The Boston restaurant scene offers an embarrassment of riches. Many local establishments are deservedly hyped — whether because the food is delicious and beautifully prepared, the chef brings something new to the culinary landscape, the atmosphere is particularly appealing, or the cocktails are perfectly made each time. Others, of course, are less-deservedly hyped.
And then there are the restaurants that should be on the radar and, for whatever reason, aren’t — or at least aren’t as appreciated as they ought to be. They are off the beaten path. They get eclipsed by a nearby restaurant with a similar concept. They have been doing the same thing so well for so long we take them for granted. Or, simply, they don’t have a budget for PR. These places deserve to be recognized. A list could encompass hundreds, but for starters, here are 10 of Boston’s underrated restaurants.
Carlo’s Cucina Italiana
131 Brighton Ave., Allston
Oh, ye who seek Italian food, journey not to the North End, or at least not always. Carlo’s Cucina Italiana in Allston serves up generous portions of well-prepared, gently priced Italian-American classics and originals. The atmosphere is casual, often bustling, and the staff is friendly. For your fix of fried calamari, rigatoni puttanesca, and eggplant Parm — or house specialties such as shrimp in Grand Marnier sauce, pappardelle alla Chloe (with vegetables and ricotta in a pink sauce), and pollo alla Giancarlo (chicken and sausage sauteed with potatoes, vinegar peppers, and more) — look no farther. (A few others to file under “tasty Italian food not in the North End”: Delfino in Roslindale, Anchovies in the South End, and Il Capriccio in Waltham.)
Bistro du Midi
272 Boylston St., Boston
This is a city where diners are always looking for good seafood. And although seafood is not its explicit focus, Provencal restaurant Bistro du Midi ought to be at the top of any list. Executive chef Robert Sisca formerly worked at New York’s fish-focused Le Bernardin, which deserves the four stars it repeatedly wins from The New York Times. From whole prawns with Sardinian couscous to Maine lobster with lobster-coral tagliatelle, the surf side of the menu shines. Of course, the turf is fine, too, with dishes such as classic beef daube and perfect whole roast chicken. There are lovely desserts, including souffles. And perhaps the best part is the service, attentive and wholly without posturing. It’s located on a block of luxe shops near the Public Garden, so perhaps people think of it as a celebration restaurant. It’s certainly occasion-worthy, but a lower-priced cafe menu means it can also be part of a more-regular rotation.
567 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge
This restaurant, open since 1999, is part of Central Square’s fabric. One hardly notices its dark wood exterior and tile sign anymore, so much a part of the landscape are they. This neighborhood standby works equally well for drinks with friends, a casual weeknight supper, or date night. For creative bistro fare — including some of the best mussels in town — along with an interesting, reasonably priced bottle of wine, Central Kitchen will always have your back.
East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge
This little restaurant is just far enough away from the fray to keep it from becoming impossible to get a table. Chef Phillip Tang worked at places such as Lumiere, T.W. Food, and Hungry Mother before opening his modern Chinese restaurant; his family runs popular dim sum restaurants in the D.C. area. Combining the two modes, he prepares the cuisine using seasonal ingredients from local farms. The result is dishes such as pork and zucchini dumplings with carrot puree and black vinegar reduction, stuffed littleneck clams with bacon, black beans, and spicy tomato relish, and thick, handmade noodles in vegetable broth with a poached egg and grilled king oyster mushrooms and eggplant. If it were located a few blocks westward on Cambridge Street, you’d never find a seat.
700 Harrison Ave., Boston
Tapas in the South End? All we ever hear is “Toro, Toro, Toro.” Estragon is the Jan Brady of the neighborhood. The Spanish restaurant has its own fine attributes. First, of course, is the food. Owners Lara Egger and Julio de Haro, a Madrid native, offer plenty of classic pintxos and tapas. The menu also encompasses less-familiar dishes — think ensalada a la parilla, grilled romaine with pickled beets and crisped Serrano ham; paella croquettes; pollo en pepitoria, braised chicken with almond-saffron-sherry cream; and potaje Andaluz, a vegetarian mix of chard, butternut squash, chickpeas, almonds, and raisins. The decor looks like an art nouveau version of Alice’s Wonderland, and the cava, sherry, and sangria flow. And one doesn’t have to contend with the waits often encountered at that other neighborhood tapas spot.
1293 Washington St., Newton
It’s not that people don’t appreciate chef Michael Leviton’s Lumiere. It’s that they don’t appreciate it enough. (Same with Steve Johnson’s Rendezvous in Central Square.) There are few restaurants more consistent in the area, and there are few things harder to achieve than consistency. Since 1999, this little bistro has been serving beautiful food, from seared sea scallops with succotash salad to lamb with ratatouille and tapenade jus. The service is good, the atmosphere is upscale but not stuffy, and the prices are reasonable. And few chefs care more about what they are doing. Leviton chairs the board of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and local food. He has long been a passionate champion of both.
798 Main St., Cambridge
In 2004, co-owners Gabriel Bremer and Analia Verolo took over this cozy Cambridge restaurant. In 2007, Bremer was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs. In 2012, he continues to offer innovative preparations of local, seasonal ingredients, ornately plated with fresh herbs and flowers. And then there’s the signature whole roast duck for two, glazed in lavender honey. Just down the road is Craigie on Main, chef Tony Maws’s much-talked-about restaurant. (Maws was a 2005 Food & Wine best new chef — lotta talent on Main Street.) Salts ought to be talked about more often. Focused on food and hospitality, doing very little in the way of promotion, Bremer and Verolo run a charming establishment year after year.
The Salty Pig
130 Dartmouth St., Boston
Focused on charcuterie, cheese, wood-grilled pizza, and dishes featuring tongue, marrow, and other odd animal parts, this restaurant is right on trend. It also has a fine selection of beer on tap, reasonable prices, and a super-convenient location just across from the Back Bay T station. It should be mobbed at all times, but, mysteriously, it’s not.
1193 Cambridge St., Cambridge
Pimento cheese, fried oysters, and catfish with grits, all in the heart of Cambridge. And no, we’re not talking about Hungry Mother. At Tupelo, chef Rembs Layman serves “comfort food with a Southern drawl” — and a slightly lower profile. That may change once the restaurant is featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” Sept. 24.
Tu Y Yo
858 Broadway, Somerville
In the past few years, we’ve seen upscale Mexican restaurant after upscale Mexican restaurant open in the Boston area. Yet few of them are as interesting as Tu Y Yo, which has long served regional Mexican dishes created from family recipes old and new — from a cochinita pibil (pork loin in a garlicky orange sauce) attributed to one María Ruz Viuda de Espinosa circa 1908 to Estela Calzada’s 2005 chicken mole colorado Tlaxcalteca. The deeply flavored black beans and micheladas (spicy beer cocktails) are some of the best around. And I don’t know of too many other local places where one can sample grasshopper tacos.