22 September 2011

Defending Boston's Restaurant Scene (Part 1)

[Photograph by MC Slim JB]

If you don’t think that most online “Which city has the best restaurant scene?” arguments are idiotic, consider Travel & Leisure Magazine’s recent list of “Americas Best Cities for Foodies” (yeah, I know, they said “foodies”). In it, Boston comes in it at #23, behind such culinary meccas as San Antonio, Texas and Savannah, Georgia. While I claim no authority in such matters, I spend a fair amount of time traveling around the US on business, and I rate this list as dubious at best, more like a crazy bit of hokum.

In fairness, it’s just a survey of Travel & Leisure readers, most of whom are over 50 and pretty prosperous. I doubt they’re the kind of adventurous eaters who would visit Boston food-nerd haunts like Angela’s Café, Baraka Café, or S&I Thai. Nope: they’re going to whichever Barbara Lynch place the hotel concierge is taking the graft to steer them to. (No aspersions on Babs’s restaurants, which I mostly think are pretty fine, but they hardly offer a proper sample of the Boston scene: they’re glossy, expensive, and known for the kind of high-touch service that wealthy tourists tend to favor.)

But slagging this list and its ilk isn’t really my point: such arguments are boring to food geeks. Sure, New York is an amazing restaurant town compared to Boston – I’m grateful it’s so close, so easy to gastro-tour -- but at 13 times Boston’s size, with a top two percent that is way richer than most of the country, it ought to be a lot better. The fact is that food nerds are capable of unearthing the culinary gems hidden in any city, however small, remote, or unpromising.

My purpose here is not to praise Boston at the expense of other cities. Rather, I want cite a few positives beyond the usual tourist-guide gaggle of celeb-chef joints, places with historical interest but bad food, and chainy slingers of clam chowder and lobster rolls. Herewith is a non-exhaustive list of a few of our important but lesser-known strengths in dining and drinking:
  • A plethora of ex-pat communities served by modest restaurants doing the traditional cuisines of their homelands, largely for their fellow immigrants, so not dumbing down the food for Americans. Consider that Bostonians can enjoy Afghani, Albanian, Algerian, Argentine, Armenian, Australian, Azorean, Brazilian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Chilean, Colombian, Cuban, Dominican, English, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Greek, Guatemalan, Haitian, Hungarian, Irish, Israeli, Jamaican, Korean, Lebanese, Malaysian, Mexican, Moroccan, Nepali, Persian, Peruvian, Polish, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Russian, Salvadoran, Scottish, Serbian, Spanish, Syrian, Thai, Tibetan, Trinidadian, Tunisian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Vietnamese cuisines, among many others. It’s nice to see real Sichuan making a resurgence in town, and the new presence of Egyptian and previously little-seen African cuisines like Senegalese. These represent a hugely important strain of Boston's culinary richness, the treasure most often overlooked by casual observers.
  • Many independent chef-owned small restaurants doing New American with a seasonal, local emphasis. This is probably our greatest wellspring of creativity and value in fine dining.
  • A solid assortment of regional French cuisines.
  • A handful of well-regarded small restaurant empires headed by semi-famed chefs like Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, Jasper White, Lydia Shire, Michael Schlow, and Todd English (though English has mostly abandoned Boston to build a much larger national empire).
  • Local seafood restaurants. Frankly speaking, Boston has long been a bit overrated on this score, but that's improving with the opening of several mid-priced places that are neither chain outlets nor faux clam shacks. This is in addition to our usual overlooked good-seafood spots: Portuguese, Azorean, and Brazilian restaurants (of which Cambridge Street in Cambridge has a useful concentration) and Chinatown’s Hong Kong-style live-tank seafood joints.
  • An improving breadth in regional Italian cuisines, including Emilia-Romagnan, Tuscan, Roman, Campanian, Sardinian, Abruzzese, and Sicilian. This new focus on traditional Italian cookery is a welcome counterpoint to Boston’s longstanding reputation for Italian food, which is built on the kind of safe, tourist-friendly, red-sauce-heavy Italian-American fare that dominates our famous North End neighborhood.
  • A mini-boom in the gastropub movement, mid-range places taking American tavern fare to a higher level with old-fashioned care and craft: in-house pickling, smoking, curing, charcuterie-making, whole-animal butchery, etc.
  • A pretty strong Chinatown, though there are some regional Chinese cuisines that could be better represented.
  • A wide range of sub-continental cuisines, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and especially regional Indian cuisines, including Punjabi, Mughal, Hyderabadi, Mumbai, Tamil, Bengali, and Indian Chinese. For this, we can thank our universities and local biotech, high tech, medical, and other industries that draw many students and H-1B workers here from South Asia.
  • New strength, quality and diversity in the food truck category, a boomlet only abetted by our mayor’s decision a couple of years ago to cut down a longstanding thicket of municipal red tape that was hostile to mobile restaurateurs.
  • Vegetarian and vegan options that are improving steadily, as well as more restaurants that accommodate folks with other dietary preferences or restrictions: gluten-free, seafood-free, halal, etc.
  • A strong craft cocktail movement led by a solid core of serious Golden Age revivalists. A second generation that trained under these folks is fanning out, spreading the wealth to other bars and restaurants. There are still way too many flavored-vodka concoctions flowing about Boston, but we've come a long way in ten years. Our elite craft cocktail bars rank with the best in the country.
  • A pretty good and improving set of restaurants and bars that cater to beer geeks.
  • A small but growing number of cafes featuring artisanal, hand-crafted coffee.
Boston still has some soft spots: Jewish deli, diners, regional Mexican, Austrian, German, Czech, izakayas and ramen stands, Indonesian, Laotian (unless you count the city of Lowell 30 miles away), Scandinavian, soul food, slow-smoke barbecue, many African cuisines, and so on. We lack world-class high-end dining; our best-regarded luxury restaurants might rate a single Michelin star. Nobody has gone all-in on modernist cuisine, though there's some molecular dabbling here and there. We could do with more and better wine bars.

We have far too many expensive chain steakhouses, fake Irish pubs, upscale Yanqui-Mex joints, and national casual-dining chain outlets. Worthy family-run places like Tawakal Halal Cuisine, a fine little Somalian restaurant in East Boston, close after only a few months in business, while lines still form out the door of our several Cheesecake Factories. P.F. Chang’s draws crowds of customers who have never set foot in the real Chinese restaurants that sit a stone's throw away in Chinatown.

But those are quibbles, or reflections of a corporatization of restaurant culture that is epidemic in America, not unique to Boston. When you look at the entire spectrum from high to low, I believe we have a tremendous dining scene for an American city of our size. It helps that Boston’s dining populace has come a long way in adventurousness and sophistication from the bad old days of 20 to 30 years ago, though we still have some headroom there.

Spend some time traveling around North America, to cities that are within five or ten spots of us in the population ranking, and it's easy to be grateful you live here, especially if you're willing to go a little bit out of your way to dine out. You just have to be just slightly more daring and catholic in your tastes than the typical Travel & Leisure subscriber.

In an eventual Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer specific examples of restaurants I think represent Boston's lesser-known dining and drinking assets well. In the meantime, check out the links to my professional reviews in the column at the left. I also recommend searching and posting specific queries to the Greater Boston Area board of Chowhound.com, where many of Boston’s most sophisticated and wide-ranging amateur restaurant reviewers hold forth.