Missing Icarus? Head to Dorchester’s Tavolo and Ashmont Grill
Sick of cliche Italian in the North End or of Ivy League pricetags in Cambridge? Looking for a date night somewhere different? Enter Dorchester - the neighborhood at the end of the red line, near the Ashmont T stop, that is generating buzz among urban adventurers who take the time for visit.
During my four years as a student in Cambridge, I was an avid explorer of Boston’s neighborhoods, spending one year putting together the Boston city guide for Let’s Go travel guides. From that experience, I became well acquainted with the tried and true neighborhoods. I knew all about cheap eats in JP, date nights in the South End, divey bars in Central Square, but somehow in four years, I never set foot in Dorchester.
That changed, however, a few years after graduation when my college roommate and her girlfriend moved to Mattapan, just a few trolley stops past Ashmont. I came for a visit and instantly knew I had stumbled upon one of the city’s hidden gems, a neighborhood, where milk is still delivered to doorsteps, neighbors knock on doors to borrow a cup of sugar, and a walk anywhere is likely to involve a friendly chat.
So, when my local experts told me that Tavolo and Ashmont Grill were not only neighborhood establishments, but gay-friendly that I just had to see for myself. After an evening at the end of the red line, I’m here to recommend Dorchester for your next date night. In fact, I’ll go one step beyond recommending it, I’ll plan the whole thing for you...
Forget cheers - from the moment you walk in the door, Ashmont Grill exudes the charm of a neighborhood bar. Staff have sass in proportion to their Boston accents and the cocktails and dinners are on par with anything found in other Boston neighborhoods but without the price tag of a Back Bay bistro.
It’s this warmth and personality that make Ashmont Grill, a great start to any night. I started my night with one of Ashmont’s cocktails, a grapefruit-infused basil gimlet priced around $10 that was as interesting (in the good way, not the pucker-face way) as it sounds. For those wanting something more traditional, my former roommate swears by the Grill’s Sidecar. Whatever the drink, it will be well made adn sure to keep the conversation comfortable and the company loose -- hmm, I may have meant that the other way around. All cocktails are served in a rounded, mod lowball glass and simply garnished. This break with bartending protocol on drinks like the gimlet is appropriate to the down-to-earth Grill. Moreover, after a few cocktails, the lowball glass is much easier to hold (and less likely to spill) than one of those finicky martini glasses.
Like the drinks, Ashmont’s vibe is well worth lapping up, so I recommend ordering some appetizers here as well before strolling a few doors down to Tavolo. The macaroni and cheese is comfort food and sharing is romantic in that ’cuddled up in sweats on a Saturday morning’ way. The lamb stew is another dish to try (order it for just one and there won’t be room left for Tavolo) with its perfectly tender lamb, light broth, chunky veggies and light broth. For something more exotic, the shrimp tacos are wonderfully fresh and a great dish, particularly when paired with the basil gimlet.
For those not wanting to split time between Tavolo and Ashmont Grill, or wanting to spread the Dorchester dates over two nights, Ashmont Grill offers a $35 prix fixe menu and dinners a la carte for under $20.
Monday night is a particularly great time to visit, as Ashmont runs a Monday Wine Club with $30 food and "wine" pairings. On August 3, the wine of the evening will, in fact, be tequila. Reservations are always recommended for this popular night.
For those following, the EDGE date night plan, finish the appetizers, drain the cocktails and stroll on down to Tavolo.
I’m not the only one that thinks Dorchester is an up-and-coming food destination. Chris Douglass, former owner and chef at the now legendary (and defunct) Icarus, has exclusively focused his many talents on Ashmont Grill and neighboring Tavolo, opened in summer of 2008. For anyone missing Icarus, you will be in good company at Tavolo, which draws a sizeable number of South Enders as well as neighborhood locals for hearty Italian under the $20 mark.
From Ashmont Grill, Tavolo is a subtle change-up, more subdued and allowing for a sense of intimacy, particularly if you opt to dine at a table as opposed to the bar. However, the same sense of fun and community still pervades and makes the conversation come quick and easy (though hopefully your date is more the second and less the first). There is a whimsical gay sensibility in the design (including unisex bathrooms), which has chalk drawings on the wall of the various ingredients of a traditional Italian meal. The chalk motif continues through the bar, which is made of slate so that if the conversation does dull, you can always turn to doodling (rather than your date’s doodle).
The cocktail menu is an abbreviated version of the Ashmont Grill, so I say, switch to wine with dinner. They have a short but reliably good list of reasonably priced table wines that pair well with their pastas. Tavolo follows Ashmont Grill’s spill proof formula, serving its wine in lowball glasses that work well for reds, less so for whites that will warm too quickly.
As for the food, it is ’tuck your napkin into your shirt’ pastas and gourmet pizzas. For those who like a nice set of balls, the spaghetti and meatballs is memorable Italian. On a Wednesday night, dinner at Tavolo is something extraordinary as it traverses the old country with its Regional Italian Tour. Each week, chefs Chris Douglass and Maxwell Thompson prepare a fixed 3-course menu based on the cuisine of a different region of Italy with recommended drinks as well. The entire experience is Tavolo and Douglass through and through - an approachable way to learn about some of the most revered world cuisine.
After dinner at Tavolo, let the food settle with a nightcap back at Ashmont where the local crowds will surely be getting raucous and your date will undoubtedly have a happy ending.
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555 Talbot Ave., Dorchester
1918 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester
What other restaurants did Megan find worth a visit in Boston? Check out what she had to say about: