Below is a transcript of a live online panel discussion on various holiday-related topics, which took place on Thursday, December 8, 2011. As always, the panel included several panel members, with food writers and media people participating. The hour-long chat included talks with the panel about buying restaurant gift cards for various types of diners, places that are open on Christmas Day, and where to go for New Year's Eve. And once again, the chat included a bit of viewer participation. [Note: The original discussion can be replayed at the following link: http://www.hiddenboston.com/online-discussion-1211.html and please go to the restaurant discussions link to check out our other chats.]
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Good morning, all! Welcome to another food and restaurant discussion, this one centering around holiday-related topics.
Marc H.: This is our 17th discussion (and the first one since October) and as always, we have panel members whose names may be familiar to you. Let's start with some introductions...I'll begin--I'm Marc, the founder and owner of Boston's Hidden Restaurants as well as the news-based blog Boston Restaurant Talk http://www.bostonrestaurants.blogspot.com
BostonZest: Hello, Penny from BostonZest (http://www.bostonzest.com/ Twitter @BostonZest) I'm a freelance writer & photographer. My food writing includes a Fresh & Local column that runs in a number of Independent Newspaper Group papers and Market Scene reports & slideshows for http://www.seriouseats.com/user/profile/BostonZest.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Hi, Penny! Welcome to the chat!
MC Slim JB: I write about cheap restaurants for the Boston Phoenix, fine dining restaurants for Stuff Magazine, and bars for Serious Eats. Links to all my professional reviews are on my blog: http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Welcome back, MC!
Marc H. (hiddenboston): A few more folks are on their way, but at least one or two may be checking in late. I'll give it a minute or two more, then we can begin.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): While we're waiting, have you been to any interesting restaurants lately?
MC Slim JB: Had some fabulous meals lately on behalf of Stuff Magazine: Trade Restaurant, Firebrand Saints, Vee Vee.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): You're been to Trade a few times now, no? I'm dying to get to Firebrand Saints--hopefully soon.
MC Slim JB: Yes, my Trade review appeared earlier this week: http://stuffboston.com/feed/archive/2011/11/28/grilled-squid-and-fried-tentacles-at-trade.aspx
BostonZest: My husband and I have been in comfort mode enjoying our old favorites
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Same here, Penny. I had an excellent chicken parm dinner from the Swanton Street Diner in Winchester last night.
Richard: Good Morning, I'm Richard from http://www.bostonburgerblog.com and http://www.theskinnybeet.com I cover all things burgers for The Weekly Dig and write the column Man Food for Boston Magazine
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Hi, Richard! Welcome back! Try any good burgers lately?
Richard: Back Bay Social club for a repeat visit, and The Avenue in Allston
Richard: Had some great meals recently at Garlic and Lemons
MC Slim JB: I saw Richard's take on the burger at Met Back Bay. Not pretty! I can't say I have much use for that place, either.
Richard: $18 and over-cooked, Slim.
BostonZest: We have a post coming up about the burger at the Bristol lounge.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): The Bristol burger is one I have to try. I recently tried one of the best burgers I've had in recent memory at the new Madrona Tree in Arlington Center.
BostonZest: Now a Four Season's Gift certificate that would be a great gift for a burger lover!
MC Slim JB: Ouch. I made the burger the centerpiece of a review I did of The Bristol about a year ago in Stuff.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): So we're still waiting for at least one or two folks, but I think we can get started...
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Today's discussion centers around the holiday season, which seems to have come upon us quite suddenly. Since so many people might be looking to get gift cards for others for this holiday season, I was thinking of looking at restaurant gift cards that might be good for families, college students, retirees, etc. Now obviously, not all people in specific groups can be lumped together (for instance, not every college student goes to cheap eateries in Allston), but hopefully we can give some general ideas on gift cards depending on what types of dining spots others are interested in. And since I like to focus on "hidden" restaurants, it would be great to come up with gift cards from restaurants that are not chains or incredibly popular spots.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Other topics today include where folks might be able to go out to eat on Christmas night, since people always seem to be asking where they might be able to dine after all the presents have been opened and food from the early Christmas dinner has been digested.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Finally, I'd like to ask all of you about places you would recommend for New Year's Eve--if any, that is! Do some of you avoid going out completely that night? We'll get to this toward the end of the hour.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): A quick note to our viewers: Feel free to chat with us at any time, but for the most part, we will try to talk first with the panel, then open up the discussion to all of you if you would like to ask or answer any questions.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): So let's start by looking at gift card possibilities, with the first one centering around families with young children. Say you'd like to get a gift card for someone who loves to go to family restaurants that are reasonably priced, comfortable, and kid-friendly but the family would rather not go to a chain. Where might you go to get a gift card for them?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): For example, I might get a gift card to Jade Garden in Arlington Heights, which is very family-friendly, and the food can be excellent there.
MC Slim JB: I'm a little wary of restaurant-specific gift cards, unless it's a place I'm certain has a long future. I've had certs for places that went out of business before I got to use them. I lean toward AmEx gift cards these days, though not every restaurant accepts them.
BostonZest: I think there is a restaurant called Full Moon in Cambridge that specializes in serving families
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Yes, Full Moon is in the heart of Huron Village. I haven't been there, but know families who swear by it.
MC Slim JB: I think Full Moon moved to Belmont, did it not?
MC Slim JB: Or was it the other way around?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I think Full Moon was initially in East Arlington. It is definitely still open in Cambridge.
BostonZest: Great idea MC. We've all had that happen.
Richard: How about a gift certificate for one of the restaurant groups, covers a lot of bases and sure to be something for everyone
Marc H. (hiddenboston): That's a good idea, Richard. Which of the groups might be good for families?
Richard: or through Open Table
BostonZest: And, isn't Aura at the Seaport Hotel doing special family menus?
MC Slim JB: For a family, I might do something like Max & Dylan's. It's not my favorite kind of place, but it has something for everyone.
MC Slim JB: It's also part of a larger group that includes Scollay Square, Papagayo, Tavern on the Water, and Andiamo.
Richard: Back Bay restaurant group or how about Legacy Place
Marc H. (hiddenboston): That's a good option, MC. Also, I might consider Frank's in North Cambridge, which is family-friendly, and also would cater to some people in the next group I'm considering, which is older couples and retirees.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Again, not all retirees like places such as Frank's, but if you were thinking of getting a gift card for someone who likes some of the old-school steak places, American restaurants, and Italian restaurants, which might you choose?
MC Slim JB: Marc, you've always been really good at covering this segment, which tends to get overlooked. For retirees, I might offer Anthony's Pier 4 (but use it quickly!), The Continental in Saugus, maybe the Mt. Vernon Restaurant.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Yes, I don't think Anthony's will be around much longer. the Mount Vernon can be very good--just remember that the Lynnfield and Revere branches are now closed.
BostonZest: That depends on their taste but one thing you might consider is the soundtrack of the restaurant.
BostonZest: I think anyone would enjoy a place like Marco in the North End for Italian. We see all ages there.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Heh, the soundtrack, huh? Well, the Swanton Street Diner was playing Sinatra and the like last night, so perhaps some retirees might want a gift card to that place (and lovers of lounge music like myself!).
MC Slim JB: Yes, don't send the half-deaf to Tico; it will finish the job.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I just made a note to myself, MC. :-)
Richard: Grill 23 or Locke-Ober
Richard: or Abe and Louis
BostonZest: And, Sel de la Terre is another one that we've gone to with friends who have more reserved taste.
Joe G: I would say another retiree location would be the Hardcover in Danvers on Route 1. They're affiliated with Beverly Depot, too.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Hi, Joe! Never been to the Hardcover. Is it mostly American food?
Joe G: Yes. Steak/seafood type of place. Not going to blow anyone out of the water but would definitely make it a nice evening out for the older set, especially.
MC Slim JB: Much as I like Trade, it is a very loud space.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I've walked by Trade several times now and it just LOOKS loud. But I definitely want to try it.
BostonZest: Some retired friends had us meet them at Michael's in Newburyport.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I'd say that a gift card to Michael's would be good for families or retirees.
BostonZest: Loud is one of my least favorite restaurant descriptives!
MC Slim JB: I wonder if an older couple might appreciate Jasmine Bistro. Might slake their nostalgia for the old Cafe Budapest, and if they don't love Hungarian, the French side of the menu is very good. Priced right for fixed incomes, too.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I think it might, MC. I've been meaning to get some family members there, actually.
BostonZest: Price can be important for those who don't enjoy expensive, even if someone else is paying.
MC Slim JB: Yep, my mom always freaks out when she sees a bowl of soup for $10; it makes it hard for her to enjoy the meal.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): So how about college students? If you were to get a gift card for someone who likes good food that doesn't cost too much--or perhaps enjoys a pint of beer or a shot along with comfort food, where might you go for a gift card?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): A couple of places I'd look at would be Shanghai Gate in Allston (very cheap) or The Publick House in Brookline (great beer selection, good food, not too pricey).
MC Slim JB: The Haven in JP is priced right, has great Scottish-leaning food, and terrific beer. I'm always sending folks to New Shanghai in Chinatown: you can get both Beijing and Sichuan cuisine, pour Tsingtaos on top of it, and get away really cheap.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I used to love New Shanghai way back when (about 10 years ago). It has changed at least a couple of times since then, but I do hear it's good again.
Richard: Bon Chon or Meadhall for two different restaurants
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Bon Chon is definitely a good call for college students or people on a budget. How is the food at Meadhall? Looks like a good place for the MIT crowd nearby.
Richard: not bad at all, actually.
BostonZest: We've had some fun and great beer at the Lower Depths in Kenmore.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Yes, that's a favorite among BU, Northeastern, BC, and lots of other college students.
BostonZest: Hungry students might also enjoy the Squealing Pig in Mission Hill or another of the better Irish pubs.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): If someone could buy me a gift card for the mars bar toastie at the Squealing Pig, I'd be over the moon. :-)
Joe G: I would think most Chinatown restaurants offer good value and can handle large parties easily. Though, I agree that having some insider knowledge can make you avoid some of the lesser establishments.
MC Slim JB: I think Trattoria Toscana remains one of the best Italian deals in town, college kid or no: real Tuscan food, and run like a true trattoria, a modest family kind of place.
BostonZest: Trattoria Toscana is one of our favorites that we've been neglecting for too long. Have to put that on our holiday list to visit.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Before we move on, any other thoughts for gift cards for college students? One more I can think of is a gift card to Cambridge Common on Mass. Ave., especially if you know of a college student who likes beer and tater tots.
MC Slim JB: I ate like a king for short money at Dumpling Cafe recently a newish: Taiwanese place in Chinatown with maybe the best soup dumplings in the neighborhood.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): While in that neighborhood, Taiwan Cafe is another I might consider.
BostonZest: Otto's pizza even if it is take out!
BostonZest: Make that Otto pizza, sorry MC
MC Slim JB: The Phantom Apostrophe strikes again!
MC Slim JB: I'd happily send a college kid to Santarpio's (the Eastie original).
Joe G: Soup dumplings....haven't had those since my trip to Hong Kong.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): So how about a gift card for an individual (or a couple) who loves the finer things--great atmosphere, excellent food, top waitstaff--but you can't afford to spend too much on a gift card for them? Any thoughts? I guess one that comes to mind for me might be the aforementioned Jasmine Bistro in Brighton.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Or perhaps Alia Ristorante in Winthrop. It has upscale touches, an exotic mix of Moroccan and Italian fare, and great owners, but the prices are incredibly cheap.
MC Slim JB: Russell House Tavern has a casual, convivial vibe, but there's some serious craft in that kitchen, and it's a great value for Harvard Square.
BostonZest: Rendezvous Central Square without a question!
MC Slim JB: Coppa is another one where the low-key vibe and casual service help keep prices down (no fancy linens to wash), but has extraordinary food.
EaterBoston: Agreed about the soup dumplings at Dumpling Cafe.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Hi, Aaron! Welcome to the chat! Feel free to introduce yourself. :-)
EaterBoston: Hi everybody - Aaron K. from Eater Boston here, happy to join the conversation.
Joe G: How about a place for a couple where one is very adventurous, food-wise but the other is more timid?
Richard: agree with Rendezvous
BostonZest: We love Coppa- one of our favorite rewards after a hard week.
MC Slim JB: Blue Inc. is doing some fun mad-scientist modernist things in the kitchen, and is bistro-reasonable.
Richard: maybe not super high-end, but The Gallows or Highland Kitchen would be a fun idea
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Highland Kitchen has some of the best food I've tried anywhere in the Boston area. The devils on horseback are amazing there.
BostonZest: The Blue Room is another long time success in that category.
BostonZest: Union Bar & Grill is another along Washington Street
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Another place I'd consider for a gift card in this category is Grotto on Beacon Hill. Excellent food, quirky atmosphere, and very much hidden away, and the prices are pretty good overall.
EaterBoston: I actually had the experience of going to Russell House with one timid and one adventurous eater - went well.
MC Slim JB: The bars-with-great-food category is pretty rich in Boston, and fairly priced: the two Franklins, The Citizen, Green Street, Abigail's, (as Richard mentioned) Highland Kitchen.
EaterBoston: Of course the timid person didn't like their food as much because it was by nature less interesting, but that was their fault.
BostonZest: Yes, hope to meet friends at Grotto for a holiday meal
Joe G: Haha. Thanks, Aaron.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): We have to move on to our final two categories, but before we do, how about a gift card for someone who has a sweet tooth?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Danish Pastry House in Medford is the first place that comes to mind for me (and if any of you would like to get me one from there, heh heh).
BostonZest: For this I have a ringer, Petit Robert Bistro for dessert!
Marc H. (hiddenboston): What's your favorite dessert there, Penny?
BostonZest: The Giant Profiterole- we share it.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): The word "Giant" made me start to drool. I don't think I'd be willing to share a dessert like that!
BostonZest: But, the dessert menu is deep with goodness.
MC Slim JB: Erbaluce does some of the most amazing desserts in town, and doesn't even have a dedicated pastry chef: Chuck Draghi does them himself.
Richard: Infusions Tea in Allston has my favorite Bubble Tea in the city and some very excellent desserts
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Richard, is that the place just east of Harvard Street?
Richard: yes, right across from Jo-Jo Taipei and Bon Chon :)
MC Slim JB: Jiho Kim at L'Espalier is also extraordinarily inventive and talented. His desserts are both stunning to look at and to taste. He gets a bit molecular, too.
EaterBoston: LA Burdick: pretty sure you can still order what amounts to a flight of li'l hot chocolates from around the world. Hard to beat as far as cacao mainlining goes.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Aaron, earlier this year I went to LA Burdick with 15 others, all of whom agreed that it was a heavenly experience.
Joe G: If Bond & Burkhart was still around, I'd say there! But, I still have a soft spot for Rosie's Bakery. I still dream of their chocolate chip cookies.
MC Slim JB: I love PRB's tarte tatin.
BostonZest: Burdick is also opening in the Back Bay on Clarendon
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Yes, when I first wrote about that awhile back, the world seemed to stop. People sure do love chocolate.
BostonZest: And, remember you can go to the Salon at L'Espalier for just dessert or cheese.
MC Slim JB: More of a breakfast treat, but the chocolate croissant at Chocolee is worth waiting in line for.
BostonZest: No cupcakes? Am I the only one who isn't in love with them?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Aaron? I believe you wrote about just such a place today?
EaterBoston: Why yes I did! http://boston.eater.com/archives/2011/12/08/dcs-georgetown-cupcake-coming-to-newbury-street.php
Richard: Asana also has a very talented pastry chef who was on Top Chef Desserts this year
Elizabeth: It's not really known for them but Sportello has excellent cupcakes, sold in the bakery area.
BostonZest: I saw that and wondered if soon we'd have equal numbers of frozen yogurt and cupcake shops on Newbury.
MC Slim JB: Newbury Street needs that; the only other place with "cupcake" in the name only sells t-shirts.
BostonZest: Sweet is there too
EaterBoston: One of my all time favorite desserts is the flan at Ole. The center is a little rare, it's a real marvel of timing considering how eggs retain heat.
Elizabeth: Newbury St is lacking in dessert options, other than ice cream and frozen yogurt
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Ok, all. Time to move on. Let's talk about Christmas Night. What restaurants are open then? Where have you been on Christmas Night? I've been to a couple of Japanese and Chinese spots over the past few years, including a Japanese restaurant on Boylston Street in the Back Bay that is no longer there (can't recall the name).
Marc H. (hiddenboston): By the way, Christmas is on a Sunday this year, which means even fewer restaurants may be open.
MC Slim JB: I don't generally dine out on Christmas, but hotel restaurants are reliably open. I'd lean first to Eastern Standard (for the awesome drinks as much as the food) and Beacon Hill Bistro, which is French and reasonable and very good.
BostonZest: This year both Christmas and New Years are three day weekends. I found more places open than ever when I did our posts on What's Open.. for the holidays.
EaterBoston: BostonChefs has a list going here http://bostonchefs.com/holiday/christmas-day-boston-restaurants/
Marc H. (hiddenboston): This is a big help. Thanks, Aaron. I'm thinking I may look at Chinatown this year. Maybe I'll get back to New Shanghai if it's open.
Richard: Growing up Jewish, we always went to Chinese restaurants on Christmas, my favorite tradition.
BostonZest: And, in Boston we do have some very good hotel restaurants including those mentioned plus Brasserie Jo, Market, and Meritage
MC Slim JB: Chinese restaurants are also old standbys, though Brookline's enormous Jewish population can make it a chore to get into one in that town. I'd be in Chinatown getting whole live-tank fish at Peach Farm, or maybe some hotpot at Kaze, or a Cantonese feast at Best Little.
EaterBoston: I feel you, Richard.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): We only have a few minutes left, so why don't we briefly talk about dining out on New Year's Eve? Do any/all of you go out to dinner that night? Any recent favorites?
Marc H. (hiddenboston): I find myself at Sardella's in Newport, RI, nearly every year now, as the atmosphere is charming, the food is excellent, and the service is good, especially for a crazy night like that.
EaterBoston: Just called Shanghai Gate in Allston - they'll be open 12/25
Marc H. (hiddenboston): You just made my day, Aaron. I think I know where I'm going now. :-)
Richard: Almost never go out, I'll be working this year, catering a party, then trying to make dinner at home afterwads.
MC Slim JB: I avoid the Second Biggest Sh*tshow of the Year (Thanksgiving Eve is #1), but I advise staying within walking distance of home. In the South End, that means I'd be at Toro (taking reservations!), or at Union (they're serving their regular menu, not some overpriced prix fixe!), or my local, JJ Foley's, and leaving before midnight.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Ha ha, I like how you added the whole "leaving before midnight" thing. I never want to be anywhere at midnight on New Year's Eve.
BostonZest: This would be a night for an early dinner, perhaps at a favorite ethnic place like India Samraat and then home for a good bottle of spakling with some wonderful nibbles later.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): That sounds really good, Penny.
EaterBoston: Back to Chinese restaurants, had a blast at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline for New Year's 2010. Not particularly New Yearsy, but great spot for family style meals and communal scorpion bowls
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Communal scorpion bowls are definitely not a bad thing on New Year's Eve--well, depending on where you get them, I guess.
EaterBoston: Leaving before midnight - sounds like Gremlins.
MC Slim JB: Yep: leave Amateur Night to the amateurs.
BostonZest: But, many people do love a big party place. What would you recommend for those folks. I wonder if The Hawthorne will do something special
Richard: nothing wrong with a scorpion bowl ;)
MC Slim JB: The food at Sichuan Gourmet is the real deal, very traditional Sichuan, not some watered-down imitation.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): We're just about out of time, unfortunately. Before we leave, I'd like to ask--what would you consider your one best meal of 2011? I know it's a tough question, but if you could pick one out of the entire year, which would it be?
MC Slim JB: They do brilliant large-format drinks at the bar at Clio.
MC Slim JB: My meal of the year was at Bondir. Low-key, great service, extraordinary food.
BostonZest: Our first meal at Island Creek Oyster Bar, soon after they opened. And, we've had a number of great follow ups.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Just for the record, the first meal I had at Kathmandu Spice in Arlington was amazing (the Buddha Delight--fried cheese cones in tomato cream sauce--was out of this world). I'd also consider the meal we had at The Citizen in the Fenway neighborhood. Truly awesome...
Richard: Suppose I have to pick a burger... the best (new) burger I had this year was at Market. I don't know why more people aren't talking about it.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market? Tell us more! You're right--not many people even know about the place.
Richard: that's the one, I think it's $13 at lunch, one of the best.
MC Slim JB: I haven't been back since the new chef took over at Market (he came from Myers + Chang, which I love), but I would never think to try the burger -- until now!
Richard: it's not to be missed.
Joe G: My Mom's birthday lunch at MC Perkins Cove. Gorgeous views of the ocean. Solicitous service. Well-prepared food and good company.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Joe, I was in Perkins Cove last weekend. So many great dining options nearby. I still haven't gotten to MC, though.
Joe G: I was quite surprised at how good it was considering the locale. Waterfront restaurants don't seem to have the best food, but everyone was very happy.
EaterBoston: Guess I can't stop thinking Sichuan today, but I did a birthday blowout at Thailand Cafe with a bunch of folks, the only way to try everything I want to. Pound for pound, probably the most flavor I experienced on any day of 2011.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Thailand Cafe in Cambridge? Wow, now there's a hidden restaurant.
MC Slim JB: The Sichuan side of that menu is extraordinary, and the Thai food is utterly dreadful. I hear they'll be closing soon: hope they find a new home!
Marc H. (hiddenboston): Darn, I feel like we could go on and on talking about food, no? I'm really hungry from all this talk.
MC Slim JB: I'm going to have my leftover chicken parm from Anchovies as soon as this wraps up.
EaterBoston: I'll hopefully be posting an update about TC soon - would hate to see it go.
Marc H. (hiddenboston): it is indeed that time. Thanks to all of you for participating! I hope you have a great Christmas and holiday season!
BostonZest: Happy Holiday to all!
Richard: thanks, Marc!
MC Slim JB: Thanks again, Marc! Great fun as always.