The Hottest Boston Restaurants & Dining Trends of 2014

10 highlights from the year in eating and drinking
December 15, 2014
by Scott Kearnan

2014 brought us many memorable meals, hot restaurant openings and intriguing trends. It's hard to sum up a year in Boston dining and drinking in a single recap, but here's a start of where you need to hit for your final meals of the year.

The Biggest Openings of 2014

Most buzzed-about: It's hard to say that any one new restaurant dominated discussions in 2014. But if pressed, we'd say a lion's share of attention went to Harvard Square's Alden & Harlow. It seemed like everyone was rooting for well-regarded chef Michael Scelfo (pictured) before doors even opened to his urban farmhouse of flavor-filled, veggie-heavy shared plates. Once we pulled up a seat, we learned that the fanfare was justified. (And that "Secret Burger"? Seriously.)

Biggest newcomer, literally: 240 seats. 11,000 sq. ft. Two floors. A $4 million renovation of a former Fort Point textile factory. French newbie Bastille Kitchen essentially dwarfs most others (look inside here), and even its talent is big. The project was spearheaded by hospitality honcho Seth Greenberg (of Mistral) and features two of our 30 Under 30 honorees in the kitchen: executive chef Adam Kube, a winner from 2013, and sous Brendan Burke, just added to this year's class

Highest concepts: It's a tight race, but when it comes to high-concept new eateries, Cafe ArtScience is an audaciously cool entry. Founded by the Harvard engineer behind Le Laboratoire, Paris and Cambridge design centers pioneering "the future of food," Cafe ArtScience brings tech to the taste buds: think "flavor clouds" sipped through straws. But it steers clear of shtick thanks to an all-star team: chef Patrick Campbell (formerly of No.9 Park), beverage guru Todd Maul (formerly of Clio) and GM Thomas Mastricola (most recently of Commonwealth). That said, we tip our hat to the similarly ambitious Liquid Art House, where chef Rachel Klein purveys an eclectic, sophisticated menu in a restaurant that doubles as an art gallery where everything — from framed paintings to stemware — is for sale. 

Excellent expansions: Even while running an ad campaign that sneered at being labeled a "chain," the Legal Sea Foods brand proudly expanded in cool new directions, adding three unique, independent concepts in 2014. First came Legal Crossing (LX), a distinctly upscale restaurant at Downtown's ritzy Millennium Place. (Go inside here.) Then came Legal Oysteria, an Italian-inspired offering in the Charlestown space that formerly housed Todd English's original Figs. (Our First Look is here.) And finally, Legal on the Mystic opened in the Fall at Assembly Row, specializing in more casual fare with plenty of shared plates.

Biggest Brick-and-Mortar Debuts

BagelsaurusMary Ting Hyatt's one-time popup at Cutty's sandwich shop now has roared into its own physical location in Porter Square. Behold many unique bagel varieties and sandwiches, like the "T-Rex" with banana, almond butter and bacon.

Bread & Salt Hospitality at Wink & NodChef Josh Lewin took his Southeast Asian- and Indian-inspired pop-up into the kitchen at Wink & Nod, making it the second in a presumed series of culinary residencies at the South End newcomer. Along the way he tapped jm Curley alum Kate Holowchik, one of our most recent 30 Under 30 honorees, as his sous.  

Roxy's Gourmet Grilled CheeseThe food truck standout finally spawned a brick-and-mortar location in Allston, adding a selection of thin patty burgers (pictured) to its already infamous assortment of gooey sandwiches. (Check out our look inside here.) 

WOW BarbecueA mobile purveyor of Chinese skewered meats found itself a permanent home in Malden, and broadened to include a host of other offerings. Marinated jellyfish head, anyone?

Hottest Neighborhoods

Allston. The student-heavy neighborhood had a good streak of openings this year that have managed to lure those of us beyond our dorm years. Besides the aforementioned brick-and-mortar of Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese, Allston also received gastropub The Glenville Stops; the first local outpost of NYC-based hit Totto RamenLimoo Tea Bar, a neon-lit purveyor of banh mi and alcoholic bubble teas; and quirky comfort food hit Lulu's Allston. All offer the kind of fare that will be accessible to coeds with good taste, with enough elevation to excite the rest of us. 

Seaport/Fort Point. Development continues in this corner of the city, where big newcomers included Bastille Kitchen, MC Spiedo, an Italian Renaissance-inspired restaurant from a Beard-winning chef duo, and Pastoral, where chef Todd Winer focuses on rural Italian cuisine. Coming soon: a second brick-and-mortar location of Vietnamese Bon Me; Committee, a Mediterranean restaurant on Fan Pier from the owner of Cafeteri; and Mario Batali's Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, also slated to open at Fan Pier.

Union Square. This oft-unsung area of Somerville was an exciting place to be in 2014. A warehouse full of craft beer and hipsters, Aeronaut Brewing Company opened its impressive taproom toward the beginning of the year. Then came Brass Union (pictured), which replaced Precinct with a cool destination for American tavern fare and quirky board, arcade and patio games. More recently, Union Square Donuts earned its first proper cafe space, and Gracie's Ice Cream opened up with a host of funky homemade flavors. Coming soon: Thunder Road, a restaurant and live-music venue. 

In Memoriam

Star-chef shutterings. Even big names must sometimes bid adieu. In 2014, Michael Schlow closed his playful Mexican Barrio Cantina. (He still has Alta Strada, Tico and Via Matta to handle.) Innings ran out for Ken Oringer's Fenway-side taqueria La Verdad. (His Clio, Coppa, Toro and Uni are more than enough.) And Hell's Kitchen runner-up Jason Santos trimmed Blue Inc. from his portfolio, which still includes Abby Lane and Back Bay Harry's. (The Blue Inc. space, meanwhile, is already reborn as Broad Street Riot.) 

Lost icons. From charming dive bars to one of the city's most consistently esteemed restaurants, food fans of every stripe saw some enduring legacies wind down. Storied sports bar Daisy Buchanan's poured its last pint; Tex-Mex restaurant Cactus Club, its patio infamously located by the Boston Marathon's final turn, is no more; and vegetarians saw their already-slender options cropped with the loss of Veggie Planet. But perhaps no loss hit us harder than the closing of venerable Hamersley's Bistro after nearly 30 years. Gordon Hamersley's restaurant trail-blazed the now-thriving South End dining scene, saw numerous future stars pass through its kitchen, and never dimmed its shine until that last famous chicken (pictured) was served. 

Gay-bar switch-about. New England's storied gay sports bar Fritz closed this year after 30 years; its owner reopened the space as Trophy Room, a glossy American brasserie lined with trophies that pay homage to the former inhabitant's legacy. Meanwhile the management team of Fritz defected, and took advantage of the closing of The Red Fez, a nearby Mediterranean restaurant. They moved in and reopened it as a new gay sports bar, Cathedral Station. What started as a loss wound up putting Boston's gay scene up by one. Winner: everybody. 

Top Trends

Wood-fired cookery. Not that it's anything new, but "wood-fired cooking" was a particularly trumpeted approach by major new openings, particularly those purveying pizza. Chef Todd Winer's Fort Point spot Pastoral (pictured) boasts a glistening red oven made from stone and sand of Mt. Vesuvius; it's used for Neapolitan pizzas and many other rustic Italian dishes that get brushed by the live fire. (You won't find pizzas, but Somerville's La Brasa, its name a word for grill embers, similarly gives much of its Pan-Latin cuisine some kind of treatment with its wood-burning oven.) Downtown trattoria MAST' is all about Neapolitan street food that comes from a glorious oven that dominates its second-floor space. Pizza newcomer Crush fires pies hot enough to serve in 90 seconds, while Stoked Pizza puts a massive wood-fired oven on its mobile eatery. 

Classy "junk" food. Thoughtful takes on lowbrow foods continued to gain steam. Top Chef alum Stephanie Cmar left No.9 Park to launch Stacked Donuts, a pop-up offering inventive sweet and savory takes on the treats, then combined forces with fellow pop-up Trademark Tarts to create Party of Two. They're currently hunting for a brick-and-mortar space. Meanwhile Union Square Donuts moved into larger digs with an expanded menu, and Blackbird Doughnuts, coming from the team behind The Gallows, started construction in the South End. Lulu's Allston brought wild-game Frito chili pie and other junk-food-inspired dishes to our mouths, and new Shojo chef Mark O'Leary (co-founder of The Future of Junk Food series) reimagined that menu with cool stuff like a Wendy's-inspired burger with "kimchi Velveeta" and Sapporo-soaked beef franks encased with nori in steamed buns. (See more here.) 30 Under 30 honoree Kate Holowchik traded Fernet bonbons at jm Curley for Green Chartreuse Oreos at Bread and Salt Hospitality at Wink & Nod. And neighboring newcomer Merrill & Co. will soon begin introducing more Curley-esque funky fare, we're told by new exec chef Chris Bauer

Southern hospitality. Props to Cambridge's State Park for getting the ball rolling at the very end of 2013. But this year we saw greater inflections of Southern-inspired fare. Loretta's Last Call now brings bluegrass music, fried chicken and moonshine cocktails to Fenway; Rosebud American Kitchen + Bar, housed in a historic diner, is all about barbecue, flaky pies and other chef-driven spins on Southern-style edibles. And Causeway replaced The Penalty Box with a barbecue destination that would please taste buds from the lower 50 states — and those south of the border too. (There are a few Mexican notes to be found.) 

The Year's Biggest Winners

James Beard Award winners. Boston had a good year at the James Beard Foundation Awards. Jamie Bissonnette (Coppa, Toro) took home the honors for "Best Chef, Northeast," and our very own grand dame of dining, Barbara Lynch (pictured), nabbed "Outstanding Restaurateur" for a portfolio that includes B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, DrinkMenton, No.9 Park and Sportello

More national nods. Cheers to Jared Bacheller of L'Espalier for scoring a spot on Food & Wine's picks for Best New Pastry Chefs, 2014. Harvest chef Mary Dumont won the Boston stop of the city-hopping, pig-centric Cochon 555 tour, where Ribelle beverage director Sean Woods took home the "Punch King" title. And before his restaurant became embroiled in a viral spat over $4, Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden II won a national competition to find America's "most imaginative bartender," landing on the December cover of GQ magazine. 

ZAGAT picks. Of course, we also spent the year surveying (literally) Boston's restaurant scene to come up with our own crops of winners. Readers helped us declare the 10 Best Burgers around the Hub, with the top spot going to a certain icon at Craigie on Main. And last week we released the honorees of our 2014 "30 Under 30" list of young culinary talent. Check out the lineup here, featuring talented folks from Audubon, East by Northeast, Row 34 and more. 

Top Spots on Top Chef

Even non-reality-TV fans have had their eyes glued to Top Chef in 2014, since Season 12 of the show (finally!) decided to feature Boston as the host city. Herewith, an episode guide to the local chefs and spots that have appeared so far. Food tourists: on your mark, go!

Episode 1: We meet local contestant Stacy Cogswell (pictured) of Brookline restaurant The Regal Beagle. (Head here to check out our pre-premiere chat.) 

Episode 2: 2014 hot culinary mess Todd English presides over a surf 'n' turf-themed "Quickfire Challenge." (How often he continues to preside over his remaining Boston restaurant, Figs, remains subject to debate.) Then enters Dante de Magistris to guest judge a challenge that involves cooking for Boston's police and firefighters; de Magistris' Il Casale in Belmont is located in a former firehouse, you see. (He also has Restaurant dante and a newly opened Il Casale location in Lexington.)  

Episode 3: Top toque Ming Tsai (Blue Dragon, Blue Ginger) oversees a Tea Party-themed "Quickfire Challenge" before bringing his keen taste to a dinner served on the field at Fenway Park. 

Episode 4: The contestants descend on famous Cheers for a bar-snack-based challenge, with a cameo by actor George Wendt. (All together: "Norm!") Then they head to Via Matta to prepare three-course meals for chef Michael Schlow

Episode 5: Jamie Bissonnette (Coppa, Toro) steps in for the "Quickfire Challenge," which involves lots of food made with Reynolds products. (Subtle.) Then the chefs take to the Arsenal on the Charles for a complicated series of historic-battle-themed cook-offs. 

Episode 6: Things get started with Sweet Cheeks Q chef Tiffani Faison, a two-time Top Chef runner-up (most recently in 2014's spin-off Top Chef Duels). She sends the contestants scrambling through a cranberry bog for their first challenge. Then they head to Plimouth Plantation to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal using only historically accurate techniques and tools. Sitting at the table: Ken Oringer (Clio, Coppa, Toro, Uni) and Mayflower descendant Will Gilson (Puritan & Company) with his father David. 

Episode 7: The most recent installment of the series, the popular "Restaurant Wars" episode, sees two teams set up competing pop-up restaurants at Space 57 inside the Revere Hotel Boston Common. Evaluating the spots are restaurateur Barbara Lynch and two of her protégés: past Top Chef winner Kristin Kish, formerly chef de cuisine at Menton, and two-time Top Chef contestant Stephanie Cmar, former sous at No.9 Park

Major Imports

For obvious reasons, homegrown restaurants tend to be the most exciting new openings. But this year Boston did receive a fair share of interesting new additions from the outside dining scene. 

Bar BouludStar chef Daniel Boulud brought an international marquee name to Boston, replacing Asana at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel with this accessibly upscale bistro. (Pictured; go inside here.) 

Besito MexicanFirst in Burlington and then in Chestnut Hill, this upscale Mexican brand — which has just a few outposts in the NYC suburbs — opened two Boston-area eateries in 2014. 

Earls Kitchen + BarThough it's ubiquitous across Canada, Somerville's Assembly Row is now one of the few stateside spots you'll find this slightly elevated chain of eclectic fare. 

PAUL Bakery. And also moved into Assembly Row is this Parisian-style bakery, which has only a few other locations in the U.S. 

year in review