It was pretty bold for mid-19th century Boston to look at a stinking swamp on the edge of the city and decide to build the North American version of Paris on it. But that’s exactly what we did. With tree-lined boulevards, a riverfront park, and a name that no one can decide whether to put “the” in front of, Back Bay is the most impressive neighborhood in Boston.
But whether it’s because there are too many hotels, fancy buildings with giant glass lobbies, or luxury condos that house overseas investment funds instead of actual people, the restaurants and bars in Back Bay can be frustrating. It’s just too easy to end up at a mediocre restaurant, and there are surprisingly few casual places to relax with a drink. Our most impressive neighborhood still has room for improvement. But if we can get more places like the 17 spots below, we’ll be getting somewhere.
Would you like to cook your own wagyu beef on a tableside hot rock? The answer to that question probably depends on how you feel about pricey cow parts on one hand, and how much confidence you have in your ability to not burn yourself on the other. Either way, Uni on Comm Ave is worth visiting. It’s the type of stylish izakaya with a hip hop soundtrack that could host the even more exclusive after party to an already exclusive party you didn’t get invited to, and its menu is filled with exciting dishes taste as good as they are fun. The sushi selection and small plates are very good, and you can’t go wrong with a place that serves late night ramen.
With only a bar and four booths, it’s hard to get into Saltie Girl. But as Jimmy Duggan said, the hard is what makes it great. While waiting an hour for a barstool on a Monday night might not be ideal, Saltie Girl makes up for it with a seafood menu that’s consistently fantastic from crudo and sushi to fried clams and waffles. The fact that it’s always packed and feels like a party at all hours doesn’t hurt, either.
Puro might be too cool for Newbury Street. The people shopping for $3,000 antique tea sets usually don’t go in for graffiti murals and pisco sours. But if that sounds like your thing, head to this tiny subterranean spot between Fairfield and Gloucester. It feels like a pop-up underground art gallery that happens to have great menu of Latin small plates to go with a strong selection of ceviche. Our favorite is the mixto, which gets you red snapper, shrimp, and octopus in one dish.
Why is Ryan Gosling hanging out in the bathroom of Asta on Mass Ave? We’re not sure we’ll ever find out since he exists only in movie poster form, but we suspect he likes it because it’s the rare fine dining restaurant that also feels casual and cool, just like him. This is a tasting menu place with dishes like buttered turnip and venison with rutabaga mash. And while it’s correspondingly expensive (five courses for $85, eight for $110), it manages to feel like a comfortable neighborhood spot thanks to walk-in-ability, a lively counter overlooking the kitchen, and playful touches like aforementioned Gosling poster and a mural of Thor in the dining room (the real one, not the Hemsworth one).
Do you ever pass a street protest and, without knowing what it’s about, instinctively respond to someone’s call of “what do we want?!” with an enthusiastic “sandwiches!”? Of course you do, because at the end of the day, we’re all just simple animals who want a place to live, someone to love, and a little cured meat in between two pieces of bread. Moody’s, a counter-service deli on Clarendon, is a great place to get a sandwich that you would easily take to the streets for. You’ll guess that this place is the real deal from one look at the hanging animal parts above the counter, and one bite of the Katz (pastrami on rye) confirms it.
There are actually three different venues at this seafood spot on Stuart Street: Mooncusser Fish House is the white tablecloth seafood spot upstairs, Moon Bar is its cool younger sister with the nose ring downstairs, and Cussers is the takeout window that operates for lunch. We like Moon Bar best, in part because the space is shaped like a triangle and covered with steel surfaces, so it kinda feels like drinking on a spaceship. You can get a lot of the same things from the Mooncusser menu, but we like this place for drinks and snacks like the smoked bluefish pate or lobster bisque with pumpkin.
Don’t call Bukowski on Dalton Street a dive - call it a place that’s seen a lot of love. Besides, despite the fact that it’s covered in grease and named after one of literary history’s greatest drunks, it isn’t really a dive - not with the extensive selection of craft beers on tap, anyway. The menu consists of pretty standard bar food stuff, but the burgers are pretty good as far as greasy bar burgers go.
We understand if you’re hesitant to try Santouka on Hereford. You usually have to wait in line to get in, only to then find yourself playing body odor roulette as you’re crammed in next to strangers when you finally do get a seat. But both the line and service move quickly, and it’s worth getting a little too close to a stranger for a bowl of the tonkotsu shio ramen, which has got a nicely balanced broth that isn’t too rich to finish.
Normally you should stay away from alleys - there’s like a 30% that Robert Shaw will emerge from a cloud of steam and try to stab with you a switchblade every time you step into one. But Casa Romero is a great argument for living a little dangerously. In the alley off Gloucester in between Newbury and Comm Ave you’ll find cucumber margaritas, tacos with an awesome citrus slaw, and a hidden patio with lanterns and hanging plants.
Select is a New England oyster bar that doesn’t serve clam chowder. We love clam chowder, but we also respect some good iconoclasm every now and then. Besides, the rest of the menu is strong enough on its own. The scallop ceviche is a great way to start any meal, and the cauliflower with hazelnut aioli is a fantastic option if you’re looking for something that didn’t come from the sea. It’s a funky place with weird art on the wall, a good sized bar, and a back patio, so come here the next time you want a drink and some oysters.
Parish Cafe & Bar
You can spend your life going to every great restaurant in Boston, or you can go to Parish Cafe and say you did, because the menu at this gastropub is filled with sandwiches created by chefs from some of the city’s best restaurants. We’re fans of the Bravas from the people behind Sarma that has prosciutto, chorizo, manchego, brussels sprouts and bunch of other ingredients you’ll have trouble believing they’re able to fit all on one bun. Try to get here in the summer, too, when they have a patio that spills onto Boylston.
We understand if you’re hesitant to say “let’s go get a pasty” out loud (wouldn’t want to inadvertently end up in a cell next to Bob Kraft). But if you can work out some kind of hand signal situation with your friends, you should head to this tiny pub on Mass Ave that looks like it was directly transported here from Cornwall. Grab a seat in one of their wooden booths and order a beer and a pasty, which turns out to be not a sexual favor but a kind of English empanada filled with everything from bangers and mash to chicken tikka masala.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anyone use the four food groups guidelines, but if our memory serves, pizza was one group, and charcuterie was another. Salty Pig’s got both of them covered, and it does so in a cool space that feels kinda like a mix between a bar and a pizza place. Depending on which map you look at, this place could technically be in the South End, but they have enough great spots already, so we’re giving the pizza with merguez sausage, goat feta, and arrabiata sauce to the Back Bay.
There are a lot of French restaurants in the neighborhood, but with a dining room overlooking the public garden upstairs, a casual bistro at street level, and a menu with things like filet mignon served with black garlic bourdelaise, Bistro du Midi is our favorite. It’s pricey and fancy, but absolutely worth it for a special occasion, or any time you want to look out at the garden as you eat some venison tartare and feel good about life.
When a menu has an entire section dedicated to lobster, you should probably get the lobster. That’s the case at Summer Shack on Dalton, a casual spot with nautical lamps hanging from the ceiling and a pan roasted lobster with bourbon and chives that you have to try. The rest of the menu is solid, too, and it’s open for lunch.
Weirdly, there are very few Italian restaurants in Back Bay. But when you have one as good as Sorellina, you don’t need too many others. This place is pricey and a little stuffy, with a crowd that seems to be made up primarily of partners from one of the law firms headquartered nearby. But it has high-end pasta dishes you’ll love, particularly the chestnut cavatelli with wild boar.
There are few restaurants on the Back Bay part of Comm Ave, perhaps because everyone who lives there has their own private chef. Buttermilk and Bourbon on the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth is doing its part, though. It’s a Southern place, so it’s particularly good for brunch, when you can enjoy a menu full of things like crawfish croquettes and chicken and biscuits. It’s reliably good at any time of day, though, and they have tables on a sunken patio during the summer, so you can gaze out at the mall and pretend that you, too, need to figure out how much of the house staff to take to the Riviera this year.