date published: January 11, 2010

25 tastes, trends and tables to watch in 2010
by Josh B. Wardrop

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that the most popular cuisine on the Boston restaurant scene in 2009 was comfort food. With most of America feeling in need of a hug, and modern diners largely unwilling (or unable) anymore to pay premium prices for aesthetically attractive but miniscule portions of food, restaurants’ menus almost across the board seemed to fill up with dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken and grilled cheeses. The most successful new eateries were the ones who aimed high, providing uncommon quality and sophistication in comfort food at reasonable prices. The urban tavern Post 390 was perhaps the year’s most buzzed-about new spot, blessed with a prime Back Bay location, a warm, inviting design complete with soft wood tones, cozy dark corners and roaring fireplaces and a menu of savory and sweet favorites. This month sees the arrival of Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale (48 Temple St., 617-426-0048), a restaurant that unites old-school cocktails and cask ales with upscale takes on traditional New England cuisine like chicken pot pie, prime rib and roasted cod. And South Boston added a new neighborhood tavern in Barlow’s (241 A St., 617-338-2072) that serves comforting dishes like butternut squash ravioli, steak tips and bacon-wrapped meatloaf—knowing that bacon-wrapped anything always reassures us that everything will be alright.

In the restaurant world, nothing succeeds like success—which is to say that a chef or restaurateur’s past track record and level of name recognition can go a long way toward convincing patrons to spend their hard-earned dough at an eatery they’ve never tried. It’s this faith in the past successes of Boston’s celebrity chefs and well-known restaurant moguls that allowed some familiar names on the local culinary scene to make 2009 (and 2010) a fruitful time for expansion.

Chef Barbara Lynch—the driving force behind beloved Boston restaurants like The Butcher Shop, B&G Oysters and No. 9 Park—opened two new eateries in 2008 (cocktail bar Drink and Italian-influenced “diner” Sportello) on Congress Street in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood of South Boston, but those were just a warm-up for her newest venture, Menton, scheduled to open in the same complex in February. Lynch’s much-anticipated new addition is an ultra high-end eatery, serving chef’s tasting menus of four or seven courses, with dinners rumored to run $150 and up per person.

Another chef who continued to display his culinary range and ambition in 2009 was Ken Oringer, the talent behind Hub hotspots like Toro, Uni and La Verdad. With Coppa (253 Shawmut Ave., 617-391-0902), the new enoteca that opened in December in the South End, Oringer and longtime collaborator Jamie Bissonnette have gone Italian, serving up pasta, wood-fired pizzas and small bites like arancini and chicken liver crostinis.

Todd English, meanwhile, experienced his empire contracting in 2009 (his Park Plaza Hotel steakhouse Bonfire closed in the fall), only to expand again this month with the opening of Isabelle’s Curlycakes on Beacon Hill. The new cupcake bakery—a partnership between proud dad English and his teenage daughter, Isabelle—got a dry run in December when English started a temporary delivery service out of his flagship restaurant, Olives, churning out frosted treats like peppermint stick and Guinness (yup, the beer) cupcakes.

Boston even managed to lure a name chef from that ultimate hotbed of hip and buzzed-about restaurants, New York City, to town in 2009. Patricia Yeo—who made her name at trendy NYC spots like Monkey Bar, Pazo, Sapa and AZ—took up residence in the South End, turning what was once the French-Indian eatery BanQ into Ginger Park (1375 Washington St., 617-451-0077), a sophisticated space specializing in exotic and flavorful small plates based in the street food traditions of nations like Thailand, Malaysia and China.

It wasn’t just the names in the kitchen that branched out this year. Ken Himmel, owner of local institutions Grill 23 and Harvest, opened two new eateries in 2009—Post 390 and the swanky Bistro du Midi (272 Boylston St., 617-426-7878), a Provencal-style French restaurant that opened in the space once occupied by Himmel’s longtime success Excelsior. Bistro du Midi serves top-notch traditional dishes like nicoise salad and rabbit rillettes in its rustic street-level bar as well as its more formal upstairs dining room, which offers a spectacular view of the Public Garden.

And a pair of North End entrepreneurs proved that Boston’s love for authentic Italian cuisine shows no sign of waning. In 2009 alone, Frank DePasquale—owner of Mare, Bricco and Trattoria Il Panino—revamped his Italian steakhouse Umbria Prime (295 Franklin St., 617-338-1000), and opened the Italian market DePasquale’s Homemade Pasta Shoppe (66A Cross St., 617-248-9629) and the Miami-influenced nightclub/restaurant Splash Ultra Lounge (150 Kneeland St., 617-292-7695). Meanwhile, the larger-than-life Nick Varano—proprietor of North End eateries Strega and Nico—became a sandwich hero with his new Famous Deli (66 Cross St., 617-391-0050), and plans to open a second, larger Strega and the Italian coffee bar Caffe Di Marina on the waterfront at Fan Pier in 2010.

The arrival of two brand-new chic hotels (the W Hotel and the Ames), combined with the reinvention of a number of eateries at venerable Boston lodging options, made 2009 the year that hotel restaurants were on every foodie’s radar. The Hub’s top new alternatives to room service include: Market (100 Stuart St., 617-310-6790) at The W, which features a French- and Asian-inspired menu from world-renowned three-star Michelin Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; Woodward (1 Court St., 617-979-8200), a “modern tavern” at the Ames that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night snacks—as well as its own brew, Woodward Ale—in a stylish and sophisticated two-level space; City Table (65 Exeter St., 617-933-4800) at The Lenox Hotel, a neighborhood bistro-style restaurant specializing in American fare like the bleu cheese crusted filet and day boat scallops; Pairings (50 Park Plaza, 617-262-3473) in the Park Plaza Hotel, where Chef Robert Bean focuses on shareable small plates for lunch and dinner, and creative breakfast dishes like pancake tacos and lobster Benedict; Champions (110 Huntington Ave., 617-279-6996) at the Marriott Copley Hotel, a “sports bar” that defies the stereotype, offering a menu packed with delicious appetizers and entrees, an extensive beer and cocktail menu, and enough TVs to satisfy any sports fan, all within a chic, second-floor setting that eschews banners, jerseys and memorabilia for a sleeker, more nightlifey vibe; and Rowes Wharf Sea Grille (70 Rowes Wharf, 617-856-7744) at the Boston Harbor Hotel, a seafood eatery that serves the freshest fish and shellfish in a picturesque location overlooking Boston Harbor itself.

Fancy restaurants are great for special occasions, but most of us who dine out regularly tend to find the greatest comfort and satisfaction in that place around the corner that perfectly sums up our neighborhood—that place where we can drop in for a tasty meal or a favorite cocktail, maybe catch a band, and hook up with friends. Happily, Boston added to its already strong collection of neighborhood hidden jewels in 2009.

When South End stalwart Bob’s Southern Bistro—home to soul food and live jazz for a half-century—closed in 2008, its short-lived replacement was the small-plate bistro Circle. In 2009, the space went back to its roots somewhat as The Stork Club (604 Columbus Ave., 617-391-0256) arrived, bringing with it a menu heavy on upscale bar food like rock shrimp and ginger spring rolls, Cuban sandwiches, fried chicken and mac ’n’ cheese. (And yes, the nightly live jazz and blues music came back, too.)

The most versatile neighborhood eatery of 2009 has to be Symphony 8 (8 Westland Ave., 617-267-1200), just around the corner from Symphony Hall, which is actually three spaces in one. Symphony 8 is a cheerful bistro serving upscale takes on French and American cuisine, while Siansa 8 is an Irish pub that retains some of the Symphony 8 menu while adding Celtic chow like shepherd’s pie, a ploughman’s lunch and a full Irish breakfast. Then there’s Prohibited, a “speakeasy” that requires a daily password in which to enter and claims not to allow the making or accepting of phone calls should you manage to get inside—you’ve been warned.

Brookline scored a new bar/restaurant with a sitcom pedigree—The Regal Beagle (308 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-739-5151), named for the “Three’s Company” meat market. Across the river in Cambridge, Lord Hobo (92 Hampshire St., 617-250-8454) moved into the spot vacated by the late B-Side Lounge, and has promptly become a hipster watering hole specializing in Belgian, German and cask beers to wash down your hand-cut curry, gravy or truffle fries. And in Somerville, Trina’s Starlite Lounge (3 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-576-0006) offers a menu of upscale pub food, including several pumped-up takes on hot dogs that put Fenway Franks to shame.

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