When it comes to mid-priced dining out, the hip factor in Boston has gone way up. The last half-dozen years have seen at least as many restaurant openings that qualify as affordably hip. To qualify, a restaurant must boast a cocktail list that rivals the dinner menu in length and complexity. It must have good, rocking music, whether it's Elvis's Sun Sessions or Moby. It uses low lighting to a sexy, flattering effect. It will feed you very late. And the friendly, ultra-cool staff makes you feel welcome whether you dine as a couple or in a group.
Many places that pass all those tests end up failing on some level or other with the food. This is never the case at Teatro, which Jamie Mammano of Mistral opened in 2003, and the neighborhood, with its swank new Ritz-Carlton apartments, immediately embraced. We stumble in, tired and hungry, and follow the host to a corner table in the back near the open kitchen. Teatro serves until 11 p.m., but the noisy wall of chatter typical of prime time is absent when we sit down at 9:30. This is such a cool room: Dance music is pulsing and the place is dim except for lights that cast the ornate ceiling in blue.
The simple, one-page menu is paired with a one-page wine list, and the first decision is easy. Teatro's antipasto for two ($21), a bounty of fresh meat and cheese, marinated vegetables, and creamy purees is practically de rigeur. Ours conveyed beets, gorgonzola-stuffed figs, eggplant caponata, white bean puree, sopressata, prosciutto, and various olives marinated in an orange vinaigrette. To refresh our palates between bites, we dip thick slices of rustic Italian bread in olive oil. Our waiter lets us sample red wines until we find the one we want.
Teatro's entrees stay in the $17-$24 range, which is another reason we come back. Veal scallopine, a flat, lightly breaded pair of filets with a lemon-infused sauce and sharp broccoli rabe, could have fed us both. Not that an order of spaghetti carbonara went untouched, however; we're particularly fond of its creamy sauce, which manages to be lighter than many other versions we've tried.
Suffused in red light and full of kitschy Asian knickknacks, bamboo chairs, and even a big brass gong, Pho Republique in the South End attracts couples and partying groups. One weekend night we sat next to a boisterous crew of bridesmaids slurping scorpion bowls, but we still felt relaxed and at home. It's hard to believe that Pho Republique has been open since 1999, when so much of this part of Washington Street was underdeveloped.
Oddly, the one thing we don't recommend here is the pho. It's bland, despite loads of cilantro that you can stuff into this big bowl of rice noodles, broth, and lime wedges, with your choice of chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu. The noodles and beef were fine, but the broth lacked punch. For $14.50, you get less flavorful pho for a considerably higher price than at any Vietnamese establishment on Dorchester Avenue.
But don't pass up Pho Republique solely because of its lackluster pho -- you don't want to miss out on an amazing appetizer, the pu pu platter ($25). This mammoth plate of dim sum varies nightly, but usually includes braised spareribs, Vietnamese spring rolls, and fried shrimp and sweet potato "nests" that you wrap in lettuce leaves, along with a half-dozen wild mushroom wontons, some crab rangoon, and dipping sauces of peanut, soy, and plum. It's a staggering array. What makes this place hip? Maybe the music, with Loretta Lynn singing about her life as a coal miner's daughter one minute, and Elvis Costello jamming the next. The cocktail list is another exercise in decision-making, with pomegranate and apple martinis and huge margaritas with pureed mango. What charms us is that we can have dark, sweet Brooklyn Brown Ale on draft.
Because the pu pu platter conquers both our appetites, we have to cancel the entree. So we won't have the chow fun noodles in a roasted peanut sauce with grilled chicken that we scarfed down on an earlier visit. A tempting dessert of grilled banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream will also have to hang fire. But we have no regrets.
Some people don't take the B-Side Lounge seriously, even though it's been serving reliable comfort food since it opened in 2000. This dark, retro-chic Cambridge spot is dominated by a big horseshoe-shaped bar. Whereas the menu is the soul of brevity, the cocktail list runs several pages and is organized by alcohol base -- brandy, gin, vodka, and so on. Some overly clever concoctions such as the Champs Elysees (brandy, yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, Angostura bitters) and the Mullet (Bud Light and a Sambuca) are beyond us, though.
Appetizers and entrees, by contrast, stick to the basics, with sirloin, chicken, fish, and salads, but there's nothing frivolous or halfway about the food or the service. The hostess amicably steers us into a cozy booth in the back of the wood-paneled dining room as funky blues plays on the sound system. The waitress has an elaborate tattoo of a butterfly on her neck. As we wait for a friend to join us, we share the Greek Three Way ($9.50), an appetizer of white bean puree, roasted eggplant, and tzatziki (a yogurt, cucumber, and mint sauce). The Mr. Lucky martini (Luksusowa potato vodka and dry California vermouth, with a twist) goes smoothly with each bite.
When entrees of pork loin, halibut, and sirloin arrive, it's a little annoying that the staff has to ask who's having what, but we get over it as soon as we tuck in. The pork is tender and sweetened by a tomatoey broth, and the sides of mashed potato and jicama, avocado, and parsely cover a range of textures and make a lovely contrast. Halibut, steamed in ginger and lemongrass, comes in a nice, sharp broth and is perfectly cooked. The 10-ounce sirloin arrives medium-rare, although ordered medium, but it's a good, thick cut, with sturdy sides of crisp asparagus and roasted potato wedges. To be up for a B-Side visit, it helps if you're hankering for a specific item that you know they have, but we'll take that over staring at a menu that goes on for pages and offers nothing especially good. It's also a relief not to worry about getting a table (we can always sit at the bar), or if the kitchen is still open (they serve until midnight), or whether we'll have a good time, which invariably we do.