Well, it's that time of year once again. This is our eighth year of picking the best of the best among lesser-known restaurants in the Boston area, and as always, this year we have repeats as well as some newcomers. Scroll down to check out our choices for the best little-known restaurants of 2012! (Note: This Best of 2012 page is part of our restaurant features section, which also includes our 2011 Best Boston Restaurants List and other "best of" lists, all the way back to 2005.)
Best American Restaurant (New), 2012
Dogwood Cafe, Jamaica Plain, MA
Perhaps more eclectic than New American, this friendly, comfortable spot has a lot going for it, including some interesting wood-fired pizza options (the pies are named after trees), delicious apps and full meals such as artichoke dip and macaroni and cheese, and occasional live music. The beer selection at the Dogwood, by the way, is very impressive, with some excellent craft brews available.
Best American Restaurant (Traditional), 2012
Winthrop Arms, Winthrop, MA
One of the most "hidden" of all hidden restaurants on this site, the Winthrop Arms is a combination hotel/restaurant in a gorgeous old structure overlooking the ocean. And the restaurant itself is a perfect place for families and large groups, with such old-school dishes as mac and cheese (perhaps the best in the Boston area), a marvelous chicken pot pie, terrific crab cakes, and a handful of tasty Italian-American items.
Best Breakfast Place, 2012
McKenna's Cafe, Dorchester, MA
A place that may be headed for our Hall of Fame (and yes, maybe we'll finally have one someday), this bustling Savin Hill spot is a favorite among folks who live in the neighborhood, though mostly little-known outside of the immediate area. Expect good, solid breakfasts at reasonable prices at McKenna's, with their corned beef hash, French toast (including a granola-crusted version), home fries, and coffee all being well above average.
Best Chinese Restaurant, 2012
Mary Chung, Cambridge, MA
This was such a tough category this time around, with such wonderful spots as Shanghai Gate in Allston, Sichuan Garden in Brookline, and Qingdao Garden in Cambridge all having a chance to take this one, but this well-worn Central Square eatery really did impress in 2012. Highlights here include steamed pork and chive dumplings that are so good as to be nearly life-changing, lion's head meatballs that rival those of Shanghai Gate, and yummy stir-fried dun dun noodles with shredded chicken.
Best Deli, 2012
Barry's Village Deli, Waban, MA
Once again, Barry's takes the prize this year, with its truly authentic deli experience that includes delicious food and a gruff but mostly friendly crew both in the dining room and behind the counter. This hidden gem in one of the most "hidden" of Newton's neighborhoods is the perfect place to enjoy such items as matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkas, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, and potato latkas.
Best Diner, 2012
Swanton Street Diner, Winchester, MA
Ok, so perhaps the Swanton Street Diner isn't a true diner in the eyes of some, with its almost upscale feel and quiet, comfortable atmosphere. But this eatery, which resides on a side street in a mostly residential section of Winchester, features some outstanding dishes, including some that you probably wouldn't expect at a diner (the beef wellington, for example). Among the standouts here are a plate of Australian lamb chops and rib-eye steak that is both tender and delicious.
Best Greek Restaurant, 2012
Desfina, Cambridge, MA
For the second year in a row, Desfina has come out on top among Greek restaurants in the area. This nearly completely unknown neighborhood spot seems to be frequented mainly by locals, who know about the goodness of such dishes as avgolemono (egg lemon soup), saganaki (kefalograviera cheese) that is set on fire at diners' tables, pastichio, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and much more. The warm-feeling interior of Desfina is especially suited for a rainy or snowy night.
Best Hamburgers, 2012
Flat Patties, Cambridge, MA
Burgers seem to be all the rage these days, and there are certainly some great spots for burgers in and around Boston. But the ones at this Harvard Square spot are really tough to beat, with the griddled, high-fat patties going perfectly with their excellent hand-cut fries. Flat Patties doesn't have much atmosphere, but there is a decent amount of seating (thanks in part to the upstairs area) and there are plenty of seating areas outside that are good for people-watching.
Best Hot Dog Stand, 2012
Simco's, Mattapan, MA
Another dining spot that is destined to be in whatever Hall of Fame we eventually create, Simco's is a Boston landmark of sorts, though after all these years it remains a bit unknown--perhaps due to its location far away from downtown and the highways that cut through the city. Whether you get a plain hot dog, one with cheese, or one with the works, these long, thin dogs in buttered buns are works of art, and they're dirt-cheap as well.
Best Indian Restaurant, 2012
Shanti, Dorchester, MA
Many Indian restaurants in the Boston area have great food, but are lacking in atmosphere. Not so with this Savin Hill eatery, as it is dark, exotic, and even a bit romantic, which may surprise some who pass by its rather unassuming exterior day after day. And the food at Shanti is every bit as interesting as its atmosphere, with versions of aloo tikki (fried potato patties), mulligatawny soup, poori (unleavened whole wheat bread), red-hot vindaloo, and complex-tasting biryani all being top notch.
Best Irish Pub/Restaurant, 2012
The Druid, Cambridge, MA
Now that Townsend's in Hyde Park (a favorite of ours) is gone, it is time to look at some other Irish pubs and restaurants in the region, and The Druid certainly seems to be among the best of them. Located in an historic building in the heart of Inman Square, this relatively small dining and drinking spot has loads of character, and its food is better than what you might expect at a casual pub. Highlights include delicious fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and one of the best burgers in all of Cambridge.
Best Italian Restaurant, 2012
L'Impasto, Cambridge, MA
This tiny North Cambridge spot just made the grade, not because of any questions about its food, but simply because we reviewed it at the very end of 2012. And L'Impasto isn't just worthy of this year's "best of" list; it may be the best place we've tried all year, period. Everything at this authentic Roman trattoria--from the outstanding house-made bread to the exquisite antipasto to the delectable freshly-made pasta--is about as good as it gets.
Best Japanese Restaurant, 2012
Village Sushi and Grill, Roslindale, MA
Perhaps a bit of a surprise, with such favorites as Toraya in Arlington, Genki Ya in Brookline, and Kyotoya in Stoneham out there (not to mention non-sushi Japanese spots such as Sapporo Ramen and Ittyo in Cambridge), this serene Roslindale eatery somehow rose to the top. Perhaps it is the excellent sushi here, or the delicious appetizers and meals, or maybe it is the hidden outdoor patio out back, or the friendly waitstaff, but whatever it is, Village Sushi and Grill just sticks in the memory more than any other Japanese restaurant this year.
Best Mexican Restaurant, 2012
Tu Y Yo, Somerville, MA
When a restaurant's menu gives the original dates of recipes for their dishes, you know that you've probably hit upon a special spot. And such it is with Tu Y Yo, a laid-back Mexican eatery at Powderhouse Circle that has some items that go all the way back to pre-Columbus America (including tacos filled with grasshoppers). If you're looking for nachos or burritos, you may want to look elsewhere, but for dishes with cactus, green tomatillo sauce, and poblano and morron chiles, Tu Y Yo is well worth checking out.
Best Pizza, 2012
Picco, Boston, MA
Santarpio's in East Boston and Regina's in the North End are two names that constantly come up when folks talk about the best pizza in the Greater Boston area, but Picco should certainly be included in any talk as well, in part because their crust is so incredibly tasty that it should be made illegal. Other spots vied for the title this year (Venus Cafe in Whitman, the Lynwood in Randolph), but the pies at this South End restaurant took the cake this time around. (Oh, and they also make excellent ice cream.)
Best Seafood Restaurant, 2012
Tony's Clam Shop, Quincy, MA
It seems strange that the Boston area has relatively few seaside clam shacks, but it's a sad, true fact. A few do exist, however, including this seasonal Wollaston Beach favorite that is a favorite among locals who can often be found sitting in the restaurant's sprawling outdoor area. The fried clams at Tony's are about the best on the South Shore, while the crab cakes, fish sandwiches, and shrimp are nearly as good. And if you aren't into seafood, a number of good Middle Eastern items can also be found on the menu.
Best Thai Restaurant, 2012
Dok Bua, Brookline, MA
Ho hum...another year, another pick for Dok Bua as best Thai restaurant in the Boston area. It is indeed tough to pick a place other than this eclectic little Brookline spot, especially with top-tier versions of steamed pork dumplings, pad Thai, basil chicken, and drunken noodles (along with less-common items such as golden bags and grass jelly drink). Simply put, Dok Bua seems like a lock to win here year after year.
Best Vietnamese/Cambodian Restaurant, 2012
Pho So 1, Randolph, MA
We end our "best of" list with an utterly unknown Vietnamese restaurant that is buried in a rather dumpy and generic shopping center in this southern suburb of Boston. And yes, this is indeed the same Pho So 1 that can also be found in Dorchester, though it has a slightly nicer (and more modern) feel to it than the original. Lover of pho (Vietnamese soup) will be very happy here, as well as folks who enjoy steamed spring rolls, vermicelli bowls and steamed vermicelli, and bubble tea.