November 21, 2003
ISTORICALLY, Boston looms large, but geographically it's just a bean of a town: 51 square miles, with more than 20 distinct neighborhoods crammed cheek by jowl, with pricey Beacon Hill and gritty Chinatown facing off across Boston Common, high-brow art museums just a stroll from Fenway Park. That rich density makes even a short walk rewarding, and the beginning of the end of the Central Artery-Tunnel Project (a k a the Big Dig) scheduled for completion in 2005, has created the possibility of quick entries and exits. POOJA BHATIA
Boston Common is the first gem in the city's so-called Emerald Necklace, a series of linked green spaces. Come November, the Frog Pond (on the Beacon Street side of the Common, 617-635-2120) fills with ice skaters. The rink makes its own ice, so skaters can glide even in relatively balmy temperatures (admission is $3 for adults; skate rental, $7). If the ice seems too crowded, pause for a moment to gaze at the Common from Boylston and Tremont Streets: the gauzy, lamplight scene inspired Childe Hassam's "Boston Common at Twilight," which you can catch indoors at the Museum of Fine Arts the next morning.
The city is thick with restaurants that say they serve flopping-fresh seafood, but few are brave enough to dispense with the plastic bibs and drawn butter. Enter the sashimi bar Uni (Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Avenue, 617-536-7200). In its low-slung confines, the chef Ken Oringer serves sublime fish with inventive accompaniments that actually work. Peppery onion seeds and Amarillo vinaigrette cut the richness of sea urchin and hamachi ($16); the Chinese black beans on wild king salmon come off like caviar ($14). No reservations, and no humdrum soy sauce either.
Walk, or direct your cab driver, a mile down "Mass Ave." to Wally's Café (427 Massachusetts Avenue, 617-424-1408). Swarms of aspiring jazz stars, many enrolled at area music schools, guarantee Boston's disproportionate supply (and demand) when it comes to jazz. Wally's, with its Formica tables and portraits of its patrons, has been around since 1947. Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman have all performed here. The first set starts at 9:30 p.m. but arrive early because the 60-seat bar fills up fast. (No cover charge.)
Grab a bite and head to the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue, 617-267-9300), where Boston Common is always snow-covered as the sun fades in Hassam's painting, which hangs in the Art of the Americas gallery on the first floor. The museum has strong collections of Asian and American works, portraits and landscapes by John Singer Sargent and a collection of silver teapots by Paul Revere. On weekends, there are screenings of foreign and classic films. Just around the corner is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (280 the Fenway, 617-566-1401), the eccentric Venetian-style palazzo built about a century ago that is crammed with 2,500 of Mrs. Gardner's acquisitions. Her will warns that if the permanent collection is disturbed, it will be given to Harvard; that partly explains the empty frames of two Rembrandts and a Vermeer taken along with other pieces in a 1990 robbery that is unsolved. Consider buying the $4 audio guide or $16 paperback guide because much of the collection is unlabeled.
On trendy Newbury Street, fashion cafes come and go, but Sonsie (327 Newbury Street, 617-351-2500) has endured for a decade. Its well-executed menu (brick-oven-baked pizzas, huevos rancheros with chorizo), solicitous service and premium people-watching make it a pleasant place to recharge. The menu also includes a hot Cubano sandwich with crispy plantains ($8.75) and smoked-salmon eggs Benedict ($14.50).
Back Bay's galleries are a mixed bag, but this is prime window-shopping territory. Matsu (259 Newbury Street, 617-266-9707) specializes in beautiful objects for women, including jewelry, clothing, intricate handbags and home accessories, while the luxury-label emporium Louis Boston (234 Berkeley Street, 617-262-6100) is a one-stop shop for your Brioni, Prada and Balenciaga needs. Bored companions congregate at the Trident Booksellers and Café (338 Newbury Street, 617-267-8688), stocked with everything from best sellers to literary classics to works on the occult.
Head to City Square in the Charlestown section to see Boston's newest landmark, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge over the Charles River. Parts of the world's widest cable-stayed bridge are still closed to traffic and construction can obstruct full views, but Bostonians love it already. As one of the few Big Dig projects that can be seen above ground, the bridge, designed by the Swiss engineer Christian Menn, is reason to believe that the project, which started in 1991 and has cost $14.63 billion so far, may really be finished by 2005. It helps that the bridge, crowned by tall, illuminated obelisks that mirror the nearby Bunker Hill Monument, is a masterpiece.
Just up the cobblestone street from City Square is Figs (67 Main Street, 617-242-2229), the site of the star chef Todd English's original restaurant. Though Mr. English has opened outposts of his more upscale restaurant, Olives, across the country, Figs remains low key. It has pasta specials, root beer and glam rock on the sound system, and Boston foodies still line up for pastas and brick-oven pizzas; one topped with prosciutto and fig and balsamic jam is $16.95; a pizza topped with fried calamari is $16.
Head over the Charles River to Cambridge, home to Harvard, M.I.T. and culinary offerings that suggest the Ivory Tower has a well-endowed Department of Fine Dining. On Sunday mornings, the confectioner L. A. Burdick (52-D Brattle Street, 617-491-4340) fills up with student sophisticates who peruse newspapers while drinking mugs of steaming hand-whisked hot cocoa ($4) and nibbling at chocolate croissants ($1.75). If it's too early in the day for decadence, you can always buy some truffles for the road. The chocolate-ganache "mice," (box of four, $9) are best sellers.
From Burdick, follow Brattle Street a mile northwest as it courses through rows of expansive Victorian homes. You will end up at Mount Auburn Cemetery (580 Mount Auburn Street, 617-547-7105), where Bostonians like Mary Baker Eddy, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Winslow Homer and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are at eternal rest. Stop at the office for a map or to rent the hour-long audio tour and keep in mind that the cemetery's appeal extends beyond its celebrity ghosts. Its knobby 175-acre landscape is a riot of native and exotic plantings. A short hike up to its highest point gives perspective on the city across the river. Nothing too boisterous, please: the cemetery still has some 650 burials a year.
Henrietta's Table (Charles Hotel, One Bennett Street, 617-661-5005) has the richest brunch in town. But be prepared, the rustic, easy-going vibes belie the prices — a whopping $39 a person. Getting your money's worth requires strategy and discipline. Bypass the breads and muffins for the raw oysters; innumerable types of smoked fish, pates and cheeses; and perfectly cooked steaks, fish and pork. Oh, yes, and the dessert table: don't miss this rare opportunity to spread crème brûlée on a Belgian waffle.
A cab ride to the Back Bay section from Logan International Airport takes about 10 minutes and costs about $25, including $6 for fees and tolls. The same trip on the T, Boston's subway, takes up to 45 minutes but costs only $1.
The Ritz-Carlton, Boston (15 Arlington Street, 617-536-5700) recently reopened after a major restoration. Many of its 273 rooms and suites have views of the Public Garden, which is adjacent to the Common; suites have working fireplaces. Deluxe rooms are $295 to $495; suites are $595 to $895.
The Hotel Marlowe (25 Edwin H. Land Boulevard, 800-825-7140) is on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, a short hop from downtown Boston. It has 236 spacious rooms, zany furnishings and free evening wine hours. Rates start at $129.
The Newbury Guest House (261 Newbury Street, 617-437-7666), a brownstone in the heart of Back Bay, has 32 Victorian-style rooms, priced at $109 to $175 through the end of December. Breakfast is included.