A New England dining guide

April L. Dowd photo

How do you cover the dining possibilities in a six-state region such as New England without writing a book about it? The answer is, you don't.

What we have here, instead, is a quick-hit look at a variety of restaurants that offer hungry travelers a localized change-of-pace from the boring sameness of highway-chain food.

Bear in mind, New England is home to four of the eight Ivy League colleges, which act as restaurant magnets, even in what may be otherwise low-desirability neighborhoods.


The Commonwealth stretches from the Berkshire mountains in the west to Cape Cod in the far east. An example of the best in the west is Bistro Zinc (56 Church St., Lenox, 413/637-8800). This trendy upscale French bistro, on a side street off Historic 7A, makes bold use of metals and woods in its decor. The zinc-topped bar offers a nice array of single barrel bourbons and single malt scotches plus a strong wine list.

Cape Cod has many, many spots to be recommended. Ebb Tide (94 Chase Ave., Dennisport, 508/398-8733) is just one example, located mid-Cape in a onetime sea captain's house a block off Nantucket Sound. The menu emphasizes locally caught seafood and traditional New England cuisine. (For a more detailed look at the region's top tourist draw, see our 2005 Cape Cod Dining Guide.)

Of course, you can't talk about food in Massachusetts without at least touching on the Boston metro center, which includes Harvard. A couple of hot new spots: The original Ritz-Carlton hotel (Boston Common, 800/241-3333) just finished a $65 million renovation and its already-famous dining room sparkles again; the Craigie Street Bistro (Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617/497-5511) has been opened by chef-owner Tony Maws who piled up top reviews at Clio before going on his own.


The Green Mountain State likes to emphasize its Yankee simplicity, but for such a small, sparsely populated state, it has an inordinate numbers of restaurants holding Wine Spectator magazine Awards of Excellence: Bistro Henry, the Colonnade Room at The Equinox, and Mistral's at Toll Gate, all in Manchester Center; Opaline, Smokejack's and Trattoria Delia in Burlington, and The Hermitage Inn in Wilmington.

Unusual scenic dining spots abound elsewhere, such as the Four Chimneys (Route 7, Old Bennington, 802/447-3500), named for the towering stacks visible from afar. It's a white, 18th century mansion-like structure set in a heavily treed plot in the undulating landscape. Or, Garlic John's (near Manchester Center, 802/362-9843), just outside the community that masquerades as a shopping center. If you've ever wanted to dine on Italian while counting how many empty wine bottles can be suspended from a ceiling, this is the place.

Rhode Island

If you tend not to expect much from the nation's tiniest state, think again. In the capital city of Providence alone (home to Brown University) there are enough good restaurants to draw tourists from everywhere, often staffed by graduates of the prestigious Johnson & Wales University culinary program.

Seafood spots are numerous along the southern seacoast in Newport and Narragansett, for example, but make a point of checking out Federal Hill, the "Little Italy" of Providence that is home to numerous trattoria. Among the top-rated spots in town: L'Epicureo (238 Atwells Ave. 401/454-8431), a hot ticket ever since Esquire magazine praised it nearly a decade ago; Angelo's Civita Farnese (142 Atwells Ave. 401/621-8171), which has been around for nearly 80 years, qualifying it for icon status; and, Al Forno (577 South Main St. in Fox Point), one of the first local spots to earn a national reputation.


Any state with 3,500 miles of coastline has to be replete with seafood restaurants. But, stay loose in your choices statewide. Bangor, the state capitol, and the University of Maine's hometown of Orono hold the usual range of small-city restaurants, but from the greater Portland area south to the New Hampshire state line, for example, the Atlantic coast is lined with quaint towns and even quainter dining spots.

In Portland itself, Boone's Restaurant on Custom House Wharf (207/774-5725) is quintessential Yankee seafood. The exotic is available at the Afghan Restaurant (419 Congress St., 207/773-3431), whose name describes its offerings, and the flannel-shirt atmosphere is much of the charm of the Stonecoast Brewery (14 York St., 207/773- 2337) and its trio of 9-foot pool tables. Down the coast in Kennebunkport, that favorite haunt of politicians, Bartley's Dockside Dining (207/967-5050), serves up an extravaganza called the Presidential Clambake. Just south of there, in Ogunquit, the beautifully landscaped Barnacle Billy's (Perkins Cove, 207/646-5575) is always a good draw.

New Hampshire

As one might surmise, a sparsely populated state tends to have its best dining clustered in just a few spots. The presence of Dartmouth College in Hanover and the tourist draw of nearby Lake Sunapee is a magnet for numerous ethnic spots and coffee houses.

The Granite State seacoast is a lifeline for unusual restaurants, such as in trendy Portsmouth (Chestnuts at the Nest, 603/373- 6515, with its glass-topped bar and its wild game mixed grill) and Hampton (Galley Hatch, 325 Lafayette Road, 603/926-6152, with its own Seasons Bakery and a long list of $4.95 ice cream specialty drinks).


Hartford is the Nutmeg State's largest city, but New Haven is home to Yale and that is a restaurant magnet. In Wooster Square (New Haven's "Little Italy"), there's an endless battle over whether the American pizza was invented at Frank Pepe's (203/865-5762) or Sally's (203/624-5271). The Town Green district is loaded with all sorts of restaurants, such as Galileo's Restaurant at the Omni hotel (155 Temple St., 203/974-6859) with views of the green and of Long Island Sound.

In Hartford, the Bushnell Park area is a prized location, and Vito's By the Park (26 Trumbull St., 860/244-2200) not only has a park view, it has a large indoor mural of the park.

Diverse Hartford is loaded with ethnic neighborhood restaurants. For example, near Trinity College in the Park Street area, the heart of the Latino community, you'll find numerous food vendors in El Mercado, an indoor market that's the neighborhood's crown jewel. It's a perfect spot for visitors unfamiliar with the city's neighborhoods to experience the cuisine.


A Cape Cod dining guide

April L. Dowd photo

CAPE COD, MA -- In this eclectic place we call America, it isn't difficult to find a huge variety of dining choices along the highways and byways and even in the highrises that overlook them.

But, boil down the geography to the tourist haven we call Cape Cod and choices are largely confined to just three main roads.

The Cape, 75 miles long from the Cape Cod Canal in the west to Herring Cove Beach in the northeast, is shaped like the upraised arm of someone "making a muscle.'' It is traversed largely on Routes 6, 6A and 28. Once you're off them you'd better know the local layout intimately to avoid being caught hungry in the many culs-de-sac and roads that dead-end at salt marshes or ponds.

In past years, our "Cape Cod Dining Guide'' centered on various aspects of the food scene. This eighth annual version celebrates its eclecticism. (For a broader look at the region, see our 2005 New England Dining Guide.)

The annual caveat: I don't work for the Chamnber of Commerce. The guide is guaranteed to lead you to some pleasant experiences as well as guaranteed to annoy anyone whose favorite spot isn't mentioned. However, with literally hundreds of places to eat, totality is impossible.

Logistically, since Route 6 -- the Mid-Cape Highway -- is a limited access thoroughfare until you get past Orleans and head north, the principal dining clusters are mostly on Routes 28 and 6A.

A four-mile stretch of Route 28 from the edge of Hyannis, the Cape's largest town, east to West Dennis on the Bass River is a prime example of how packed with dining variety the Cape's main roads can be.

At least 40 food-related spots are jammed into that span, from the brand-new Oinky & Moo's southern barbecue (think about it) in West Dennis to the self-explanatory old Riverway Lobster House in Yarmouth.

This is a good base of operations for families who like very casual, inexpensive food plus proximity to inexpensive motels and elaborate miniature golf layouts, or for couples who need the nightlife. You never have to leave the locale to experience an astounding variety of foods: Irish pub, seafood, Thai, hot dogs and ice cream, soups and salads, Chinese, brunches, Mexican, Polynesian, pizza and the inevitable Dairy Queen, McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts spots and more.

One of the most popular establishments is Sundowner's, a pleasantly raucous bar and restaurant in West Dennis with an atmosphere that seems provided by Jimmy Buffet -- rough-hewn wood walls, waitresses and bartenderesses (a noticeable dearth of male waitstaff) wearing wild tropical-print blouses, a deck with a water view, frequent live music from pop to reggae, inexpensive and tasty food (they offer a shockingly good New York strip steak as well as the usual clams and shrimp).

The drinks are fine if you limit yourself to beers or frothy blender products, not so fine if you want expertly mixed cocktails. But, how can you dislike a place that offers a weekly "karaoke gong show''?

In nearby West Yarmouth, Molly's offers a traditional Irish breakfast (thick Irish bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, eggs, tomatos, beans and home fries) for a paltry $8.50. I still think of the tiny slip of a girl I saw easily polish one off while her boyfriend toyed with a regular-sized ham and eggs.

Then there is a neighborhood spot called Kevin's Seafood & Spirits. Blink and you'll miss it. A sign on the weathered exterior proclaims "Finest Fish 'n Chips On the Cape.'' Such bragging is commonplace on the Cape, but Kevin's (no credit cards, please) walks the walk with its delicate, tasty platter.

You'll find a lot more upscale dining as well as some great breakfast spots in Hyannis.

One example: Persey's Place, several blocks east of the Kennedy Museum. It serves what it boasts is "New England's Largest Breakfast Menu'' from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Recommended: such delightful oddities as hash Benedict, chocolate chip/banana/walnut pancakes and an array of omelets.

Start your day there, take a ferry from Hyannis Harbor over to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, then come back in the early evening and have dinner in the cool pub atmosphere of the British Beer Company on Main Street. (It has sister locations in Sandwich and Falmouth.) Better still, try Alberto's Ristorante, also on Main. It offers sidewalk dining or white tablecloth tables inside behind frosted glass room dividers.

The clientele is eclectic (I marveled to my companion about how clever the little child at the next table was, what with her command of French, before realizing it was a French-speaking family), and the Northern Italian food is top-shelf. Particular treats: a salad of white cannelini beans, mixed greens, onions, capers, calamata olives and roasted peppers; a battered veal cutlet stuffed with prosciutto and a mixture of five cheeses, served in a lemon/butter/wine sauce.

Good as this all is, along with such other lasting treats as the elegant Dan'l Webster Inn in Sandwich and The Red Pheasant in Dennis near the Cape Cod Playhouse and the Cape Cod Museum of Art, we can't forget the Outer Cape, from Orleans at the elbow to Provincetown at the fist.

A longtime favorite had been Aesop's Tables, located in the heart of Wellfleet village off Cape Cod Bay where we met each year with another couple for a shared anniversary dinner. Since our last visit it had been purchased by the owners of Moby Dick's, a lobster-and-clam shack on Route 6 usually packed with people who like a rough-hewn place that also sells plastic float toys and faux buoys as souvenirs.

Aesop's has become Winslow's Tavern. A sign proclaims it was established in 2005, a whimsical thumbing of the nose to competitors who brag too much about their lineage. The 1800s Victorian mansion once had the feel of a European country tavern. Now, the food is a bit better, the drinks a little less impotent, but annual regulars like us might find it too fresh and antiseptically pretty.

The remainder of the Outer Cape remains largely the same as before. The lineup is variety personified. Some examples:

On the elbow way down in wealthy Chatham is the Wayside Inn, a restored structure located next to Kate Gould Park where the town's brass band offers concerts every Friday night in the summer. Try their "short stack.'' No, not pancakes; grilled medallions of swordfish and filet mignon with spinach and carmelized onions, stacked on mashed potatoes with two sauces.

The elegant 130-year-old Orleans Inn on Town Cove in Orleans, where the Cape begins bending upward, still has both casual and fine dining with water views from virtually every seat.

The Sea Dog on Route 6 in Eastham, where they usually roll up the sidewalks at 9 p.m. (except down the road at the always-buzzing Ben & Jerry's store which stays open till 11), has a good steakhouse menu plus live entertainment and a good late-night bar menu.

The most popular spots, and arguably the best, on Route 6 between Eastham and P-town are in South Wellfleet. They are Van Rensselaer's, whose stuffed baked lobster is a consistent popularity poll winner, and Serena's, an Italian family spot that fills up almost as soon as the doors open each evening.

Once in P-town, you'll find wall-to-wall eateries that are OK but rarely much different from one another except for the quality of water views. (That doesn't include the iconic Portugese Bakery and its grab-and-go toothsome treats). A pleasant exception is Ciro & Sal's on hidden Kiley Court where they serve Northern Italian cuisine in an intimate grotto/garden setting. And, there you have it. A long list, although hardly all-inclusive. I take comfort in the fact that there's enough meat here to feed you for even a very long stay.

Blog Archive