Get us in your inbox

Search
Best of the City 2021
Photograph: Time Out

Here are Time Out Boston's 2021 Best of the City award winners

From empanadas to sustainable shops, let's celebrate these local stars from the past 12 months

Olivia Vanni
Written by
Olivia Vanni
Advertising

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that Boston truly has the strength and grit we always knew it had. Our people and our businesses have dealt with pretty much every adversity that the pandemic has thrown our way, both with and without grace. When our restaurants didn’t have patios to accommodate social distancing, we made them, transforming any sidewalk, parking lot or alleyway into an outdoor dining oasis. And when the city reopened this summer, residents didn’t hesitate to return to their favorite haunts and explore local newcomers, slowly restoring our neighborhoods to their former vibrant glory—all in the safest ways possible, of course. While we still can’t even see each other’s faces behind our mandated masks, it’s not hard to see that we need to celebrate everything that has made Boston beautiful over the last 12 months. Along with our other Time Out teams around the globe, we’re announcing Boston’s Best of The City award winners for 2021. Check out all of the places, people and things that we think deserve a round of applause—from that Back Bay eatery that’s bringing French food into the modern era to that show that’s taken opera on the road.

Food & Drink

  • Restaurants
  • Mediterranean
  • Somerville
  • price 3 of 4

As the casual sibling of Ana Sortun’s celebrated Oleana, Sarma is one of the areas best spots to find big, bold Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors crammed into small bites. All items from chef-owner Cassie Piumas prix-fixe culinary experiencefrom the sesame fried chicken to the merguez pinwheelsare served in a traditional family-style format. Vegetarians can rejoice, as the eatery offers an entire menu of meatless meze. The bar also deserves an applause for its aromatic cocktails featuring ingredients like cardamom, orange blossom and fenugreek.

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Somerville
  • price 2 of 4

This hidden Somerville spot is best found by looking for the disoriented would-be patrons wandering the parking lot between neighbors Bronwyn and the Independent. Once you make your way inside, you’ll be treated to outstanding service and meticulously crafted cocktails while seated at low-key wooden block tables. Back Bar likes to keep those creative juices flowing, so it frequently changes out one themed drink menu for another.

Advertising
  • Restaurants
  • Fenway/Kenmore

Part Vietnamese cafe, part Parisian crêperie, Phinistia is a gift bestowed upon the Fenway. This place offers a number of authentic beverages to keep you highly caffeinated—most famously, its phin coffee brewed using a traditional Vietnamese metal filter for a strong but smooth result. Try the Phin Đen (it’s best served black) or the Phin Trứng (a customary combo of coffee, egg yolk and condensed milk) and if you’re not a coffee kind of person, grab one of its colorful, highly Instagrammable milk teas or lemonades. Crêpes are made atop a griddle for all to see, sending a sweet aroma throughout the delicately wallpapered cafe, and lunch-goers love the bánh mì and noodle bowls filled with fresh flavors of the Far East, like mint, lemongrass and pickled vegetables. If you’re looking to get your midday meal here, just be sure to show up on the earlier side, before the lunch rush leaves no noodle or baguette behind.

  • Restaurants
  • Latin American
  • Somerville

With a name like Buenas, you know the empanadas from this local shop have to be good. The culinary brainchild of Melissa Stefanini and Sebastian Galvez, Buenas’ doughy pockets of deliciousness draw inspiration from the founders’ South American heritage. From its spot in Somerville’s Bow Market, Buenas offers tasty treats and the most amazing empanadas, whose fillings range from the classic (like ham and cheese) to the creative (flavors like chicken bacon cool ranch are known to pop up on the menu). Besides these perfect hand pies, folks can also find its line of jarred condiments— like pebre and dulce de leche—at a selection of local provisions stores.  

Advertising
  • Restaurants
  • French
  • Back Bay

Let’s all give a big “bonjour” to the Back Bay’s latest eatery, Café Sauvage, the modern bistro that’s now bringing some je ne sais quoi to Mass Ave. Embodying the essence of a quaint neighborhood café one might stumble upon in the streets of Paris, this place is striving to show off contemporary French cuisine from a more culturally holistic point of view. Bien sûr, all of those conventional classics the world has come to love will still be coming out of the kitchen and gracing the handful of tables that are snugly tucked into this lush little oasis. However, guests will also discover dishes that draw influence from the entire Francophonie and spotlight other cooking traditions that have made their mark in France, like Vietnamese, Moroccan and West African. We personally suggest that folks spice things up and try the injera crêpe—it’s topped with ras el hanout, coconut swiss chard, mushrooms, pickled red onions and piri piri sauce— or the chicken and jollof rice with sauce vert and fried plantains. But if you’re set on sticking to those more stereotypically French staples, we won’t fault you; go ahead and get that French onion soup, steak frites or quiche lorraine—just be sure to wash it all down with a glass of bissap, a refreshingly floral hibiscus tea with mint and lemon, from the bar.

  • Bars
  • Leather District

Discreetly located within Boston’s Leather District, Offsuit operates under the motto of “no frills, no fuss”—and with no reservations. Take the backdoor entrance to this tiny, 20-seat bar, which is tucked inside Troquet on South’s French bistro, and you’ll find a homey nook serving classic cocktails and playing an extensive library of vinyls. Its sophisticated space is sprinkled with marble tables, antique lamps and bookcases, but the team members here definitely don't take themselves too seriously, with the presence of playful tchotchkes, the occasional novelty cocktail glass and ticketed events purely dedicated to Taylor Swift.

Advertising
  • Restaurants
  • American creative
  • Seaport District
  • price 4 of 4

Woods Hill Pier 4 brings farm-to-table dining to the Seaport, where the iconic Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant once sat. As the name implies, this restaurant's patio is right on the pier, giving guests a front row seat to harbor views during their meals. As you dine on organic dishes made with the finest ingredients from local purveyors, order a glass of rosé and breathe in that salt air.

Culture & Entertainment

  • Theater
  • Performing arts space
  • Chinatown

Now part of Emerson College’s campus, this 1,200-seat Beaux Arts theater is the second oldest in the Theatre District, and is quite the Gilded Age grand dame. Built in 1903, it was originally designed for opera performances, and the opulent decor echoed the grandeur of European opera houses. Yet, theatrical roots are honored via Greek revival columns and traditional depictions of theater masks decorating the interior. The noble arched windows’ stained glass creates a colorful façade often missed by street-level pedestrians. Opera, dance and theater productions—both classic and progressive—pack the Cutler Majestic schedule. The Cutler Majestic Theatre itself is a member of the National League of Historic American Theatres and a Boston Historic Landmark.

  • Art
  • Galleries

Founded in 1897, the Society of Arts + Crafts has undergone a number of iterations—and the last couple of years has been no exception. After first moving from Newbury Street to the Seaport, the local organization recently pivoted and went virtual, making works of art and craftsmanship even more accessible to the masses. Through its CraftBoston initiative, folks can admire—and even purchase—examples of everyday art, ranging from jewelry to furniture to toys. The online exhibitions regularly change themes, including the seasonal CraftBoston Holiday, and artists can readily reach the public through virtual events, like workshops and classes.

Advertising
  • Art
  • Somerville

If you’ve strolled through Powder House Square in Somerville, you’ve likely spotted a house whose exterior is totally decked out with trippy designs and have wondered what’s inside. The answer: The Museum of Modern Renaissance, a cultural marvel from Russian artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Ekaterina Sorokina. This Moscow-born pair has transformed a former Masonic Lodge with floor-to-ceiling murals featuring mesmerizingly motley colors and hypnotizing motifs. Pretty much every surface within this space is ornately painted for an immersive art experience, with freehand arrangements that are reminiscent of a whole mix of traditions—from mandalas to church frescos. 

  • Movie theaters
  • Independent

The distinctive neon marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theatre—a cultural and community institution—towers over Brookline's liveliest neighborhood like a beacon. The Art Deco theatre offers one of New England's strongest programs of independent and foreign films, shown across multiple screens of varying sizes. Special events run the gamut from book readings to midnight showings of cult and horror films. The Coolidge has been in operation as an independent movie theater since 1933, but in 1989 it became a nonprofit organization preserving and advancing the cinema arts. 

Advertising
  • Bars
  • Dive bars
  • Jamaica Plain
  • price 1 of 4

Earplugs and a rebellious attitude come in handy at this divey veteran bar and music venue located in Jamaica Plain. The Midway hosts local artists of the punk and rock persuasions, as well as cult indie touring bands. Booking is pro-LGBTQ, and queer-friendly bands are regularly featured. Otherwise, attendees might be treated to local legends like Thalia Zedek (of Come) or experimental noize merchants Sool.

  • Shopping
  • Bookstores
  • Seaport District

In the age of Amazon Prime, more and more independent brick-and-mortar bookstores haven’t stood a chance and have been forced to shutter. So when Porter Square Books, a small local bookshop that’s been operating out of Cambridge since 2004, opens a second location in Boston’s bustling (and super expensive) Seaport, that’s a major win for our city. Situated near Fan Pier, the new Porter Square Books: Boston Edition is a collaboration with creative writing nonprofit GrubStreet and features a cafe, podcast studio, stage for author events and a full calendar of writing classes for the community.

City Life

  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • South End

As part of SoWa's transformation into a hip art destination, artists and vendors set up stalls in a parking lot every Sunday during the warmer months to sell their work. Antiques, art, handmade jewelry and other accessories are among the mix, along with makers, bakers and other food vendors. Inside the surrounding buildings of this complex, folks will also find the SoWa Vintage Market, artist studios and the newly renovated Power Station, which hosts festivals, events and exhibitions throughout the year.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Fenway/Kenmore

Nestled in the Back Bay Fens, the Kelleher Rose Garden is one of the Emerald Necklace's smaller yet most precious gems. The quaint green space is enclosed by tall hedges, giving it serious secret garden vibes that make you forget you're anywhere near the bustling streets of Boston. There are more 1,500 roses artfully arranged throughout the park, which also boasts fountains and statues for added aesthetic appeal and charm. Take a stroll through the formal paths and feel all of your city troubles melt away. 

Advertising
  • Things to do
  • South End

The Underground at Ink Block is the city’s latest triumphant effort to repurpose a forgotten space—this one tucked underneath a knotty snarl of South End/South Boston overpasses. The eight-acre park includes bike paths, boardwalks, a dog park and more than 150,000 square feet of mural work by artists from Boston, Los Angeles, New York and beyond.

Party Time

Best event of the year: The Boston Marathon
Photograph: FayFoto/Boston

Best event of the year: The Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon dates back to 1897, making it the world’s oldest annual marathon. Though it's traditionally held on Patriots’ Day, this year, The Hub had to mix things up and hold the epic sporting event in October, due to all of the pandemic-related restrictions. Despite the change in date this time around, the Boston Marathon was and always will be a highlight of our city's social calendar. The event draws more than 30,000 participants from around the world, shutting down a chunk of Boylston Street with its fanfare. Regardless of the conditions, runners push their limits while spectators—who tend to take Marathon Monday off from work, if their companies don't already acknowledge the holiday—party and cheer their hearts out.

  • Art
  • Roxbury

Black Market Nubian made the most out of the pandemic this past year by launching Nubiana, a montly open-air gallery, market and cultural extravaganza in the heart of Roxbury. This series of outdoor events brings together artists—both emerging and well-established—and the local community for a day of live demonstrations and creativity. It welcomes members of the public as they come and explore the work of muralists, designers and artisans, who are all on hand to mix, mingle and sell their creations. Each month's event has its own theme and, weather permitting, there's usually a beer and wine garden provided by a nearby business. Note: Because of it's outside, Nubiana takes place only in the warmer months.  

Advertising

Somerville's cherished, annual tradition of PorchFest made its triumphant return this past fall. The local festival, which is the oldest of all the local PorchFests, had its post-pandemic comeback, with a day of celebrating live music and the arts this past October. A slew of bands took over porches, stoops, driveways, front yards and pretty much any old outdoor space throughout the city to play free, public shows for all. It was the musical return to normalcy that we all needed. 

Sitting inside a theater—even with masks—wasn't feasible for a good part of the past two years, which is why the Boston Lyric Opera improvised and showed that all the world's a stage, if you really want it to be. The BLO tricked out a truck with state-of-the-art sound systems and brought its Street Stage series to outdoor spaces throughout the city and beyond, to other areas of the Bay State. Everything from show tunes to classic operas were belted out during these pop-up performances, giving audiences access to a safe environment where they could still indulge their love of the arts—even during the most trying of times.

Advertising
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • price 2 of 4

The acclaimed Peabody Essex Museum is currently featuring an exhibit entitled The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, which will be running from now until March 2022. It explores the “factors that fueled the storied crisis,” highlights people who “rose to defend those unjustly accused" and also spotlights “two creative responses by contemporary artists with ancestral links to the trials”—namely, photographer Frances F. Denny and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Best nightlife event: Watching any New England game in a sports bar
Credit: Benjamin Esakof/Halo Creative Group, LLC

Best nightlife event: Watching any New England game in a sports bar

Name a city with more championship teams than Boston—we’ll wait. New Englanders love their local teams, all of which have won championships this century, which is something no other city can claim. While we've certainly made strides building up our nightlife scene,  adding more traditional clubs and lounges in recent years, let's face it, the highlight of The Hub after dark is still grabbing a cold beer and posting up at one of our local sports bars to watch the big game with our friends. What can we say? We are people who just enjoy the simple pleasure of winning. 

Sustainability

  • Shopping
  • North End

This Boston store strives to support the zero waste way of life with its inventory of sustainable—yet still wicked cute—products. Offering everything from cosmetics to home goods to live plants, Uvida Shop is committed to seeking out sustainable, vegan and cruelty-free products for its customers. Not only are the products themselves environmentally and ethically conscious, but their packaging is as well (i.e. lip balm that comes in a plastic-free tube). In addition to its original location in the North End, Uvida opened another storefront in East Boston this past November. 

Boston boasts some of the finest minds from around the world, and when they set their sights on sustainability, the result is thought-provoking discourse that could spur real change. The MIT Sustainability Summit provides that very forum every year. Although they had to make the 2021 summit virtual, the event still brought together academic, government and business leaders from across the globe to dive into subjects ranging from human impact on the environment to corporate responsibility to invest in innovation.  

Advertising
  • Things to do
  • Seaport District

Surrounded by the swarm of buzzing high-rise office buildings and traffic-filled streets, you'll find Seaport Common. Although it's located amidst the chaos of the Innovation District, this green space provides a somewhat calm outdoor setting for the community to come together and enjoy the beauty of downtown. It provides a place for folks to sit down in the fresh air, catch up with friends or take a much-needed lunch break. But it also hosts a whole slew of events throughout the year, from art exhibits to fitness classes.

Special Awards

This local biotech company has become a household name throughout the country—and for damn good reason. Moderna has been instrumental in combatting COVID-19, thanks to its mRNA technology and vaccine against the virus. At this point, many of us have Moderna running through our veins, giving us protection during this pandemic and letting us resume our normal lives (for the most part, at least). 

Innovation of the year: Community Fridges

During the pandemic, food insecurity throughout our local communities became an apparent problem. In response to the increased number of people who could no longer afford or access food, community fridges started popping up in neighborhoods throughout the city, particularly in underserved areas. Folks in need have been able to visit this swath of outdoor fridges and accompanying pantry shelves, which are independently owned and operated, to get free, fresh and shelf-stable food—all of which have been donated.

Advertising
  • Art
  • Somerville

A local institution since the 1990s, the Museum of Bad Art is dedicated to showing off the worst works of art around. Though it took a hit during the pandemic and had to temporarily close its doors, the MOBA’s main gallery located within the basement of the Somerville Theatre is still going strong. This hidden Davis Square wonder has a permanent collection of more than 700 pieces of fantastic art fails for folks to appreciate, rotating a couple dozen works into its public display at any given moment. Open whenever the theater is screening flicks, this spot wants to give everyone the opportunity to cherish its selection of subpar oeuvres, offering free admission when they present a movie ticket or request entrance through the MOBA’s website.

When it comes to the world's problems, it sometimes helps to laugh so that we don't cry. That's exactly the approach that Boston native Abbie Richards takes as she serves up straight facts with a side of comic relief. The online comedian, who operates mostly on TikTok, originally caught the attention of the public with her anti-golf bits and her inverted pyramid of conspiracy theories. In general, she offers an amusing and highly accessible take on dispelling misinformation that can be found circulating the interwebs. 

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising