Author Jane Black
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, one of the best parts about the midday meal at Boston’s exquisite Sportello (348 Congress St., 617-737-1234, sportelloboston.com), a playfully minimalist spot with a Jetsons-age lunch counter, is the bill. That’s not an insult. In fact, the food is first rate. When chef Barbara Lynch makes a chestnut bisque with Italian truffles, she transforms a peasant dish into one with overtones of royalty. The strozzapreti, twisted house-made pasta tossed with braised rabbit and green olives, is good enough to make you forsake Bolognese sauce forever. But it’s the prices that are truly unusual. That four-star bisque costs just $12, only slightly more than you’d spend at a drab sandwich chain. And the $17 pasta is made with the same thoughtfulness as at Lynch’s exorbitantly priced flagship, No. 9 Park.
Once upon a time, a reasonably priced gourmet meal in Boston was as scarce as a Derek Jeter fan at Fenway Park. Locals faced a stark choice: Hit a dive for a beer and a burger or spring for a glorious, wallet-busting repast. These days, moderate yet classy spots dot Beantown, serving everything from shrimp and heirloom grits to tea-smoked spareribs—all at middle-class prices.
According to Clark Wolf, a New York restaurant consultant, this flowering of midrange dining rooms marks Boston’s passage from dining backwater to one of the country’s great restaurant cities. “A great mid-priced restaurant is the hardest thing to do well,” he says. “It’s a sign that a city has arrived.”
Boston’s transition began in earnest in 2005 when French chef Jacky Robert opened Petit Robert Bistro (468 Commonwealth Avenue, 617-375-0699, petitrobertbistro.com) in a basement in Kenmore Square.
Robert was already a top draw in Boston fine dining, having run the legendary Maison Robert in the Old City Hall for five years. At Petit Robert, the chef has traded delicate Dover sole and filet mignon for homey staples like skirt steak and roast chicken (all priced under $20). The place was an instant hit, not only with longtime locals and Robert acolytes, but with Boston University coeds and unruly Red Sox fans. Within 18 months, the chef had opened a second Bistro in the South End.
Petit Robert’s success raised eyebrows in the town’s close-knit restaurant community. The following year, Ken Oringer, who blended cutting-edge techniques with continental flavors at Clio, opened the tapas bar Toro (1704 Washington St., 617-536-4300, tororestaurant.com), and quickly followed up with an authentic Mexican taqueria, La Verdad (7 Lansdowne St., 617-351-2580, laverdadtaqueria.com). Culinary entrepreneur Andres Branger made such a splash with the arepas and empanadas at his downscale South End Latin gem, Orinoco (477 Shawmut Ave., 617-369-7075, orinocokitchen.com), that he was compelled to open a second, larger cantina with the same name (22 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-9505).
Today, the ripples from Petit Robert’s splash are felt in every corner of Beantown. One of the newest and most inventive entries is Sofra (1 Belmont Street, Cambridge, 617-661-3161, sofrabakery.com), a younger sibling to chef Ana Sortun’s one-of-a-kind Middle Eastern fusion restaurant, Oleana. Sofra’s feel is more café than restaurant—patrons sit on carpet-covered wood benches around low tables made from copper drums—but the food is as creative and complex as any in Boston. The mezze, or small plates ($3 for one, $9 for five), include a green olive and walnut salad, smoky eggplant dip and a bean and walnut paté, and each is scrumptious. For a more substantial meal try the flatbread sandwiches known as yufkas, griddled Turkish tortillas stuffed with surprising combinations like zucchini, sesame and mozzarella cheese or homemade sausage spiced with cumin and orange, green olives ($7 each).
Sweets get equal attention at Sofra. Pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick replaces basic baklava with one that layers chocolate, hazelnuts and cocoa honey between crisp sheets of phyllo ($4). Her take on the Oreo Cookie (called a “Maureo”) sandwiches milk jam—a sort of Middle Eastern caramel—between homemade chocolate cookies ($1.50).
It’s hard to settle on just one thing at Sofra, so it’s advisable to order a hodgepodge of dishes. That’s also a good strategy at Myers + Chang (1145 Washington St., 617-542-5200, myersandchang.com), an urban-retro-styled Asian dim sum joint in the South End. Like the decor, the food is strictly modern—fresh, clean and light—even though many of the recipes are authentic delicacies handed down by co-owner Joanne Chang’s grandmother. The lightly fried lemony shrimp dumplings ($13) are exceptional, and the potstickers stuffed with shiitake and Chinese greens are a steal at just $10.
Running a midpriced restaurant may make sense in these troubled times, but no one said it’s easy. The owners of Hungry Mother (233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge, 617-499-0090, hungrymothercambridge.com) had been trying for years to raise the cash to go into business. In the end, they cooked up an online campaign and attracted 350 benefactors who pitched in enough money to open the doors. Chef Barry Maiden, a Virginia native, brings an abundance of Southern charm to the cozy 55-seat eatery in Kendall Square. For starters, he serves, among other dishes, boiled Virginia peanuts speckled with gray sea salt ($3), and country ham biscuits topped with dollops of pepper jelly ($4). The main courses include New American fare, but the real draws are Southern classics: shrimp and creamy grits ($10), for instance, and cornmeal-crusted catfish ($18) served with andouille sausage and hoppin’ john.
Chef Maiden learned his craft at Sel de la Terre (774 Boylston St., 617-266-8800, seldelaterre.com), a midpriced Provençal restaurant that’s become a local mini-franchise in the last two years. The newest outpost opened last fall in the Back Bay, steps from the Newbury Street tourist hub. While the menu’s signature is simplicity, each dish sings. On a bitterly cold Boston day, a lunch of turnip soup with olive oil–roasted almonds and cinnamon ($13) helps diners appreciate winter. Also worth sampling is the upscale grilled cheese stuffed with apple, quince paste and bacon on housemade fig-anise bread ($9.50).
The trend is even creeping into South Boston, where downmarket Irish pub grub traditionally dominates. At Franklin Southie (152 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-269-1003, franklincafe.com), locals share the dark wood bar with destination diners and sip classic cocktails—Sazeracs, aviators and Manhattans ($9). Exceptional main courses include sunchoke ravioli topped with a bright mix of wilted greens, lemon and shallot ($16), and a poached salmon with lobster, butternut squash and apple risotto ($19).
When eating out, the middle of the road isn’t always the best place to be. The $130 beef filet and the humble bacon-cheeseburger are both as crucial to American heritage as the Boston Tea Party. But as our belts tighten, it’s heartening to know that somewhere, at least, the middle class is growing.
Jane Black is The Washington Post’s food writer.