From contemporary Cuban cuisine to inventive iterations of Italian dining, our very subjective list of the year’s best newcomers.
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Everyone loves a year-end list (or at the very least, loves to debate them)—and with so many excellent restaurant openings in Boston in 2019, we couldn’t help but take our pass at picking the top arrivals. We’ll freely admit that choosing these was a challenge. For one, there are a few promising newcomers, such as the barely month-old Woods Hill Pier 4, that still feel too fresh to fairly consider. And we had to make a few difficult determinations: for instance, though the utensil-free food at Longfellow Bar could be rightly ranked quite highly, we ultimately decided that chef Michael Scelfo’s Best of Boston-winning cocktail bar is more appropriately acknowledged as that. Finally, we allowed for a few suburban entries, owing to strong showings outside the city proper. Without further ado or explanation, here’s where we landed as 2019 comes to a close. Spoiler alert: no matter where you start, you won’t go wrong.
Before she became a chef, Patricia Estorino was a professional dancer in Cuba. Maybe that explains her gift for melody, one that pays as many rewards on the plate as it would on a stage. At the Cambridge location of Gustazo, Estorino offers a bigger, broader, more robust expression of the contemporary Cuban cuisine she’s been serving at the Waltham original, and every note sings—from the sweet citrus of pepper- and pineapple-trimmed swordfish ceviche, to the silky richness of mariscada stew that bathes mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops in coconut-milk-and-lobster broth. The much-larger Cambridge location also boasts a full bar program, crafted by Backbar founder and local cocktail maestro Sam Treadway. Add it all up, and this Gustazo is a rare thing: a second act that is also an arrival. 2067 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 855-487-8296, gustazo-cubancafe.com.
2. Fox & the Knife
Following her successful run as executive chef at Myers+Chang, James Beard award-winner Karen Akunowicz’s first solo outing came with high expectations. She smashed them. Fox & the Knife is a love letter to the time Akunowicz spent working and cooking in Modena, Italy. This letter, though, doesn’t profess clasped-hands faithfulness: rather, it announces Akunowicz’s own, independent vision for impeccable house made pastas, such as the splendidly saffron-enlivened spaghetti con vongole, as well as other Italian musings—like bietola and burrata dressed with crispy shallots and warm walnut vinaigrette, one of the city’s best salads. Powering all this: an inclusive-feeling dining room charged with New Southie energy; a bar with fine vermouths and lovely, aperitivo-friendly cocktails; and a steady thrum of polished hospitality from Akunowicz’s strong and savvy, cool crew. No wonder Akunowicz returns to Top Chef for its second All Stars season in 2020. 28 W Broadway, South Boston, 617-766-8630, foxandtheknife.com.
3. The Oyster Club at the Heritage
Like its stiff-sounding name, the Oyster Club’s backstory is fairly unexciting: acclaimed seafood chef from the ‘burbs plants a long-awaited flag in Boston, serves exactly the kind of New England-informed seafood he is known for, and does it exactly right. This is not an eventful headline—but it is extremely good news. Chris Parsons, beloved for his late Winchester restaurant, Catch, remains a master at this stuff—especially after pruning his opening menu into a svelter, can’t-miss lineup of classics (sublime seafood chowder and a superlative, brown butter-dressed lobster roll) and seasonal detours: say, vadouvan-spiced swordfish with delicata squash and poached cranberries. In a time when “buzz” often demands that restaurants deliver contemplative concepts and highly particular points of view, there is no sexy narrative here—just fantastic seafood with a light touch of yacht-club swing. 79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-426-6700, theoysterclubboston.com.
4. Nightshade Noodle Bar
It’s worth the short trip to Lynn to discover Rachel Miller’s 30-seat addition to the North Shore. Nightshade is a permanent, brick-and-mortar destination for the kind of inventive, Vietnamese-American cuisine she’s been showing off during pop-ups over the last couple years—and what a welcome (and welcoming) home it is. You’ll find her signature house-made noodles in, say, pork broth with Nantucket Bay scallops, as well as excellent small plates like lobster dumplings with smoked vanilla-chili sauce. Smart wines? Check. Tropics-invoking cocktails? You bet. Our only selfish wish: that we’ll someday get Miller, a vet of fine-dining spots like Bondir and Clio, back in Boston. 73 Exchange St., Lynn, 781-780-9470, nightshadenoodlebar.com.
When we published this feature profile on star chef Tiffani Faison at the beginning of the year, Orfano was still a glint in her eye. Now the latest addition to her small empire of restaurants has arrived, and it could become our favorite. It culls the perfect combination of traits from across her projects: the comforting nostalgia of Sweet Cheeks Q, the creative riffing of Tiger Mama, the cheekiness of Fool’s Errand. Orfano, meanwhile, is Faison’s elegant yet irreverent take on Italian-American dining, where playful notions such as pizza lasagne (exactly as it sounds, with whipped pepperoni, “Sunday gravy” and “burnt cheese”) share space with smart, polished plates like luscious lobster bucatini in a brown butter-lobster sauce, and tuna “martini”—carpaccio spruced with Gordal olives and Vermouth-enhanced lemon puree. The actual martinis? They’re perfect here—crystalline. As for the swish backdrop: some staff wears “tuxedo” t-shirts, spiffy servers wield oversized pepper grinders with a hint of irony, and regal portraits of pop culture’s most badass bella donne—like Lady Gaga, photographed while slurping spaghetti—adorn the walls. 1391 Boylston St., Boston, 617-916-9600, orfanoboston.com.
Rochambeau restores life to a space that sorely needed it: the former home of Towne Stove & Spirits, a two-floor restaurant that limped along—lacking a strong identity—for too long after it lost the influence of Lydia Shire and Jasper White, the legendary Boston chefs who helped open it. Finally, the Lyons Group, the hospitality team behind many dining and entertainment venues, have installed here a modern brasserie with Back Bay-clubhouse verve—the same kind of vibe in which they’ve specialized since Sonsie helped define the Newbury Street social-dining scene over 30 years ago. At Rochambeau, French fare with international accents comes courtesy of two serious talents: Nick Calias, the Lyons Group’s new culinary director, and executive chef Matt Gaudet, a former Food & Wine “Best New Chef.” This is a place where double-dates share a stunning, table-sized chateaubriand in the upstairs dining room; couples canoodle over a wine list sprinkled with special surprises at the downstairs bar; and midday crowds meet over casual bites and coffee at an adjacent cafe. The whole outfit brings, style, substance, and a necessary shot in the arm to its prime, Prudential Center-side address. 900 Boylston St., Boston, 617-247-0400, rochambeauboston.com.
More places like Stillwater, please. Chef Sarah Wade’s self-owned debut is disarming in its utter lack of pretension; despite inheriting a downtown address on the ground floor of a luxury condo building (one that formerly belonged to Townsman, a hyped farm-to-table), Wade didn’t concern herself with showing off. Rather, the Chopped: Gold Medal Games winner focused on showing what she can do, and wonderfully, when working within her wheelhouse: moderately priced, playful and elevated comfort food. Her Oklahoma roots shine through, as with blue cheese-thyme biscuits accompanied by whipped chicken-drippings butter, as well as a killer chicken fried ribeye with cherry-pepper relish. Also evident are the charming quirks she previously shared with us at Lulu’s Allston; jelly doughnut-inspired creme brûlée, anyone? Stillwater is casual, sometimes silly (see: cocktail names like the Adios Pantalones, tequila with elderflower and grapefruit) and comes off as consciously allergic to being a wallet buster—a nice twist, nowadays. 120 Kingston St., Boston, 617-936-3079, stillwaterboston.com.
8. Black Lamb
This year, chef Colin Lynch—our reigning Best of Boston winner for general excellence—launched two new (and very different) South End ventures. Black Lamb, a breezy American brasserie, is his contender for Any-Night neighborhood destination. Within its teal-colored walls, the restaurant cultivates a familiar-feeling din of chatter over raw bar offerings and other shareable plates: think roasted king crab legs, burnished with lemon-chili butter, as well as standout duck breast frites with orange béarnaise. It’s an effortless, people-pleasing affair, including beverage director Ryan Lotz’s comfort-stoking cocktails—such as a Manhattan with cinnamon and allspice for a “pumpkin spice”-style treatment, and a white cosmopolitan that actually has us appreciating the recent resurgence of all things ’90s. 571 Tremont St., Boston, 617-982-6330, blacklambsouthboston.com.
Mariel feels like the proper follow-up to Yvonne’s we were waiting for. Of course, COJE Management Group, the team behind several stylish hotspot-restaurants, had already given us Ruka in the meantime; apologies to that Peruvian-Japanese-Chinese restaurant, a worthy entry in the portfolio, but it doesn’t command the same paint-the-town energy as Yvonne’s, a stunning, glittery supper club within the hallowed halls of the late Locke-Ober. Mariel, on the other hand, brings high drama: housed within a former bank, this contemporary Cuban concept channels a sexy-distressed brand of Old Havana opulence—imagine a cigar magnate’s mansion after it’s been lashed by a tropical storm. The food and drink is for rich tastes, too: plantain dumplings with garlic-brown butter and aji picante are bold in flavor—so is the gruyere- and sweet ham-topped Cubano pizza, as well as halibut ceviche with roasted guava crema that is sliced by citrusy lulo fruit. Refreshing rum drinks flow; DJs bump beats by the bar and in the clubby lower level, Mariel Underground. 10 Post Office Sq., Boston, 617-333-8776, marielofficial.com.
10. Table Boston
Jen Royle is refreshingly real—and not just because she’s the kind of business owner unafraid to clap back at trolls on her candid Twitter feed. Rather, it’s because Royle unapologetically does what she wants, without regard to naysayers. The former Boston sports reporter traded her media profile to become a (largely, self-taught) chef and open an Italian restaurant in the North End restaurant with a love-it-or-hate-it format: multi-course, family-style feasts—no substitutions—shared with strangers at just two communal tables. She couldn’t even serve alcohol when she first opened (gasp!), though that has since changed. The thing is, strident individualism aside, you can taste a lotta love in Royle’s Sunday-suppa’-style comfort food—chicken madeira, ricotta-laden meatballs, zeppoli the size of your head—and her charming table-side manner, friendly but always shooting from the hip. As for us? We leave Table full, satisfied, and as new Facebook-friends with former strangers. It’s all about the experience here: you may find other meals with more “correct” cooking—but you probably won’t have a dinner that’s this much fun. 445 Hanover St., Boston, 857-250-4286, tableboston.com.
11. Chef Ronsky’s
Whereas Jen Royle’s personality is front, center, and part of the appeal at Table Boston, award-winning chef-owner Ron Suhanosky quietly keeps his head down at his splendid Chestnut Hill surprise, recently reimagined as a tiny trattoria. There are only 15 seats (minus the seasonal patio), so there’s no bad view of the open-kitchen action—especially, of course, if you nab a counter spot. Yet Suhanosky stays in the background even in the foreground, more concerned with managing a seamless flow of action than presiding as a one-man-brand. While shoppers from the Street, a suburban outdoor shopping complex, debrief each other on the results of their retail therapy, their host crafts contemporary interpretations of Italian cuisine—lobster cannelloni with artichokes and pistachio cream, or tagliatelle with fennel and blood orange—and thoughtfully serves them on his nonna’s antique plates. Bellisima. 3A Boylston St., Chestnut Hill, chefronsky’s.com.
It was all about intimate dining experiences in 2019, but Tanám raises the consciousness of that format. The worker-owned restaurant at Bow Market, a restaurant and retail courtyard in Somerville, has only a single 10-seat table. There, guests assemble for Filipinx cuisine—which is greatly underrepresented in the Boston area—from chef Ellie Tiglao. And she provides a few different ways to experience it: you can opt for the casual elegance of multi-course “storytelling dinners,” which give Tiglao an opportunity to illuminate the meal with cultural context and some personal background; kamayan evenings, when guests eat with their hands from a feast splayed across banana leaves; and pulutan (bar food) enjoyed with lovely cocktails like the Death, Trapped—black pepper-infused brandy with roasted pineapple, kalamansi, and ginger. One thing is certain: no matter how you take Tanám, you’ll be taken by Tanam. 1 Bow Market Way, Somerville, 617-669-2144, tanam.co.
Another suburban standout in a year that had a few, Simcha comes courtesy of Avi Shemtov, already known for roving Boston streets in his Chubby Chickpea food truck. All that laffa-wrapped falafel has been nice, but this full-service restaurant really lets Shemtov stretch himself—and the result is an expressive, loving homage to Israeli cuisine that updates Iberian and Arab-world influences with a little modern-American flair. Some favorites: Moroccan-spiced, charred carrots drizzled with tahini and honey; crispy confit chicken wings tossed in lemon-pepper sauce; chickpea polenta fries covered, poutine-style, with pulled short rib, gravy, and feta. (We also love the creative cocktails, especially those spiked with cold-pressed juices.) Simcha is named for Shemtov’s grandmother, and though he didn’t know her well, the familial roots she represents are deeply felt here. A mural painting of her watches over the room—and she looks, rightly so, very proud. 370 S Main St., Sharon, 781-867-7997, simcharestaurant.com.
14. No Relation
Chef Colin Lynch’s second entry on this list is a clandestine-feeling, nine-seat sushi counter secreted away inside Shore Leave, his Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant and tiki bar. Lynch’s other 2019 opening, Black Lamb, is designed for everyday dining—No Relation, by contrast, is for a special-feeling night out: pre-paid tickets range from $95 to $120 for a 14-course omakase experience (beverages pairings are priced separately). You will not be disappointed by the super-fresh sashimi and nigiri, nightly-changing surprises—such as A5 Wagyu with uni and caviar—or the showmanship on display in such small (yet grand!) quarters . 11 William E Mullins Way, Boston, 617-530-1772, norelationboston.com.
It was quite a year for Italian newcomers, and every entry had its angle. Peregrine, for one, looks mainly to the Boot’s Mediterranean islands—such as Sicily and Sardinia—as well as nearby Corsica and the Catalonian coast. It’s an excellent all-day affair within the new Whitney Hotel in Beacon Hill, and befits the boutique property. After all, there is painstaking attention to detail here—in food, drink, and service—that mirrors the thoughtfulness of its ever-endearing, elder sibling, Juliet in Somerville. With Peregrine, cofounders Katrina Jazayeri (who curates a marvelous wine list) and chef Josh Lewin (whose seasonal breakfast-through-dinner menus never fail to charm) again put their best foot forward. And that makes for a confident next step from a team in fine stride. 170 Charles St. Boston, 617-530-1772, peregrineboston.com.