Zagat Boston's Back-to-School Guide

The essential 101 to the city's dining scene — and how to master it
September 14, 2016
by Scott Kearnan

It's September and students have flooded back to this college city. But learning about Boston's best food and drink options isn't something you can do in a classroom. No, for that, field research is necessary. So, bright young minds, please consider this list below your 101 lesson plan — one that will point you in the right direction for quality beer bars, budget-friendly deals on burgers and more. Class is now in session. 

6 foodie rites of passage
Welcome to Boston. You're about to join a very special club of the millions who spent their college years here. And just like pledging a frat or sorority, there are a few traditions you should know. To that end, here are some eats every college student needs to try. (And if you're looking for other iconic Boston dishes check out some must-try legends and "New Classics.")

Burritos at Anna's Taqueria
Anna's offers cheap, fast, delicious Tex-Mex with few frills but plenty of flavor. The burritos are the best — and if you're super-hungry, ask for the off-menu, 30-inch Cubio. It's a beast. ​And since there are so many locations of this local taqueria chain, there's bound to be one within a stone's throw of your campus. 

1412 Beacon St., Brookline; 617-739-7300

Double Awesome at Mei Mei
In recent years, Boston has seen the launch of a fleet of successful food trucks, which have been especially popular with college crowds. Several of the biggest hits have yielded brick-and-mortar restaurants. Mei Mei is among them, and here you'll find the signature dish: scallion pancakes with slow-poached eggs, pesto, cheddar and spicy ketchup.

506 Park Dr.; 857-250-4959

Mighty Rib melt at Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese
First of all, this place offers one hell of a hangover cure. And although the Allston restaurant serves up sizzling burgers, it's the grilled cheese sandwiches — first made famous through its food-truck fleet — that are true cult hits. Our favorite: the Mighty Rib melt, a mouthwatering combo of fontina, barbecue sauce–braised beef and caramelized onions. 

485 Cambridge St., Allston; 617-202-5864

Pizzas at Stoked Wood Fired Pizza Company
Some will tell you that the best pizza in town can be found at Santarpio's, a salty dive in East Boston. We say: The colorful charm is real, the slices are overrated. Instead, opt for this new brick-and-mortar, also birthed from a fantastic food truck. Musician/chef Scott Riebling's 50-seat Brookline joint crisps up inventively topped pies in a wood-fired oven, plus some awesome additional eats, like charred Brussels sprouts and Buffalo wings. 

1632 Beacon St., Brookline; 617-879-0707

Donuts at Union Square Donuts
There have been plenty of elevated donuts introduced in Boston over the last few years — shout-out to Blackbird Doughnuts for being another excellent entry in that genre — but Somerville's Union Square Donuts helped kick-start the craze. Its inventive flavors include a donut version of the Boston Cream Pie, the official Massachusetts State dessert. 

20 Bow St., Somerville; 617-209-2257

Lobster roll at Yankee Lobster Co. 
As cliché​ as it may sound, indulging in New England lobster rolls is a rite of passage for any Boston transplant. You can find some of our favorites here, ranging from swanky spins by top chefs to simple no-frills sandwiches. But if there's any one must-try: It's the one at Yankee. The creation is fairly cheap, large and comes drizzled with warm butter. 

300 Northern Ave.; 617-345-9799

6 student-friendly deals
When you're drowning in loans, you can't even think about fine dining. Fear not: Boston has plenty of awesome student-focused deals that'll help you eat well on the cheap. 

Shake Shack. A short walk from the Boston College campus and the Chestnut Hill T stop, which carries all those D trains that run by Boston University, the Chestnut Hill location of this hit fast-casual burger chain has a deal that'll encourage Eagles and Terriers to eat like animals: Every Monday, show a student ID to get a buy-one-get-one burger. And what better way to get in good with your new roommate than a free burger? 49 Chestnut St., Chestnut Hill; 617-651-3406

Sunset Grill & Tap. With one of the city's largest beer selections, it's no wonder this cantina is a popular choice on college game days, especially for nearby Boston College students. In that spirit, Sunset turns out special nacho platters on BC home and away game days — the "Screaming Eagles" is covered in three different kinds of hot peppers. Plus, you'll get $2 off if you're a season ticket holder and can produce your loyalty card. 130 Brighton Ave., Allston; 617-254-1331

Night Market. There are a number of spots for cheap eats in Harvard Square. But when Crimson students are looking to save some green without sacrificing on flavor or style, this cool, graffiti-strewn modern Asian restaurant does the trick. The bar menu is ultra-inexpensive — think $3 tea eggs and $4 wing apps — and the tasting menu is one of the most democratic in the area: $28 for six courses. 75 Winthrop St., Cambridge; 857-285-6948

Common Ground. Allston is one of the city's most student-heavy 'hoods, thanks to its proximity to several different campuses — particularly BC, BU and Harvard — and its comparatively moderate rents. (By Boston standards, anyway.) On Saturdays, Common Grounds offers an all-you-can eat breakfast for just $6.99. 85 Harvard Ave., Allston; 617-783-2071

Tasty Burger. As a kid, you scored Happy Meals. As a college student, you're proud to report that your tastes have evolved. This Boston-based burger chain offers a "Starvin' Student" special: Show your student ID to get a cheeseburger or hamburger with fries and a can of beer for just $10. It's available at the Roxbury, Back Bay, Fenway and, best of all, Harvard Square, which is open until 4 AM. 40 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge; 617-425-4444, additional locations

Grass Fed. The Centre Street location of restaurateur Krista Kranyak's grass-fed burger bar offers a "Starving Artist" special (2–4:30 PM weekdays): $11 buys any burger or sandwich with fries and the lager of the day (or soda). 605 Centre St., Jamaica Plain; 617-553-2278

6 spots for great late-night eats
With a subway that stops running at 1 AM and bars that close at 2 AM, Boston's not exactly a late-night city. So if you're looking for a bite in the wee hours, your options are limited. Still, there are gems to be found, like our favorites below. (For even more options, organized by T stop, head here.)

If you find yourself out late in the South End, grab a bite at this super-cozy, tchotchke-strewn Italian-American hideaway that beckons with a retro neon sign and flower-filled window box. The cloistered joint serves simple but super-tasty red-sauce fare at moderate price points until 1:30 AM nightly. 

433 Columbus Ave.; 617-266-5088

Bova's Bakery
Find yourself craving for a late-night cannoli? This North End bakery, open 24 hours, has a huge assortment of Italian treats — from cookies to savory calzones — served whenever the fancy strikes. The dolca vita, indeed.

134 Salem St.; 617-523-5601

Charlie's Kitchen
A neighborhood icon, this vintage, diner-style hangout for Harvard Square hipsters keeps the kitchen open until 12:40 AM on Sundays through Wednesdays so it can close right at 1. Thursdays through Saturdays, though, it stays open an hour later, until 2, and stops serving at 1:40 AM. You want greasy but delicious burgers? Fish 'n' chips with a side of jukebox jams? You're in luck.

10 Eliot St., Cambridge; 617-492-9646

Peach Farm
If there's a Boston epicenter for late-night dining, it's Chinatown. The neighborhood has the greatest concentration of businesses serving until the wee hours. At Peach Farm, open until 3 AM nightly, get satisfying Chinese food, like live fish plucked from a tank and then smothered in ginger-scallion sauce. 

4 Tyler St.; 617-482-1116

Clover HFI
​When it opened last year near MIT, Clover HFI became Cambridge's very first 24-hour restaurant. It's part of a larger local chain that combines the low prices and quick service of fast food with thoughtful sourcing and responsible business practices (including food trucks that run on recycled vegetable oil). If it's 4 AM and you're looking for a tahini-splashed chickpea fritter (pictured), you know where to go. 

496 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge 

South Street Diner
A legend in the Leather District, South Street Diner is Boston's decades-old, 24-hour greasy spoon. It has no airs of being gourmet, but everything here — from the colorful characters to the awesome cheap eats — is absolutely grand.

178 Kneeland St.; 617-350-0028

6 truly awesome beer bars
We're sure you'll wind up at your fair share of sticky-floored dives during your time in Boston. But for college crowds with craftier tastes, here are some of our favorite microbrew serving bars that are high on quality but still low on pretense. (If it's sheer quantity you crave, check out our look at bars with the biggest beer lists.)

American Fresh Brewhouse
Somerville Brewing Company, the craft beer–maker of Slumbrew, is behind this cool space in the Assembly Row complex. The open-air beer garden is composed of re-purposed shipping crates, but there's also a heated tent for (mostly) year-round sipping. ​

301 Canal St., Somerville; 617-764-3790

Bukowski Tavern
The beer list at this updated gastropub, the younger sibling to the storied Back Bay original, is so deep it looks like a textbook. Chef Brian Poe helms the Cambridge location, turning out a cool menu that includes burgers of unique wild game meats like elk and camel. But no matter which location you visit, you'll find a beer selection wide enough to support a so-called Mug Club: Patrons who successfully slug their way through the entire list within six months receive a mug on permanent display.

1281 Cambridge St., Cambridge; 617-497-7077

Cambridge Brewing Company
Housed in a refurbished mill in Kendall Square, the Cambridge Brewing Company has a beer-hall vibe, a spacious patio and a lot of history: It was the first commercial brewery in America to produce Belgian-style beer. It has since expanded to create really creative offerings, like the Banryu Ichi, a sake/beer hybrid.  

Kendall Sq., Cambridge; 617-494-1994

Deep Ellum
This Allston beer bar frequently garners national recognition, and it's no wonder. Not only is the thoughtfully curated brew list one of the best around, but the inventive American pub fare is a draw too — especially on the cloistered rear patio.  

477 Cambridge St., Allston; 617-787-2337

Lord Hobo
Don't be fooled by its name. Hobo has a wealth of craft beers, and a small army of sincerely knowledgeable hopsheads to pour them. Last year the team started making its own brews, so if you've got an afternoon to spare, be sure to head north of the city to check out the Lord Hobo Brewing Company

92 Hampshire St., Cambridge; 617-250-8454

Lower Depths
There are only 17 tap lines, but this subterranean (and — take note — cash-only) Kenmore Square hangout has a much larger selection when you consider its menu of cans and bottles, bringing its grand total to 240 different beers. Come for the suds, stay for hot dogs like the "White Trash" topped with beer cheese dip and potato chips.

476 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-266-6662

6 study spots with Wi-Fi and coffee
Need to get some work done? Head to these top cafes were you can get wired on Wi-Fi — and caffeine. (For even more hot java joints, check this out.) 

Blue State Coffee
This small regional chain — with one outpost plunked right in the midst of BU — donates a percentage of its proceeds to nonprofit organizations selected by guests. So you can feel doubly good about this choice as you devour its artisanal sandwiches, like the shredded kale veggie with Gorgonzola, dried apricots and spiced pecans, and chug down some coffee while cracking the books. 

957 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-254-0929, additional locations

Boston Common Coffee Co.
With four outposts scattered throughout Hub neighborhoods, including a Downtown branch right by Suffolk University, these convenient local coffee roasters aren't just popular for their beans. There's also a "Doughnut Thursday" that changes every week; flavors in the past have included vegan raspberry French toast, chocolate jalapeño and cereal and milk.

515 Washington St.; 617-542-0595, additional locations

Farmer Horse Coffee
Cozy and quiet with rotating art, this coffee shop near Northeastern University specializes in Ethiopian beans and delicious pastries. 

374 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-487-1513

Pavement Coffeehouse
With six locations throughout the city, Pavement is a casual hangout offering plenty of coffee, sandwiches and baked goods, plus lots of table space for spreading out that midterm research. Plus, it feels like the set of "Friends," which is about as perfect as it gets.

 44 Gainsborough St.; 617-859-7080, additional locations

Thinking Cup
When it comes to picking a new spot to refuel, Thinking Cup is a no-brainer. Sure, the trio of local java joints, which includes a Boston Common–side location by Emerson College, serves fantastic Stumptown coffee and espresso drinks. But there's also a build-your-own grilled cheese menu. And what's better than a build-your-own grilled cheese menu?

165 Tremont St.; 617-482-5555, additional locations 

Trident Booksellers & Cafe
This charming indie book shop, with a coffee bar and cafe, is right in the heart of vibrant Back Bay, and regularly hosts author readings, poetry slams and other events. Dig in to its creative breakfast and lunch menu, and balance out all that booze with fruit- and veggie-loaded smoothies and frappes. 

338 Newbury St.; 617-267-8688

student guide