By Nicole Campoy Jackson
Julia Clancy knows Boston. It’s in her blood. To get to know Julia is to get to know Boston, and vice versa. So who better to give us a taste of Boston — then and now, the nostalgia and the new — than the Boston-born Boston Magazine restaurant contributor?
Herein, a guide to eating really well throughout the city and its suburbs. A guide to redirect you if you associate Boston with the Cheers bar and not much else. A guide that mentions Fenway just once. A guide for your first, fifth, or fifteenth time. A guide to save because there’s no way you’ll eat all of this in one go.
Q: How long have you lived in Boston?
A: I come from three generations of Bostonians, on both sides. My Irish-Catholic great-grandparents on my dad’s side grew up in South Boston, and my Ashkenazi Jewish great-grandparents on my mom’s side settled in Dorchester and Roxbury. My dad was one of twelve kids and my mom was one of five. Most of my 48 first cousins live in the Boston area. (Introducing a friend or significant other to the family is like having them meet a small village.)
I grew up finishing homework on the D Line; standing in line for bagels at Rosenfeld’s; learning to pour a perfect pint of Guinness at Emmet’s Pub and The Snug; commuting to high school next to Fenway Park. As I’ve grown older and traveled, moved out of state to New York, California, Italy, New Hampshire, and beyond, I’ve realized what my family has intuited their entire lives: Boston is the magnetic center of an emotional compass inherited at birth. The roots are deep.
Q: Uhuh… and, why should we trust your taste in the city’s restaurants?
A: I come from a line of cooks, fisherman, sailors, singers, voracious appetites; Boston’s food scene was unwittingly a focal point of my childhood. Rosenfeld’s pumpernickel bagels. Heavy-lifting trips to Ming’s Market with my grandma. Fried fish at Jake’s Seafood on the South Shore. My first legal beer at the Publick House in Brookline. Dumpling Cafe soup dumplings. Pecan buns and sourdough from Clear Flour Bread. (The unparalleled) Barbara Lynch. But now, look at neighborhoods like the South End, South Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Dorchester, Fenway, Watertown, and Chinatown; in the past decade alone, these places have become enclaves of destination-worthy eateries. Quincy, Roxbury, Waltham and Jamaica Plain house some of the best cooks in the city, from traditional hot pot to jerk chicken to roti.
I’m a cook who writes as much as I am the inverse. Long before I cooked in restaurants or wrote about them, food and writing were the ways I’ve connected to myself, to other people, and to the places I visit. Great restaurants and good journalism alone can’t foster a better food community without paying attention to those who live and work nearby. Boston has a small-city heart; it’s a town of locals who want to support locals.
Q: Wow, ok. Fair enough. Break it down for the first timer’s: what to not miss, what to miss? Exciting neighborhoods for food right now?
A: Boston is an extremely walkable, neighborhood-y city. Wear comfy shoes and head out on foot: winding side streets, bar-lined nooks, offshoot parks, the community gardens along waterside walking paths like The Charles River Esplanade and the Harborwalk from Rowe’s Wharf to the North End. For first-timers, there’s a great opportunity right now to see the tourist spots and then expand your reach into budding local areas.
I still love the Swan Boats in the Boston Public Garden (which is a lovely spot for a picnic on a sunny day). From there, walk into Beacon Hill (gorgeous old brownstones) or Newbury Street (eight blocks of shopping and dining). Check out Copley Square and the Boston Public Library; Chinatown (Dumpling Café and Ming’s Market are musts); and walk all along the waterfront to Long Wharf and the North End. The North End is our Italian neighborhood — a beautiful, old nook of the city. There’s a hub of tourism there with the Freedom Trail, the Old North Church, and Paul Revere’s house, though the neighborhood still maintains its local feel. Skip Mike’s Pastry. The filled-to-order cannoli at nearby Modern are better and the ones at Maria’s Pastry Shop are the best of the best.
Stop by Harvard Yard. (Don’t park your car — you’ll get a ticket.) There is so much going on in Harvard, Porter, and Davis Square, including bike, paddleboard, and kayak rentals along the Charles River Esplanade. Coolidge Corner is one of my favorite tiny hubs, especially for catching a movie at Coolidge Corner Theater (great popcorn, local beers, and your pick of blockbusters, indies, and classics).
Many neighborhoods are growing, shifting. Right now, I love Chinatown, Jamaica Plain, around Moody Street in Waltham, and in East Cambridge (go to Loyal Nine or Lamplighter Brewing Co. for coffee by day and a good drink in the evening, without changing location). The South End continues to shift, with some heavy-hitting restaurants. Eastie is a great growing neighborhood with some of the best Columbian, Peruvian, and Italian spots — all with waterfront views. Bow Market in Somerville is one of my favorites — Rebel Rebel wine bar, Tanám, Hooked Seafood, Hot Box Pizza, and Remnant Brewery in a buzzing, open-air courtyard.
Oh, skip Cheers. For a mix of tourists and locals in a longtime Boston watering hole, go to Emmet’s Pub near the Commons or grab bar seats at The Boston Sail Loft on the waterfront.
Q: Walk us through your perfect day of eating out in Boston. (Traffic doesn’t exist and money is no object.)
A: This question shifts with the day, my mood…the weather! But, here are two itineraries that would hit the spot:
#1 Nostalgia: I’d start at Rosenfeld’s, a Jewish bakery that opened in the 70’s. Pumpernickel bagel with lox, cream cheese, tomato, extra capers, plus a loaf of their challah and the Globe’s crossword puzzle. I’d head to Sofra Bakery & Café for an iced coffee, ma’amoul, walnut baklava, and that stout, chewy tahini-oatmeal cookie. I’d grab some seasonal halwa, meze, and simit to-go for dipping into later. Lunch would be Dumpling Café in Chinatown (soup dumplings, gai lan broccoli, Taiwan-style eggplant, mustard greens with bean curd, Szechuan-style flounder and squid, and three-essence clay pot duck tongue).
Then, I’d take the ferry from Long Wharf to Pemberton Point in Hull, stopping for an afternoon beer at Jo’s Nautical Bar or a perfect pour of Guinness at The Snug. Dinner would be at the bar at Jake’s Seafood & Fish Market — it’s paper napkins and no-frills. A dozen oysters, a draft of Night Shift Brewing’s pale ale, a slab of grilled salmon (bit of char on the outside, blushing medium-rare in the middle) over a Mediterranean Salad the size of a mixing bowl, and a basket of fried clams. For dessert, an ice cream cone from Nona’s in Hingham or soft-serve (twist, dipped) at JJ’s Dairy Hut in Cohasset.
#2 The New: I’d start at Bagelsaurus for a sesame bagel with cucumbers and honey-rosemary cream cheese. I’d get an iced latte and my other favorite oatmeal cookie at Café Madeleine in the South End. For lunch, a bowl of chewy udon at Yume Ga Arukara. Then, I’d head to Haley.Henry wine bar for a late-afternoon glass of something interesting. I might (definitely) peruse their tinned fish menu and snack on some smoked mussels or sardines in olive oil, which come with lemon wedges and a bag of Ruffles.
I’ll sneak in a second glass of wine at the cozy bar at Pammy’s. Dinner is at MIDA, chef Douglass Williams’ excellent Italian restaurant in the South End. I love the stacked piatto di antipasti; roasted Romanesco with bagna cauda; the simple and perfect insalta mista; the bucatini all’amatriciana. I’ve saved room for their house-made gelato and sorbet. The olive oil gelato is on another level.
Restaurant Lightning Round:
Favorite Italian: MIDA
Favorite bakery: Sofra Bakery & Café
Ethiopian: Ethiopian Café in Jamaica Plain: It’s tiny and BYOB; there’s a great wine shop called Streetcar a few blocks away.
Bagels: Bagelsaurus in Cambridge and Levend Bagelry in Boston Public Market
Mexican: Villa Mexico Café on Water Street
Pizza: Max & Leo’s Artisan Pizza in Newton Corner
West African: Safari African Restaurant in Mattapan — I’m craving their plantains, fried snapper, jollof rice, thieboudienne and homemade sorrel and ginger juices
Q: What’s the most exciting thing about Boston’s food scene?
A: The restaurant world in general tends to have a lot of turnover. Boston, though, has a crew of veteran chefs I could admire growing up and still look up to today, as they keep transforming their city. And the chefs that have had a pioneering, lasting impact on Boston as a food city happen to be women: Barbara Lynch, Lydia Shire, Joanne Chang, Ana Sortun, Tiffany Faison, and Jody Adams. Culinary mavericks Elle Simone, founder of SheChef, and Karen Akunowicz, chef-owner of Fox & The Knife, continue to elevate the Boston restaurant world — same for chefs Irene Li, Ellie Tiglao, Mary Ting Hyatt, and many, many others. It’s an incredible community of appetites here.