There are a lot of reasons why you might need a last-minute dinner. Maybe the line at Trader Joe’s was too long. Maybe you unthinkingly traded all your kitchen utensils for a Bill Murray-autographed lampshade that turned out to be a forgery. Or maybe you were watching TV and saw one of those commercials with sad orphan dogs and decided you just needed to get out of your apartment. Whatever the reason, there are still places where you can go on very short notice and have a very good dinner. Here are 15 of them.
If Bisq were in Harvard Square, it would be jammed every night with tourists, former White House officials who now have cushy professorships despite leading questionably immoral lives, and the children of B-list celebrities who go to school here. But Bisq is in a square that doesn’t have a T stop, which means it might as well be in New Hampshire. Take advantage of that, because it’s a comfortable little wine with an even more comfortable little wine bar hidden in the back. And unlike most wine bars where the food is an afterthought, the small plates of honey-lacquered pork belly, beef heart anticuchos, and ceviche topped with crispy quinoa, are good enough to enjoy even if you don’t have them with a glass of a French white.
Here’s a fun fact you can use to impress a co-worker the next time there’s an awkward silence at the coffee machine: Somerville is the 16th densest city in America. With all those people and buildings in such a small area, it can be hard to find a restaurant that’s bigger than your apartment. But La Brasa in East Somerville is not only bigger than your apartment, it’s bigger than the apartment Tom Hanks had in Big that 10-year-old you surely thought you’d live in one day. There are plenty of tables available for walk-ins, and once you’re in this casual spot that sort of feels like a really big bar, you can enjoy farm-y stuff like empanadas with Swiss chard, wild boar chili, or wood-roasted chicken with squash.
Hanover Street is filled with people who wear golf shirts and wait on the sidewalk in front of restaurants that they assume are good merely because, when they got there, they saw other people wearing golf shirts and waiting on the sidewalk. It creates a vicious, M.C. Escher-esque cycle of waiting, and one that all too often ends up with a tagliatelle that’s just OK. But for some unknown reason, Taranta - one of our favorite restaurants on Hanover - almost never has a wait. That’s good news for you, because this small Italian-Peruvian place with cheap wine and candlelight bouncing off brick walls deserves to be better known than it is. In the meantime, though, take advantage of the fact that you can get the cassava root gnocchi without wasting 20 minutes outside directing tourists to the Old North Church.
The root cause of a last-minute dinner is often fear of commitment. The same thing that made your friend change her major four times until landing on Eastern Film Studies is the thing that keeps her from committing to dinner until 5:49pm on a Friday. This is why Pagu, a small plates place that serves everything from squid ink oyster bao to cheesy potato waffles, works so well. Try a few Japanese-inspired dishes, a few Spanish ones, and few that defy characterization altogether, like the avocado lobster roll. It gets busy on the weekends, but even if you have to wait 20 minutes or so to get a table, there’s a fun bar to hang out in.
If your last-minute meal needs to be a little fancy because, say, your friend just found out she’s the last-remaining heir to small European principality where the national pastimes are sitting on verandas and laundering money, head to Bistro du Midi. With leather booths, a fireplace and windows overlooking the Public Garden, the dining room feels like one of those $15,000 a night hotel suites that Oprah stays in, and the French seafood menu is perfect for preparing your friend for summers spent on Mediterranean estates.
Places that don’t take online reservation are oddly refreshing. Since nobody even remembers how to talk on the phone anymore, you know these spots will never be booked. Muqueca in Inman Square is one such place, and it’s got a big menu of really flavorful Brazilian specialties (heavy on, but not exclusively seafood) that you’ll come to love. Keep it in mind the next time the requirements for your last-minute dinner include fish stew and a dining room that feels like an artists hostel on Copacabana.
“Tiny little oyster bars” is practically a restaurant genre all its own in Boston. But because of the whole “tiny little” part, they’re usually close to impossible to get into (looking at you, Neptune). But Select in Back Bay, a tiny little oyster bar with modern art on the wall, a decent sized bar, and a deck out back, is an exception. The menu here is slightly untraditional in the sense that they don’t have chowder and the lobster roll isn’t a permanent fixture, but you won’t really miss either dish when you have a glass of wine to wash down the white anchovies with heirloom tomatoes, bouillabaisse, or even some very good non-seafood dishes, like the cauliflower with hazelnut aioli.
You can usually get a last-minute reservation at Casa B, a Spanish place in Union Square. But even if you can’t, the upstairs tapas bar is reserved for walk-ins only. Keep it in mind for when you split a plantain pizza or chorizo in a fun little spot where the bartender might be cycling through his personal David Bowie playlist.
The cured meat craving can sneak up on you. One minute you’re watching your third hour of Law & Oder, and the next you’re standing at the door of the fridge, housing the entire half-pound of deli salami you bought yesterday. The next time you get that last-minute craving for pig parts, head to the Salty Pig in the Back Bay. It’s a fun spot that has a menu of interesting pizzas, but works best with a few friends sipping drinks and cleaning off a charcuterie board.
In an ideal world, there would be a nice little French place on every corner where you could always pop in for a bottle of wine and some escargot toast. In the real world, though the South End seems to be hogging them all. Frenchie on Tremont is one of our favorites, thanks to a nice back patio, extensive wine list that’s organized by flavor instead of region or grape, and a white-tiled dining room that makes you feel like a starving artist in 1920s Paris (albeit a starving artist who can afford to spring for the cheese board).
Tasting menus are rarely a last-minute thing. On the contrary, they tend to be more of a book-a-month-in-advance-and-pray-you-don’t-get-sick-when-the-day-arrives thing. But Asta in Back Bay is a tasting menu place that’s both easier to get into and a more casual than spots where you may have to pause in the middle of your seared foie gras to applaud the couple who just got engaged at the next table. It’s pricey (a five-course meal with things like rhubarb, lamb and oyster mushrooms with white chocolate will run you about $80) but if you need to impress your boss who just flew into town from headquarters, this is where you’ll want to go.
You know what no one complains about? Italian food. A good bolognese unites us all. That’s why Mida is a particularly good place to keep in mind when, not only do you need to throw together a last-minute meal, but you also need a place that just gets the job done, no matter who you’re with. No one’s going to object to lobster scampi or seared scallops in bone marrow sauce. And Mida gives you even more flexibility by providing a $40 tasting menu option if you want to do that, or a big bar if you just want a bowl of pasta and a couple glasses of wine.
Mission Hill isn’t really considered a destination dining neighborhood, probably because it gives a lot of people flashbacks to keg parties and games of pong where you accidentally chugged the water cup. But that’s a good thing if you’re looking for last-minute high-end sushi, because you can get it at the Laughing Monk Cafe without having to lie about being William H. Macy’s publicist to get a seat at the omakase counter. This small, casual place has both a Thai and a Sushi menu, and while the Thai food is definitely above average, it’s the sushi with nori cut to look like lace doilies that’s the real reason to come here. And even if you can’t get a day-of reservation at the sushi counter, you can do omakase at the table, too.
If you live near Gaslight, then it’s probably already the place you go to whenever a friend comes into town, or you want to sit at a bar by yourself with a glass of wine, or you pull out the cutting board to start dinner only to realize that cooking your own food sometimes just sucks. That’s what casual French bistros with marble tables and lots of wine are for. Head here and get the gnocchi Parisienne, which comes with rock shrimp and baby spinach and will immediately remind you that adding Paris to anything automatically makes it better.