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Shut up and eat

IN CASE YOU hadn't noticed - and if that's the case, where've you been living? - there is a thriving dining scene in Boston, rich in both talent and tradition, and it's growing all the time. From icons like Jasper White and Lydia Shire to comparative newcomers like Rene Michelena and Amanda Lydon, the chefs in Boston's kitchens are bursting with skill and flair. James Beard Award nominations are piling up and local chefs appear annually on the cover of Food & Wine. Todd English's empire now sprawls across the land, Ming Tsai sizzles on cable TV, and Ken Oringer gets national buzz for the inventive food that springs from Clio's kitchens.

But to truly understand how rich the scene is, you have to graze your way through smaller restaurants, most of which will probably never show up on cable television or in a magazine. Everybody seems to know at least one to-die-for hole-in-the-wall (for me, it's La Buona Vita in Arlington, with its soul-nourishing Italian pasta dishes). An old professor of mine used to walk a mile every day for Bob the Chef's soul food. And my former co-workers gladly spent lunch break snaking through the perils of the Big Dig to get to Country Life's vegetarian cafeteria.

Talk to your friends about their favorite spots and it immediately becomes clear that each neighborhood has its own food personality. Beyond the North End's stunning range of Italian options and the dazzling variety of Chinatown, there are many other locales, each with distinct aesthetics. Two blocks of the South End comprise pastry-and-coffee-ville, serving meals intended for nibbling. In Cambridge's Porter Square, there's a dense cluster of take-out joints that transport you to Tokyo for noodles, sushi, and buns. Go to Central Square and you'll find intimate bistros sitting side-by-side with cheap-eats world food. The Ladder District (a name so newly minted it still sounds pretentious) is a locus for power dining, while Brookline's Coolidge Corner is a student's delight.

Throughout the city, dining options are quirky and full of surprises - unlike in vast swatches of the US where chain restaurants dominate the scene and enforce a numbing similarity in taste and experience. While visiting California's "inland empire" last year, I was depressed by the homogeneity of places like Macaroni Grill, where they called olive oil "Italian butter," and Claim Jumper, where oversize food was served by people dressed in 1890s Gold Rush costumes. It was futile trying to find a family-owned café or a place serving cuisine from a culture older than my own.

Fortunately, in Boston, I can often find both in one spot. One can savor a family recipe from Mexico City at Tu y Yo in Somerville, or discover the flavors of traditional Persian fare at the sibling-run Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill. For Cuban tripe soup, El Oriental awaits in Jamaica Plain. Whole pea-pod stems à la Hong Kong tempt at Chau Chow City in Chinatown. And Afghan bread comes piping hot from the stove at the Helmand. Pick your cuisine and it's likely you'll find it within driving distance, prepared with mouthwatering authenticity.

Best of all, there are restaurants here that you simply won't find anywhere else. Ana Sortun's Oleana, with its culinary tour of North Africa and the Mediterranean, has no ancestor but Sortun's imagination. Jasper White's Summer Shack is an original and terrific New England concept - a vast egalitarian seafood joint where a celebrity chef makes corn dogs with as much gusto as he makes pan-roasted lobster. And some of our local gems simply outshine their counterparts elsewhere. I've had tapas on both coasts without finding the same magical combination of flavors, ambiance, and good humor that I enjoy at Dalí, now in its second decade of standing-room-only popularity.

Success breeds success, and all this dining excitement simply yields more. Despite the slowing economy, Boston is seeing an uptick in restaurant openings. Old haunts like Locke-Ober are being reborn, and a bounty of brand-new ventures has gotten off the ground this summer and fall. It's been like watching fireworks go off: Taranta, Macondo, Limbo, Metro, Bonfire - burst after burst of new energy on the scene. But enough analysis of the Boston restaurant scene. With croissants at Sel de la Terre, ethereal thin-crust pizza at Emma's, and the perfect steak at the Blue Room, I simply don't have time for all this talk - there's too much good eating to be done.

David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at

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