RESTAURANT REVIEW Boston’s Finest (and Most Affordable) Al Fresco

…Before It Gets Too Cold!

Boston has had more than its fair share of rainy days this summer, but during its few sunny days, I managed to explore some of the city’s best outdoor dining options. Whether you are looking for a full meal or just a light afternoon snack, you can be sure to find an outdoor restaurant in one of Boston’s many neighborhoods. Here are some of my top picks.

L’Aroma Café

85 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116

(617) 412-4001

Trendy Newbury Street is lined with perhaps the highest concentration of al fresco dining options in Boston. The trick is to know what you’re looking for in an outdoor patio experience.

L’Aroma Café is an ideal breakfast, lunch, or afternoon coffee stop for a number of reasons. First, the food and drinks are excellent. The coffee is nutty and freshly dripped; I can drink it black to preserve its natural flavor, even though I usually cannot handle the bitterness of coffee. The tea selection is wide but not overwhelming; their pastries and quiches are buttery, flaky, savory, and sweet in all the right places. Salads with chicken or salmon are a smart option for a light lunch, and the delicately portioned gelato, cannolis, pies, and cakes will satisfy sweet cravings.

The location is perfect. Wedged between Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, L’Aroma Café has an outdoor patio that lends itself to fun people-watching opportunities. It is up Newbury far enough to avoid the mobs of high school hipsters lurking around Urban Outfitters, but is still distant enough from the Boston Commons end where heiresses roam with clothed dogs in tow. Duck tours pass by every so often, and drivers can be heard encouraging tourists to wave to the shoppers on the street. The patio itself seats about twenty, and indoor seating is also available.

Prices are moderate by Newbury standards and are comparable to chains such as Starbucks. A medium Bavarian iced coffee (made with white and dark chocolate, topped with cappuccino foam) and a spinach feta croissant set me back $7, a small price I was willing to pay for the friendly service and three lazy hours I spent on the shady patio with a friend. There are many al fresco options along the eight block stretch that is Newbury Street, but few can create the relaxing and unpretentious vibe found at L’Aroma Café.

Daedalus Restaurant and Pub

45 ½ Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

(617) 349-0071

Entrees $10—21

Most restaurants in Harvard Square fall into one or more of the following categories: cramped, pricey, a chain, or underground in the dark and stuffy basement level. Daedalus Restaurant is a welcome change of pace. With three main seating areas (indoor booths, two bars, and the outdoor patio), Daedalus makes good use of its space. But unless it’s raining, head straight for the rooftop patio, where there are plenty of tables for groups of up to four or five.

The menu selection is fairly typical of what you see in most New American restaurants: salads, sandwiches, seafood dishes, meaty entrees, and the token vegetarian pasta. I highly recommend the calamari appetizer because it is probably the one item that is substantially different from the offerings of other restaurants in Boston. The small ringlets of squid are chewy but never rubbery, encased in just the right amount of fried peanut oil batter. It comes with hot cherry peppers cooked the same way, and the combination of spicy and crunchy hits the spot. The crab cake sandwich is less memorable, but the creaminess of the crab, the chipotle aioli mayonnaise, and the avocado slices make for a filling meal. Nothing else on the menu has the same Daedalus touch. You can find almost everything else at other restaurants done just as well, if not better.

At the end of the day, it really is the rooftop dining that makes a meal at Daedalus worthwhile. The smoothly sanded heavy wood patio furniture is actually comfortable, and the greenery gives it a garden feel.

One slight drawback is the location. While it is far enough from the center of Harvard Square to avoid the hustle and bustle of tour groups and angry drivers, Daedalus is located near two buildings that produce lots of noise: a church and a fire station. St. Paul Parish rings its bells every fifteen minutes, and fire trucks wail by nearly as often. Still, the rooftop is popular and Daedalus knows it. No reservations are available for the roof, and by 7 p.m. on a weeknight, the place is packed.

The service is attentive enough; it can be a little on the slow side, but if the sun is shining, the waiter is good-looking, and you’ve got food and friends, then who’s counting the minutes?

Rowes Wharf Sea Grille

70 Rowes Wharf, Boston, MA 02110

(617) 439-7000

No list of Boston’s best al fresco spots would be complete without the Waterfront area. Rowes Wharf Sea Grille (RWSG), located on the first floor of the Boston Harbor Hotel, features a spectacular view of the harbor from their outdoor patio. But to be honest, I’ve never sat outside at RWSG. Instead, I have experienced better: afternoon high tea.

Served only indoors (and with a reservation) from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m., afternoon tea includes a choice of one of almost twenty teas accompanied with a dizzying selection of scones, pastries, and finger sandwiches. I selected the Huan Shan Sunset tea, a sweet peach blended tea that was perfectly refreshing for a sticky summer afternoon.

Tea service at RWSG is no light matter: You are provided with fancy strainers, white and brown sugar cubes, honey, jams, and impeccable service to match. The table is specially set and showered with colorful rose petals. Finger food is served on a simple but elegant three tier cake stand. At the top are buttery scones, light blueberry and chocolate chip coconut cakes, macaroons, and fruit; the middle tier features savory bite-sized sandwiches including shrimp lime with avocado, whipped egg salad, and maple smoked salmon with caviar; the bottom tier finishes the journey with sweet chocolate mousse cake, classic cheesecake, pecan and caramel bars, and a moist carrot cake. Each item is small and no more than two bites in size, but they add up to create a filling meal. The artistic presentation of the tea service drew attention to my table from those enjoying late lunches outside.

Despite the fact that high tea is only served indoors, there are plenty of reasons to return to RWSG for a full al fresco meal. Chef Daniel Bruce is the mastermind behind all of their dishes, and given the quality of their pastries, the full-sized menu cannot disappoint. In addition, RWSG is the cheaper alternative to Meritage, the other fine dining restaurant located inside the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Easily accessible by T (take the Blue Line to the Aquarium stop), RWSG also hosts special summer events, such as classic movie nights on Fridays, where the general public is invited to attend a free screening of a classic 1960s film on an outdoor screen. Indoors, RWSG exudes a hotel-restaurant vibe, complete with a small bar perpetually serving a jovial and talkative tourist or two. Navy blue and white accents complete the harbor feel, and appropriate attire can range from Lilly Pulitzer dresses to preppy-casual polos, chinos, and madras-print sandals.

RWSG successfully creates a much-needed Boston vacation atmosphere with its combination of a waterfront location, a well-prepared menu, and four star service.