18 January 2017

My Responses to Eater Boston's 2016 Year-End Survey of Local Food Writers

I don't pen many original essays for this blog: it mainly exists as a place for people to find links to my professionally-published restaurant reviews, food/drink features, and occasional interviews by other outlets. Researching and writing my biweekly reviews for The Improper Bostonian (on top of a day job in an unrelated field) doesn't leave me much spare time to write here. But I can offer up an easy one: reprinting my contribution to Eater Boston's annual survey of local food writers, where we recount our past year of dining and drinking all over Greater Boston -- our favorite new places, reliable old standbys, saddest closings, etc. -- and look ahead to trends in the New Year.

So here is my 2016 year in review with some thoughts on what's ahead in 2017. Thanks as always to Eater Boston for including me in this feature every year, and to my fellow Boston food-geek writers for their ongoing insightful, valuable and entertaining work. I encourage you to read their funny, thoughtful year-end responses in the "Year in Eater" story stream here, too.


What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2016?

For me, as I imagine for many of us, 2016 was a carbuncle of a year. A world on fire, the passing of many beloved cultural icons, the election, watching family members and friends die or struggle with heartbreak, illness or unemployment: all prompted me to seek solace in good food and drink. That made the past twelve or so months’ welter of great openings in Boston an estimable, necessary salve.

Those newcomers ranged from fantastic watering holes with excellent drinks and food (Casa Verde, The Automatic, Ruka), sublime regional Italians (SRV, Fat Hen, Bar Mezzana), a welcome Greek renaissance (Kava, Brendan Pelley in his short-term perch at Wink & Nod and now at Doretta), dazzling Asian entrants (BLR by Shojo, Sichuan Gourmet Burlington, Little Big Diner, Tiger Mama, the reinvented UNI, Ganko Ittetsu Ramen, Pabu), a couple of lovely wine bars (The Maiden, haley.henry with its novel focus on luxury tinned seafood), superb pizza makers (the Stoked brick-and-mortar, Area Four South End, Ciao! in Chelsea, Arlington’s Commune Kitchen), and worthy new spots from familiar and upcoming local stars (Waypoint, Juliet, Little Donkey, Branch Line).

But I took special pleasure in the opening of Mamaleh’s, a smashing traditional Jewish deli from the team behind State Park. Boston hasn’t had exceptional, housemade Ashkenazi soul food in living memory: its revival was painfully overdue. Dining here was one of the best balms I found for 2016’s many surreal anxieties and lacerations of the spirit. I don’t doubt I’ll find more reasons to seek its hearty, delectable comforts in 2017.

What were your top restaurant standbys of 2016?

I spend so many nights researching my restaurant reviews for The Improper that I can’t revisit already-beloved places nearly enough. But I still hit a few favorites on the regular:
  •  Erbaluce still kills it Every Single Frickin’ Time with its singular Piemontese cuisine and rare wines. Were I forced at gunpoint to choose one favorite fine-dining restaurant in Boston, this would be it.
  • You could routinely find me at Chinatown’s Peach Farm, enjoying its unfussy, splendid Hong Kong style live-tank seafood and Cantonese dishes, especially very late at night.
  •  Yvonne’s served as a versatile stop all year to take visiting out-of-towners to gawp at its cheeky, glamorous atmosphere, enjoy the top-tier cocktails, and share a celebratory meal.
  • Hojoko, with its hip, raucous rock-bar ambiance, long menu of upscale-izakaya fare, and wicked cocktails (notably authentic Tiki drinks) became part of my standard pre- and post-Fenway rotation.
  •  Drink in Fort Point and The Hawthorne in Kenmore Square aren’t just pinnacles of Boston’s craft cocktail movement, perhaps my favorite dining-out trend of the last 20 years: they serve as crucial engines of its growth as they train and disgorge new generations of talent year in and year out. Both understand the essential equality of hospitality and technical chops in creating a nonpareil drinking experience.
  • Bar Mezzana lured me back often for its amazing crudos, crostini, pastas, sleek atmosphere, warm hospitality, and outstanding cocktails and wines.
  • The new Sichuan Gourmet near the Burlington Mall is maybe the best of the mini-chain’s outposts of numbingly spicy, invigorating traditional Sichuan cuisine. It’s even better with a crowd.
  • And as ever, there’s my longtime local, J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End, presided over by publican supreme Jerry Foley, bolstered by his many strong sons (most ubiquitously his eldest, GM Mike Foley), a sweet waitstaff, and the kind of modest Irish and American bar fare that perfectly suits watching a big game, playing pub trivia, or idling away a few hours with friends from the neighborhood. It’s the textbook incarnation of a great and ancient Boston tavern. 

What was the biggest dining surprise of 2016?

I suppose I could say it was the spectacle of once-timid friends gobbling down the octopus that appeared on countless menus this year, but really it was the continued stamina of Greater Boston’s restaurant expansion: so many big new openings that I now fret about the ability of the economy and labor pool to support. I was more hopeful than some of my peers in this roundup last December about the prospect of a bubble, but there are ominous portents of it now. (Crap: Emma’s Pizza, Spoke Wine Bar? Really? Eff you, 2016. Eff you to hell.)

What was the saddest closure of 2016?

The food was nothing special, but I was truly saddened by the closing of Johnny D’s, an intimate venue for many memorable shows over the years -- my standouts include The English Beat and multiple Sleepy LaBeef gigs. Among proper restaurants, I will most long for the quirkily-inventive, frequently mind-blowing, umami-overloaded Italianate cuisine of mercurial chef Tim Maslow at Ribelle. Glad he’s still around, cooking at Tiger Mama, but I kinda wish he’d never gone uptown after his reinvention of Strip-T’s.

What was your most disappointing meal of 2016?

I’m a fan of the original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, made pilgrimages there over the years for its justly-storied clam pies. That magic has not made the trip up I-95 to their new outlet in a Chestnut Hill mall. All of the hassle, none of the charm, not nearly enough of the flavor.

What was your best restaurant meal of 2016?

I was delighted to uncover fantastic traditional Mexican tacos at the itty-bitty, humble Rincon Mexicano in East Somerville: that chef from the D.F. has it going on. But the red-letter-day dinner was an epic debauch at Little Donkey, Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer’s terrific globe-trotting small plates joint in Central Square. A few cocktails, 17 dishes highlighted by an awesome special of live uni with flatbread, a couple of bottles of wine, all the desserts. (I won’t cop to the party size, but will admit to later hearing that even the staff was gobsmacked by our horrific excess.) The evening ended with us waddling over to Trina’s for some desperately needed Fernet-Brancas. I generally eat with more restraint, or I’d risk serious health issues, but for some reason – maybe my scarily food-nerdy companions, the elbow room that feels liberating after the tight quarters of Toro and Coppa, the fabulousness of the food and drinks – we really went off the rails that night. I can’t blame the review-research imperative every time.

What are your headline predictions for 2017?

Well-ridden hobbyhorses of mine, but these issues continue to worry and frighten me:
  • 2017 will be another year where our chances at slowing climate change -- and heading off the resulting catastrophic consequences for our food chain -- continue to dwindle.
  •  Invasive corporate chains will keep surging at the expense of far better locally-owned establishments. (I for one will not be abandoning my favorite local Italian purveyors and restaurants to patronize Eataly Boston.)
  •  We will continue to fail to deal with how abusive to restaurant industry workers our current wage practices and transportation systems are. That isn’t just awful for them: when it results in good indies fighting and sometimes failing to survive, it’s bad for you and me.

Sum up the 2016 restaurant world in one word.

Resource-constrained. Our locally-owned restaurants battled anew in 2016 to attract talent both front and back of house against competition from deep-pocketed nationals: looking at you again, Eataly, and every chain in the godforsaken Seaport. And now I shudder to think of the impact of proposed draconian new immigration policies on our kitchen staffs. Said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: support your local independents -- maybe be willing to pay a little more so they can compensate quality staffers fairly -- if you don’t want Boston’s dining scene to become dull and middlebrow, indistinguishable from every less interesting, culturally-diverse city in the USA. Do your job.