There’s a fascinating discussion going down on Chowhound about the differences between the Boston and Cambridge food scenes. The thread has all the usual downfalls of Chowhound threads (rampant pedantry, people getting irritated for no good reason, a shocking ignorance of what constitutes “Boston Proper”), but it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful discussion. No giant consensus has been reached , but there does seem to be general agreement that Cambridge has better ice cream (almost entirely due to the presence of Toscanini’s) and grocery shopping.
We’ve always thought that the evaluation of a city as a dining destination comes down to five major factors: grocery shopping, cheap eats, fine dining, availability of a wide range of cuisines, and dining atmosphere. The Chowhound thread isn’t really about competition, per se, but since we’re basically hyper-competitive when it comes to Boston, we thought we’d see how each city stacks up in our categories.
Grocery Shopping: We’ve got to give this one to Cambridge, for all the reasons mentioned on the thread: Formaggio Kitchen (the Cambridge one is much better than the South End branch), Iggy’s, the Japanese groceries in the Porter Square Exchange, and far superior branches of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, among many others. Sure, Boston has the shops of Chinatown, a better Shaw’s, and our favorite shop for Middle Eastern ingredients, Droubi Bros, but even those jewels can’t compete with what Cambridge has to offer.
Cheap Eats: On the Boston side, we have Santarpio’s Pizza, Spike’s Junkyard Dogs, La Verdad, Trattoria Toscana, Chacarero, El Oriental de Cuba, and most of Chinatown (most notably, in our opinion Grand Chau Chow). Representing Cambridge, there’s Atwood’s Tavern, Bartley’s Burger Cottage, O Cantinho, Darwin’s Ltd, Oxford Spa, Moody’s Falafel Palace, and everything in the Porter Square Exchange (especially Sapporo Ramen). Quantitatively, it’s a draw. Qualitatively…let’s call it a draw as well. Cambridge is better for sandwiches, Boston for a wider range of cheap eats.
Fine Dining: This is a little tricky. While our own favorite spot for parentally-sponsored fine dining is Cambridge’s Rialto, Boston has many more innovative “destination” restaurants (Clio, Oishii Boston, and No. 9 Park to name just a few).
Range of Cuisines: Both cities have an excellent variety of cuisines to try. We would give Boston the edge in Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese, pizza, and Japanese (sushi). Cambridge wins in terms of Japanese (not sushi), sandwiches, Middle Eastern, and Mexican.
Dining Atmosphere: We have long maintained that most people want to dine at a restaurant that feels like a neighborhood gem, even if it’s not necessarily in their own neighborhood. The exception to that rule, obviously, is hyped-up destination restaurants, which is a category already handily won by Boston. Cambridge is rich with unpretentious dining destinations, such as Harvest, Oleana, and Central Kitchen. While the same laid-back atmosphere can be tricky to find in downtown Boston, we’d argue that more outlying neighborhoods have charmingly low key spots aplenty, from Jamaica Plain’s Zon’s and Ten Tables to Sophia’s Grotto in Roslindale.
Final Score: Boston: 2, Cambridge: 1
Although both cities are happy homes for the discerning foodie, our (very biased) instinct is to claim victory for Boston. What do you think?
[Photo: Maureen Murphy Music]