Boston Food Tours: Driven by Passion
Food tours are a growing phenomenon across the country and Boston, not to be outdone by any sister metropolis, has a good number of its own. From sampling chocolate in different forms to learning how to navigate an Asian supermarket for the best ingredients, the originality of each tour is striking, emphasizing that this is a “passion” business.
There is nothing rote about any of these tours. It is not a “must do” part of the family vacation to Europe. In fact, most who attend these tours are locals wanting to learn more about the best restaurants in East Boston, “where Easties eat,” or how to find the freshest eggplant in the North End. The growth and success of these tours has been driven by word-of-mouth advertising … re-emphasizing that this is about passion from the tour operator down to tour attendee. After all, who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to eat their way through this beloved city?
David Goldstein couldn’t agree more. He is not only the owner and operator of Boston Chocolate Tours, but has become something of a food tour connoisseur—having taken tours whenever (and wherever) he has the opportunity. As the father of three children, he finds it a fun way to explore any city. His family has tasted its way through Chicago, Brooklyn (think pizza!), San Francisco and Washington, DC. Closer to home, he has taken his family on Michele Topor’s North End food tour over Thanksgiving and taken his wife on the Ahla Jewish Food Tour for Mother’s Day—no need to cook, Mom!
But David’s specific passion is chocolate. While he runs a number of other food businesses, including a murder mystery dinner theater, he started Boston Chocolate Tours as a means for people to learn more about chocolate. According to David, chocolate is second only to wine in tasting interest.
He has established six different tours across Boston neighborhoods for tasting chocolate. And because Boston does not have an unlimited supply of chocolate stores, he has had to use more creativity. There are expected, albeit delicious, stops such as L.A. Burdick Chocolate for hot chocolate and the South End Buttery for cupcakes. But who knew that the Dutch Cottage, an antique shop on Tremont Street, has a chocolate shop inside it? Or that 75 Chestnut served chocolate soup? How about the chocolate martini at Tremont 647?
In addition, the tours have interesting Boston chocolate anecdotes. Did you know that the Baker Chocolate Factory in Dorchester was the first chocolate factory in the United States, established in the late 1700s. Or that Whitman, Massachusetts, resident Ruth Wakefield first created the Toll House cookie when she added Nestle semisweet chocolates to her Butter Drop Do cookies in the early 1900s? Attendees leave David’s tour satiated, proud of Boston’s contribution to chocolate history and with a sugar high!
Similar to David, Laura Strohmeier first thought of starting a food tour midway through her first food tour in Chicago. Before she was on the plane back to Boston, she had already called her local neighborhood haunts in East Boston and pitched the idea of the tour. She started Taste This Tour a few months later, conducting the tours on Friday and Saturdays while continuing her profession as a Jet Blue flight attendant during the rest of the week.
Laura’s tours, which run from Memorial Day to Labor Day, start with a water taxi ride from the Marriott Long Wharf but after that it is all on foot—and five miles at that. Mama Blanca’s is the first stop, serving up pupusas—a Central American dish that is similar to a cheese-filled corn-encrusted tortilla topped with pickled sausage. Listening to Laura enthusiastically describe how this dish tastes makes your mouth water.
In fact, there is little that Laura could not entice you to do or try. She laughs that one tour group insisted on finishing their tour in the midst of a thunderstorm last summer—even after she offered them a refund. “The people who come on these tours want to be here and do this,” she says. “I called the restaurants to let them know we were still coming, if a little late and wet.”
She is also happy that all the restaurants have had tour attendees come back with family and friends for a full meal. “Their food is delicious and it makes me happy to have shared it with others, helping these local businesses.”
From Mama Blanca’s, the tour walks one mile in pursuit of a refreshing honey mint iced tea at Scup’s in the Harbor, followed by firecracker chicken at Café 303, the Vermonter vegetarian sandwich at Dough and a few other stops, ending with homemade ice cream at Echo. Upon hearing the food itinerary, an initial thought is that five miles might be too little to offset this afternoon of eating … but it is important to note that these are sample sizes.
Michele Topor’s tours of the North End and Chinatown are the longest established, having run for 15 years. The tours are a spinoff from her Italian cooking classes where students would always request that she take them on tours of the North End and show them were she bought her ingredients.
So unlike other food tours, Michele’s tours are focused on the ingredients that make a great meal and not the end product. “You don’t have to be a fabulous cook, but you have to have good ingredients,” Michele states. Her North End tour has stops at a pastry shop, an Old World spice shop, green grocers, salumeria and a liquor store.
The Chinatown tour visits a bakery, a bubble tea shop (where tea is made with tapioca pearls), a live poultry shop, a Cantonese barbecue shop to taste roast pork (a main ingredient in a lot of Chinese dishes), a Chinese herb shop and an Asian supermarket. Michele encourages people to visit these and other ethnic supermarkets because they offer a social and intimate experience unlike what a typical American supermarket has become.
On her tour, she discusses how immigrants move though the neighborhood and how healthy Italian and Chinese food morphed into the unhealthy Italian-American and Chinese-American food with which we are familiar. It is not a surprise to learn that Michele is a nurse by training, who found her way into the food industry as another means to nourish and nurture a community.
There are a number of other food tours in the area, but it is easy to see that no two are the same. There are some basic shared philosophies, such as doing them in the morning or mid-afternoon when the restaurants and shops are quieter. Aside from Taste This Tours, which runs only during the summer season, the other tours operate year round, with the late spring and fall being the busiest times. Group sizes differ from five to 13 people and most are willing to consider alterations for a specific food allergy. While specialties may differ, the enthusiasm of the tour operators is contagious. As David says, “I feel ridiculously fortunate to being doing this as a job.”
Boston’s Food Tours:
Ahla Brookline Food Tours: www.brooklinetour.com; 617-347-9423 (Russian and Jewish Food in Brookline)
Boston Walking Chocolate Tours: www.bostonwalkingchocolatetours.com; 617-955-2228 (Boston)
Boston Chocolate Tours: www.bostonchocolatetours.com; 781-784-7469 (Boston and Cambridge)
Michele Topor’s Boston North End Market Tours: www.northendmarkettours.com; 617-523-6032 (North End and Chinatown)
Taste This Tours: www.tastethistours.com; 785-Eat-Walk (East Boston)
Naz Sioshansi lives in Wellesley with her husband and daughter where she enjoys the local food scene. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.