For those who keep to a traditional 9-5 existence, we sometimes forget that there’s a whole other world out there. Until it’s 2am and we’re driving our newborn around to lull them back to sleep, or we’re catching up with an old friend and conversation has trickled on, or our favorite band has played into the wee hours. And lo and behold we find we’re far from being the only ones out and about. From cab drivers, security guards, truck drivers, and hospital staff including doctors and nurses, to air traffic controllers, bakers, convenience store employees, flight attendants, fire fighters and policemen, big cities have active night lives and Boston is no exception.
Being hungry isn’t always easy after hours; few restaurants in Boston operate at these times, mainly due to the expenses behind keeping employees through the night. So when most businesses have shut their doors, where do people go for a bite to eat? New York might be ‘the city that never sleeps’, but it so happens that Boston has some time-honored destinations for night-shift workers, after-hours socializing, or just your run-of-the-mill insomniac.
South Street Diner
Open: 24 hours, 7 days (and nights) a week
“An egg is an egg is an egg”, says Sol Sidell owner and operator of the South Street Diner. “What we do is add in the fun.” Just one look at the menu and this is unmistakable. From build your own burgers and sandwiches, to any-time dinners, and mimosas, the menu is chock-a-block with choice.
Then there’s the clientele. A hot spot for movie stars, sports heroes and musicians, Sol says it’s a rare night that the diner doesn’t see a celebrity or two. From famous athletes, to Robert Plant or The Grateful Dead, he has plenty of stories about the stars who have passed through the doors. Sol tells me about a time that the Red Sox went into extra innings at Fenway, and a group of baseball fans, who had missed the last train home, wound up at the diner. Their frustration changed to exultation when Clay Buchholz, legendary pitcher for the Red Sox, ended up whiling away the hours with them. A night they wouldn’t soon forget.
Advertising comfort food 24/7, the South Street Diner has been in business since 1943. Sol says that there are 5 items they’re famous for:
- Gravy cheese fries: The cheese sauce is a mix of cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss, melted together and served over crispy fries with beef gravy. And to say they 'hit the spot' is an understatement. Watch out though! Salty, sweet and nutty tasting at once, they’re very addictive.
- Their chicken fingers are incredibly popular. Marinated for 24 hours in a sweet, spicy sauce, they’re tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.
- One reviewer says the South Street Diner has the best banana bread in all New England. Sol tells me the recipe comes from his grandmother, and it never goes out of style at the restaurant.
- The diner has, count them, 15 types of eggs Benedict! We recommend the homemade crab cake Benedict, or the lobster Benedict for a true New England experience. But to be honest, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
- Boston crème pancakes: South Street Diner has perfected a house-made Bavarian cream that won’t melt between the hot pancakes. Add to this the homemade chocolate ganache, and it’s lip-smacking good!
South Street Diner is itself somewhat of a celebrity. Having been in 25 different movies; it's also the subject of a documentary film 24 Hours At The South Street Diner. So the next time you find yourself craving eggs Benedict at midnight, or top-notch banana bread at 4am, you know exactly where to go.
178 Kneeland St., Boston, 617-350-0028, dinerboston.com
Open: 24 hours, 7 days (and nights) a week
Bova’s has been a tradition in Boston’s North End since 1926, when Italian upstart baker Antonio Bova opened his shop, drumming up business by going door-to-door with bread samples. By 1932 business was booming, and Antonio moved to a location across the street where Bova’s remains to this day. His grandson Ralph Bova shares ownership of the business with his 2 brothers, and confirms that the store is never closed. They accomplish this by each working 6-month shifts, a system Ralph contends works well. Ralph will manage the business for 6-months, take whatever he’s earned and have a year off, while his brothers take their consecutive turns. With three rotating shifts, they each get to work during the different seasons.
Talking about Bova’s, Ralph appears to be only half joking when he says, “The bottom line is, the place was to keep everyone in the family working and out of jail!” Whether that's true or not, the bakery has been thriving for decades, remaining a family-owned business as it passed hands. During Ralph’s 6-month stint, you'll find him there practically round-the-clock. He’s extremely busy overseeing supply and demand, meeting in the early hours of the day with vendors such as the fruit suppliers for the baked goods and so on.
And everything at Bova’s is made from scratch. They start making bread at 3pm so that it’s ready when the restaurants pick up and want hot bread for their customers. Along with fresh baked bread, cakes, pies, cookies and pastries, they also serve prepared food: hot and cold over-sized subs, calzones, salads, party subs, and traditional Sicilian pizza. Ralph tells me that Bova’s has 104 different items that they make in the store.
We were delighted to learn that it’s in the small hours of the morning that Bova’s really comes alive. “The majority of Bova’s business comes after the nightclubs close, when people get the munchies," says Ralph. "On weekends, the lines are out the door.” After 1am, Bova’s can’t sell pizza, calzones or subs, but the Arancini, or rice balls are a hot ticket. They are made daily and filled with cheese and meatballs, steak, spinach, pepperoni, or Buffalo chicken. Pastries and cannoli are also popular, as are the pies filled with apple, pumpkin, and blueberry. So, if you find yourself looking for a late night snack, one that’s guaranteed to be fresh baked, head to the North End. You won’t be the first or the last.
134 Salem St., Boston, 617-523-5601, bovabakeryboston.net
Open: 24 hours, 7 days (and nights) a week
Another Boston food destination that never closes is Doughboy's, a fixture in South Boston (and for good reason). They recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, and what keeps people coming back is not only the variety of the donuts made fresh daily in the store, but the taste. A perfect balance of dense, fluffy and crispy, and not overly fried, Doughboy’s donuts have devotees claiming they're the best in Boston.
Though the deli, which serves salads, pizza, sandwiches and more, doesn’t remain open all night, do not lose heart; Doughboy serves breakfast sandwiches around the clock–a respectable 4,000 of them a week. The Linguiça, (a spicy Portuguese sausage with Egg and Cheese), or a sausage, egg and cheese are the top sellers, served on your choice of croissant, toast, English muffin or bagel. Also available are the muffins and pastries (the turnovers and danishes are out of this world,) and, of course donuts.
It's hard to do justice to the selection offered at Doughboy, but we feel that their straight-up glazed donut is something to write home about. Then there’s the maple bacon donut, made on request so that the bacon is perfectly crispy. The cereal donuts are also favorites; our favorite being the strawberry frosted donut dipped in Fruity Pebbles. And here's a hot tip: the donuts come out of the ovens at 10pm every night.
Alex Fandel grew up helping out at the store. Her mother, Phyllis Fandel, has been the owner and manager for the last 40 years. “My mom is honestly the hardest working woman you’ll ever meet,” Alex says. And she isn’t the only one who appreciates her mother. Phyllis was recently named “Woman of The Year,” by the Condon Community Center, for her contributions to the South Boston Community.
Alex works the night shift, a time when the store is hopping with truck drivers, police, ambulance drivers, and other night-shift workers who depend on Doughboys for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Celebrity sightings aren’t unusual here either. Taylor Swift has been in for donuts, and Alex recalls the time Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks came by after his team won the 2013 World Series. Mayor Marty Walsh is also a regular.
220 Dorchester Ave., South Boston, 617-269-7560, doughboydonutsanddeli.com
Open: 24 hours,Thursday, Friday and Saturday
Victoria’s Diner opened its doors in 1949 and has remained in the same location–at the intersection of Dorchester, Roxbury and the South End–ever since. The diner is owned and operated by Damian Marciante and his wife Sheree, who took over from the original owners in 2011. They've since expanded the restaurant, turning it into a 98-seat diner, but have kept the name (a nod to the original owner’s wife) and the old school Art Deco diner feel including touches like neon signs, a black and white checkered floor, leather booths and stools along the counter. Damian and Sheree both worked in the corporate sector before deciding to follow their passion and own a restaurant, and it’s important to them to stay true to the character that has made Victoria’s the Boston institution it has become.
Breakfast, lunch or dinner is served all day, and on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays you can get the full menu all night too. And the food is good, real good. Damian calls it “casual dining at its best,” because the variety is so impressive and cooked to order. And come night-time, Victoria’s is the place to be. The jukebox is playing and there’s a comfortable vibe. “Have you ever seen the television show Happy Days?” asks Damian. “Victoria’s is like that show. It’s place where you’ll come in and strike up a conversation with the person next to you. It’s a gathering spot.”
The clientele is diverse and Damian likes it that way. “You’ll see everyone in here,” he says, “from bike couriers, to dancers, to priests. It’s a non-judgement zone; everyone is welcome.” And over the decades it seems Victoria’s, or “The Vic” as it’s known to regulars, has seen a host of notable Boston personalities: athletes, politicians, local radio personalities, you name it. Mayor Menino was a huge fan, and in fact requested his name be on a favorite menu item, The Mayor Menino mushroom burger.
Nighttime popular menu items are often the ‘stick to your ribs’ comfort food, according to Damian. Things like meatloaf and hamburgers cooked to order, or steak and eggs. Night owls seem to love The Deconstructed; 2 eggs any style, 2 buttermilk pancakes or French toast and bacon, black forest ham and sausage links, with your choice of breakfast potatoes or grits. If that sounds like too much for one person, try The Rehab; 2 eggs any style, 2 buttermilk pancakes or French toast, with your choice of sausage, bacon or ham, and breakfast potatoes or grits.
The menu selection appears limitless when you add in their lunch and dinner choices. Victoria’s has something for everyone. A Cuban panini on ciabatta, a portabello avocado panini with basil aioli on focaccia, chicken pot pie, grilled salmon, or lightly battered fish and chips; these are just some of the countless options to order.
And you can’t go wrong if you pair your meal with something from the sizable drink menu. Go healthy with a super fruit antioxidant smoothie, or throw caution to the wind and order the banana Nutella milkshake. And then there’s always the old-fashioned root beer float, a favorite at the diner.
Desserts are also always a hit at night, and Damian points to the 7-layer chocolate, and carrot cakes as being the most popular. The portions are ample, other options include cheesecake, homemade Grape-nut pudding and an assortment of pies including lemon meringue, Boston cream and blueberry.
So on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights, when most people are winding down, you can be sure that the doors to Victoria’s will be open. And whether you're in need of a snack or a three-course meal, they've got you covered.
1024 Mass Ave., Boston, 617-442-5965, www.victoriasdiner.com