Nothing stokes the flames of controversy like daring to compile a list of city-defining dishes. Well, gather your kindling. We admit it's a nearly impossible task, but here are 20 dishes that we believe every Bostonian needs to eat to get a taste of Hub culture. We've tried to reflect different facets of what makes Boston — well, Boston. So you'll find a few staple favorites from tourist-friendly locales (our history is nothing to sneer at, snobs) alongside some select contemporary dishes that have established themselves as modern classics in short time. Chow your way through this bucket list — and tweet us at @ZagatBoston to tell us which iconic dishes you think deserve a spot on the lineup.
Secret burger at Alden & Harlow
Show up early to chef Michael Scelfo's Harvard Square hot spot, where his "secret burger" (which is, in fact, listed on the menu) is available in limited quantities nightly. But the flavorful combo of a brisket, short rib and beef patty, salted onions, Cabot cheese tuile and no-name sauce still makes a big enough impression to be regarded as a new classic.
40 Brattle St., Cambridge; 617-864-2100
Grass-fed burger at Craigie on Main
Alden's may be the newest iconic iteration, but on a local level it was the Craigie hamburger that both jump-started the high-end patty craze and enhanced the marketable allure of limited quantity, off-menu items. This burger remains what may be the best burger in Boston.
853 Main St., Cambridge; 617-497-5511
Roast beef 1000 sandwich at Cutty's
This Brookline sandwich shop offers inimitable creations between two slices of bread. But perhaps the single most recognized sammie here is the roast beef, served on brioche and topped with crispy shallots, sharp cheddar and Thousand Island dressing.
284 Washington St., Brookline; 617-505-1844
Sticky bun at Flour Bakery + Cafe
Chef Joanne Chang's South End–founded chain now has outposts around the city and in Cambridge. But the signature sweet remains the delectable sticky bun, which has courted loyalists with its cinnamon-pecan perfection for years now — and there are no signs of its magnetism abating.
1595 Washington St.; 617-267-4300, additional locations
100-day-aged rib-eye at Grill 23 & Bar
It doesn't really matter which chop you get — it's the mere act of dining at this legendary Hub steakhouse that is the "must-do" every Bostonian must, well, do. But if you can, splurge on this signature 18-oz. option, all-natural Brandt beef that is aged 100 days, giving it a robust flavor that is singular.
161 Berkeley St.; 617-542-2255
Clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods
You know the saying, "If it's not broke, don't fix it"? The clam chowder recipe for the Boston-based brand hasn't changed a lick since it was introduced in 1981. And why should it? It's been served at every presidential inauguration since Reagan — including 2017, despite some initial will-it-or-won't-it drama. Its popularity proves that party lines can most certainly be crossed when littleneck clams, salt pork and potatoes are involved. (Adding further People's Choice credibility: It's the clam chowder served at Fenway Park.)
26 Park Plaza; 617-426-4444, multiple locations
The Fancy at Mike & Patty's
The long lines are part of the draw at this pint-sized Bay Village sandwich shop, where neighbors make weekend small talk while waiting to snap up one of the many awesome choices. Among the favorites is this perennially popular pick, loaded with fried eggs, bacon, cheddar, avocado and red onions with mayo.
12 Church St.; 617-423-3447
Lobster roll at Neptune Oyster
This North End icon runs hot and cold; the lobster roll meat is served either warm with melted butter, or chilled and tossed with mayo. Grabbing a lobster roll at Neptune Oyster is practically a Bostonian rite of passage, and though some may balk at the long waits, there's a reason why they're not getting shorter any time soon.
63 Salem St.; 617-742-3474
Prune-stuffed gnocchi at No. 9 Park
Boston's own Barbara Lynch, James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurateur, kicked off her career with this Beacon Hill flagship that's still going strong. Perhaps its most iconic dish — and still just as delicious as the day we first discovered it — is the prune-stuffed gnocchi with a Vin Santo glaze made by reducing a beurre monté of butter and foie gras. Decadent.
9 Park St.; 617-742-9991
Baked Alaska at Oleana
Chef Ana Sortun is a local legend for her deft work with Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine at this long-standing restaurant. On the food front, though, it's the baked Alaska whose reputation precedes it. It's big, bold (in flavor) and beautiful.
134 Hampshire St., Cambridge; 617-661-0505
Omakase at O Ya
It's not any one dish — but, rather, the experience — that sets apart this Leather District gem. Bring your black card or a generous employer; the sublime sushi is worth every hard-earned penny.
9 East St.; 617-654-9900
Boston cream pie at Parker's Restaurant
Massachusetts' official state dessert was born at the historic Omni Parker House, America's oldest continuously operating hotel. You'll still find it at Parker's Restaurant inside the property, and enjoy it in the same Brahmin-era dining room where JFK proposed to Jackie.
60 School St.; 617-725-1600
Lobster pizza at Scampo
Here in Boston, we love our lobster rolls. But for a true crustacean-topped tribute to the city, go for the lobster pizza at Scampo. The invention of chef Lydia Shire, it has followed the flame-haired toque since she created it at her late, great Biba restaurant.
215 Charles St.; 617-536-2100
Biscuits at Sweet Cheeks Q
To be honest, we're pretty sweet on everything at Top Chef alum Tiffani Faison's Fenway-side restaurant, a visit to which should temporarily quiet anyone who complains that Boston can't do barbecue. But her "bucket o' giant biscuits" with honey butter have earned their recent rise to become a legendary side.
1381 Boylston St.; 617-266-1300
Maíz asado at Toro
Before they expanded to NYC, Dubai, Bangkok and beyond, chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette made crowds roar at this South End tapas restaurant. The standout has often been the charred corn (tossed in cotija cheese and lime aïoli), which is worth every bit of messy chowing down.
1704 Washington St.; 617-536-4300
Charcuterie at Moody's Delicatessen
Chef Joshua Smith has turned New England Charcuterie, his artisanal smoked, cured and otherwise marvelously made meats, into a fast-growing brand carried by major markets (like Eataly Boston) and used by some of the city's top restaurants. It all started at his Waltham deli, (equipped with its own full-service restaurant, dubbed The Backroom), which spawned a second location in Back Bay in December. The sibling act also offers a more expansive menu of sandwiches, salads and other cafe items — but the mind-blowing charcuterie is still the star.
Donuts at Blackbird Doughnuts
The gourmet donut craze may have come and gone, but this Boston baker is strong enough to outlast any temporary tides in food trends. Blackbird started in the South End but settled into a second, Fenway-side nest in May, so now its endless array of creative flavors — home runs like guava-glazed, cherry cobbler, and a cream cheese–filled "Everything Bagel Doughnut" — are connecting with even more fans. Among them: singer Adele, who shared her Blackbird addiction from the TD Garden stage during a concert last year.
Ramen at Yume Wo Katare
The long lines don't lie. This pint-sized Porter Square ramen shop is beloved — both for its delicious bowls and its endearing philosophy: After successfully finishing their bowl, guests are encouraged to announce their personal dreams in front of the room, or (for an extra fee) have them hung on the wall to manifest fulfillment. There are only two choices here — pork or more pork — and the most devoted fans might even splurge on a one-year "unlimited ramen" pass ($800).
1923 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-714-4008
Fried chicken at Highland Kitchen (or Highland Fried)
Over the last couple years, Southern cuisine has been finding more solid footing here in Boston. But special shout-out to Highland Kitchen, where Dixie-inflected comfort dishes amid hipster-friendly environs have been a specialty for a decade. Most famous is the fried chicken, served as a Monday night special only. But in December, the team opened a second eatery, Highland Fried, inside Inman Square's former East Coast Grill space. You'll now find the chicken there every night of the week.
Cannoli at Mike's Pastry (or Modern Pastry)
One of the most contentious food-related debates in Boston has to do with cannoli: Are you on team Mike's, or team Modern? Both bakeries, just one block apart, are North End institutions; in recent years Mike's also opened a second location in Cambridge, while Modern added a sub-street level space, Modern Underground, for savory pub-style fare. They're both especially well known for their cannoli (and Mike's signature, string-tied white and blue boxes are ubiquitous, easily spotted handheld accessories for tourists). Crowds are split on which take is tops, so go ahead: Try them both and decide which one is your personal favorite.