The Sociology of Boston’s Restaurants:
Where Diversity and Good Food Meet
by Jack Levin, Northeastern University
I tend to think about almost everything in terms of food, especially just prior to lunch or dinner when my appetite expands to gargantuan proportions. My wife and I would probably eat dinner out more often if there were more days in the week. Far from alone, there are many middle-class Bostonians for whom restaurants have replaced the dinner table at home.
Why should restaurants be of special interest to sociologists? First, sociologists have to eat just like everybody else. Second, restaurants provide the possibility of a social experience where diners interact and enjoy the company of others. Of course, they also enjoy the Chicken Kiev, the Beef Wellington, the vegetable lasagna, and the sweet potato fries (well, at least I do).
As sociologists, we also gain an overview of the ethnic and socioeconomic circumstances in a community. The viability of the restaurant scene requires expendable income. Clusters of expensive eating establishments indicate prosperity; an accumulation of fast-food eateries likely reflect a lack of economic resources. Moreover, the existence of a particular cuisine in a community signals the presence of the ethnic group from whom that menu derives. As the Latino population has grown in towns and cities across the country, for example, there have been dramatic increases in the number of Mexican restaurants in the United States.
Much of Boston’s social and economic landscape can be gleaned from an examination of the variety and history of the eating establishments I know and, in many cases, love.
Italian Food and Other Ethnicities
Twenty years ago, Boston was dominated by Italian restaurants. Numerous eateries specializing in Northern or Southern Italian cuisine remain. The North End reportedly has almost 100. For an outstanding if pricey meal, try the Peruvian/Italian menu at Taranta or the Daily Catch on Hanover Street or Mamma Maria’s at North Square. For something less pricey, but highly recommended, head for Pizza Regina’s or Mother Anna’s and follow that with dessert (a cannoli or two) at Mike’s Pastry (all on Hanover Street). Be sure to take the T, though, since parking is scarce in the North End.
In addition to Italian cuisine, there are also many other ethnic cuisines that have grown in popularity over the last decade. The restaurants in Boston represent a wide range of countries including (but not limited to) Sweden, Russia, Lebanon, Greece, Iran, Mexico, Spain, Columbia, Brazil, Peru, Ethiopia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cuba, Israel, and France.
Although, there is an absence of German eating places in the City. This is not surprising considering that Boston’s German population had dramatically declined. So has the population of residents whose ancestors hailed from Ireland, Italy, Britain, Poland, Russia, and France. Instead, there have been increases recently in Bostonians of Chinese, Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican, Cape Verdeen, Vietnamese, and Indian descent.
Boston is no longer a majority white city; 27% of the city’s residents are African American. Moreover, the foreign-born population of Boston has soared since 1980. But the growing diversity of the City does not necessarily translate into integration.
Diversity in Cambridge
Consider the state of relations between black and white Bostonians. The black-owned Southern restaurants are located in predominantly African-American areas of the City. One of the few (the only?) Southern restaurants outside of black neighborhoods, Magnolia’s—an excellent place to go for creative Southern cuisine—is located across the Charles River on Cambridge Street at Inman Square, within a block of numerous eating establishments offering the cuisines of China, Portugal, Thailand, and Lebanon. Inman Square also has a New York style deli and outstanding Mexican cuisine (Ole Mexican Grill on Springfield Street) and Brazilian food (Midwest Grill on Cambridge Street).
In addition to Inman Square, there are numerous restaurants representing a wide range of countries and cuisines throughout Cambridge. Countless local eating establishments serve food from Afghanistan to Turkey and from Morocco to Vietnam. Head for Emma’s in Kendall Square for delicious super-thin pizza.
Cambridge is noted for the diversity of its residents—in terms of race and socioeconomic status. There is a relatively large number of Asians among the City’s 100,000 residents. Integration is amazingly real compared to other areas of greater Boston. It is also regarded as one of the most liberal cities in the United States. Local right-wing talk show hosts refer to it as the Socialist state (or the People’s Republic) of Cambridge. It was the first city in the United States to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
While racially segregated neighborhoods in Boston have declined somewhat since 1990, whites continue to relocate to the least integrated places in the region. The most segregated areas are the suburbs surrounding the City. On average, whites reside in neighborhoods that are more than 90% white. In the city, African Americans live on blocks that are on average 60% black; whites on blocks that are 70% white. The largest concentrations of black Bostonians are in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester and, to a lesser extent, the South End.
Segregation in Boston goes beyond black and white. An aerial photo of the City and its suburbs could serve as an ethnic map. Irish in South Boston; Italians in the North End; Latinos in the South End; Jews in Brookline; Asians in Chinatown; Armenians and Iranians in Watertown. Yet, there has been recent movement toward residential integration.
Restaurant Scene=Ethnic Integration
Union Oyster House
The restaurant scene reflects at least some reduction in ethnic segregation. In Irish South Boston, you can still visit one of its several Irish pubs, but now you can also find excellent Mexican, Italian, and Chinese food. For reasonably priced Italian, I recommend Porto Bello on East Broadway.
The North End continues to be saturated with Italian restaurants, but sprinkled among them are eateries serving seafood (The Daily Catch is highly recommended, but often has a long line), Chinese, Peruvian cuisine, and even sushi. Brookline has numerous good Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Thai, Cambodian, Kosher, and Russian eating establishments. Try Chef Chang’s on Beacon Street in Brookline. You won’t be sorry.
Even Chinatown is now more than just Chinese. There are also restaurants offering the menus of Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Italy, Korea, the Southwest, Mexico, Greece, France, and Cajun Louisiana. Dim Sum is still widely available. Some of the best is served on weekends at Hei La Moon on Beach Street.
Boston has a relatively low unemployment rate (4.4%) relative to other major cities, such as Detroit (7.2%), St Louis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cleveland, where joblessness is a much greater threat to prosperity. Boston’s unemployment rate is also substantially lower than other cities in Massachusetts including New Bedford (8.6%), Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, and Brockton. This was not always the case. In 1991, for example, Boston’s rate of unemployment climbed to almost 9%; in 2003 it rose again to 6%.
The relative prosperity of the City today can be seen in the growing number of expensive steak houses: Ruth’s Chris, Metropolitan Club, Capital Grille, Flemings, Smith and Wollensky, Morton’s, and locals such as the outstanding Grill 23 on Berkeley Street and the impeccable Abe and Louie’s on Boylston Street. Numerous upscale national chains such as Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano’s, McCormick and Schmick, The Palm, and P.F. Chang’s are thriving.
Part of Boston’s economic viability can be seen in the gentrified area of the South End, with block after block of 19th century brownstones and countless bistros. Located just a few blocks from the Convention hotels on Columbus, Tremont, and Washington streets, the restaurant scene is alive and well. You can get anything from an exceptional hamburger at Tim’s Burgers to a gourmet meal at trendy Hamersly’s Bistro. Other good choices in the South End include the Butcher Shop, Stella’s, Garden of Eden, Giacomo’s and Union Bar and Grill.
Legal Seafood, whose first venue was in Cambridge and has now spread through a number of east coast states, continues to serve wonderfully reliable seafood dishes. You can find branches of Legal Seafood in the Prudential and the Copley Place malls. If you are willing to travel a little, you can also try what some consider a tourist trap, Anthony’s Pier 4 on the waterfront. Anthony’s provides an excellent view of the Boston harbor and very decent seafood (also try the popovers), even if you pay a premium for both.
For those sociologists who prefer to dine around Copley Square, the lounge at the Copley Marriott offers dancing to a live band on weekend nights. You ca n also have dessert at Finale in the Park Plaza, a ten-minute walk from Copley Square hotels.
Boston has wealth, but, of course, it also has poverty, if you know where to look for it. Much of the worst squalor resides at the margins of the City, where tourists would not visit. Instead, visitors can easily walk miles starting from the Museum of Fine Arts and Northeastern University on Huntington Avenue (recently renamed Avenue of the Arts) through Copley Square and over to Commonwealth Avenue and the Boston Garden, then on to the Freedom Trail, the State House on Beacon, and Faneuil Hall (Quincy market), and finally down to the harbor and the North End. Strolling at a moderate pace, this takes about 50 minutes and can be done without seeing many homeless people, slums, or panhandlers. While the poverty may not be of the proportions of Detroit or Baltimore, it certainly exists. Boston’s version is harder to see because it is hidden: When it comes to dealing with the poor, the saying “out of sight, out of mind” applies to the Boston experience.
One final suggestion: If you happen to drive through the suburbs of Boston and travel through Stoughton, Mansfield, or Westborough, make sure to stop at Cheng Du, an excellent Chinese restaurant that features a dish known as Jack Levin Pork (named after me!). I am not kidding.
Considering the relationship between Boston’s eateries and its changing social structure, sociologists might benefit a good deal from understanding the restaurant scene in the City and how it has changed over the decades. Knowing where Boston’s residents eat makes me hungry for food and for knowledge; it is a delicious unobtrusive measure of what’s eating Boston. So, go and enjoy…but think about the social landscape of the City while tasting dessert.
Editor’s note: Getting a reservation in a major city during the weekend can be difficult, therefore consider making reservations at restaurants before you arrive in Boston. Visit ASA’s online restaurant guide at www.asanet.org/cs/2008_meeting where you can use Open Table (www.opentable.com) to make reservations.