Virtually the only quote about Boston food that anyone remembers comes from a 1910 poem by John Collins Bossidy that begins, “And this is good old Boston / The home of the bean and the cod.”
Though gastronomy was not the real subject of the poem (Bossidy was lampooning the city’s haughty, high society “Brahmins”), that unflattering first line might as well have been written yesterday in the national food-media outlet of your choice. If you follow the foodie zeitgeist, it can feel like the only time Boston gets attention is if Todd English does something insane. It’s a puritanical, old-world town full of annoyingly successful sports teams and world-class universities; it’s the domain of Dunkin’ Donuts, where coffee “regulah” means 10 parts cream, 8 parts sugar, and a thimbleful of coffee; it’s a city perpetually buried in snow and frozen in time.
But we’ve now reached a point where those quaint stereotypes no longer hold sway: Beantown, in many meaningful ways, is beginning to elbow its way into the top tier of U.S. food cities. Economic growth, a rising crop of young talent, burgeoning ethnic communities, and culinary innovation from the likes of MIT and Harvard are all contributing factors working in its favor. And prodigal sons like Tim Maslow, a bright star in the Momofuku empire, and Matt Jennings, who gained a national following at Farmstead in Providence, have returned home to open their own restaurants.
But it’s the food, in the end, that is making the difference. In an essay titled Modern Food: Where Are We Heading?, New Englander and Art of Eating founder Ed Behr writes: “What drives the success of most good restaurants, in the age of constant communication, when social media is perhaps the most effective form of publicity, is a sense of being current.” If the overarching trend in American gastronomy today is a celebration of soulful and regional over haute and molecular, then Boston is simply one of the best places in the country to enjoy the moment.
Here, we take a closer look at the resurgence of Boston—and how the food scene may finally be catching up to the intellectual forces that gave the city its “Hub of the Universe” nickname.
Business is booming in Beantown.
For any food scene to take off, it helps to have investors with deep pockets—as well as a community eager to dine out at new restaurants. Boston’s got it like that: The city remains the global biotech hub, having set a record for local IPOs in 2014 (it now ranks fourth among U.S. cities for tech-startup funding). You can largely thank local universities and medical institutions that are world leaders in research and innovation.
“Boston has gone through a renaissance in development and food,” says Mary Dumont, a former Food & Wine “Best New Chef” and evangelist for modern New England cuisine at Harvest in Cambridge. “It’s a city with the best schools and hospitals, among other things, so no wonder New York chefs are trying to open restaurants here now instead of the other way around.”
To boot, more than 60 new restaurants opened last fall in Boston, and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association notes that meals tax collections across the state increased by six percent in 2014, creating total revenues of more than $460 million. But diners aren’t just shelling out more dollars—they are demanding higher-quality offerings. As a result, chefs are pushing themselves to bring better food, service, and aesthetics to market.
Boston’s culinary cred has been overlooked in the past, and a new crop of chefs is intent to not let it happen again.
Dining scenes don’t simply spring forth from primordial ooze, so it’s worth paying homage to the chefs who laid the foundation for today’s progress in Boston.
Julia Child lived in Cambridge for 40 years and used her home as a place to build the food community. Jasper White and Lydia Shire forged an award-winning partnership that elevated fine dining in the city. Gordon Hamersley—the famously low-key, Red Sox cap-wearing chef who worked the line at his eponymous bistro for nearly 30 years before it closed in 2014—was a pioneer of the upscale casual trend we take for granted across America today. Ming Tsai, whose Simply Ming has been a fixture on PBS for more than a decade, did as much as anyone to sell Americans on Asian and Asian-fusion cuisine. Barbara Lynch rose from a rough childhood in Southie to build a local restaurant empire and earn a James Beard for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2014. Ana Sortun also won a Beard for her work at Oleana, still one of the best Mediterranean restaurants in the country 14 years after opening.
But a rising generation of award-winning chefs merits close attention now. Michael Scelfo’s Alden & Harlow, Cassie Piuma’s Sarma, Jeremy Sewall’s Row 34, Will Gilson’s Puritan & Company, Joanne Chang’s Myers + Chang, Tony Maws’ Kirkland Tap & Trotter, Maslow’s Ribelle, and Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Coppa and Toro have all opened in the last couple of years, and they could all be hits in L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, or New York (case in point: Toro’s new NYC location is humming). In the past, that kind of broad appeal rarely existed; nor did the newfound camaraderie that many chefs say sets Boston apart from those higher-profile food cities.
“Over the last five years, I think we all had this moment of clarity where we realized that restaurants don’t have to be massively competitive. It just doesn’t have to work that way,” said Louis Dibiccari, the Tavern Road owner/chef and impresario whose “Chef Louie Nights” supper club is widely credited with bringing the Boston food community closer together. “Camaraderie is our anchor.”
New-School Regionalism Makes The Old Feel Relevant.
Boston’s economy, the contributions of its culinary forebears, and strengthening communal ties wouldn’t mean much if chefs weren’t stepping up and pushing the limits of the cuisine. Restaurants across the country are celebrating American regionalism, updating Southern cooking techniques and bringing other local variants to center stage. But New England foodways have largely been overlooked until these chefs brought greater awareness to their hometown traditions—and no, we don’t mean beans and cod.
“Boston chefs and diners are becoming more and more knowledgeable about New England’s food history and agriculture,” said Abby Ruettgers, owner of the popular vintage cookbook and kitchen goods store Farm & Fable in Boston’s South End. “The spice profile here is unique because of the Portuguese and other cultural influences that came through the port of Boston, and the great producers in the region make it easy for chefs to cook seasonally.”
Seafood cookery has made something of a comeback in Boston in the form of new-school regionalism. For years, it was stuck in neutral, dominated by larger chains like Legal Seafood that, while durable and successful, catered mainly to tourists. But now, restaurants such as Sewall’s Row 34, which grew out of the Island Creek Oyster Company, are resonating with a much larger audience. The menu would not feel unfamiliar to a grandmother in Gloucester, but when the plates reach the table, the transformation is clear. Sewall and his team are regularly selling out smoked and cured seafood boards and “head-to-tail” specials like whole striper that would have shocked diners in the past.
“If Boston wasn’t a progressive dining city, people wouldn’t buy a lot of what we’re trying to sell,” says Sewall. “A cup of old-school chowder or a bucket of steamers are still so important, but we have to adapt and evolve and push things forward. What people think is classic New England fish, like cod and halibut, isn’t always available. We are looking at other catch like tilefish, fluke, and black sea bass, because we have to adapt. I make a black sea bass dish with rich broth and buckwheat noodles that puts Asian elements together with a New England product.”
To drive these advances, Sewall and other chefs are working more closely with farmers, purveyors, and producers throughout New England than ever before.
“The products we can get here are as good as anywhere in the country, if not better,” says Matt Jennings, who left Providence to bring his family home and launch Townsman, by far one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2015. “Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth, Brambley Farms in Norfolk, and Sunny’s Seafood on the Boston waterfront are driving the resurgence and reinterpretation of classic New England dishes.”
Ethnic Food Enclaves Are Creative Muses for Chefs.
Ethnic dining is another area of growing interest in Boston, with established restaurants getting more attention from outside their neighborhoods and new places catering to growing demand. Latino and Asian immigrants especially have increased their contributions to the Massachusetts economy in recent years, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
East Boston is becoming a destination for traditional Latin food served at Taqueria Jalisco, Rincon Limeno, Angela’s Cafe, and El Penol. Dorchester is the city’s Vietnamese hub, with restaurants like Pho Hoa and Banh Mi Be La; northeastern Thai, Cambodian, African, Portuguese, and other cuisines can also be found across the city. But the nerve center is still in Chinatown, which in Boston has remained intact as similar neighborhoods in other cities have decayed.
“Chinese food in Boston is as good as any I’ve had in America,” said Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa, who lives in Boston’s Chinatown and visits Hong Kong regularly. “Every place in Chinatown has at least one knockout traditional dish, and places like Myers + Chang and Shojo have brought some innovation and modern interpretations into the mix as well.”
The traditional cooking found in the city’s best ethnic restaurants is reverberating across the scene in exciting ways.
“We encourage our staff to eat out all over the city as often as possible,” said Alden & Harlow’s Michael Scelfo, who scoured the city to find inspiration for his forthcoming taqueria, Naco, in Cambridge. “The ideas that they bring back help us stay fresh and continually improve.”
Boston’s intellectual hub draws star culinary power.
Given the growing interest about food generally in America, it was only a matter of time before Boston’s world-leading research institutions and innovation centers got in the mix. In a two-month stretch last year, the “Science and Cooking Lecture Series” at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences drew Ferran Adrià, Mark Ladner, Daniel Humm, Christina Tosi, Joan Roca, and Nathan Myrhvold, generating an unprecedented level of excitement around the conversation of modernist cuisine. Their presence not only inspires local chefs to push the envelope, but also gives them access to the most creative minds in cooking.
Innovative chefs like Ferran Adria participate in Harvard’s “Science and Cooking Lecture Series.” (Photo: greatchefs.com)
The same can be said of food systems: The MIT Media Lab’s City Farm has created a controlled environment in which vegetables can be grown much faster than normal, with no added chemicals and 90 percent less water. MIT’s researchers, and those from other institutions, are eager food adventurers as well. Philipp Schmidt, a Director’s Fellow at the Media Lab, co-hosts the radio show Eater’s Digest on WMBR, where he explores the intersection of food and culture by interviewing chefs from Boston and beyond.
“The kitchen was humanity’s first laboratory,” said Schmidt. “And our biggest challenge for the future is figuring out how to feed a population of 10 billion people, so researchers are actively experimenting with food.”
Projects like LiquidArtHouse and Louis Dibiccari’s CREATE dinner series bring artists and chefs together to create new aesthetic experiences in dining. Crop Circle Kitchen and The Food Loft at Harvard Common Press are helping food entrepreneurs bring new ideas to life. DinnerLab, which gives up-and-coming chefs a pop-up platform to create and innovate, has made Boston one of its feature expansion cities for 2014.
“Boston is booming,” said Paco Robert, the COO of DinnerLab. “It’s exactly the type of environment we want to be a part of—one where we can aid in experimentation and serve as a place to prototype new concepts.”
Much of this innovation centers around policy initiatives. It’s worth noting that Boston, under the leadership of the late Mayor Tom Menino, pioneered programs to help low-income residents buy fresh produce with public benefits, which has a national model supported by policymakers and local leaders. Nonprofits like The Food Project, City Growers, and the Urban Farm Institute are partnering with entrepreneurs like the folks behind Mei Mei Street Kitchen on a variety of food justice and sustainability initiatives. Hamersley, the dean of the Boston food scene, has committed his post-restaurant life in part to Future Chefs, a program that trains urban youth for careers in the culinary arts. Food is the harbinger of great social change.
A new road ahead.
The chefs of Boston’s rising generation are comfortable in their own independent kitchens, which bodes well for the growth of New England cuisine.
As for Bossidy’s quote, I think we may have found a contemporary replacement: “Part of me says it’s about time that Boston got some recognition, but another part says, ‘I don’t fucking care if the national food media pays attention,’” said Matt Jennings. “I know what we’re doing here is great.”
The city still has a lot of growing still to do, but that doesn’t mean you should sit on your haunches. Quit bitching about #DeflateGate and give Boston a taste.