Bites of Boston Food Tour
Boston’s South End was once nothing more than a slender strip of land surrounded by tidal marshes and referred to as the Boston Neck. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, a transformation began. To alleviate overcrowding in other Boston neighborhoods, and to extend the tax base, what is now Washington Street became the site of a massive landfill project. It currently boasts a thriving food scene and a historic Victorian row house district.
As rents began to skyrocket in the later decades of the 20th century, restaurants arose to accommodate the influx of upper-middle class tenants, which in turn drew gastronomes along the MBTA’s Silver and Orange lines who were eager to dine at trendy hot spots which these days include Coppa, Kava and Blackbird Doughnuts.
I know all of this because Bites of Boston founder Alyssa Schoenfeld led me and nine other hungry travelers on a walking tour through the South End on a drizzly day in May.
Schoenfeld, 41, grew up in Tewksbury, and her path to Bites of Boston was “nonlinear,” as she says with a laugh. She majored in neuroscience at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and after graduating did clinical research at Mass General. Looking for a change of scenery, she moved to Seattle, where she lived for four years.
While there, Schoenfeld sold scientific products. She also went on her first food tour. “It seemed like such a good idea,” she says. “Take anything. Add food to it. So I signed up.”
After a corporate reorganization in 2010, Schoenfeld took time to reflect. She was living about 3,000 miles from her family. Her career was at a crossroads, and her food tour experience lingered in her mind. Boston didn’t have anything like it at the time.
In 2011, she returned to Massachusetts. That October, she launched Bites of Boston.
“Food tours have become much more popular since I started,” she says. “But even in 2011, there were people who had done food tours in other places, and when they came to Boston, they were seeking us out.”
Guests come from as far as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. “On the best days, we have local people on the tour as well as people from far away,” Schoenfeld says. “It’s nice to see people come together and bond over food.”
On the day I attended, participants were visiting from West Virginia and Washington, D.C. There also were some locals among us, with one couple hailing from Quincy. Another participant was from the South End neighborhood and had brought along her out-of-state family.
Schoenfeld began by giving us a brief history of the region before moving on to speak about the place where we had converged, The Elephant Walk South End, a Cambodian-French “bicultural” restaurant, the story of which exemplifies the neighborhood’s shifting demographics. As we sipped on Cambodian mules (made with house-infused kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass), we learned how founding chef Longteine de Monteiro started her food career in France before coming to the United States and opening the first Elephant Walk in Somerville in 1991.
From there, we walked to Flour Bakery + Cafe to sample their “Chunky Lola” cookie (oats, chocolate, coconut, toasted pecans). Flour is owned by James Beard award-winning baker Joanne Chang, who is also the owner of the nearby fusion restaurant Myers + Chang.
For something savory, we moved on to Orinoco, where the Venezuelan-inspired antojitos (appetizers) included datiles (almond-filled dates wrapped in bacon) and maracuchitos (queso paisa wrapped in sweet plantains). We continued from there, stopping at parks and notable buildings, and for cupcakes at the South End Buttery and a cheese tasting at Formaggio Kitchen South End.
The tour concluded at Picco, a special destination not on the regular itinerary. This Tremont Street restaurant specializes in two items: pizza and ice cream — thus the name Picco. The hip staff brought us our final bites of the day: slices of Alsatian pizza (Gruyere, creme fraiche and bacon) and bowls of rich dark chocolate ice cream.
Bites of Boston also offers an Arts & Eats Tour in Allston. In late June, a new Chinatown tour debuted, during which, I’m told, the true history of Peking ravioli is revealed. There are also private tours — see website for details.
Bites of Boston