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Food for thought
By Ruth Tobias

THIS YEAR, we Bostonians finally showed the world there's a method to our mad, mad loyalty. It does go rewarded - and how. The proof isn't only in the sports pages, either; it's also right here in this supplement, as we give props to the bars and restaurants that have nourished us and slaked our thirst through some long, hard seasons of disappointment and disgrace. If, among the winners of 2004, there are as many old stand-bys and comeback kids as newcomers, as many genuine neighborhood joints and holes-in-the-wall as world-class destinations, it only goes to show how our seemingly provincial hesitation in the face of all things novel and trendy is really just a matter of our admirable fidelity to the familiar, in good times and bad.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. This year's survey finds a number of first-timers in its ranks, some of which are indeed at the culinary forefront. The Organic Garden Café, in Beverly, for instance, is a mecca for the vegan and raw-food movements, the only place in Massachusetts (and indeed much of New England) where all the "cooking" is done in low-heat dehydrators rather than in conventional ovens. On the flip side, Bukowski Tavern makes the cut with a beer selection more than worthy of its boozy namesake, above-and-beyond pub grub, and a cooler-than-cool - but never cooler-than-thou - vibe.

Meanwhile, those of you who are, in fact, cooler-than-thou - and by the way, more power to you - have been kind enough to share Via Matta with the rest of us, so that we too can bask in the trattoria's golden glow, suavely sipping prosecco and munching on antipasti. And when pressed to name a worthy newcomer, we've risen to the occasion with two of the most precocious babies on the block: Union Bar & Grille, which is redefining the casual neighborhood place in ways that might be radical if they weren't so refined; and Tamarind Bay, where we're tasting Indian food - made to order by a native celebrity chef - as if for the first time.

Then there are those former flames to whom we've returned for a second honeymoon, since we never stopped loving them in our heart of hearts. In its current ultracolorful incarnation, UpStairs on the Square conducts a three-category sweep of the polls, proving that ex-landlord the Hasty Pudding Club's loss is the dining public's gain. So is the heat wave spreading across spots that recently seemed dormant - the Blue Room and Tremont 647, whose high-energy, funky brunches are proving as popular in the post-millennium as they were in the '90s; Rialto, which still can turn an otherwise-average evening into a special occasion, and a special occasion into a singular event; and the Golden Temple, showing not a spot of tarnish over the decades (though there might be a spot or two of grease from our beloved pu-pu platters).

Finally, there are the old faithfuls, our perennial picks. Of course, if we make some predictable choices, it's because the places we've chosen have remained startlingly fresh and original. Places like Christina's, where whole new worlds of flavor open up in the form of ice-cream scoops. Places like the East Coast Grill, serving up seafood and barbecue that still knock our socks off, and not just on Hell Night. Places like the first and last names in Beantown tapas, Dalí and Tapéo; like Finale, where the sugar highs are truly haute; and like the Franklin Café, whose popularity endures the old-fashioned way: by deservingly enthusiastic word of mouth.

So what's next? Despite our penchant for tradition, it's not so easy to say. Even as the retro steak-house boom shows no sign of abating - Smith & Wollensky and the soon-to-open Ruth's Chris Steak House being only the latest in a spate of high-end heifer joints - buzz continues to build around ventures that are far more conceptually daring. Just as Meritage, La Morra, and Restaurant L have pushed niche dining to new levels (via food-and-wine pairing, Venetian tapas, and Asian fusion, respectively), Umbria promises to introduce us to a region of Italy unjustly overshadowed by Tuscany. Meanwhile, Sibling Rivalry's Robert and David Kinkead are channeling their competitive streaks, on the Freudian theory that sublimation is a formidable creative force - all for our dining pleasure. You see, we really are willing to experiment around here, to try new places and learn new things. If we also have a tendency to fall back on what we know - well, that's just what we call keeping the faith.

Ruth Tobias can be reached at ruthtobias@earthlink.net.

Issue Date: November 11, 2004

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