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Tastes and Tables

Dinner Without the Din

In search of Greater Boston’s quieter restaurants

November-December 2015

Scene from Beacon Hill Bistro

Scene from Beacon Hill Bistro

Changsho restaurant

Changsho restaurant

Lumière

Lumière

Sycamore

Sycamore

After spending the evening at an unnamed establishment, hollering at fellow dinner guests just to be heard, we were inspired to find a few reliably conversation-friendly haunts. A call to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, seeking guidance and maybe the names of a few of its 1,800 members who had successfully assuaged customers’ concerns over noise levels, prompted an e-mail from president/CEO Bob Luz.

“I think restaurants purposely manage their environment to meet the expectations, needs and desires of their prospective guests,” he wrote. “Most want to create a room that will exhibit a buzz and a certain level of excitement, and acoustically work towards achieving that goal within the buildout, furniture, music systems, genre of music and volume. Others want to create a more businesslike atmosphere, where deals/business/or more intimate moments can occur.”

Given that full industry disclosure, the following is a select list of places that we found—at least on the nights we were there (i.e., no guarantees)—conducive to conversation without feeling like a monastery.

The town of Belmont, it turns out, offers two such spots. For fresh, solid Italian food and evening themes—Wednesday is Girls Night Out and Thursday is reserved for live jazz—try Savinos Grill (www.savinosgrill.com). The place has a friendly staff and warm-toned décor (creamy whites and autumnal rust), along with inventive triangular-shaped partitions that jut out from the main walls, offering privacy to many tables, and welcome dimensionality in the otherwise boxy space. Most important: the bar, close to the entrance, is tiny, which precludes any gathering of loud drinkers.

Across the street is Kitchen On Common (www.kitchenoncommon.com), where chef/owner Joh Kokubo serves simple, fresh meals in a casual setting with eight tables. There is no music. At all. Soft talk among diners seems to be the rule—except when the phone rings at the hostess station. (That jarring sound could be turned down.)

More polished and a little less muted is West Newton’s Lumière (www.lumiererestaurant.com). From a nuanced color scheme and velvet curtains to flattering mood lighting, this established French bistro fosters calm consumption of its meticulously prepared food. Plan for an early movie at the West Newton Cinema, down the street, then linger over dinner and dessert. We recommend the dark chocolate crémeux with coconut cream and salted rum caramel ($12).

Sycamore (www.sycamorenewton.com) is newer, and newly lauded with a 2015 nod from Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” list. The Newton Centre restaurant has a hip vibe amid naturalistic décor: lots of wood, exposed brick, and a few soft brown banquettes. Mature Newtonians mix with younger folks; all seem devoted to chef David Punch (formerly of Ten Tables in Cambridge) and his inventive Mediterranean-style dishes, which bring out the best in any vegetable. Pickled ramps, fried okra, charred Japanese eggplant, and a chanterelle mushroom soup topped the fall menu. Even smaller and quieter than Sycamore, however, is the nearby Farmstead Table (www.farmsteadtable.com). This modern space washed in white tones serves food with a rustic New England bent—slow-cooked meat and potatoes—and folksy desserts, like the “s’mores tart,” dressed up with ganache ($9). 

For quiet and cozy, the Beacon Hill Bistro, on the first floor of the eponymous hotel (www.beaconhillhotel.com), is a good bet. Even with 60 seats in a relatively small storefront space, the restaurant rarely seems overcrowded. Enjoy the French-styled comfort food in peace, then take a stroll down Charles Street, where window shopping at night can be more pleasurable than buying.

Late nights at the Museum of Fine Arts (Wednesday through Friday) are also the best time to view exhibits. Crowds have likely waned at Class Distinctions: Dutch Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, up through January 18, and Bravo (www.mfa.org) is open for drinks and “new American” cuisine at its festive bar or at a distinctly separate area with tables. Delightfully low-key jazz trios play on Friday nights.

Harvest, the Harvard Square mainstay, shares an equally equable ambience. Neutral tones and natural fibers offer a chic airiness, yet Harvest feels solid—like its “classic” shrimp cocktail ($18)—and the bar is a snug haven on a cold, dark night.

Nobody would call Changsho (www.changshorestaurant.com), another cherished standby, snug. On Massachusetts Avenue a short walk from the Square, the restaurant seats upward of 180 people amid large-scale Chinese accoutrements that include vases, paintings, and string instruments. Yet Changsho is homey, thanks to all the family diners and to its well-spaced tables, warm spot lighting, and the large-patterned carpet that invisibly soaks up spilled tea and soy sauce. Somehow the acoustics here dull sounds—even those emanating from the large parties of chin-wagging academics often in attendance.

For those desperate for serious quietude surrounded by floors of utter silence, there’s always the Boston Public Library’s Courtyard Restaurant (www.thecateredaffair.com/bpl/courtyard). It’s not open for dinner, but does serve a lovely, if pricey, lunch. Try the poached hen egg and bitter greens ($14) or the more grizzled open-face sirloin sandwich ($21). And the afternoon tea—the sample menu mentions raspberry thumbprints, scones with lemon curd, and savory cucumber and lemon cream-cheese sandwiches—might please even the pickiest Anglophile. But no lusty munching, or exclamations…Please!

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