What to Eat in Massachusetts: The Bay State's Most-Iconic Eats

Massachusetts is known far and wide for its exuberant sports fans, but did you know it's also a hub for apple cider doughnuts, Portuguese pastries and uber-fresh seafood, like oysters and fried clams? Read on for the best spots to score these dishes and more.

By: Alex Van Buren

Photo By: Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Photo By: Chanstarco/Getty Images

Photo By: Durgin Park ©2016

Photo By: genekrebs/Getty Images

Photo By: PJ's Family Restaurant

The State's Best Plates

They drive like maniacs, talk about ice cream like it's fine wine and obsess over the Red Sox no matter the season — proudly. Massachusetts natives are nuts for their state's go-to foods, too, whether it's Irish soda bread, fish 'n' chips, cider doughnuts or maple sugar candy. Here are some exemplary places to find 20 of the state's most-iconic eats — from the hills of South Amherst to Boston's Back Bay.

 

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Scallops

Scallops aren't hard to cook; they're just hard to cook well. Neptune Oyster chef Daniel Karg knows the secret. The proper sear is "the biggest thing I try to teach cooks here: Get 'em super dry, salt and pepper 'em right before you put 'em in the hot cast-iron pan, and get 'em nice and crispy and seared," he says. Their golden-brown crust is what sets these big, sweet and plump Georges Bank scallops apart, along with their seasonal accoutrements. In summer Karg plates them with sweet corn, smoky bacon and juicy tomatoes; in winter they're paired with Brussels sprouts, duck confit and pear puree.

Go to: Neptune Oyster

Fried Clam Bellies

Excellent fried clams are available throughout the state, but arguably the best place to eat them is with a view of the ocean. Mac's on the Pier provides them — you want to try the clams whole, with their bellies, at least once before chickening out and eating clam strips — with the waves of the sea crashing all around you. Clams are sourced locally on Cape Cod, says manager Colin Ashe, and come with fries, tartar sauce, coleslaw and lemon. They can be pricey, but when they're this fresh, it's worth the splurge. 

Go to: Mac's on the Pier

Cider Doughnuts

Handmade all day, every day throughout the fall, these apple cider-infused cake doughnuts are tossed in cinnamon and sugar, and they sell by the thousands daily to their many ravenous fans. Atkins ships its beloved apple-y delights across the country, so if you can't get them warm at the shop, you can order them for delivery.

Go to: Atkins Farms Country Market

Corned Beef

New York water is the key to the success of Sam LaGrassa's corned beef, says Rob LaGrassa, whose dad has collaborated with a Bronx-based family business for more than 60 years. LaGrassa's corned beef is brined in a custom solution made just for the restaurant, says LaGrassa, of salt, bay leaves, juniper berries, peppercorns and chili pepper. He gets deliveries of the meat weekly, slices it up to toss on locally made rye or pumpernickel bread, slathers it with Gulden's spicy brown mustard and watches it fly out the door. (Pro tip: Try the toasted corned beef Reuben with Russian dressing, Swiss and sauerkraut.)

Go to: Sam LaGrassa's

Indian Pudding

Reputed to be a popular dish among early American settlers, this humble corn custard is still on the menu at Durgin Park, a more-than-century-old mainstay in Faneuil Hall. The dish's consistency, one staffer told us, is similar to a sweet breakfast cereal, or grits. Cornmeal mingling with butter, brown sugar and molasses, served warm, with an almost pudding-like texture, or served with cold vanilla ice cream? It's not surprising that Indian pudding is still a much-sought-after menu item at the restaurant today. 

Go to: Durgin Park

Irish Soda Bread

Husband and wife Dermot and Cindy Quinn of Greenhills Irish Bakery have been selling bread to Irish restaurants and pubs for 25 years. Early on, Cindy persuaded Dermot to give her his Granny Murphy's brown bread recipe after he brought her one of Granny's loaves from the Old World. It sparked an interest in Irish soda bread, too, which they eventually pried out of Granny. (Her recipe card of "handfuls and pinches" still hangs on their wall in a frame.) Today the two credit hand-mixing the dough and soaking the raisins in water so they don't dry out as the keys to their gorgeous, plush soda bread.

Go to: Greenhills Irish Bakery

Baked Stuffed Scrod

If you’re craving a mammoth piece of fish stuffed with more fish and drizzled with decadent lobster sauce, look for a restaurant that serves a lot of seafood. The Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth certainly does, and it draws Cape Codders and tourists for its exemplary stuffed scrod. A homemade seafood stuffing features heavy hitters such as salmon, cod and swordfish, which mingle with a shot of sherry, butter, leeks, cream and thyme. They're packed inside a fillet of scrod, wrapped up, topped with Ritz crackers and panko, baked, then served with a dreamy lobster sauce. It's so New England it hurts.

Go to: Riverway Lobster House

Clam Chowder

Legal Sea Foods — or Legal, as it is fondly known here — opened in 1950 in Cambridge and has become a New England institution, now counting dozens of outposts along the eastern seaboard. (Disclosure: This writer's mother worked here decades ago!) Owner Roger Berkowitz recalls: "Initially we had done only fish chowder, [but] we tried an experiment with clam chowder and it went over well. ... As soon as we introduced it, I thought, 'Boy, why didn't we do that before?'" Today the clam chowder — featuring fresh clams, salt pork, potatoes, light cream and a homemade fish stock that Berkowitz thinks is key — outsells fish chowder 20 to 1.

Go to: Legal Sea Foods

Fish 'n' Chips

Natives of County Clare, Ireland, run this authentic Irish pub, and you'll know it once you've had one bite of their fish 'n' chips. Fresh cod delivered daily is dunked in a simple batter of milk, butter, flour, salt and pepper, then fried to order in vegetable oil and wrapped snug in the Cambridge Chronicle, a free local paper. Served with pickle-studded homemade tartar sauce, fat lemon wedges and a clutch of housemade french fries, it is divine. Manager John Blake swears the traditional newspaper wrapping "keeps the flavor together before it seeps out," and it's tough to argue. 

Go to: The Druid

Griddled Blueberry Muffins

You gotta trust a spot whose signature item is right in its name! New Englanders love a griddled blueberry muffin (which can be tough to find elsewhere in the nation), pressed down on a griddle with a steak weight, dripping with butter, and slightly crisp and plush at once. The Blueberry Muffin shop sells four types of blueberry muffins: original, gluten-free, bran and coffee cake. And about a fourth of customers order them buttered, griddled and served with even more butter. (This is dairy country, after all!) About 1,000 muffins are made fresh daily every week.

Go to: The Blueberry Muffin — Plymouth Location

Linguica Cheese Roll

A Portuguese family of nine children compose the heart of the locally beloved Sunrise Bakery & Coffee Shop. "My mom did it right. She said, 'I had all these children. We're gonna reuse 'em for something!'" laughs co-owner and baker Inez Pacheco. Her family has offered these top-selling linguica cheese rolls "since day one," 37 years ago, selling 50 dozen daily and twice that on weekends. Sliced American cheese and local linguica, a Portuguese sausage beloved in this area, mingle inside in a sweet Portuguese roll. The "grease from the linguica flavors the whole dough," promises Pacheco. Nothing beats a hangover so deliciously. 

Go to: Sunrise Bakery & Coffee Shop

Steak Tips

One out of three tickets reads "steak tips" at The Greenhouse Wood Fired Pub in Mendon. Owner John McCarthy proudly serves bits of steak a couple of different ways at this former greenhouse. But by far the most-popular option is the Jameson steak tips: "basically a bowl with blue cheese mashed potatoes, a pound of Jameson steak tips around them, sweet Jameson whiskey sauce poured over the top and crispy onion rings." Jameson is part of the steak marinade, and more of the Irish whiskey goes into a sauce of butter and brown sugar, which is reduced to a syrup and poured over the whole shebang.

Go to: The Greenhouse Wood Fired Pub

Oysters

Those who want oysters tend to want a whole lot of them — and with good variety to choose from. Island Creek Oyster Bar is connected to the nearby eponymous oyster farm, and it is renowned for its slightly sweet, delicate and lightly briny bivalves. The raw bar features 14 oysters, plus two crudos, a half Maine lobster, a towering shellfish platter for four, clams and shrimp cocktail, for good measure. Sure, there's a menu full of hot food, too, with chicken, lobster and steak, among other goodies, but shellfish lovers tend to park at the raw bar with a platter and some bubbly.

Go to: Island Creek Oyster Bar

Pasteis de Nata

Egg custards in phyllo dough are a Portuguese delicacy widely seen in New Bedford, which has a huge Portuguese population. Inez Pacheco of Sunrise Bakery says her brother Joe Amaral spends an entire day working on the shell for these tarts, only to watch them disappear once he's done. Lots of buttery, paper-thin layers are key to the base, into which a sweet, creamy and vanilla-laced custard similar to creme brulee is poured. Baked and served warm, these tarts have fans of all ages: Mothers will often "spoon out the center and feed it to [their] babies," says Pacheco.

Go to: Sunrise Bakery & Coffee Shop

Steamers

A seasonally open Cape Cod standby, PJ's Family Restaurant is known for lots of foods — fried oysters and lobster rolls among them. But lots of folks ask for the steamers, which they call "steam-aahs": soft-shell clams sold steamed in their shells, with warm butter and a cup of broth. Owner Don Reeves sells thousands of pounds of these every year, and he recommends you pluck them from their shells, dip them in the broth by their necks to clean off any extra sand, dunk them in butter, and "then down the hatch." Oceanic, slightly sweet and super-fresh, they're as Massachusetts as it gets.

Go to: PJ's Family Restaurant Inc.

Boston Baked Beans

Those who grew up with Boston baked beans might recall a syrupy, sweet substance poured from a can, to be avoided at all costs. But at Marliave, Chef-Owner Scott Herritt was determined to "take them to a different level," he says. By braising short ribs and ham hocks in great white Northern beans, cooking them for hours with plenty of garlic, veal and chicken stock, and a touch of molasses for color and a hit of sweetness, he makes locals marvel at just how good the classic can be.

Go to: Marliave

Maple Sugar Candy

Many locals grew up having their trees tapped to make maple syrup or visiting local sugar shacks to observe the process of making syrup. Super-sweet maple leaf-shaped maple sugar candy is part of the experience, and it is best procured from a place that makes its own. The North Hadley Sugar Shack was started by two teenage brothers who "drove their mom nuts" by boiling syrup right in their house for years until they built a shack behind their folks' place, says Michelle Boisvert, wife to brother Joe. Nowadays the couple sells creamy maple candy and syrup year-round, and they offer a full brunch (with plenty of pancakes, of course) on November and December weekends.

Go to: North Hadley Sugar Shack

Malasadas

Yeasty, sugar-dusted Portuguese doughnuts of "an awesome size — like two doughnuts put together" — draw lines that stretch out the door at 6:30 a.m. on weekends, laughs My Place waitress Ana Pacheco. Fat malasadas are made with plenty of butter, sugar, flour and a bit of yeast, and staffers sell about 400 of them on weekends in four hours. (The restaurant sells these only on weekends.) And they're constantly being churned out fresh. "Just about everybody, I usually hand 'em warm malasadas," says Pacheco.

Go to: My Place

Ice Cream

For many New Englanders, the best ice cream hails from their hometown ice cream shop. But Somerset's is a notch above the rest, with ice cream made fresh daily. Owned by one family since 1937, Somerset Creamery boasts a marvelously creamy, dense mouthfeel — never crystalline — thanks to a high butterfat content, says co-owner Jason Berube. Look for limited-edition special flavors such as cantaloupe, but the most-popular option is the cranberry bog ice cream, according to Berube, which they invented. For this unique flavor, a subtle cranberry base is studded with cranberries, dark chocolate and walnuts. Locals go bananas for it.

Go to: Somerset Creamery

Frappes

"Once a fleeing thief was caught when a customer threw a frappe at him as he left the building," remembers Toscanini's owner Gus Rancatore. "It was easy for the Cambridge cops to identify him since he was covered with chocolate ice cream and milk." That's how much these thick shakes — made with wonderfully silky ice cream, milk and flavoring, as opposed to simply milk and flavoring — are part of local culture. Eclectic flavors such as kulfi, saffron, grapenut and hamantaschen dot the menu here, where ice cream of any flavor can be made into a thick, dreamy frappe (which rhymes with "rap").

Go to: Toscanini's Ice Cream