8 Must-Try Clam Chowders in Boston

By Scott Kearnan  |  March 24, 2014

Spring is nearing, but let's be honest: it's still really, really cold out there. (Really.) The perfect antidote? A hot cup of clam chowder, New England's hearty signature stew. We could spend all day debating where the best bowl can be found, but we would always miss someone's favorite bowl. Instead, we rustled up a handful of indisputably great clam chowders that all stand out for a different reason. They're tops in their categories, and every one is a favorite. 

  • Best Broth: 80 Thoreau

    Concord may be one of Massachusetts' most historic towns, but chef Carolyn Johnson isn't beholden to tradition with her chowder. It features rich broth made from quahogs and skate-wing cartilage; that decadent base is then laden with housemade bacon, celery and leeks. Then guests add chopped clams, skate meat or diced smoked scallops to the broth, and tiny brioche croutons top it off.

  • Spiciest Surprise: Blue Ox

    Want a pick with a little perk? This celebrated upscale gem in Lynn serves up a sophisticated bowl of clam chowder spruced up by smoked bacon, chives and Tabasco. Especially in winter time, we like a place that's willing to turn up the heat. 

  • Best Use of Pork: BRINE

    Bacon-topped chowder? File under: status quo. (We're not complaining, mind you.) Taking things a step further is BRINE, where chef Corey Marcoux adds some delicious crispy pork belly that complements the rustic flavor of his smoked clams. Pig out.  

  • Freshest Catch: Central Kitchen

    Short of dredging your mouth through the sea, you can't get more fresh than the variation at Central Square. The clams in the chowder come with their shells still on - tossed in a cute kettle full of creamy broth and potatoes, and served with a side of grilled bread.

  • Best Cracker Substitute: Island Creek Oyster Bar

    Saltines and oyster crackers? Snooze. We appreciate the extra effort that goes into Island Creek Oyster Bar's chowder, which forgoes those predictable sides for something a little more interesting: crouton-sized hunks of buttermilk biscuit. All the better for sopping up a stew generously loaded with local clams and house-smoked bacon. 

  • Populist Choice: 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 has been served at every President inauguration since Reagan's that year, proving 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.) 

  • Star-Chef Entry: Jasper White's Summer Shack

    Plenty of celeb chefs have taken a swing at creating their take on clam chowder; Barbara Lynch's delicious bowl at B&G Oysters is another standout. But we have to give special credit to Jasper White, who did something brave and borderline-unthinkable back in 2000: he, a chef previously known exclusively for fine dining, opened a boisterous, tchotchke-strewn clam shack. Today, there's nothing so unusual about important chefs loosening their apron strings a bit. But we salute with our spoon White's pioneering perspective that, yes, a Big Deal toque can bring focus and craft to simple comfort-food traditions. 

  • Over-the-Top Indulgence: Skipper Restaurant

    Okay, you have to wander to the Cape for this pick (but honestly, was there any reason to think you wouldn't be eating chowder on your next Cape visit?) Consider this New England's answer to those deep-fried Twinkies found at Texas state fairs: fried clam chowder. The 80-year-old Yarmouth icon has taken its festival-award-winning clam chowder and thickened it into cakes, rolled it in flour, egg and panko crumbs, and deep-fried the whole deal. It's served with a side of hot sauce for good measure.