Let’s be honest: There are better food cities in the United States than Boston. But to drop it all the way to last place? I’m sorry, but some of us got pretty ripped by this take from blogger Matthew Yglesias who, living in Washington, D.C., may not know what “ripped” means, but here’s a hint to those who aren’t from Boston: It’s not good.
In a recent tweet he stated, “One of life’s great questions — why does Greater Boston have fewer good dining options than any other large US metro area?” and shared a screenshot of a question from a mailbag post on his Substack that got the ball rolling.
His answer to the question included a reference to economist Paul Krugman calling English food bad due to early industrialization, and later tweeted that “early modernizers’ food culture is older, and therefore worse, than that of late modernizers.”
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I know, I’m just a lowly food writer who doesn’t even know what early (or late) modernizer means, but I tend not to think about highbrow stuff like that when I’m digging into a pile of steak tips at Newbridge Cafe in Chelsea or scarfing Sicilian slices at Galleria Umberto in the North End or digging into lobster meat from James Hook on the waterfront or looking longingly at a roast beef sandwich at Dina’s in Salem.
Now maybe Yglesias, who graduated from Harvard in the early 2000s, has been to these places, maybe not. Either way, it can be pretty tough to find these spots and you really have to do your research to learn about local faves, though if you ask nicely, we might just tell you where they are (and the directions will usually entail banging a U-ey after the rotary just for kicks).
If you look at Boston from a distance — and D.C. is quite a distance from Boston — it may seem, on the surface, anyways, like a pretty boring city when it comes to food. You may even think from Yglesias’ tweet that it’s based in part on English food, which is funny because, the last time I checked, there weren’t all that many English restaurants in or around the city.
Instead, we have great Caribbean and Central American eateries in Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, Chelsea, East Boston and Everett; outstanding Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian spots in Chinatown, Allston, Quincy and Malden; excellent Italian restaurants in the North End (and we can tell you which ones aren’t known to visitors), Medford and Revere; fantastic Indian restaurants in Cambridge, Somerville, Burlington and Woburn; marvelous Portuguese places in Cambridge and down toward the South Coast; and, well, you get the picture.
Oh, and we also have Irish pubs — lots of Irish pubs — and you know what? Many of them serve really good food!
How about we talk regional foods? Greater Boston has plenty of them, including those steak tips and roast beef sandwiches as well as clam chowder, lobster rolls, bar pizza, Greek pizza, steak and cheese subs, baked beans, brown bread in a can (the best), Yankee pot roast, American chop suey, fried clams, really great farm-made ice cream and, of course, Boston cream pie.
For the best steak tips, go immediately north of Boston; for the best roast beef sandwiches, go a bit further into the North Shore; for the best bar pizza, head south of the city; for fantastic roadside ice cream stands, go west; for sublime seafood, take a drive anywhere along the coast; and so on. But all the regional foods mentioned here can be found within Boston city limits as well — in many cases, you need to do your research and head into the city’s neighborhoods, which is where so much of the good stuff is.
By now, you (or Yglesias) may be saying that the places I’m referring to are mostly lower-end local hangouts that are casual and aren’t places you go to if you want to be pampered. Yes, this is true to an extent, but Greater Boston also has countless high-end restaurants that are fantastic and often use ingredients from local farms outside of the city (which isn’t always the case elsewhere). Again, you have to do your research, since not all of them are the type of business-centered expense-account spots that you might read about in your city guidebooks.
There are also plenty of mid-range restaurants and great family-friendly places, and guess what? A lot of them aren’t even chains, unlike what you might find in so many other major metropolitan areas that allegedly are better for food.
I’ll never forget talking to a truck driver who told me how strange it was that so many exits off Boston-area highways didn’t have huge commercial developments with chain restaurants, gas stations and the like, instead dumping him into pleasant residential neighborhoods or undeveloped wooded areas. That’s because, unlike certain other cities, chains don’t totally dominate the landscape of Greater Boston.
While metro Boston certainly isn’t bottom-of-the-barrel for food, making the argument that it’s a top-tier city for restaurants is a bit more difficult. High rents, a lack of workers, frustrating and confusing liquor license policies in Boston and elsewhere, and yes, the increasing influx of chains — including high-end chains — are all real issues that affect the local restaurant industry, and of course COVID has hit the industry very hard locally, especially in places like the Financial District and Cambridge’s Kendall Square.
And yes, some types of food are tougher to find than others; there are indeed some good options for Greek, deli and vegetarian food, though there could always be more. But to say that the city has fewer good options than any other large metro area in the country is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Doing even a little research will lead you to spots that have great takes on pizza, steaks, dosas, chicken parmigiana, scallops, burgers, dumplings, burritos and so much more.
Oh, and do you like apples? Well, some of the best orchards in the entire country can be found a short distance west of the city.