Best Bites 2022: A taste of the finest the Valley has to offer


For the Gazette

Published: 01-20-2023 9:17 PM

With a new year of dining ahead, it’s time to boil down all of my last year’s recommendations into a cheat sheet that you can clip or print and stick on your fridge: the best of Best Bites. I’ve picked 40 amazing places to eat and drink in the area and briefly described my favorite thing to order at each. I call it the “Most Delicious List.”

I’ve imposed four rules on myself: First, it’s Hampshire and Franklin counties only. Second, no restaurant, and no dish, can appear more than once. Third, I favor value and affordability. Fourth, I try to represent local and regional culinary traditions — the best examples of what we do best here. “V” means vegetarian. Here we go!

Alina’s fettucine Alfredo (V). The Italian-American standard comes out creamy, peppery and satisfying at this classic romantic dinner spot, which often has live piano music. Hadley.

Bluebonnet Diner’s eggs Benedict. The best of a dying breed of diners, and of a dying breed of traditional benedicts. Pair it with a bloody mary. Northampton.

Bombay Royale’s goat rogan josh. The lunch buffet’s a good value here, but the dinner menu hides the real treasures, like this deeply aromatic Kashmiri curry with tender hunks of bone-in goat. Northampton.

Captain Jack’s fried whole-belly clams. Battered, deep-fried whole bellies boast crispy copper crusts, custardy insides, and ultra-skinny fries at this counter-service roadside picnic-table shack. Easthampton. No alcohol.

Chef Lau’s char-siu-and-poached-chicken combo. At this simple, friendly counter, a bed of rice absorbs the rich juices of sweet-savory Hong Kong-style barbecued pork and gently poached chicken with garlic-ginger oil. Amherst. No alcohol.

Eastside Grill’s gumbo. The deep-brown-roux-reinforced gumbo of the day at this classic Northampton restaurant especially shines when it gets some smoky depth from andouille sausage. Try it with fried oysters and a Sazerac. Northampton.

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Fitzwilly’s Reuben. The classic order at the town’s most classic pub. Butter-crisped marbled rye melds with thin-sliced corned beef, thousand island and oozing Swiss. Northampton.

Friendly’s Jim Dandy sundae (V). This ice-cream-and-family-dining chain is a sweet slice of Americana. The enormous Jim Dandy is a banana split for the indecisive, with all toppings on deck. For a full meal, start with a SuperMelt sandwich. Florence, Greenfield, Hadley.

Goten of Japan’s hibachi rib-eye steak. In a hidden party sanctuary along a rural road, you’ll be entertained by a knife-flipping chef who flings shrimp into your mouth and plates your bite-size pieces of buttery, soy-sauced beef. Order rare, and dip it in ginger sauce. Sunderland.

Haymarket’s smoothies (V). It’s hard to imagine Northampton without Haymarket, the vegetarian café of your psychedelic dreams. Juice cocktails and smoothies employ a wide, creative range of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Herrell’s malted vanilla ice cream (V). The most wonderfully original flavor from the creator of American premium ice cream gets scooped from inside a teddy-bear-filled playhouse. Lick it plain, or plop it on top of their outstanding cookie-dough brownie. Northampton.

Homestead’s ricotta dumpling. This oversizedraviolo with Italian sausage, tomato confit, rapini pesto and pine nuts takes Italian-American comfort food and raises it. Pair it with a Negroni or egg-white sour from the excellent cocktail bar. Northampton.

Hungry Ghost’s eight-grain bread (V). Possibly the best wood-fired loaves in America are hawked out of a little house on a downtown hill. Hours are short and they run out early. Northampton.

Joe’s meatball casserole. At this buzzing old neighborhood pub, open since 1938, the great-value casserole dresses the best meatballs in town with a well-developed red sauce and melted mozzarella. Northampton.

Johnny’s Tavern’s pasta fra diavolo (V version available). Thin, delicate, al-dente tagliatelle swirl around with seafood, a pleasantly acidic red sauce, and a garlicky bread-crumb crunch. The atmosphere is warm and pubby. Amherst.

La Veracruzana’s enfrijoladas (V). At this popular counter-service standby, deep-fried corn tortillas are smothered with black-bean purée, cheese, and sour cream — a hard-to-find Mexican regional specialty. The bar serves cheap, sweet margaritas. Amherst, Easthampton, Northampton.

Lovebird Kitchen’s katsu burger. Hidden inside Luthier’s Co-op — guitar store by day and guitar-lined live music bar-restaurant by night — this was my favorite new restaurant experience of 2022. Their modestly-sized, easy-eating burger sports dry-aged beef and sweet Japanese brown sauce in a moist brioche-like potato roll. Easthampton.

Mama Iguana’s margarita (V). At this colorful bar-restaurant, America’s greatest cocktail comes strong, with enough lime to balance the sweetness. Pair it with the great Caesar (a Mexican dish, after all!). Northampton.

Miss Florence Diner’s vanilla milkshake (V). There’s nothing quite like a traditional diner milkshake, with the savory, mildly alcoholic tang of vanilla syrup swirled in metal. This yellow train-car breakfast-and-lunch spot from the 1930s is a national treasure. Florence.

North Shore Seafood’s smoked fish dip. This local gem of a fishmonger on King Street smokes their own trout, bluefish and halibut, and also whip them up into an irresistible array of fish dips. Back home, pair with Triscuits and Champagne. Northampton.

Northampton Brewery’s Daniel Shays’ Best Bitter (V). This mild, malty, slightly creamy English-style ale is the longstanding icon at one of New England’s craft-beer pioneers. The multi-tiered brewpub is a great hangout spot, rain or shine. Northampton.

Oriental Flavor’s Sichuan dry-braised beef. A sizzling, steaming mini-wok comes out with mushrooms, leeks, bamboo shoots, lotus roots, onions, tingly ma la peppercorns, and beef slices shaved thin to absorb the most flavor possible. Amherst.

Oriental Taste’s lunch special (V options available). The best Chinese restaurant in Northampton is simply decorated, with high ceilings and big windows. Every “Chinese Lunch Special” costs less than $10, including soup and rice. Try pork with wild chili. Northampton.

Packard’s bacon cheeseburger. This landmark of a local pub, eternally enlivened by a mega-collage of signs retired by the local businesses of years past, boasts a recently rejuvenated kitchen that does a great job with American standards. Northampton.

Pho Boston’s pho tai (V version available). Pho tai (rare beef noodle soup), with a rich broth and a heap of fresh vegetables, is my go-to at this simple, cheery Vietnamese lunch spot. Florence.

Progression Brewing’s Connect the Dots IPA (V). This hazy, citrusy 7% ABV brew represents the ascendant New England IPA style well, and it’s dangerously easy to drink — especially inside this light, airy downtown brewery. If you’re in a stronger mood, go for the 8% Evolve. Northampton.

Riff’s McLovin’ burger. The pickle-forward, anti-snob homage to the Big Mac at this fun gastropub has thousand island, caramelized onions, iceberg lettuce, and, thank God, American cheese. Pair it with a local craft lager. Easthampton.

Roberto’s eggplant parmigiana (V). The eggplant in my favorite Italian-American dish is battered and fried to be just as crispy as it should be in this simple space that has changed little since the 1950s. Squiggly cavatappi pasta is the best side. Northampton.

Scoop at the Silo’s chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream (V). At this bucolic local farm, the ice cream is so milky and fresh that it’s served in view of the cows that the milk came from. Hadley. Open seasonally in warm weather.

Se7ens’ hot dog. An unheralded but supremely friendly downtown dive bar serves a beautifully charred, butterflied dog on a buttered, griddled, golden-brown bun, for an ideal matchup of crispy and juicy textures. Easthampton.

Smithsonian’s clam chowder. It may come in Styrofoam, but some of the best New-England-style chowder in the world is being ladled out at this unassuming little house along Route 10. Hatfield.

Stop & Shop’s lobster by the pound. The friendly, hard-working fishmongers at your local supermarket chain steam whole lobsters in about 15 minutes. Pick from the tank or call in your order. Belchertown, Greenfield, Hadley, Northampton.

Texas Roadhouse’s pick-your-own steak. Choose a well-marbled bone-in ribeye from the butcher counter at this kitschy family dining chain. Sunny staff will take care of all your other needs, like fresh-baked bread and weak cocktails. Hadley.

Tunnel Bar’s oysters on the half shell. Clean, fresh raw oysters are whisked out until late in the evening at Northampton’s most evocative lounge: a long, narrow, tile-lined train tunnel. To complete your journey to the 1930s, wash it with a dry martini or Paper Plane. Northampton.

Watershed’s mac and cheese (V). This Bookmill restaurant’s cozy, wooden-beamed indoor dining room and terrace hang off an enchanting tree-lined riverbend. Cavatappi mac and cheese is creamy, well seasoned and cooked just right. Montague.

Waxwing’s lamb shank. The menu changes frequently at this doting upscale dinner spot, but their braised meats are always spot-on — as are their mezcal-based cocktails. Hatfield.

Williamsburg Snack Bar’s lobster roll. Plump, juicy picked lobster meat, with a whisper of mayo, in a properly buttered, griddled bun: this is easily the best-value lobster roll in the Valley. Service is sweet, and the folksy roadside house is warm and charming. Haydenville.

Wurst Haus’ HB Helles lager (V). Beer was born in Bavaria, and here’s where to get legit Bavarian beer with a fun, tavern-like vibe. Pair HB, the classic lager from Munich’s Höfbrauhaus, with a big, luscious hot pretzel and beer cheese (V). Northampton.

Ye Ol’ Watering Hole’s greyhound (V). Vodka and fresh-squeezed grapefruits from the Squeezo has been the go-to at this classic dive bar for about half a century. Northampton.

Zack’s BBQ ribs. Meltingly tender, crusty, satisfying pork ribs (served after 2pm) and fatty beef brisket are smoked overnight over maple and other hardwoods in a pair of Texas-sized smokers. Pulled-pork-based chili is also fantastic. South Deerfield. No alcohol.

If any reader manages to bite into all 40 of these, I’ll take you out to dinner anywhere in town.