They say that nobody ever remembers who finishes in second place, but Tiffani Faison more than took advantage of being the runner-up on the first season of Top Chef in 2006. She graduated from mid-level roles at several Las Vegas resort restaurants to executive chef at Todd English’s Riche brasserie in New Orleans before moving to Boston to helm a brief revival of South End classic Rocca Kitchen & Bar in 2010.
The homecoming for the peripatetic Faison has been heralded with a string of successful restaurants of her own, starting with Sweet Cheeks Q in the Fenway area, which opened in 2011 and has earned consistent plaudits as the city’s best BBQ joint.
Her next venture, Tiger Mama, was on the crest of a wave of upscale Asian eateries, hailed by the Improper Bostonian for delivering an “upscale experience without sacrificing the soul of its source cuisines.” The menu features richly appointed versions of classics like tom kha gai soup and decadent piles of chili crab heads, claws, and legs with an extensive menu of tiki-inspired cocktails.
In August 2018, Faison added a third restaurant to her favorite stretch of Fenway Park-adjacent Boylston Street with Fool’s Errand, a no-reservations, no-tables tapas bar described as “a low-commitment, high-satisfaction snacking destination.” By snacking, though, we’re talking smoked beef tongue sandwiches, not Fenway franks. The food at this “adult snack bar,” like the decor, is European-inspired, the atmosphere a blend of upscale cocktail hour and pre-game quick-bite.
Her second stint as a Bostonian has Faison cheerleading for the local dining scene. “It’s been coming up for so long, but now I think we’re there,” she says. “For a long time, Boston was seen as a seafood town, with old-school restaurants serving baked haddock. In the last five or six years, restaurants like Neptune Oyster and Saltie Girl have taken the very best of what we have and presented it in new and innovative ways.”
When Faison and wife/business partner Kelly Walsh seek out the best of Boston, here’s where they dine:
You wouldn’t peg a sushi restaurant that’s been around since the Reagan Administration to be on the cutting edge of anything, but second generation Cafe Sushi owner Seizi Imura has kept things fresh at this Cambridge classic with both a menu and dining room makeover while maintaining prices that are more UMass than Harvard.
“Their nigiri is unreal and shows off the incredible grilling of the fish,” says Faison. “Not to take anything away from the rolls, but the nigiri is where they shine.”
Chef Cassie Piuma and partner Ana Sortun bring the communal spirit of Istanbul’s meyhanes to Somerville in a nightly celebration of wine and meze, the eastern Mediterranean take on tapas. Loud and bustling, “The room feels like a Turkish bazaar,” says Faison.
Newbies to Sarma gravitate toward the kebabs and kofte, but Faison plunges right into the seven-layer hummus dip, scooped up with falafel crackers. Faison advises: “Pace yourself until you see the fried chicken” – sesame-sprinkled pieces piled on platters and served tableside with za’atar sauce for dipping.
You’ll find Regina Pizzeria outlets everywhere from shopping malls to South Station. Ignore them all and go directly to the original North End location, where they’ve been spinning thin-crust pies since 1926. “The dough is different, and the same people have worked there forever,” says Faison. “It’s just pizza at the other locations – they have none of the magic.”
Faison and Walsh typically order a bottle of inexpensive wine (“there’s not a bottle over $30,” says Faison) and a pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza to share. “Order a small: they cook it better, so it’s crispy all around,” she says.
Not sure about the cats, but this Jamaica Plain community gathering spot does wear three hats – restaurant, bookstore and music store, harmonizing great food, music, and literature. Owner Dave Doyle, who opened Tres Gatos about a decade ago, “cares deeply about the neighborhood,” says Faison, a JP resident. “All of the bartenders and servers are kind, and the food is gorgeous.”
On a menu that features small plates of charcuterie, quesos, pintxos, tapas, paella and desserts, Faison’s favorite is the chickpea fritters served with tzatziki. Vegetarians will enjoy plenty of options, like a meat-free paella, as well as corn and asparagus tapas.
Rebel Rebel revels in opinionated but knowledgeable bartenders serving up natural wines to a woke clientele; owner Lauren Friel may insist that it’s “just a bar,” but the location in Bow Market makes Rebel Rebel a great place to pick out a perfect chard or pinot to match a crispy bar pizza from Hot Box or a cheese plate from Formaggio Kitchen.
“Lauren has a great palate and is one of the leaders in terms of where wine is going,” says Faison, noting that the owner/sommelier is often found dishing on wine somewhere in the small space. “Just sit down and talk to her.”
Owner Kathy Sidell and chef Kyle McClelland may have built Saltie Girl’s reputation on cans of tinned fish and towers of fresh seafood, but Faison loves the pure, simple pleasure of the linguine with clams, sauce and pasta infused with flavor. “It’s the essence of linguine clams,” she says.
Faison marvels at fresh oysters that are consistently shucked and perfectly cleaned, with nary a grain of sand to be found. When she’s up for something more sophisticated, there’s always the fried lobster served on a waffle or a tin of smoked oysters, mussels or octopus.
“I’ve never seen tinned fish as something gimmicky or trendy,” says Faison. “It may be new to Americans, but Saltie Girl is really just picking up on something Europeans have always done and putting it into the mouth of the the city.”