Some people think Somerville is filled solely with 20-somethings whose porkpie hats blow off their heads when they’re riding their fixed-gear bikes to the local tattoo parlor. And some people who haven’t been there in 20 years and don’t realize that it’s the real estate speculation capital of New England still call it Slumerville.
There are a lot of stereotypes that a lot of people think define Somerville, and none of them are really true. What is true, though, is that this place has a lot of great restaurants. Here are the 14 best.
Sarma seems like it’s pretty much everyone’s favorite restaurant in Boston. And while we don’t give in to peer pressure easily (we still haven’t eaten a single Tide Pod) we do agree that it’s worth the hassle to get a table at this Turkish spot in Winter Hill. It has one of the biggest small plates menus we’ve ever seen, and nearly every dish seems to have an entire grocery store’s worth of ingredients in it. The result is some really intense stuff, like the harissa bbq duck with dates, almonds, orange blossom, and carrot. If you want to eat here without planning so far in advance that you’re not sure how old you’ll be when you finally get a table, try grabbing a seat at the bar, which opens 30 minutes before the dining room.
This is Somerville, so it makes sense that there’s a fine dining place like Juliet that feels less like a restaurant and more like the kitchen of good friends who accidentally bought way too many ramps and are just going to see what they can do with them. The themed, five-course prix-fixe meals cost $60-$65, change every few months, and sometimes come with prose poems. If you’re interested in things squid stuffed with rice and topped with chocolate sauce, or rosemary roast lamb, you’ll have a great time here.
If you were told you could eat only one pasta dish for the rest of your life, you’d probably want to rebel against the anti-pasta authoritarian dictatorship that took over the government. But you might also take the time to compile a list of over a hundred pasta dishes organized by taste, shape, and how many times they made you kiss your hands like an Italian chef. You should consider making room on that list for Fat Hen’s agnolotti with roasted parsnips, braised oxtail, and pistachio. The black bass crudo is also excellent, and the meatier, fishier entrees are worth trying, too.
Is ceviche still ceviche if it isn’t made with fish? That prompt would work pretty well as one of those unanswerable philosophy questions that supposedly promotes mindfulness. But if you’re more interested in eating great Peruvian food than achieving a higher state of mental being, head to this tiny, colorful spot in Union Square. The fishless ceviche (it’s made with artichokes and hearts of palm) is excellent, but so is just about everything else here - definitely get one of the stews.
Eating at Bow Market’s Tanam sort of feels like eating in a shipping container, since there’s only a single table in a rectangular room and you have to go outside and cross a courtyard if you want to go to the bathroom. But we would gladly spend months sleeping in a bunk and singing sea shanties if it meant having an all-access pass to Filippino food this good. On weekend nights you pay $90 for a ticketed meal that features things like braised oxtail, sweet coconut rice cakes, and lychee-crab brussels sprouts. But you can also just get bites and cocktails on Thursday nights, or pay $70 on Wednesday for a group meal served on top of banana leaves.
Always order the specials off the chalkboard next to the sushi counter when you go to Ebi. It’s not that the rest of the menu isn’t good, it’s just that the truffle scallop tartare and torched salmon belly elevate this place from casual little neighborhood spot to place that tempts you to “accidentally” get on a bus that goes through Union Square. Whether you actually go out of your way to eat here, or you live nearby and come in as much as possible, you won’t be the only one inside - it gets busy. But even though it’s a small spot, it remains comfortable and fun.
There’s a large, block letter sign at the entrance to Kirkland Tap & Trotter that says “BEER EAT WINE.” We don’t really know what those words in that order mean, but we agree with all of them. At Kirkland, you drink beer, drink wine, or eat a grill-heavey menu in a place that hits the sweet spot between a bar and a restaurant. We like the half-chicken or the swordfish skewer, but if you want something lighter, go with the rice bowl with Japanese eggplant or steamed mussels in red chili sauce.
This spot is as multi-talented as you claim to be on your resume, which is really saying something (especially since you claim that the time you negotiated a room upgrade in Mexico gave you experience in international business). They have big tables and a broad American menu with things like braised short rib and roasted oysters that will keep people happy. If you want to eat outside, there are sidewalk tables under those grey East Somerville skies. Just gonna hang by yourself at the bar? La Brasa has a big one with great cocktails, a small but well-curated wine list, and a burger with pickled jalapenos.
If you’ve ever had a Honey I Shrunk The Kids fantasy, except instead of being lost in a suburban backyard, you wanted to be lost in a farmer’s market, head to Field and Vine in Union Square. The restaurant itself is covered in vines, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by things like rainbow carrots with arugula and cranberry, or grilled beets with mint and labne. The result is that you kind of feel like a tiny talking crouton wandering through a salad, but you’ll gladly eat your way out. The fish and meat dishes are great, too, particularly the braised oxtail.
The Turkish omelette at Istanbul’lu in Teele Square comes in the skillet it was cooked in. We hypothesize that this is because the kitchen staff has to get the runny, cheesy mix of eggs, vegetables, and sausage out as fast as they can so they don’t eat it themselves. Come to this tiny, casual spot with rugs on the walls for brunch if you want a really good Turkish breakfast, or come for dinner if you want meze like steamed lentils with scallions or an eggplant-zucchini-yogurt mix that’s so good you’ll probably try to make it yourself later.
If you think “street food” means hot dogs cooked in something that looks like it receives Superfund money, you haven’t been living. Try some Thai street noodles at Dakzen - a tiny counter-service spot in Davis Square. The menu is pretty small here, which in this case is a good thing, because you’re going to want to try every dish. Our favorite is the boat noodle with pork that falls off the bone if you just look at it, but it’s also really hard to beat the sweet and savory khao soi.
Don’t overthink things when you go to Machu Chicken in Union Square: get the chicken. Just about everything is well done at this tiny and casual Peruvian spot, but the perfectly grilled chicken with crispy skin and incredibly moist meat will remind you why you like chicken in the first place. If you’re in the mood to try something else, the empanadas are great, too.
Spoke in Davis Square is very much a wine bar, with small plates that are designed to complement your drinking rather than the other way around. But man are those small plates good. The sunchoke doughnuts (which are onion ring-sized, not doughnut-sized) are the type of snack you’re always in the mood for, and they serve a couple more substantial things, like Australian yellowtail with chickpeas and celery root. It’s a tiny little spot that gets crowded, but all your new wine and cheese friends make it feel like a party.
The great beers, board games, and live music are reason enough to go to Aeronaut Brewery just outside Union Square, but if for some reason that’s not enough for you, what if we told you there’s also a nine-course fine dining restaurant hidden inside? The Tasting Counter is exactly what it sounds like: a counter that seats about 20 people who want to taste some good food. The food in this case is excellent - seasonal stuff like squab breast, langoustine, and miso ravioli. At around $200 per person it’s not even close to cheap, but save it for something special and you won’t regret it.