Blowout or Budget: A High-Low Guide to Boston Dining

By Scott Kearnan  |  February 18, 2014

Great food doesn't always have to cost a lot of bread. But often, it does; which is why we decided to pull together a guide that offers high- and low-cost spots to find the best in different dishes, from steak to sushi. Whether you're on a tight budget or willing to spend a king's ransom, we've crowned a winner you'll enjoy. 

  • Steak

    High: There's a reason that Grill 23 has been a local icon for a quarter-century. The steakhouse is superb, turning out never-less-than-stellar cuts of filet mignon, 100-day-aged rib eye and porterhouse that can get pricey (the 10-oz. Kobe cap steak is $62), but never disappoints.  

    Low: There was a collective gasp back in 2012, when the four-decade-spanning Stockyard closed. Luckily, it turned out to be only a seven-month hiatus, and the area icon reopened with a new look but the same approach: quality, but affordable steaks. A coffee-crusted prime flat-iron steak with cognac cream goes for $23; the aged prime-rib queen cut slow-roasted in rock salt is just $26.

  • Omakase Sushi

    High: Bring your black card - or a generous employer. The omakase at O Ya is famous for its fabulousness and its price tag of $175 per person. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a diner who wouldn't say the sublime sushi is worth every hard-earned penny. 

    Low: Sure, you're going from decadent fine dining to a Boston-based chain, but Seaport's Legal Harborside is still a notch up from your standard national seafood outlet. Especially when it baits with a chef's choice sushi boat of maki, nigiri and sashimi that is only $65 for 48 pieces and $165 for 124. 

  • Credit: Michael Piazza


    High: A thing of legend. Even before everyone in Boston caught on to the idea that, yes, you can put a chef-y spin on the all-American burger, James Beard award winner Tony Maws of Craigie on Main was offering his burger of grass-fed beef ($17), pictured, topped with Shelburne Farm cheddar, mace ketchup and, if you're up to it, a fried egg or house-smoked bacon. 

    Low: You could file Shake Shack under "fast food." After all, it's a quick service-style burger outpost with prices barely above what you'd pay for a Big Mac meal. (Single cheeseburgers start at $4.85.) But the patty purveyor from restaurateur Danny Meyers' Union Hospitality Group, the same team responsible for Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern, is anything but a standard burger slinger. From its Pat LaFrieda meats, more often found at high end eateries than burger chains, to customized menus reflecting each spot's neighborhood, Shake Shack is a burger king at a different level. We're glad it finally come to the Boston area with its Chestnut Hill, (just-opened) Harvard Square, and upcoming Newbury Street spots. 

  • Hot Spot

    High: The city's latest entrant from Columbus Hospitality Group, the team behind high-end icons like Mistral, was highly anticipated. In December, the doors finally opened at Italian seafood specialist Ostra, where chef Mitchell Randall presides over a fabulous but not inexpensive menu - which includes an already-legendary salt-crusted whole branzino ($90) and grilled sea bream ($42). (Check out our comprehensive look at the space here.) For pretty people with deep pockets, it's a buzz-worthy new hive of upscale dining. 

    Low: High-quality-meets-lowbrow-kitsch is the raison d'être of Kendall Square's newly opened State Park, pictured. Here you'll find smart Southern food, like a delicious $11 bowl of Memphis BBQ spaghetti, that delivers the culinary expertise of its sibling restaurant (the more elevated Hungry Mother) in a pool-table-, jukebox-, and neon-sign-festooned subterranean space designed to evoke dive-bar-chic. The only downside: Like most dive bars, it's loud and crowded. But only because it's so damn good.

  • Credit: Linnea Covington

    Wine Flights

    High: There's nothing pretentious about Belly Wine Bar; this is, after all, the same Cambridge spot that offers outdoor s'mores-making over a fire pit and dubs its whole-animal program "arm + a leg" dinners. But it can get pricey to build a wine flight here, since 2-oz. pours range from about $4 to $8. But since Belly comes from the same crew behind Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, you can rely on the fact that every drop is worth every dime.

    Low: You're not exactly slumming it at Piattini, a gem of an Italian on upscale Newbury Street. But with wine flights starting at $9.50 for a trio of pours, sampling the extensive vino variety is a surprisingly modest proposal. 

  • Tasting Menu

    High: Boston boasts a number of standout tasting menus, from the predictably perfect (and pricey) seven course at Menton to the options at new, prized kid on the block Asta. But we have to give credit to something a bit more off the beaten path - literally. Journeyman, pictured, is a contemporary farm-to-table tucked down an alleyway in Somerville. The sleek, minimalist dining room is tasting-menu-only, $85 for a seven-course spread; add $55 for wine pairings.

    Low:  A five-course tasting menu from one of the top-rated restaurants in the city - for $40? It can be done at Oleana. The trade-off: it's a vegetarian tasting, so carnivores will have to make due with selections like an elegant spinach falafel. Which, now that you say it out loud, doesn't sound like much of a trade-off at all.

  • Adventurous Cocktails

    High: When it comes to adventurous sips, spirited cocktail seekers turn to Todd Maul of Clio, pictured, Boston's closest thing to a mad scientist of mixology. Whether he's using centrifuges or blast chillers, smoking ice or "painting" glasses with garnishes, Maul makes perfection in a glass with each entry on the 100-drink-deep list. Check out the Flaming Paco ($13), made with Illegal Mezcal (a superior-quality spirit so named for how its creator smuggled it from Mexico to Gautemala) and torched lime with seared hot peppers. Or take the "Double Dog Dare" ($13), the barkeep's choice of a flaming drink. 

    Low: Daddy Jones, a fun Somerville spot for cocktails and small Greek-influenced plates, conveys playfulness upon entry; its vibe nods to '80s and '90s pop culture, with high-school gym lockers used for bottle storage at the bar and nostalgic shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air playing on loop. But the fantastic cocktails are definitely not child's play. The chilled Bourbon Spoon ($9) includes a mastiha spoon, a stick of sweet taffy traditionally offered in Greek homes, and the delicious Dirty Dill Infused Gin ($10) is served up with pickled green beans and a cornichon. 

  • Fried Chicken

    High: There's only so much "highbrow" that something as inherently down-home as a fried chicken dish can be. But the impressive comfort food at hipster haven Highland Kitchen is a thing to behold, and chef-owner Mark Romano is responsible for the cultlike devotion that accompanies "fried chicken and Tiki Mondays," when you'll find the some of the indisputably best battered birds around for $14.99. 

    Low: Tucked away in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester is Mrs. Jones, a total hole-in-the-wall known for two things: friendly, familylike service and cheap Southern food. Anyone who seeks it out raves about the fried chicken's crispy-meets-juicy perfection. 

  • Credit: Courtesy Barbara Lynch Gruppo

    Lobster Roll

    High: Naturally, Boston's star chef Barbara Lynch is responsible for one of the city's best elevated lobster rolls (pictured). Her B&G Oysters serves chunks of Maine lobster on a toasted roll, accompanied by fries and butter pickles. It's perfectly refined, with a price tag ($29) to match.

    Low: The 90-year-old family business James Hook & Co. ships up to 50,000 lbs. of lobster each day to restaurants and distributors. But it's at the small retail space and showroom where it serves customers a stellar $12 lobster roll that easily is one of Boston's best.

  • Tacos

    High: Mexican food fans will appreciate the elevated vibe of Casa Romero, a discreet dining room in Back Bay that transports visitors south of the border. The refined surroundings are the perfect place to enjoy plates like the caramelos ($8.50), grilled beef and cheese tacos in a flour tortilla.

    Low: You can certainly find cheap, quick-serve tacos around town. But inexpensive options from Hell's Kitchen alum? Those will only be found at Tremont 647, where chef Andy Husbands turns out his famous Taco Tuesday nights where each item from the spread (pictured) goes for $2 each, like Baja-style fried fish with chipotle lime aïoli and sautéed Brussels with cumin-lime vinaigrette and goat cheese.