Part of the backbone of any urban neighborhood is its small, independent restaurants. That little joint on the corner serves the critical need of humans to occasionally socialize over a casual meal and forsake home cooking after a long workday. They’re the core of every city dweller’s restaurant rotation: a tiny pizza pad, a bare-bones Thai storefront, a local tavern with a good burger.
Neighborhood restaurants are the Kevin Youkilises and Alex Coras of the dining scene: unflashy, everyday contributors who are just as critical to a team’s success as its big-ticket superstars. Serious diners treasure these modest, unsung venues as much as the ones with Food Network–show chefs on their marquee.
So what makes a great neighborhood restaurant? First, it must cater primarily to locals, not expense-account types, tourists, or destination diners. It has to deliver good value for the money: dinner can’t feel like a splurge on a weeknight. The place should reflect the character of its neighborhood and make sense in its local context. Finally, a real neighborhood joint must transcend casual-dining-chain genericism — we all know that chain outlets aren’t really “eatin’ good in the neighborhood.”
But we Bostonians have a tendency to get mired in a rut, rarely venturing outside of our own few square blocks. “I live in the South End,” says one of my typically slothful pals. “Why would I ever leave to eat out?” How many times have you shuffled through that same stack of take-out menus for places you could hit with a rock? That’s almost criminally lazy: it’s not like you live in LA, where crossing neighborhood boundaries usually requires a car. Yours is a compact, walkable city with decent public transportation and a passel of great neighborhoods, each with its own string of culinary pearls.
Uncovering worthy local places beyond your own locality isn’t that hard. Like any good chowhound, you have to follow your nose, dig a bit, maybe find a pack of like-minded dogs with whom to run. But above all, you have to get roving, Rover. Get off your tether, get off your block, and get out exploring Boston’s many fine, high-value neighborhood restaurants, starting with the following list of standouts. You’ll be glad you busted out of that well-worn circle in your own backyard.
O Cantinho | 1128 Cambridge Street | 617.354.3443
If a neighborhood place should reflect its environment, an East Cambridge attempt must be rooted in Portuguese-speaking culture. Among many excellent Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants clustered here, the Azorean-leaning O Cantinho is the one I’d patronize weekly if I lived closer. With a rustic-looking room, amiable service, and entrées under $19, it’s a useful reminder of how Portuguese cookery beautifully showcases our local seafood. And oh, does O Cantinho know how to make sea animals sing, as in pastéis (fritters overloaded with chopped salt cod and shrimp), porco a alentejana (pork and clams sautéed in garlic and white wine, plus that wonder of Portuguese kitchens: pan-fried potatoes), and marisco a bela vista (a stew of clams, mussels, squid, and shrimp in a piquant, gingery broth). Swoon-worthy three-bite pastries, including pastel de nata (brûléed custard tartlets), are served for dessert. Given the historical significance of Lusophone immigrants to New England’s fishing industry, it’s ironic that, when they crave seafood, locals don’t think of East Cambridge first. You now know how to rectify this mistake.
Grotto | 37 Bowdoin Street | 617.227.3434
If you’re not careful as you totter down the steep slope of Bowdoin Street, you might miss Grotto’s unobtrusive basement space. That would be a shame: with its deep-red walls, glowing candlelight, surreal artwork, and closely spaced tables, it’s a bit of the East Village on Beacon Hill. The service, like the crowd, is casual; the wine list unremarkable. But much of the Italian-inspired food here is generously portioned and rather rich, including a nightly $35 three-course prix fixe, which seems decadent for its bargain prices. It would take an extraordinary appetite to demolish the heaping housemade potato gnocchi with short ribs and gorgonzola, a gentle assault of unctuous, concentrated flavors. Lighter dishes, such as grilled shrimp, octopus, and squid with white beans in a Sicilian EVOO/lemon/garlic sauce, are also beautifully executed. Dim lighting and dark corners make Grotto suitable for illicit trysts, a place to sit close and share. And the restaurant periodically holds an event that any self-styled Boston gourmand must attend at least once: a recreation of the climactic feast from the beloved food movie Big Night, an ecstatic extravaganza of five courses that feel like 12.
Domani Bar & Trattoria | 51 Huntington Avenue | 617.424.8500
Domani Bar & Trattoria
The Back Bay may have good shopping, but its restaurants are mostly unmemorable, surviving on patio trade, lunching office drones, and businesspeople entertaining clients. It can be miserable for locals seeking a tasty yet reasonably priced dinner. One islet in this sea of mediocrity is Domani, a smallish, sleek New Italian joint hidden on an awkward stretch of Huntington Avenue in the Copley Square Hotel. Talented chef Rene Michelena sometimes appears distracted by his multiple hats (e.g., making lounge snacks for downstairs nightclub Saint), but at Domani, his focus recently sharpened with a new, nightly $35 prix fixe. This bolsters a bar menu of small plates, like a brace of Kobe-beef sliders, a trio of unpretentious housemade sausages (including a delicious Greek-inspired lamb number), and thin-crusted pizzetta with soppressata. If only the few other Back Bay chefs with a similarly subtle touch in the kitchen were so attentive to budget-conscious locals.