Boston's Most Innovative Restaurants

By Scott Kearnan  |  January 6, 2014

Boston is a city steeped in tradition - but increasingly unafraid to innovate. From squid ink QR codes to MIT-influenced interior design, here are some of the more innovative restaurant ideas happening around the Hub. 

  • The Do-Good, Taste-Good Nonprofit: Haley House Bakery Cafe

    Even without its interesting backstory, the Roxbury bakery and lunch spot would earn its status as a neighborhood gem from its tasty salads, sandwiches and pastries alone. But even better is its innovative approach to staffing: the cafe is an extension of Haley House, a South End-based shelter, soup kitchen and multiservice nonprofit helping the economically disadvantaged. To that end, the cafe is staffed through the organization's transitional employment program, providing skill-building employment for those struggling to reenter the workforce. Plus, sales account for about 90% of Haley House's budget, so you can feel good about splurging on an extra cookie. Or three.

    What to order: The muffins and scones steal the show, but for a hot lunch we're partial to the spicy Jamaican jerk chicken plate with cornbread and a choice of sides. Go for the ginger slaw, one of the very many vegetarian/vegan options on the menu. 

  • Geek Chic Design: Firebrand Saints

    Kendall Square has become New England's answer to Silicon Valley, thanks to its dense concentration of start-up incubators alongside offices for leading innovators like Microsoft and Google. This funky New American reflects the geek-chic entrepreneurial culture with its interior, boasting deconstructed video installations, designed in part by MIT's Media Lab, and elaborate digital projections on the wall. 

    What to order: Answer the call of rotisserie meats spinning in its open kitchen, particularly the porchetta sandwich with caper aïoli.

  • An Ideas Incubator: Gather

    In the final few years of his 20-year term, Mayor Menino made much ado about redefining the Seaport as Boston's Innovation District. With its October opening, the city's 12,000-sq.-ft. District Hall indeed made entrepreneurial history; the building bills itself as "the world's first freestanding public innovation center" - it's a civic building covered in IdeaPaint writing surfaces that offers flexible work, meeting and hackathon space. The only permanent residents are Brew coffeehouse and Gather, a lunch-through-late-night restaurant from the same team behind spots like City Table and Anthem. Naturally, the sparkling space is already a dining and drink spot from the city's start-up community. 

    What to order: The menu culls from a variety of cuisines. We recommend the Tom Yam Kung (a Korean seafood stew) and pizzas - particularly the braised oxtail pie topped with truffled mashed potato and smoked Gouda. 

  • Edible QR Codes: Taranta

    At his North End Peruvian-Italian, chef Jose Duarte is known to garnish many plates with something rather unique: QR codes. You know, those funky images that can be scanned with a smartphone to bring you to a certain website. Duarte's culinary versions are drawn with squid ink, and the accompanying surprise site varies: codes let diners trace the sourcing of the dish's ingredients, try their hand at its recipe, or watch YouTube videos that educate on issues of sustainability or the fascinating background of, say, the tasty fish they just devoured. 

    What to order: Opt for the tasty white meat of the jungle fish Amazone Paiche. Preparation changes daily for this coveted plate of South America's largest freshwater fish. 

  • Phone-Free Dining: BRINE

    Last month, we named BRINE general manager Bryanna Tebbetts one of our Boston 30 Under 30 honorees. But it's the number 15 that impresses us today - that's how many courses are featured in Brine's monthly "Culinary Opus" dinner series, a single-seating event limited to about 50 diners. There's one rule: mobile phones must stay in pockets, so there are no social media distractions from the food and company. Who knew that forbidding technology could be such an innovation? 

    What to order: The menu changes with each installment, but December's dinner included poached oysters with brown butter, degustation of venison, and a prickly pear and pinot noir sorbet.

  • Super-Smart Servers: Eastern Standard

    Thought you left behind your book-report days in high school? Not if you want to work for restaurateur Garrett Harker. He's developed an ongoing staff-education approach for his Kenmore Square bistro that is truly unique. Employees engage in long-term group-learning assignments; last year, teams visited the 14 counties of Massachusetts to learn about everything from whaling in Nantucket to wines in the Berkshires. And there is a monthly staff book club; the food or hospitality-related tomes are selected by a different server, manager, bartender, line cook or chef.

    What to read: Want to discuss something other than the weather with your server? Recent book-club favorites have included Danny Meyer's Setting the Table and Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History.

  • Healthy Eating App: #True28

    We're excited to see what kitchen will scoop up chef Sam Monsour, the local food-nerd-favorite who bid adieu to jm Curley in December. But we know what other project he's prepping: #True28, a paleo lifestyle app he's developed with his wife, health and fitness expert Astrid Bengtson. (You can check out our full feature on it here.) A cornerstone of the 28-day diet and exercise app is "Provisions," a guide of daily recipes from Monsour that prove you don't need to skimp on creativity to go paleo: think his hot cereal, a coconut and cage-free egg porridge with almond milk and wild Maine blueberries.

    Check it out: The app will be released in early 2014, but you can get an early look at the iPad version by signing up for this four-session February series at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Each three-hour class includes exercises with Bengtson and a paleo brunch prepared by Monsour. 

  • Experimental Cocktail Genius: Todd Maul of Clio

    The idea of the "mad-scientist mixologist" is nothing new, but the constant and über-creative explorations of new techniques have made Todd Maul a living legend in the Boston bar scene. At Ken Oringer's Clio, he brings sophisticated whimsy to his 100-drink-deep cocktail menu that requires the use of everything from centrifuges to blast chillers, smoking ice and glasses "painted" with their garnishes. 

    What to drink: All of them, eventually. Join the "cocktail club" to get your own personal menu, and Maul will sign off on each sip tried. Finish the list, and you earn a private cocktail class and an overnight stay at the Eliot Hotel. 

  • Oyster Breeding for Flavor: Row 34

    The Fort Point newcomer is named for its signature variety of oysters, which co-owner (and Island Creek Oysters founder) Skip Bennett developed to explore the merroir of Duxbury Bay on the South Shore. Beginning at Row 34 of his farm, he began allowing some of his oysters to mature in racks elevated off the bay floors - allowing them to eat different planktons. The result is oysters with a nutty, umami quality that differs from their bright and buttery ICOB siblings. 

    Where to learn more: Try the Row 34 oysters side by side with the classic Island Creek Oyster Bar oysters - and several other New England varieties - at Row 34, where there are always eight types of raw bivalves on the menu.

  • A Digital Solution for a Primal Problem: Soon Spoon

    The problem: you need last-minute dinner reservations. The other problem: your palate is too discerning to dine just anywhere (it's not exactly a bad problem). The solution: Soon Spoon, a Boston start-up launching by the end of February, which promises to redefine dining out. The service will aggregate last-minute reservations at dining rooms of a certain caliber or where grabbing a seat is tough - and you need to count on a cancellation. Soon Spoon will blast the info to your phone. Accept a booking and they'll let the restaurant know you're on your way. Already signed up for the service are Lineage and Journeyman (pictured), says the Soon Spoon team.

    Where to learn more: Head here and submit your e-mail, and you'll get an overview of how the service works - plus notification once Soon Spoon officially starts dishing out reservations.