Okay, we don’t love the word “foodie” either. Certainly there has been a backlash against calling yourself a foodie – someone very interested in all things food, high and low, global and local, rich and simple – over the last decade. Like “hipster” it can be polarizing. But what’s the alternative? Gourmand is too pretentiously French. Food lover sounds like something you might get arrested for. And besides, until this century, calling yourself a foodie in Worcester and Central Mass was a liable to elicit confused puppy dog head or a dismissive, oh please. Not anymore. Worcester and the surrounding area have an embarrassment of culinary riches to explore. So much so that cutting this list down became a bit of a culinary Sophie’s choice. The ones that remain all offer something besides delicious food. They offer an opportunity to explore food from a point of view that stands out from others in the region, which is saying something given the embarrassment of riches our growing food scene offers today.
Wilson Wang’s Baba Sushi is by far the greatest sushi – in freshness, quality, and flavors – in Central Mass, which is actually saying something these days. His Shabu Shabu hot pot has also found its footing to be an enticing all you can eat option next door. So when Wang decided to open a second Baba location in Sturbridge, hearing he planned on combining his largely raw sushi menu with the bubbling goodness of hot pot seemed like an act of culinary cognitive dissonance. Throw in a third spicy Sichuan menu and you’re dangerously close to the foodie equivalent of multiple personality disorder. Yet it works. Top to bottom it retains the best of both Baba Worcester and Shabu Shabu’s menus and offers a Sichuan menu that only Red Pepper in Worcester can match.
A piece of Wellesley’s soul just died being called part of Central Mass and not Boston. Suck it up, Swellsley. Ming Tsai may have bolted but the second location of Worcester’s beloved tapas restaurant not only remains but also has outdone its mother ship. Hard as it is to admit for us, Bocado in Wellesley may be better for the tapas and sangria we can’t get enough of in Worcester if only because of the magic that comes from its Josper charcoal oven. You won’t be wanting in either location though. Chef Steve Champagne oversees all the Bocado menus filled dozens of small plates that always seem to find their mark with a crowd or just dinner for two. The hardest part anywhere you go is always what to choose.
If it’s good enough for Gordon Ramsay, what you got? Brian Treitman has been turning out New England’s best barbecue for more than a decade. Transcendent brisket. Pulled pork that makes you realize you have an inner Carolinan longing to get out. A beef rib that is bigger than Bam Bam’s club and hits you with flavor equally as hard. Wings that fly. And a brisket Reuben that most people would be happy to be buried in. These are well known facts. What people may not realize is the work that goes into making sure those meats are as good as it gets and that Treitman also finds a way to exercise his chef muscles with specials that tempt the initiated and uninitiated alike. Find the time and brave the line. There is no cook in this town who cares more about making you happy.
Open an unapologetically chef-driven high-end menu on Main Street in Worcester? One that easily rivals the best in Boston and Cambridge? And with the face of the joint a chef who sports a stellar New York resume (Per Se, Momofoku, Gramercy Tavern) and shamelessly touts his allegiance to the Mets? Yup. While everyone thought chef Jared Forman and his partners were crazy, they knew the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Instead of pandering to the people, they willed their food on us and encouraged us to share and explore while digging it all in restaurant named for a deep part of Worcester history and located in a century-plus-old space. And we were hungry for it. Whether playing with low (fried chicken and spätzle) or high (house-aged rib eyes, Japanese breakfasts for brunch), everything at deadhorse seems both different, approachable, and unlike anywhere else (especially the seafood and Robin Clark’s desserts), which is exactly what this city needed.
Feeling adventurous? Have the table go for the unique family-style “horsefeast” and let the kitchen serve you all the best of what is on and off the menu – if you can stand the stares of envy from everyone around you!
Matt Mahoney and Rachel Coit, the husband and wife team behind Kummerspeck (the name translates from German to “grief bacon”), took over the space long occupied by Canal District doyenne Tom’s Delicatessen and immediately gave us something we never knew we needed: a restaurant combined with a butcher shop. It not only offers an ever-evolving selection of expertly cut meats to order from local and national purveyors (with cooking advice to boot) but also its own homemade sausages (from chorizo to breakfast to bratwurst and beyond), patès, cured meats, and spreads. It’s the culinary equivalent of going to a zoo and getting to eat the animals you gaze at – or take it home to try yourself with guidance from Matt and Rachel. Sit down and the charcuterie plate with its divine chicken liver mousse is a delightful journey and, as you would expect, the steaks and other meat dishes are perfect. But so is Rachel’s shrimp and grits, which may be the best you ever have (sorry, lowcountry).
Some of the chefs on this list might as well be Kevin Bacon in Footloose – outsiders making our area their home and shaking us free from our entrenched culinary sensibilities. Tim Russo at Lock 50 did that from the inside out. A graduate of Worcester’s “Voke” (Technical High School), he came up through the ranks here and saw the Worcester food scene evolve while working the kitchens of Armsby Abbey and Volturno. Then he got his own chance to shine. And shine he does, especially in Worcester’s first true tasting menu if you are inclined to leave it in his hands. If not, you will find the greatest homemade pastas in town (seriously, have the gnocchi now), a roast beef sandwich that means business at lunch, and a deft touch with meats whether grilled, sous vide-d, or somewhere in between. It’s a fearless exploration from sardines to sea bass to smoked pork, all served in a brick-lined space that is both romantic yet casual.
Every chef on this list in some ways touts his or her sourcing of ingredients and proudly wears a local badge of honor. None are as ambitious or as devoted to sustainability as Elaine Pusateri Cowan. Everything from the restaurant’s warm wood tables and walls to the smallest ingredient in every dish shows an attention and devotion to detail and our local abundance. Picturesque Uxbridge is a perfect setting for that approach and the restaurant overlooks that landscape while a wood-burning oven warms the inside space. Which is what really makes this place special. No other restaurant in Central Mass so fully embraces the fact that we are one of the largest agricultural counties in New England AND puts a stake down in that land. Cowan calls her food “slow peasant fare,” but this is a high-class approach that leans Italian/Sicilian. It’s just a perfect escape for a warm and fuzzy meal even the most high-brow foodies long for now and then.