date published: January 20, 2003

Despite a slumping economy and a looming war in Iraq, Bostonians still want to eat—and they want to eat well. In the past six months alone, a bevy of new dining options have sprouted up, some aspiring to give patrons more than just a good meal. If there is a new trend, it’s this: Bridging the gap between restaurant and nightclub, many new spots now pair cocktails with music and the option of tapas-style dining. For those who feel every night spot in town has been invaded by the college crowd, they now have places to paint the town red—not to mention enjoy food from the city’s top chefs. The following is a collection of new destinations for not only eating well, but places to see and be seen.

Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., 617-867-0707. As the restaurant for the new boutique hotel Nine Zero, Spire may have a monopoly on the kind of A-list patrons that the city’s new dining spots are clambering for. After all, the hotel has already attracted everyone from Clint Eastwood to pop princess Avril Lavigne. But the buzz about Spire began long before the celebrities came to town. First it was the dining room: Minimalist chic with a translucent bar that from the back looks like an abstract painting. Then it was the food: Chef Jeffrey Everts strives for simplicity in his menu, but don’t mistake that mantra for boring. The menu is dotted with French inspired-dishes and flavors that are uncomplicated yet creative. Everts may still make tweaks to his menu, but most in town agree he is a chef to watch.

Lenox Hotel, 61 Exeter St., 617-933-4800. Like Spire, Azure takes some direction from the hotel that houses it. But while Spire and the Nine Zero Hotel represent a changing Boston, the Lenox Hotel represents classic standards. Enter chef Robert Fathman, late of Grill 23 and The Federalist, who was hired to shake things up while still appealing to the hotel’s regulars. His solution is seafood, but not necessarily from local waters. Fathman imports fish from as far off as Hawaii and mixes them in with a menu including local favorites like Atlantic lobster, giving both visitors and locals something they’ve never had before.

578 Tremont St., 617-236-5658. Once everyone stopped talking about the walls (which are painted a very bright green), most in town agreed this eatery has a lot of other things going right. Opened by Kevin Sheehan (who also owns Delux Cafe, a local favorite around the corner), The Nightingale features more upscale dining at extremely reasonable prices for the quality of food (entrees generally top out at $20). Chef Michael Burgess serves up well-balanced plates with a strong technique that’s stood out in a neighborhood already teeming with top-notch restaurants.

79 Park Plaza, 617-422-0008. After several years perfecting the tres chic Radius, Michael Schlow and Christopher Myers launched this back-to-basics Italian trattoria. Schlow says Via Matta honors classic recipes by executing them the way they were meant to be—unfussed and using the best products available. Schlow knighted his Radius sous chef Luis Morales to helm the kitchen, where he churns out traditional Italian dishes like antipasto and homemade spaghetti, as well as exotic treats like octopus and rabbit, prompting Esquire to name it one of America’s Best New Restaurants in 2002.

91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-864-1933. When Harvard booted Upstairs at the Pudding from its digs above the Hasty Pudding Theatre, we lost one of the area’s most tranquil al fresco oases, not to mention one of our most beloved dining institutions. So when Pudding owners Mary-Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes announced that they’d be re-opening their longtime labor of love, former customers waited with bated breath. The new two-story Upstairs on the Square retains the Pudding’s eclectic, theatrical decor—a throwback to 1940s glamour, with bright pink walls, gold trim and leopard and zebra print carpets. But the owners also recruited former Food and Wine Best New Chef Amanda Lydon to complement longtime executive chef Scott Olsen in the kitchen.

33 Stanhope St., 617-572-3311. After travels all over the world, co-owners Greg Den Herder and Igor Blatnik combined the best of their experiences to give Boston a restaurant they’ve never seen before. The menu, half Italian, half French, may finally solve that “what to eat” dilemma. But don’t let your evening end when you’re done dining on chef Charles Draghi’s award-winning cuisine. The downstairs, color-changing bar has become a popular after-work nightspot, pairing music and elaborate cocktails.

90 Exeter St., 617-236-1134. Yes, singer Billy Joel and MTV VJ Carson Daly were at Saint’s opening party, but it’s the star in the kitchen who caught our attention. Chef Rene Michelena (La Bettola, Centro) says he’s finally doing what he’s always wanted to do: southeast Asian fusion. Based on what we’ve seen so far—tuna tartar and osetra caviar and Balinese melting shortribs with black sesame and haricot vert—he’s found his niche. The mini portions are perfect for grazing, which should sit well with the “lounging” crowd who come for the exotic cocktails at this luxurious nightclub/restaurant. VIP memberships are reportedly going for $10,000 a pop, but you can still experience Michelena’s cuisine for far less.

1395 Washington St., 617-867-0707. Chef-owner Laura Brennan trained alongside local haute cuisine heavyweights like Todd English and Rene Michelena before honing her skills with stints at restaurants like Michela’s and The Blue Room, so her popularity with the city’s top cooks is no surprise. At Umbra, she serves up modern French- and Italian-inspired dishes and has created the biggest buzz in seafood preparation since Jasper White showed Julia Child how he cooks a lobster. But while local critics have hailed Brennan’s aplomb with fish, Umbra is not just a seafood restaurant. Perfectly prepared pasta and meat entrees fill out a menu that, from all accounts, should not be missed.

Rowes Wharf, Boston Harbor Hotel, 617-439-3995. For 13 years, the Boston Harbor Hotel has hosted the Boston Wine Festival, with chef Daniel Bruce perfecting the art of pairing wine with food in order to enhance the flavors of both. Now Bruce has a brand-new restaurant to support his passion. Diners at Meritage are encouraged to decide on a wine category, then pick one of four corresponding dishes. Both small and large plates are available for each item, so patrons can experience a number of combinations in one meal.

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