Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Boston

With historic brownstones brushing against modern masterpieces, today Boston’s revolutionary spirit is feeding a culture of daring design and dining. Sarah Murray feasts on New England’s finest.

October 26 2009
Sarah Murray

A crucible of the American Revolution, Boston is no stranger to innovation. A whiff of revolution remains, but it now resides in the culinary inventiveness of a generation of young chefs, the creative transformation of historic bricks and mortar into designer hotels, restaurants and art galleries, and a vibrant venture capital industry.

Meanwhile, the Big Dig, which rerouted and buried the central highway, has dramatically altered the city’s topography, opening up previously unseen vistas and blowing away old cobwebs. It has revealed new sides to a city where New England clam chowder was once the extent of fine dining and sightseeing extended little further than museums and sites of revolutionary significance. It’s even provided a new landmark: the iconic bridge spanning the Charles River, the widest cable-stayed structure in the world. Its name may be a little long-winded – the Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge – but it commemorates both a local activist and the battle of Bunker Hill, a critical event in the War of Independence.

When retracing Boston’s revolutionary roots, one evocative site you should not miss is the beautiful Granary Burying Ground. Here you’ll find 17th-century gravestones with skull and crossbones and winged angels commemorating early Bostonians such as Paul Revere and three signatories of the Declaration of Independence: Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine.

But while many visitors pound the Freedom Trail, this is also a great city for those in search of contemporary culture. Take Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new Institute of Contemporary Art. With its immense 18,000sq ft sky-lit gallery space cantilevered out over a public walkway towards the water, the building has brought new life to what was once an industrial section of Boston’s riverfront. In addition to a compelling programme of exhibitions – the current show is a survey of work by the Mexican artist Damián Ortega – there’s a superb design store.

But then Boston is a city of leading-edge architecture. Just across the river in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – home to the first school of architecture in the US – has a collection of buildings that includes Alvar Aalto’s curvaceous Baker House, IM Pei’s cool minimalist Wiesner Center and Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, deploying his bold neo-cubist forms. It’s very much worth the detour, not least to admire Steven Holl’s extraordinary student dormitory, Simmons Hall – a sponge-inspired “perfcon” structure punctured with hundreds of windows that give the place a translucency that comes with refracted light.

And in Boston proper you can do more than stare at modern architecture – you can stay in it at one of a clutch of luxury designer hotels. The newest is the Ames, which brings a contemporary design focus to an 1889 building that was the city’s first skyscraper, while XV Beacon is Boston’s best boutique hotel, a place that captures luxurious urban comfort and high-tech wizardry in a classic 1903 Beaux Arts-style building. Inside, the décor mixes deep chocolate browns and creams with flourishes of silver and gold.

Another relative newcomer is the Mandarin Oriental, which has already established itself as one of the most luxurious places to stay – not least because, in addition to a classy bar and first-rate spa (where treatments combine New England herbs with Asian therapies), it is home to an impressive collection of contemporary art. The works by Frank Stella and David Hockney in the lobby are just the thing to focus on before heading to the outstanding Museum of Fine Arts or Harvard Art Museum.

The Mandarin is also a good starting point for a weekend of first-rate gourmandising. Next door is L’Espalier, where the James Beard Award-winning chef Frank McClelland combines French and New England cuisine with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and a fabled “cheese cave”, and the high-ceilinged interiors were created by New York design firm Projects. Alternatively, you might prefer to eat in at the hotel’s own Asia-meets-America restaurant, Asana.

Indeed, the city has strong oriental influences and an impressive collection of Indian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants. At the top of the list is O Ya, a superb Japanese bistro ranked by the New York Times as one of America’s top eateries. Here Asian cuisine gives a nod to its New England setting in dishes such as Bali-style Nantucket Bay scallops and chilled Maine lobster salad.

Orient and Occident intermingle again on the ground floor of the charming Parisian-style Eliot Hotel, another boutique institution. On one side sits Uni, where different kinds of sake can be sampled along with jewel-like pieces of sashimi, while across the way is Clio, whose sophisticated fusion menu features the creations of Ken Oringer, the chef behind both restaurants.

For more local flavours, not to mention a bustling bar and spectacular views across the Public Garden, the Bristol Lounge offers regional specialities in the setting of the Four Seasons – long listed among Boston’s top hotels. Also overlooking Boston Common is No 9 Park, the flagship eatery of a chef who has transformed Boston’s culinary scene, Barbara Lynch. Dishes such as prune-stuffed gnocchi and organic poussin farci are produced with local ingredients and served in a set of smart 1940s-inspired rooms now considered one of Boston’s best restaurants.

Of Lynch’s other restaurants, B&G Oysters is a cosy oyster bar in South End, one of Boston’s most alluring historic districts. It’s a great option for lunch as you can explore the Victorian neighbourhood afterwards. Many of the 19th-century houses here have been converted into boutiques and showrooms popular with Boston’s design crowd. Along Tremont Street and just south of the charming Union Park sit a handful of places that are not to be missed. These include Laura Preshong’s jewellery boutique Looc, where vintage chic mixes with modern fashion inside a white-washed interior, and Vessels, a contemporary ceramics gallery featuring the work of artists such as Klara Borbas, whose clean, sculptural forms are inspired by architecture, and Angela Cunningham, whose extraordinary organic vessels suggest cacti and exotic fruits.

The richest area of Boston, however, remains Beacon Hill, a neighbourhood north of Boston Common surmounted by the gold-domed Massachusetts State House. The graceful brownstone houses around it are now among the city’s most exclusive residences, and an idea of what 19th- and early 20th-century life was like behind the brick façades can be gained at the delightful Nichols House Museum. The 1804 building still retains all its original furniture, ornaments and paintings.

But for the most spectacular glimpse into the city’s artistic past, head to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened in 1903 in an ornate building designed to look like a Venetian palazzo, with three stories of galleries around a verdant courtyard. During the 1880s, Gardner used her home to display an astonishing collection of artworks, textiles, books and photographs. She disliked the clinical feel of the large institutional museums, and what makes this place so rewarding is its delightfully haphazard setting. Thus, great masters are dotted around an eclectic interior in such a way that encounters with a Rembrandt or a Rubens appear quite serendipitous, and the works of Renaissance masters such as Fra Angelico sit happily alongside important American artists such as John Singer Sargent, who captured many prominent 19th-century Bostonians on canvas.

The philanthropic efforts of these individuals have also left a striking mark on the city. The magnificent edifice of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, for example, speaks of the importance placed on learning by wealthy Bostonians in the past. The first of the major public libraries in the US, the building has vast marble interiors housing murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Sargent, a ceiling copied from the Doge’s Palace in Venice and a spectacular barrel-vaulted reading room.

Running parallel to Boylston Street is Newbury Street, Boston’s best-known shopping artery on which food, fashion, accessories and beauty salons pack the lower floors of the street’s brownstones. Today, the big chains have moved in, but worth seeking out are gems such as Matsu – where owner Dava Muramatsu has assembled a playful collection of jewellery, accessories and designer apparel (including names such as Comme des Garçons and Inhabit) – and 1154 Lill Studio, an intriguing shop stuffed with funky handbags. If nothing quite takes your fancy, you can have one custom-made from combinations of the store’s patterned fabrics. Collectors of contemporary art might also do well to check out the Barbara Krakow Gallery, which represents Josef Albers, Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Richard Serra and Louise Bourgeois, among others.

Contemporary art and architecture continue to transform Boston’s historic streets and squares. Recently, the Gardner Museum received approval for its long-planned restoration, a project that includes a new building by architect Renzo Piano – a very exciting prospect in the light of his luminous extension to the Art Institute of Chicago that opened this summer. Getting the go-ahead hasn’t been easy, with authorities insisting that any additions meet the terms of Gardner’s will. But the combination of Piano’s daring yet sensitive designs and the idiosyncratic vision of the museum’s original creator promise to reflect what is so appealing about Boston – a city immersed in the past that is enthusiastically embracing all that is creative, bold and new.