New England is well-known for its amazing seafood. But when you think of Boston, the term “foodie paradise” might not immediately come to mind. However, Boston’s rich history as one of the US’ oldest cities has given it a wealth of traditional recipes.
Whether you’re visiting Boston, Massachusetts just for the day on a cruise or spending a longer vacation in the city, there’s lots of iconic Boston food you need to try. If you don’t get to taste them all in one visit, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with Boston and want to return to sample more. (As a native Bostonian, I might be a bit biased!)
Recipes and techniques developed by the local Native American tribes and simple, frugal dishes enjoyed by the early settlers make up the backbone of traditional Boston cooking. The large number of Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the city around the turn of the 20th century also heavily influenced Boston’s food culture.
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Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Boston restaurants and attractions may be closed, operating at reduced capacity, or offering takeout only. Additionally, restaurant menus tend to change. Call ahead for availability and reservations.
If you’ve only heard of succotash from old Sylvester the Cat cartoons (his catchphrase was “Sufferin’ succotash!”), you might be surprised to learn that it’s a real thing and it’s delicious! Succotash is actually one of Boston’s oldest iconic foods.
Derived from the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, meaning boiled corn kernels, succotash is a mixture of corn and beans with meat added. The recipe changed seasonally, depending on available ingredients.
No record exists of the exact foods served at the first Thanksgiving, the 1621 feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags held in nearby Plymouth. However, it’s very likely that succotash was on the menu. It soon became a staple of early colonists’ tables as well, due to its affordable and accessible ingredients.
Today’s succotash is usually made from corn, lima or cranberry beans, salt pork, butter, and fresh herbs. Topped with meat or seafood, it becomes a filling main course, but it can also make a tasty side dish.
Where to find succotash in Boston
- Audubon Boston 838 Beacon Street (near Kenmore Square and Fenway Park) (617) 421-1910
- Metropolis Cafe 584 Tremont Street (South End) (617) 247-2931
- MOOO…. 15 Beacon Street (Beacon Hill) 617) 670-2515
Fenway Park Sausage/Fenway Franks
Almost three million baseball fans visit Fenway Park each year. Will you be one of them? The home of the Red Sox, Fenway is the oldest park currently used in major-league baseball.
No trip to Fenway is complete without having a hot dog, and the famous Fenway Franks are served piping hot right to the stands (Fenway also sells a vegan hot dog).
But in-the-know visitors save room for one of the amazing sausages sold right outside the park’s gates during home games.
Served on a roll with grilled peppers and onions, spicy Fenway sausages are perfection. I like mine slathered with mustard for the perfect pre- or post-game treat.
Where to find Fenway Park sausages and Fenway Franks
- Fenway Park 4 Jersey Street (near Kenmore Square)
- The Sausage Guy (food cart, so locations vary, but he sets up on Lansdowne Street outside of the gates during home games)
- Sausage Connection Lansdowne Street (by Game Day ticket sales door during home games)
Unofficially the state sandwich of Massachusetts, the Fluffernutter is a sweet treat created with a layer of peanut butter and a layer of Marshmallow Fluff on white bread. Marshmallow Fluff has been made in nearby Lynn since 1920!
The recipe was first made during WWI, just after the spreadable fluff was invented in Somerville, Massachusetts. But, it wasn’t until 1960 that its fun name was coined as a way to increase sales.
When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, Fluffernutters were a lunchbox staple for lots of Boston-area schoolkids. I think it was the first “recipe” I learned to make by myself! Today’s nutrition-conscious parents probably pack healthier lunches for their kids, but Fluffernutters are still popular as a fast and easy snack.
Where to find a Fluffernutter in Boston
- Local 149 149 P Street, South Boston Theirs is a deep-fried version (617) 269-0900
- North Street Grille 229 North Street (North End) Try the Fluffernutter french toast for brunch! (617) 720-2010
- The Gallows 1395 Washington Street (South End) They serve a Bananas Foster-style dessert version (617) 425-0200
The clambake (or clam bake) is a time-honored Massachusetts tradition, passed along to early colonists by the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag, as well as other local tribes, traditionally built shellfish bakes on the beach.
A traditional clambake is created by digging a pit in the sand, and then lining it with rocks. A wood fire is started on top of the rocks. Once the wood is burned down to coals, it’s raked and then the pit is layered with fresh seaweed.
Clams, mussels, and lobsters are placed on top, along with corn-on-the-cob and potatoes. The steaming and smoking of the clambake results in tender meat with a unique smokey flavor.
Clambakes became a social event with local colonists beginning just prior to the American Revolution, and continued to be a popular summertime activity for many generations.
Today, traditional clambakes are much more rare, mainly due to restrictions against lighting fires on the state’s beaches. But some Boston restaurants do offer a clambake-style meal that’s prepared in the kitchen. You won’t get the same unique flavor, but many of the ingredients are the same.
If you really want to experience an authentic clambake in Boston, Thomson Island in Boston Harbor will host one for your group, but prices start at $7500. (That’s not a typo.)
More affordable community clambakes take place each summer in locations around New England if you want a real taste of the old-fashioned tradition.
What Boston restaurants serve a clambake-style meal?
- Summer Shack 50 Dalton Street (Back Bay) (617) 867-9955
- Neptune Oyster 63 Salem Street (North End) (617) 742-3474
- The Barking Crab 88 Sleeper Street (South Boston) (617) 426-CRAB
Boston Cream Pie
Arguably Boston’s most famous dessert, Boston Cream Pie actually isn’t a pie at all (however, at the time of its invention the words “pie” and “cake” were often used interchangeably).
The layer cake was first created at Boston’s Parker House Hotel in 1856 by their Armenian-French chef, M. Sanzian, and has been served at the hotel ever since.
The original recipe was for a two-layer sponge cake filled with pastry cream and topped with chocolate or white fondant icing. Today’s version usually replaces the pastry cream with custard cream, and is always iced with chocolate.
Since 1996, Boston Cream Pie has been the official state dessert of Massachusetts.
Where can you get the original Boston Cream Pie in Boston?
- Parker’s Restaurant (at the Omni Parker Hotel, Theater District) 60 School St. (617) 227-8600
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Boston is home to a sizable amount of people of Irish descent. According to a 2014 survey, 22.8 percent of Metro Boston’s population claimed Irish ancestry. That beats out Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, all cities known for having large Irish-American populations.
Perhaps the most famous Irish-American dish in Boston is corned beef and cabbage. A variation of the traditional Irish bacon and cabbage, the corned beef version has been enjoyed by Bostonians since the 19th century. Corned beef was expensive in Ireland but fairly cheap in the US, so making the switch from bacon was seen as a small luxury.
Corned beef and cabbage is made by simmering cured brisket, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. It’s very similar to the traditional New England boiled dinner, although that recipe often includes beets.
Corned beef and cabbage was often served as Sunday dinner, though today it’s especially popular in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day. Many Boston restaurants that usually don’t serve Irish-American fare will offer the meal on March 17th.
Where to find corned beef and cabbage in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day
- The Burren 247 Elm Street, Somerville (Davis Square) Not technically in Boston, but it’s a short T ride away
- JJ Foley’s Cafe 117 East Berkeley Street (South End) (617) 728-9101
- The Black Rose 160 State Street (Market District) (617) 742-2286
North End Cannoli
Boston is also home to lots of Italian-Americans, and its North End neighborhood has been known as the mecca of Italian food in the city for generations. The tiny (0.36 sq mi / 0.58 km sq) area packs in more than 87 restaurants!
A trip to the North End is a must for any visitor in the mood for Italian and Italian-American cuisine. You can find just about any type of Italian food there, from rustic to upscale, Old World to updated modern.
But for many Bostonians, a jaunt to the North End isn’t complete without cannoli.
You probably know that cannoli are a Sicilian specialty consisting of tube-shaped fried pastry shells filled with a sweet, creamy filling (usually containing ricotta). The ends are often dusted with crushed pistachios.
I once spent most of an afternoon in Messina, Sicily (in the area where cannoli were first made) following my picky daughter around to dozens of pastry shops in search of the perfect cannoli. I can assure you that you’ll find far more variety in the North End – there’s a flavor for every taste.
North End bakeries go all out with their variations on typical cannoli, filling them with flavors like amaretto, limoncello, or mint chip. Ends are encrusted with nuts, chocolate chips, or sprinkles (known locally as “jimmies”). For purists, you can still get a plain one.
Who has the best cannoli in Boston’s North End
- Mike’s Pastry 300 Hanover Street (North End) (617) 742-3050
- Modern Pastry 263 Hanover Street (North End) (617) 523-3783
- Bova’s Bakery 34 Salem Street (North End) (617) 523-5601 Open 24/7!
Boston Baked Beans
The history of Boston’s famous baked beans predates the arrival of European settlers to the area. The original sweetened, slow-cooked beans began with the Wampanoag, who traditionally baked their beans with maple syrup and bear grease.
Soon after the Mayflower’s Pilgrims landed at what is now Plymouth, they met Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoags. Squanto, as he was called by some of the Pilgrims, had learned English after he was kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English sea captain.
If it wasn’t for Squanto, it’s unlikely that many of the new settlers would have survived. He not only helped them forge an alliance with the Wampanoags, but he also taught them to cultivate corn and beans, how to get sap from the maple trees and turn it into syrup, and how to hunt, fish, and gather shellfish.
He also taught them how to cook without an oven, using traditional recipes and techniques. Many dishes, including baked beans, were cooked in large clay pots over an outdoor fire.
In colonial times, strict Puritan regulations forbade labor on Sundays. Beans would be cooked on Saturday and left overnight in a brick oven. The next day, a hot meal could be enjoyed while still complying with Sabbath restrictions.
Boston baked beans are made with small white beans (usually navy beans) and salt pork. Since the early-eighteenth century, molasses has been used instead of maple syrup. As part of the terrible history of the triangular slave trade, New England began to import molasses produced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies. From the molasses they would produce rum, which was then sold or traded overseas.
Boston baked beans are often served in a small stoneware pot, reminiscent of the larger pots used by the Wampanoag to make the original recipe. New England-style brown bread, developed when the Pilgrims added barley to the Wampanoag corn bread recipe, traditionally accompanies the meal.
Where can you find Boston Baked Beans in Boston?
- State Street Provisions 255 State Street (Seaport District) (617) 863-8363
- Bostonia Public House 131 State Street (Seaport District) (617) 948-9800
- Union Oyster House 41 Union Street (Market District) (617) 227-2750
Whoopie pies are two layers of cake (traditionally chocolate) sandwiching a vanilla-flavored marshmallow frosting. Similar to the southern classic moon pie, whoopie pies can be found around Boston in various flavors like chocolate peanut butter, pumpkin, and gingerbread.
Although there’s controversy around where whoopie pies were actually invented, the treat is definitely an iconic Boston food.
The marshmallow creme used in the filling (also the key ingredient for the Fluffernutter I mentioned above) was invented in nearby Somerville prior to WWI. Bakeries began producing whoopie pies in Boston in the 1920s, around the same time that they first were made in Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
It’s no wonder that so many want to claim whoopie pies as their own – they’re delicious! Grab a friend and split one (unless you have a huge appetite), and wash it down with a big glass of milk.
Who has the best whoopie pies in Boston?
- Bova’s Bakery 34 Salem Street (North End) (617) 523-5601
- Little Miss Cupcape 250 Newbury Street (Back Bay) (857) 317-3102
- Mike’s Pastry 300 Hanover Street (North End) (617) 742-3050
Soft-shell clams, known locally as “steamers”, are used to make clam chowder, clam strips and the whole-belly fried clams that are a popular New England treat. But the tastiest way to eat them is steamed and dipped in butter!
Boston’s seafood restaurants prepare steamers by soaking and rinsing them to remove most of the grit (steamer clams burrow 6-12 inches deep in the sand). The clams are then cooked, shell and all, in salted water. Garlic, herbs, lemon, white wine, or beer may also be added to the broth.
To eat steamers, pull the clam from the shell by its long neck, and peel off the black skin around the neck. Swish the clam in some reserved broth, dunk in drawn butter, and enjoy!
Where to find steamers in Boston
- Yankee Lobster 300 Northern Avenue (Seaport District) (617) 345-9799
- Alive & Kicking Lobsters 269 Putnam Avenue, Cambridge (617) 876-0451
- Summer Shack 50 Dalton Street (Back Bay) (617) 867-9955
New England Clam Chowder
Although our neighbors in New York have Manhattan clam chowder with tomatoes, and Rhode Islanders often prefer their clear clam chowder, in Boston the traditional creamy New England clam chowder is king.
Boston’s clam chowder is traditionally made with chopped clams, potatoes, onions, salt pork, milk, and butter. This version was first introduced to New England by French, Nova Scotian, or British settlers, and was a commonly-made recipe by the 18th century.
Today, many chefs tweak the original recipe a bit to make the chowder their own, but the basic concept remains the same. Chowder festivals are common all over New England (including Boston’s annual Chowderfest each July at Harborfest), with restaurants competing for the coveted “Best Chowder” title.
Enjoy your piping hot clam chowder topped with oyster crackers for a little crunch.
Note: Harborfest is canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19, but keep an eye out for it next year.
Where to find the best clam chowder in Boston
- Hyatt Harborside Grill 101 Harborside Drive (at the Hyatt Regency, Theater District) 2019 Boston Chowderfest Winner! (617) 568-6060
- Island Creek Oyster Bar 500 Commonwealth Avenue (Fenway/Kenmore) (617) 532-5300
- Oak + Rowan 321 A Street (South Boston) (857) 284-7742
The lobster roll wasn’t invented in Boston, but they sure are popular with locals and visitors alike. Lobster rolls are such a typical New England sandwich that even our McDonald’s usually offer them in the summer!
But if you come to Boston, don’t have a fast-food lobster roll (although they’re not that bad). There are plenty of tasty lobster rolls to be had all around the city.
The first lobster rolls were served in the late 1920s in Connecticut as a buttery, hot sandwich, but its popularity didn’t extend much outside of the state. They also had a cold version, called lobster salad.
From the 1960s, roadside stands in coastal New England, New York and New Jersey began selling lobster drenched in drawn butter and served on a hot dog roll.
Boston’s lobster rolls are made of chunks of fresh lobster meat tossed in butter or mayonnaise. Sometimes chopped celery is mixed in with the meat, and sometimes lettuce is added. It’s served hot or cold (depending on if it has butter or mayo) on a grilled, buttered New England-style hot dog bun – that’s the top-loading kind developed in the 1940s by Howard Johnson’s. That once-ubiquitous hotel and restaurant chain was started just a stone’s throw from Boston in Quincy, MA.
Which version is better, the butter kind or the one with mayo? That’s really up to you. I like them both! The warm buttered version might be a bit more flavorful, but a chilled lobster roll with mayo is fantastic on a hot summer day. Why not try a few variations so you can decide which you prefer!
Be warned, though – lobster rolls aren’t cheap! The diminutive sandwiches usually cost about $20 in the city. Make sure to get a side of chips and a dill pickle to complete the experience.
Where to find the best lobster rolls in Boston
- Luke’s Lobster 75 Exeter Street (Back Bay) (857) 350-4626 (Also locations in Downtown Crossing and the Seaport)
- Saltie Girl 281 Dartmouth St (Back Bay) (617) 267-0691
- The Bell in Hand Tavern 45 Union Street (Financial District) (617) 227-2098
We have a few weird names for food and drinks in these parts. When you order a milkshake in most areas of the US, you get a thick, milk-based drink with ice cream and sometimes some yummy mix-ins or toppings.
In Massachusetts, a milkshake is just…sweet, flavored milk. Cue frowny face. But actually, they can be quite good!
If you make it down to the neighboring state of Rhode Island, their official state drink is coffee milk, made with just milk and coffee syrup. You can make one at home, but promise me you’ll use their locally-made Autocrat syrup. It’s just better that way.
For those of us who want some ice cream in our drink, we have to order a frappe. Note that there’s no accent aigu over that “e”. It’s just pronounced “frapp”.
Of course, national chain restaurants in the city and places that cater to tourists often will have an ice cream drink listed on the menu as a milkshake or a shake. But independently owned restaurants, especially those who’ve been around for a long time, might not. When in doubt, ask!
Where to find a frappe in Boston
- Friendly’s in Terminal A of Logan Airport (or various locations in Boston’s suburbs) – They call it a “Fribble”
- Mr. Bartley’s 1246 Massachusetts Avenue (Harvard Square, Cambridge)(617) 354-6559
- Roxy’s Grilled Cheese 292 Massachusetts Ave (Central Square, Cambridge) (617) 945-7244
Yankee Pot Roast
Yankee Pot Roast is a Boston Sunday dinner tradition. Chuck roast, normally a tough cut of meat, is browned in fat and then braised to perfection along with potatoes, onion, celery and root vegetables like carrots, parsnips or turnips. The slow cooking creates a rich, savory sauce that’s worth the wait!
In classic Yankee tradition, you can use whatever you have on hand to make your roast – there are no hard-and-fast rules, except to cook it slowly. The braising process breaks the tough connective tissues down into gelatin, which makes the meat fork-tender and enhances the silky texture of the sauce.
This frugal but delicious meal has been a staple in New England households for hundreds of years, especially since you can feed the whole family and then repurpose the leftovers into sandwiches, break it up to make breakfast hash, a pot pie or even toss it with egg noodles.
If you visit Boston during the fall or winter, definitely give this classic comfort food a try. Some of the more traditional restaurants in the city serve this iconic Boston food. Plus, you won’t have to torture yourself for hours smelling the delicious aromas while it cooks!
Where to have Yankee Pot Roast in Boston
- Henrietta’s Table 1 Bennett Street (Harvard Square, Cambridge) (617) 661-5005
- Grill 23 & Bar 161 Berkeley Street (Back Bay) (617) 542-2255
- Pleasant Cafe 4515 Washington Street (Roslindale) Served Tuesdays (617) 323-2111
Bonus! Iconic Boston snacks and drinks
For Boston-area kids, no cookout, birthday party, or trip to the beach is complete without a package of Hoodsies in the cooler. The simple chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream cups have been made in Massachusetts by HP Hood since 1947.
Hoodsies were traditionally eaten with a flat wooden spoon (really more like a glorified tongue depressor), but I haven’t seen those in a while.
You can always eat one with a regular spoon, but I prefer to do what we kids did “back in the day” if we forgot the wooden spoons. Just fold the waxed cardstock lid in half, wait until the ice cream is soft, and use it to scoop away. Yum!
Keep an eye out at local supermarkets or convenience stores for bags of Hoodsies that you can take along on your own picnic or trip to the beach.
Candy aficionados will be familiar with the colorful, disk-shaped confections known as Necco Wafers. First created in 1847, they were called “Hub Wafers” by their South Boston-based manufacturer Chase and Company. Co-owner Oliver Chase had invented a lozenge-cutting machine to mass-produce the candy, and they became a popular sweet with Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Chase and Company merged with a few other manufacturers to form New England Confectionery Company in 1901, and about a decade later Hub Wafers became Necco Wafers, an acronym for the company’s name.
Each waxed-paper covered roll of Necco Wafers contains eight colors, each with its own unique flavor: yellow (lemon), green (lime), light purple (clove), white (cinnamon), pink (wintergreen), dark gray/purple (licorice), and brown (chocolate).
During WWI, the US government ordered the Boston factory to produce Necco Wafers for the troops to boost morale, creating a huge contingent of lifelong fans.
Necco abruptly went out of business in 2018, leaving candy lovers without a source of the treat. However, Necco Wafers returned to store shelves in May 2020! Spangler Candy purchased the Necco Wafer brand, and the candy is again available to its patient fans.
Necco Wafers’ old-fashioned flavors, combined with their chalky texture (similar to Necco’s other famous creation, Conversation Hearts), made them one of the most-hated candies in my Halloween sack. But give them a chance if you’ve never tried them. Millions still love this iconic Boston candy.
The chewy, fig-filled cookies once known as Fig Newtons (Nabisco dropped the “Fig” part in 2012) were first made just over the river in Cambridge in 1891. Their producer, the Kennedy Biscuit Factory, joined with other bakeries to form the National Biscuit Company, which we know today as Nabisco.
A longstanding rumor claimed that the inventor of the Fig Newton extrusion machinery was so proud of his work that he named the cookie after Sir Isaac Newton. However, the cookie’s name comes from the nearby town of Newton, MA. Kennedy Biscuit Company had a history of naming their cookies and crackers after the surrounding communities, including products called Harvard, Shrewsbury, and Beacon Hill.
Fig Newtons were one of the first commercially baked products in America, and the shape, size, and taste of the cookies haven’t changed since their creation 130 years ago.
Massachusetts is famous for its cranberries. The Wampanoags across southeastern Massachusetts enjoyed the annual wild cranberry harvest for 12,000 years. Dried cranberries were key ingredients in nasampe, a type of grits, and pemmican, a long-lasting mix of berries, dried meat, and animal fat.
Craisins (a portmanteau of “cranberries” and “raisins”) were invented in the 1980s by Thomas Aurand and marketed by Ocean Spray. The huge cranberry farm collective is based in Lakeville and Middleboro, MA.
Cranberries are dried, sweetened, and sprayed with sunflower oil to make the snack food. Craisins can also be used for baking, or as a sweet-tart addition to a trail mix.
If you’d like to take a day trip from Boston to see how cranberries are produced, Flax Pond Farms in Carver (near Plymouth) offers free bog tours from Labor Day until the last Sunday in October.
You might be surprised to hear that chocolate chip cookies were invented in the Boston area. Ruth Graves Wakefield developed the cookie in 1938 at the Toll House Inn in nearby Whitman.
The legend was that she made the cookies accidentally, but Wakefield purposely created the American classic by chopping up a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar.
The shrewd businesswoman gave the recipe to Nestlé, and in return received a lifetime supply of chocolate! To this day, the recipe appears on the back of Nestlé chocolate chip packages.
Sadly, the inn burned to the ground in 1984, so you can’t visit to enjoy the cookies at their birthplace. But If you’re in Boston in the summer, keep an eye out for the Cookie Monstah food truck for the yummiest cookies in town.
This old-fashioned soda was among the first bottled carbonated beverages made in the US, predating Coke and Pepsi. Although Moxie is Maine’s official state drink, its origins are in the Boston area.
Moxie was originally made in Lowell, Massachusetts around 1876 as a patent medicine called “Moxie Nerve Food”. Its creator, Augustin Thompson, claimed that it contained an extract from a rare South American plant, (actually gentian root) and that Moxie was effective against “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia”.
A few years later, Thompson added soda water to his tonic (fun fact: many older Bostonians still call soda “tonic”) and the soft drink was born. Moxie was so popular, in 1920 it outsold Coca-Cola!
The beverage was manufactured in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood from 1924 until 1953 at the Moxieland headquarters. Today, it’s produced in neighboring New Hampshire.
Moxie is less sweet than many other sodas, and the gentian root gives it a slight bitterness. It’s said to be an acquired taste! You won’t see it everywhere, but keep an eye out for the bright orange cans if you want to try this cult favorite drink.
Samuel Adams beer
If you’re a beer lover, you have to have a cold Sam Adams while you’re visiting Boston. Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company created the brand’s flagship brew, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, in his Cambridge kitchen using an old family recipe that he found in his father’s attic.
Koch named the lager after Bostonian founding father Sam Adams, who was himself a beer maker after inheriting his father’s brewery.
Samuel Adams beer has come a long way since its origins as a tiny microbrewery. Today, the beer is sold in all 50 US states and about three dozen countries around the world.
The best way to try Sam Adams in town? Take a free brewery tour! The Sam Adams brewery is located at 30 Germania St. (take the T’s orange line to Stony Brook, and it’s a short walk from the station).
Tour guides teach visitors all about beer ingredients and the brewing process. Each guest over 21 can sample three Samuel Adams beers and take home a complimentary tasting glass.
Have you visited Boston on a cruise or a longer trip? What was your favorite food in Boston? Let me know in the comments below!
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