“Boston was like a siren calling my name,” says chef Jamie Bissonette, who remembers driving up from Connecticut as a teenager to watch ball games at Fenway Park and thrash around at punk-rock shows.
Ultimately, though, Bissonnette would make his mark by leaving the mosh pits of the city’s hardcore scene and sharpening his knives in Boston’s kitchens instead. The city’s reputation as a culinary frontrunner has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, thanks in no small part to Bissonnette and his business partner, Ken Oringer. And while the two continue to expand their operation outside of the city limits, having opened Toro in NYC, both are insistent about a type of camaraderie that can only be found in their hometown.
“My favorite thing about being here is that we’re all supportive of each other,” says Bissonnette. “There’s a group text, so in case a dishwasher doesn’t show up, we can help one another out out. We exchange staff meals regularly. We all want to promote Boston. If I’m going to do an event in L.A., I’ll bring another chef along. We’re our own roadies.”
Oringer calls Boston a “proud little city,” and one with its own set of rituals. For starters, never get caught calling it Beantown. (“It’s like nails on a chalkboard,” says Bissonnette.)
To lay some important groundwork (and help you avoid looking like a noob on your next visit), we asked Bissontette and Oringer to share the 10 commandments for navigating Boston.
1. The divier the place, the better the lobster roll.
Oringer says: “Eat lobsters—lots of them. My favorite way is in the form of a lobster roll, and for that I’ll go to Neptune’s (63 Salem St, 617-742-3474). They aren’t going to be cheap, but they are abundant. The more casual places are, the better they tend to be. Lobster, mayo, and butter-grilled bun—the simpler the better. When people try to do fancier stuff with it, it’s not the same experience. Neptune’s is a raw bar in Little Italy and it’s a very special place. They serve both hot (with butter) and cold ones (with just enough mayo to keep it interesting). I’ll take either.” (Photo: Yelp/Antonio T.)
2. Eat oysters on the waterfront (even when it’s hot out).
Oringer says: “During the summer the water is too warm off New England, and a lot of oysters won’t have that meatiness. They’re not as plump or rich. Even so, there’s nothing better than eating them on a 90-degree day. My go-to is Row 34 (383 Congress St, 617-553-5900). It’s a big oyster bar owned by Island Creek, one of the top oyster companies in the country. These guy pick the best ones. On any night, there’ll be 12 to 14 varieties. I love the Wellfleet oysters, and they’ll also bring in product from Martha’s Vineyard.” (Photo: Yelp/Will H.)
3. Explore Boston’s lesser-known pockets for ethnic food.
Oringer says: “Wherever I live, I spend my days walking around trying to find mom-and-pop places. It took a while to find them in Boston because they’re typically outside the city. I love Dorchester for Vietnamese, Brighton for Brazilian, and Cambridge for Portuguese. It’s so cool to have this one block of 25 Vietnamese places where you can go to markets. It’s as if you were in Saigon. With the cold winters that we have, it’s great to head to Cambridge for Portuguese, to get kale and linguiça soup and other stews with pork and clams. It’s hearty, delicious, and rich food.” (Photo: Yelp/Scratchie S.)
4. Boston is considered a beer town, but cocktail culture is on the rise.
Oringer says: “It’s always had that reputation from its Irish beginnings. Yvonne’s (2 Winter Pl, 617-267-0047) has only been open for six months, but it’s kind of like the Nomad bar of Boston. They do large-format craft cocktails; it’s a place without attitude. When I’m there I always ask for WilI and have him make me anything with mezcal. I love the smokiness of it and how it’s artisanally made, and the variety of interesting ones on the market. It’s a relatively under-the-radar spirit, and it’s finally starting to come out.” (Photo: Facebook/Yvonne’s)
5. As touristy as it sounds, there’s nothing like going to the Omni Parker House.
Oringer says: “Back in the day, Boston was known for baked beans and Boston Cream pie. It’s a pie made with pastry cream, whipped cream, and chocolate, and was first served at the Omni Parker House Hotel (60 School St, 617-227-8600). Ho Chi Minh used to work at the kitchen in the early 1900s before he became the Ho Chi Minh. Parker House rolls are those warm, buttery rolls that stick together and come out in a cast-iron pan. These guys invented them maybe a 150 years ago. It’s fun to go in there because it’s a classic spot where you can relive the old Boston days on a winter’s night.” (Photo: Yelp/Diana N.)
6. Pay respects to American’s second-oldest Chinatown.
Bissonnette says: “Boston China Town isn’t huge, but it’s one of the oldest. Most of the people in Chinatown are from Hong Kong, so there’s a huge dim-sum culture. I actually live there now. It’s got a lot of history and a lot of family-run places. The food is so authentic. I go to Hong Kong once a year. Typically, it’s very hard to find the food of where you traveled to, but when I come back home, I’m able to find it. Peach Farm (4 Tyler St, 617-482-1116) always has the best seafood. They’ll have tanks of live geoduck, abalone, conch, and King crab. Eating there is like a religious experience. China Pearl (9 Tyler St, 617-426-4338) is a dim-sum spot that has both carts and a kitchen. In Hong Kong if you go to a place that’s really busy, they have everything steamed in carts to keep up with the volume, so it overcooks and things get mushy. But you don’t find that at China Pearl.” (Photo: Yelp/Sophie P.)
7. Look for culinary innovation in the outskirts.
Bissonnette says: “A lot of people come to Boston and they think that things are farther away then they really are. If I’m in NYC and I want to go to Brooklyn, people give me flak. Going from Boston to Somerville is closer than going from Penn Station to the Lower East Side. It’s so easy. It’s much cheaper for rent, and there’s good bang for your buck if you open up a businesses. So there’s a lot of talented people doing great things. At Sarma (249 Pearl St, 617-764-4464) in Somerville, chef Cassie Piuma is super-inventive. It’s mostly Middle Eastern/North African mezze. She uses spices in a way that blows my mind. A lot of people rely on pork fat to bulk up flavor, but she has such a deft touch with sumac and zatar. Every bite lights up my face. Sofra (1 Belmont St, 617-661-3161) is the sister restaurant to Sarma. It’s essentially a bakery with great coffee. I’ve never seen a place like it outside of Morocco. At Puritan & Company (1166 Cambridge St, 617-615-6195) in Cambridge, you have a chef that grew up on his dad’s farm who can trace his family back to the Mayflower. It’s old New England salt-of-the-earth type people. You can’t go there and not have delicious food.” (Photo: Yelp/Lala I.)
8. Tour Fenway Park.
Bissonnette says: “I live here and I like doing it every few years. I’m a behind-the-scenes type of guy. If I go to a restaurant, I want to be able to picture the kitchen. During my first tour 10 years ago, I got to go behind the scoreboard and inside of the Green Monster. You see that someone is changing the score by hand. It’s a piece of history. It’s like in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta brings his wife into the club, and they go through the kitchen and walk down the line. It’s completely badass. And there’s so much history, culinarily speaking. The current chef there used to work at a high-end white tablecloth restaurant for years, and Fenway still serves one of my favorite lobster rolls in the city.” (Photo: Yelp/Frank B.)
9. For your own sake, don’t call it “Beantown.”
Bissonnette says: “I’ve been in Boston fro 20 years, and I’ve only seen baked beans on three menus. Hey, what’s going on in Beantown? It’s like, what’s wrong with you? It’s almost like when you say you’re from L.A. and someone assumes Hollywood. No, I’m from the other side of town. Does every single chef in NYC only cook hot dogs and pizza? Beantown is like nails on the chalkboard. Anyone of my friends who grew up here, if they were at a bar and someone said, I love Beantown, that’s where the bottle got thrown. It was target practice.” (Photo: Flickr/Boston Public Library)
10. Go listen to jazz.
Bissonnette says: “If you stumble upon any local live jazz during your stay, go see it. We have the Berklee College of Music here. There’s a club called Wally’s (427 Massachusetts Ave, 617-424-1408) in the South End. Every night of the week it’s different—Cuban jazz, New Orleans jazz. Some people have been playing there for years, but you also might find a kid who’s too young to order a drink wailing on the saxophone. It’s such a unique part of the history in the South End.” (Photo: Facebook/Wally’s)