With its compact size and colonial charm, Boston is often considered the most European of American cities. But after the completion last year of its massive 25-year, $15 billion Big Dig construction project which moved nearly four miles of highway underground to create hundreds of acres of park and development space the city has a clutch of new quarters and a fresh batch of shops, restaurants and hotels, all buzzing with youthful exuberance.
Take any weekend night at Clink, the lobby bar at the Liberty Hotel (libertyhotel.com), which opened last September in a landmark 1840s former jail on the eastern slope of tony Beacon Hill. In the old holding pen, well-heeled guests quaff herbal cocktails under the soaring, light-filled rotunda before they head downstairs to the restaurant, Scampo, for the rustic Italian dishes of award-winning chef Lydia Shire.
Another fashionable venue is the Achilles Project (achilles-project.com), a boutique-by-day, restaurant-by-night complex in Fort Points Channel, the former warehouse district, which is now linked directly to the city's downtown area. Opened in January, the Achilles store displays its designer wares by everyone from Britain's Alexander McQueen to Brazil's Alexandre Hercovitch like art: in movable racks suspended from the ceiling. Come evening, at the Persephone restaurant, local chef Michael Leviton turns out contemporary regional dishes (sized from "small" to "extra large") such as pan-roasted monkfish with asparagus and lemony, grilled, local squid.
The South End, notorious for being the stronghold of America's Irish mob just a decade ago, is also feeling the benefits of the Big Dig. Today, its red-brick row houses and elegant shops and restaurants rival the historic Back Bay for poshness. Pop into Looc ("cool" in reverse) for women's fashions from on-the-rise designers such as Nili Lotan and Ella Luna (loocboutique.com); pick up collectible pottery at Vessels Gallery (vesselsgallery.com); and check out Hudson (hudsonboston.com) for whimsical home accessories. At new eatery Banq (yes, a former bank), towering bamboo interiors give a visual flavor of the pan-Asian food, which comes on small plates to share (www.banqrestaurant.com).
A short stroll away on Harrison Avenue, the SoWa Artists Guild (www.sowaartistsguild.com), where local artists create and sell their work, is heaven for anyone looking to discover the next Winslow Homer. And a few doors down is Rocca (www.roccaboston.com), a split-level restaurant co-owned by Michela Larson, a legend in the city's dining scene. The refined, distinctive Ligurian fare includes a perfect trofie pasta with pesto and panzotti ravioli with a rich walnut sauce. It's a far cry from the Italian culinary clichés available en masse over in the touristy North End although thanks to Boston's redesign, it's no longer such a long walk.