drew wider media attention, the restaurant issued a press release expressing dismay at the personal attack and defending their employee. Under pressure from civility advocates like Server Not Servant, brother/boss Dave Andelman forced Mike to issue a public apology, which lamely excused his rant as “satire”, not the bitterness of a grown man still smarting over teenage dating humiliations.
- Tuxedo-Print T-Shirt Award: to Locke-Ober, for dropping its storied dress code and letting shlubbily dressed tourists into its dining room. This marked the inglorious end to an era of civility in Boston fine dining, as L-O was the last room in town to insist that gentlemen don jackets for dinner. Heaven forbid you should ever have to leave the sweatpants at home.
- Orange-Stained Underwear Award: to the Boston restaurants that were revealed in a Boston Globe exposé ("On the menu, but not on your plate") in October to be mislabeling cheaper fish as fancier ones for profit, e.g., selling escolar, known for some very unpleasant side-effects, as “white tuna”. Others were caught selling farmed tilapia as wild red snapper and frozen Pacific cod as fresh and locally-caught. Even exurban celeb-chef Ming Tsai was red-faced, having to explain that technically it’s okay for him to call the humble sablefish in his signature $41 entrée at Blue Ginger by the loftier “Alaskan butterfish”, even though the FDA considers it misleading and illegal to use vernacular names for fish as market names. (Apparently, the embarrassment stung: Blue Ginger’s menu now reads “Miso-Sake Sablefish a.k.a. Butterfish".)
- How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away? Award: to Gargoyles on the Square, the beloved Davis Square fine-dining restaurant that announced its closing after 15 years in September, causing a rush of tearful farewell dinners, only to keep reopening each weekend until nearly November.
- Sisyphus Finally Crushed By Giant Boulder Award: to Joe Cimino, the would-be operator of Back Bay’s Saratoga Restaurant. “Never heard of it”, you say? It’s the one that recently was on the verge of losing its liquor license after failing to open in its Fairfield Street space after 12 years – that’s right, 12 years -- of wrestling with building wiring, ADA access requirements, groundwater, and other issues. Sorta makes the food truck thing look pretty sweet, don’t it?
- Foie Gras Poutine Award for Culinary Excellence in an Unlikely Setting: to Victor’s Italian Restaurant, a tiny, family-owned restaurant with the look of a plain-Jane sub shop, tucked away in a residential corner of Saugus, for its scallopine. Pounded, breaded, and sautéed to order (even for subs), they’re a minor epiphany for anyone who has ever ordered a cutlet and been unable to tell what animal it comes from. Veal parm that tastes like veal? Revelatory!
- Fenway Park Award for Most Overdue Facelift: to the bar at Clio and Uni, Ken Oringer’s acclaimed fine-dining tandem in the Eliot Hotel, which had long been stuck in a mid-90s, Sex and the City, flavored-vodka rut. Then Oringer hired idiosyncratic, innovative bar manager Todd Maul, who quickly elevated the bar into the top tier of Boston’s craft cocktail purveyors with a history-hopping, 100-entry, modernist-cuisine-inflected specialty cocktail list. About frickin’ time. (The pending physical-plant makeover is pure gravy.)
- Ephemeral Pleasure of the Year Award: to the lightly-pickled fresh local herring, a rare and extraordinary delicacy, only available for a few days this past spring at The Gallows in the South End.
- Eagles of Death Metal Award for Misleading Name: to Thailand Café, a Central Square restaurant long known for sub-mediocre Thai food that got a new owner and concept a few years ago but didn’t bother to change its English-language sign. What’s entirely easy to miss from the curb is the new half of the menu, an array of sensational, very traditional Sichuan dishes. Now slated for eviction (its landlord is redeveloping the building), we hope it finds a new home soon.
- Titans of Industry and Street Food Award: to Boston Speed Dog, purveyor of what the Wall Street Journal called the best hot dog in America back in 2008, and which recently so impressed third-richest-man-in-the-world Warren Buffett that he jokingly threatened to buy the company. Not bad for a humble wiener cart usually parked in Roxbury’s dusty, industrial Newmarket Square. (Awesome side note: owner Greg Gale told the Boston Globe that he didn’t recognize Buffett, but that he "love[s] his music.")
- Dish of Year (tie): a simple soup of broth, crouton, poached egg, cheese, and white Alba truffles at Erbaluce; handmade burrata with shaved vegetable salad, pistachio vinaigrette, and aniseed tuile at Bondir; roasted apple salad with corned beef tongue, horseradish, and beet broth at Strip-T’s; crudo of striper collar at Coppa Enoteca.
- Manny Pacquiao Award for Disputable Championship: to Menton, which in eighteen short months may have achieved Barbara Lynch’s goal of unseating L’Espalier as Boston’s best-regarded luxury French restaurant. Menton’s recent accolades include Boston's only five-star restaurant rating in the Forbes Travel Guide, the highest service and décor ratings in the latest Zagat Boston Survey, and inclusion in Gayot’s 10 Best New Restaurants in America. It’s also rumored to be up for a coveted designation as a Relais & Châteaux property, which would be a first for Boston. We’d rate the contest a draw: both restaurants have deservedly-lauded food and service, and L’Espalier’s superior desserts are matched by Menton’s better cocktails. But both get our booby prize for cold, charmless, colorless dining rooms. (We never got over the old L’Espalier.)
And thanks most of all to the Greater Boston industry folks -- the chefs, line cooks, garde-manger, pâtissières, dishwashers, hosts, servers, backwaiters, busboys, bartenders, barbacks, managers, phone attendants, PR people, as well as the fisherman, farmers, foragers, distillers, winemakers and brewers who supply them -- who made so many nights in 2011 memorable for me.
Here’s hoping that 2012 finds that everything on your plate and in your glass was locally and sustainably produced, trucked into town in gossamer hybrid vehicles fueled with recycled argan oil, and brought to you by a server willing to pretend to believe in your fictional food allergy, overlook your date's sorry dress sense, and ignore that blob of sage pesto in your teeth. Một hai ba, yo!