Boston dining in 2012 can be summed up easily as the Year of the Burger. Yes, we could have trawled Chinatown for the best Shanghainese soup dumplings or scoured Eastie in search of great pupusas, but all Bostonians really seemed to want this year was the all-American hamburger. On the cheap end, local chains like UBurger and Tasty Burger proliferated to offer a better alternative to heinous global-chain crap like McD's. But every fine-dining restaurant seemed to offer a burger too, at least at the bar, as epitomized, still, by the insanely high-craft, extraordinary Craigie on Main burger. In between was everything from the farm-to-table burger typified by Jamaica Plain's new Grass Fed restaurant, to the big, simple, beautiful pub burger at DTX hangout jm Curley, to gastropubby pile-ups like the Hangtown Fry (topped with a fried egg and fried oysters) at the Gallows in the South End. Burgers were ubiquitous, inescapable.
While the herd went stampeding after endless iterations of chopped beefsteak on a bun, a smaller flock went flitting about in search of another sometimes humble, sometimes exalted dish: ramen, the Japanese noodle soup. This little frenzy got kicked off by Guchi's Midnight Ramen, a very occasional pop-up in fine-dining restaurants like Bondir and No. 9 Park, with only a handful of seats that sold out in an eyeblink. The Back Bay's posh Uni jumped on the bandwagon with its own weekend late-night offering. Porter Square newcomer Yume Wo Katare confirmed the food-geek mania for ramen, drawing nightly hour-plus lines for its extra-hefty jiro-style ramen right from its October opening.
Other relatively obscure Asian delicacies made waves this year too. Korean-style spicy wings continued to find converts as the Bon Chon franchise expanded to Harvard Square. Japanese skewer grilling over charcoal found a pricey outpost in the South End's Yakitori Zai. And bao bao found their way out of Chinatown's dim sum parlors and into quality budget purveyors like Powderhouse Square's new DooWee & Rice.
On the high end, seasonal and local New American continued to dominate, with new entries like Inman Square's Puritan & Co., Milton's Steel and Rye, and Newton Centre's Farmstead Table.
On the neighborhood front, the South End managed to regain some of its recently faded luster as a dining destination with a slew of openings (Kitchen, Yakitori Zai, Vejigantes, BoMA, Cinquecento, Estelle's). Kendall Square continued its surprising 2011 restaurant expansion with stellar new openings like West Bridge. West Roxbury emerged as a fine little dining destination in its own right, helped by newcomers like Vietnamese gem Banh Mi Ngon and BBQ purveyor Red-Eyed Pig. And Southie's gentrification accelerated with openings like Lincoln Tavern and a forthcoming Foodie's Urban Market. Meanwhile, Somerville's Union Square got a bit of uptown flavor via Latin-tapas purveyor Casa B and the craft-cocktail hideaway Backbar, with the much anticipated Middle European restaurant Bronwyn approaching fast.
But the bigger neighborhood story was the Seaport's ongoing development into a kind of restaurant Mall of America, augmented this year by new outlets of local restaurant fiefdoms like Empire and national chains like Rosa Mexicano, with a few twinkly food-TV stars en route to add some boutiquey glamour. Local celebrity-chef Ming Tsai will finally reach beyond his Wellesley base to open Blue Dragon, while Manhattan star chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Mario Batali announced their 2013 Boston debuts here. The Seaport's thousands of restaurant seats are thronging with tourists, convention-goers, and especially suburbanites who seem thrilled by the easy highway access and harbor views. Less excited? Food lovers in search of non-chainy dining and independent restaurateurs in Boston neighborhoods without abundant cheap parking.