Sequels are risky. Let us remember that for every “Better Call Saul,’’ there’s also a “Joey.’’
But Boston restaurateurs had better luck with spinoffs in 2016. ’Twas the year of the grand second (or third) act. Michael Pagliarini opened swank Italian restaurant Benedetto at the Charles Hotel, replacing Rialto. Harvard Square’s lions had considered Jody Adams’s Italian hideaway their private dining room and mourned when it closed. But Pagliarini earned his own acolytes at his Porter Square trattoria, Giulia, and this restaurant seems poised to draw the same following.
Meanwhile, Adams decamped to Boston with Porto, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant perched in a tourist-friendly corner of the Back Bay. Michael Scelfo opened Harvard Square’s Waypoint down the road from his Alden & Harlow, serving coastal cuisine in moody surrounds. Tremont 647’s Andy Husbands hopped from the South End to Kendall Square with The Smoke Shop, a barbecue parlor with Asian accents. Chris Schlesinger and Dave Cagle — known for the bygone East Coast Grill and B-Side Lounge, respectively — launched The Automatic, a divey hang on Kendall Square’s fringes, trafficking in strong cocktails and Frito pie. And the team from Newton’s much-loved Sycamore opened Little Big Diner in Newton Centre, a fine place to slurp ramen at midday.
In a busy year for Boston’s restaurant scene, some places and players shone brighter than others. Read on for 2016’s culinary winners.
Restaurant of the year: Little Donkey
It almost feels too easy to give the title to a restaurant from super-chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, the duo responsible for acclaimed Coppa and Teflon Toro. Can these people do no wrong? Apparently not: Little Donkey, a global tapas restaurant that promises flavors from “Jersey to Japan,’’ manages to hit every mark. Requisite raw bar? Check. Cheeky tapas, like candy-sweet BLT lettuce wraps with lamb bacon and pimento, moderately priced to boot? Yes, indeed. A streamlined cocktail list that intoxicates instead of intimidates, with mostly recognizable ingredients? It’s true. Plus, it serves a real need in the neighborhood, with breakfasts that range from dainty to down-and-dirty (avocado toasts, plum tartines, oozy egg sandwiches) and a noise level — and service speed — hospitable to families with kids. Little Donkey even takes reservations, and given the place’s popularity, you’ll need one. (Pictured above: black pepper popovers and wagyu steak tartare.)
505 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1008, www.littledonkeybos.com
Chef of the year: Carl Dooley
The winsome “Top Chef’’ star and Craigie on Main protégé (above) is now at the helm of The Table, a 20-seat sliver of charm on the outskirts of North Cambridge. A chef arguably sets a restaurant’s tone, and here, everything feels accessible. There’s a prix fixe menu that’s straightforward yet delicious, where even dishes as simple as mussels stew or foie gras-stuffed chicken are memorable without being fussed over with too many flavors or gimmicky presentations. Servers speak knowledgeably about each course and appear genuinely pleased to be there (giddier still when they dispense little treats for the table, like miniature granola bars). The kitchen and sparsely furnished dining room are snug, and Dooley is front and center, both behind the stove and serving meals, pausing to banter with each guest — many of whom traveled a distance to a slightly inconvenient corner of the city — without a whiff of attitude. It’s a refreshingly below-the-radar treasure from a refreshingly unaffected cook.
2447 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-871-9468, www.cambridgetable.com
Best revamp: Uni
Ken Oringer again, this time alongside Menton alum Tony Messina. Oringer’s wee sushi bar inside the Eliot Hotel overtook his dressy French-inspired restaurant, Clio, and now the double-decker izakaya feels like the type of place in which to get tipsy and frisky. Food comes out rapid-fire, colorful, shareable, a free-for-all feast for cocktail-guzzling pals or flirty third-daters. Order exhilarating Asian-ish snacks unseen elsewhere in town, like the Buffalo mentaiko spaghetti, a tangy, egg-topped concoction whirled with a bright orange sauce that tastes like a gourmet dorm room experiment. It’s not all wild, either: Uni also excels at refined sushi, thanks to former O Ya chef Akira Sugimoto and crew. (Pictured below: Berkshire pork belly steam bun.)
370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, www.uni-boston.com
Trend most likely to befuddle your childhood self: Tinned fish
Who would have guessed? This year gifted us with two exceptional little tinned fish parlors, Downtown Crossing’s Haley.Henry and the Back Bay’s Saltie Girl. Banish all thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches served on soggy bread. Both places maintain a Euro-lovely vibe, with delicate cans of silken tuna, eel, sardines, and more, mainly from Portugal and Spain. You never had such nice wine lists (or service) at your elementary school cafeteria, either. (Pictured below: tinned trout at Saltie Girl.)
Haley.Henry, 45 Province St., Boston, 617-208-6000, www.haleyhenry.com
Saltie Girl, 281 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-267-0691, www.saltiegirl.com
Most successful schmear campaign: Mamaleh’s
Bagel pop-ups abound nowadays, but deli food also found a high-profile permanent home this year — thanks to Mamaleh’s in Kendall Square, from the power team behind late, lamented Hungry Mother and hipster haven State Park. Kendall isn’t exactly the Lower East Side, but it’s still a worthy place to enjoy egg creams, knishes, lox, sturgeon, piled-high pastrami, and even latkes in bulk, just like your bubbe intended — with a slivovitz flight, if you please. (Pictured at right: sable plate with bialy.) 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-958-3354, www.mamalehs.com
Most welcome mini-explosion: Soigné yet well-priced Italian restaurants
Bar Mezzana, Fat Hen, Mida, SRV — these new nooks make it easy to enjoy a glass of wine and a few sfizi without going bankrupt, especially if you’re in the South End. There are excellent chefs at the helm, too. Bar Mezzana is run by Colin Lynch, previously of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. Here, it’s possible to get a plate of handmade pasta for about $20. The same is true at Mida, from Coppa- and Radius-trained chef Douglass Williams. Nearby, at SRV, chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell (New York’s Del Posto, L’Office in Paris) channel a Venetian bacaro, or wine bar, with gently priced snacks like soft-boiled quail eggs. And at East Somerville’s romantic little Fat Hen, adjacent to La Brasa, chef Michael Bergin hails from L’Espalier (and was also at Del Posto). Squire your beloved to Broadway and indulge in four delicious courses for a mere $45, with a side of sweet hospitality. (Pictured above: ricotta gnudi at SRV.)
Bar Mezzana, 360 Harrison Ave., Boston, 617-530-1770, www.barmezzana.com
Fat Hen, 126 Broadway, Somerville, 617-764-1612, www.fathenboston.com
Mida, 782 Tremont St., Boston, 617-936-3490, www.midaboston.com
SRV, 569 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-536-9500, www.srvboston.com
Best replacement: Moona Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann’s Eastern European sandwich shop, Playska, was short-lived. Happily, Moona — an Arabic translation of “pantry’’ — arrived to take its place. The 30-seat Eastern Mediterranean nook offers lovingly served butters, pickles, marmalades, and small plates like maple-tahini sweet potatoes. On the outskirts of Inman Square, it has a warm, tile-and-brick atmosphere that feels like a cashmere hug. (Pictured left: lamb chops.)
243 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-945-7448, www.moonarestaurant.com
Top reason to fight the crowds:
In case you’ve been living on Mars, Boston finally has its very own Eataly. Gourmands, celebrity hounds, and those with a Manhattan inferiority complex rejoiced when this Italian mega-market from Mario Batali (above right, with Mayor Marty Walsh) debuted at the Prudential Center in November. And why not? It has enough charred pizzas, hand-fashioned pastas, mozzarella, mackerel, wine, beer, restaurants, and jaunty tote bags to delight even a sourpuss shopper. If you can’t hop a flight to Italy this winter — or if you’re looking to impress your visiting small-town auntie — a trip to the Back Bay might be the next best thing. 800 Boylston St., Boston, 617-807-7300, www.eataly.com
Fondest farewells: Lineage, Ribelle, 51 Lincoln
Unfortunately, 2016 also brought its fair share of goodbyes. Jeremy Sewall said au revoir to his Brookline staple, Lineage, but he’ll stay in town to work on Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34. Tim Maslow closed the electrifying Italian restaurant Ribelle, which earned four Globe stars when it opened in 2013, though he’s now working with Tiger Mama chef Tiffani Faison. And Jeff Fournier shuttered Newton neighborhood mainstay 51 Lincoln amid financial woes; he’s ensconced at the Thompson House Eatery in Jackson, N.H., where he’ll hopefully serve his signature watermelon steak in more pastoral environs. (Pictured above: roast chicken at Ribelle.)
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.