It's time to stop giving Boston restaurants the cold shoulder.
Bostonians are an odd lot. We take our traditions seriously, we're deeply loyal, and, on the whole, we're thrifty. All of which bodes well for the diner searching for a bargain.
The city's oldest restaurant, Union Oyster House, is on the Freedom Trail in downtown's Government Center. It's been around since 1826, and it remains a treat, especially if you grab a seat at the curved bar. Order briny oysters, which come with a big square of moist corn bread (from $10 per half dozen), and bartenders with strong Boston accents will shuck while you watch--it remains thrilling, no matter how many times you've seen it. Boston's newest old-fashioned oyster bar, B&G Oysters, is a tiny South End place with an impressive wine-by-the-glass list and a lobster sandwich they call a BLT ($19). Purists like their lobster salad in grilled hot dog rolls, but B&G's version, with bacon on chewy bread and served with homemade chips, is even better--and worth the price.
Two blocks away, South Enders and chefs congregate at the Franklin Café, an unassuming, modern American bistro. There's always a wait to get in; on a nice night, double-parked cars line the street. Turkey meat loaf with spiced fig sauce ($15), a fixture on the menu, is terrific.
One of Boston's best-kept secrets is the "chef's whim" at Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge. On Sunday nights, owner Tony Maws, a talented and modest chef, empties his walk-in refrigerator for a $35 four-course dinner. Seatings are at 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m., and 10 p.m., the food is prepared to order, and--best of all--who knows what you'll get?
UpStairs at the Pudding, another Cambridge favorite, has moved into a new space and renamed itself UpStairs on the Square, a nod to its location on Winthrop Square near Harvard. There are three rooms, each with zany decor: The Monday Club Bar has red-and-purple checkerboard floors, green walls, and café tables; the Soirée Room is all gold glitz; and the Zebra Room, an enclosed porch overlooking the square, has fuchsia walls and zebra carpets. Susan Regis, who formerly worked with Lydia Shire--the renowned chef/owner at Boston's ritzy Locke-Ober--is the main chef. Try her signature flattened Chicken al Mattone ($22), which is lemony and crowned with onion rings. And across the square, in an old firehouse, Cambridge 1 is the most affordable entry from a fast-rising pair of local restaurateurs, Chris Lutes and Matthew Curtis. Grilled pizzas are the specialty; the lobster pie will knock you out ($24), but if you don't want to splurge, the plain tomato and mozzarella pizza is about half the price and one of the town's best ($13).
The theater district's Teatro is also in a converted old building, a deconsecrated synagogue with 15-foot ceilings. The rustic Italian restaurant's prices are reasonable, especially considering that owner Jamie Mammano also runs the more upscale Mistral. Don't miss the antipasto for two ($23), with all kinds of cured meats, cheeses, vegetable purees, and salads. Just come after the theater crowds have rushed out to make curtain.
Some of the best deals in Boston are found in Chinatown, next door to the theater district. At Taiwan Café, the waiters act as if they don't understand you (they do). Ignore that, plus the second-floor location. The incredibly cheap menu includes Taiwanese-style panfried ravioli ($6), braised eggplant with basil ($9), and sautéed clams with basil ($13). And Jumbo Seafood Restaurant has tanks by the door and waiters standing by to dip in nets. Everything that swims here is pretty wonderful. The salt-and-pepper shrimp are fried, crunchy, and meant to be eaten whole--heads and tails intact ($10).