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.
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.
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.