Boston is one of our favorite cities, but it isn’t one of our favorite food towns. Like D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, the good-to-great restaurants are few and far between, and you never feel as if America’s oldest city ever has had, or ever will have, a food culture beyond simple seafood, baked beans and pot roast, and the North End Southern Italian joints that maintain a beachhead there. (We do consider Regina Pizzeria to be one of America’s great pies, however.)
After spending a couple of days wandering around, it appeared that things have taken a turn downward in the food and drink department — especially the neighborhoods that were our old haunts. As we moseyed up and down Back Bay’s streets, we found Newbury and Boylston sadly lacking in both restaurants and bars. In the late 8o’s and throughout the 9o’s these streets were teeming with wine bars, ethnic food, pubs and upscale places of all stripes. Now, it seemed like every other doorway was either a nail salon, clothing shop, or a barely-there Thai or tapas joint — and there weren’t that many of those.
Regardless, we know we can always count on one meal in Beantown to deliver the goods, and serve us a couple of dozen Blue Points, Wellfleets and Cotuits the way they’ve been shucked for almost 200 years. We’re talking about the Union Oyster House — America’s oldest restaurant — that has been continuously serving seafood and bivalves since 1826. The Milano family has owned this institution for over forty years, and our personal oyster shucker/Henny Youngman impersonator John Ferrari looked older than the rafters, but his world-weary ways disguised the fact that he could shuck a dozen Connecticut Blue Points with the alacrity of a prestidigitator on speed — never missing a muscle, a beat, or a punch line.
And those Blue Points were the sweet and saline essence of great shellfish….and just one of the many reasons we never miss a chance to come here and bask in the history that seeps through every portal and is carved into every cobblestone.
Unfortunately, lunch #2 on day #1 was a huge disappointment. Taken at a venerable place at the base of Beacon Hill called the Hungry I…[nggallery id=824]…it made us rethink our strategy of always favoring the traditional over the new in this part of the world. What has kept Peter Ballarin’s place alive since 1981 must include a good lease, quaint decor, and a clientele raised on so much pot roast and baked beans they think unseasoned pea soup, undressed spinach salad, and amateur omelets are the height of sophistication. Or maybe we just caught him on a bad day, but the empty dining room (“All those people who aren’t dining there are telling you something.” – A. J. Curtas – The Official Deceased Father of ELV) should’ve been our first clue. Omelets (along with soups and roasted chicken) are litmus tests for good French cooking, and by that yardstick, our meal was barely a C-.
Even bad food fills you up, so we were too stuffed to even think about a slice or a pie from the Upper Crust…[nggallery id=828]…although it looked mighty tasty indeed.
The next morning, in preparation for covering the American Finals of the Stella Artois Draught Masters Contest, we trudged up and down Back Bay looking for a place to eat in the cool, misty rain, finally settling on Brasserie JO after three hours of wandering. (In Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans or Chicago, we would’ve passed dozens of worthy, enticing eateries. In New York, you’d pass a hundred.) All we can say about Brasserie Jo is, it filled the bill with a mediocre croque monsieur that wasn’t in the same league as Mon Ami Gabi’s or Marche Bacchus’. As you can see, it was little more than a toasted ham and cheese. Not a bad jambon et fromage, but not a croque monsieur either.
Where we should have taken our midday sustenance was at the Farmer’s Market…[nggallery id=825]…even through the late summer drizzle it was chock full of luscious fruits (why are fruits always luscious?), ripe vegetables begging to be eaten raw or barely blanched, and lots of funky cheeses, sandwiches and pies for those who don’t necessarily equate “farmer’s market” with “healthy eating.”
This was a farmer’s market was so brimming with good food (and crowded), and it made ELV wonder why Boston didn’t have more of a restaurant/food culture.
Then we happened upon the restaurant in our hotel, and serendipitously discovered we had just been looking in all the wrong places….