Everyone in and around Boston University seems to have a cherished memory of Allston: a too-late night at the Sunset Grill, that first apartment on Glenville Avenue, a chance encounter with the neighborhood’s late, great, dreadlocked, guitar-toting unofficial ambassador Mr. Butch. It’s safe to say, however, that few recollections involve high-end clothing, artisanal cocktails, and spa treatments. But the new 02134, once called a “student ghetto,” now mixes local mainstays with some of Boston’s hippest shopping and dining venues.
“I’ve seen a real diversification of the kind of businesses here,” says Katie Reed (GRS’06), a BU historic planning and preservation program graduate and former executive director of Allston Village Main Streets, a nonprofit neighborhood improvement association. “It’s great to see it becoming a destination.”
Allston takes its name from 18th-century American painter-poet Washington Allston, who lived in Cambridge and famously painted the area in the landscape Fields West of Boston. The neighborhood developed around a major railroad yard and nearby stockyards. Allston is cut off from most of Boston by the town of Brookline, which borders it on the south and east.
Allston’s busiest nexus is the triangular intersection where Harvard, Brighton, and Commonwealth Avenues meet, which caters to the large student population calling Allston home. Many immigrants, hailing from places like East Asia, South Asia, and South America, also live in the neighborhood.
Harvard University owns nearly 350 acres in North Allston and has recently razed several buildings to construct a new science complex.
There are lots of interesting places to check out in this constantly evolving neighborhood, as you can see below.
1080 Commonwealth Ave.
Roast Beast is undoubtedly home to the best roast beef sandwich in Boston. Served on freshly baked rolls, the meat is stacked high, with toppings that will have you salivating for days. The process is simple: choose your size, choose your roll, choose your toppings, then dig in. Roast Beast was started by BU alum D. J. Lawton (SMG’09) in 2011 and has quickly become a popular destination for students and faculty. For the daring, the restaurant offers what it calls its thermonuclear challenge: finish a sandwich dressed with the spicy Thermonuclear Sauce in five minutes or less and receive a T-shirt boasting that you’re “Simply the Beast” and have your photo displayed on the “Wall of Beasts.” Check out BU Today’s review of Roast Beast.
1243 Commonwealth Ave.
For the best bagels in town (as voted by Improper Bostonian), make sure you stop by Bagel Rising. Since it first opened in 1996, it has offered 100 percent homemade, kettle-boiled, and hearth oven–baked bagels made daily. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian toppings, including tofu and veggie spreads. Breakfast and lunch sandwiches and all bagels and spreads can be packed to enjoy later in the day, so stop and buy a dozen for that boring study session you have planned.
Clear Flour Bread
178 Thorndike St.
Clear Flour makes authentic breads, pastries, and cookies using unbleached flour and no preservatives. Boston magazine at one point hailed the bakery’s bread as the best in Boston. Such staples as French, onion focaccia, sourdough, and whole wheat are baked fresh daily. If you’re looking for a certain specialty variety—fire-roasted tomato rustic Italian rolls, for instance—be sure to check the day’s schedule to see if it’s available.
80 Brighton Ave.
Try this authentic Asian hot pot cuisine eatery for a special lunch or dinner. Hot pot cooking refers to food dipped into a boiling pot of broth, eaten with a plate of fresh vegetables, accompanied by garnishes and sauces. Choose beef sirloin, chicken, seafood, or a vegetarian platter. All courses are served with assorted veggies, noodles or rice, and dessert. Fresh sashimi is also on the menu, along with sake, beer, and wine.
International Bicycle Center
89 Brighton Ave.
This store carries popular brands, including Trek, Gary Fisher, and Ibis. It also stocks bike apparel, equipment, and helmets. Sign up for the store’s email list email list to receive discount coupons and notification of special sales.
122 Brighton Ave.
A secondhand store offering clothing, appliances, books, and furniture, Urban Renewals has the feel of a giant yard sale. Apparel is organized by color instead of size, making your hunt for a good pair of jeans more difficult. Other challenges: it’s cash only, there are no dressing rooms, and returns are not allowed. However, new merchandise comes in every Tuesday and Thursday, and the store offers a different deal every day (e.g., senior discount, student discount).
Sunset Grill and Tap
130 Brighton Ave.
Patron’s Mexican Kitchen and Watering Hole
138 Brighton Ave.
These two popular bars, offering different nighttime experiences, are owned and operated by the same people and located in the same building. Sunset Grill and Tap is a restaurant and bar, with 112 beers and 380 microbrews on tap, standard pub fare such as burgers and nachos, and an all-you-can-eat fajita and taco bar. Patron’s, directly above Sunset, was previously the bar and pool hall Big City. It still features two foosball tables and four pool tables, but its predecessor’s sports-bar vibe has been replaced with a quieter, lounge-like atmosphere. Patron’s has 80 beers on tap and house-made sangria. The menu is decidedly more south-of-the-border than Sunset’s. Pool tables are free each evening between 4 and 6 p.m. and there are nightly specials, including $1 Taco Tuesdays.
Bazaar on Cambridge
424 Cambridge St.
This Russian supermarket is the place to go for a taste of Eastern Europe. Over half of the store is stocked with imported goods, ranging from chocolate, drinks, and candy to liquor and packaged foods. There are myriad options in the bakery section, with lunch sandwiches, bread, and sweets. Try the dark brown Lvovskiy bread or a multilayered Russian dessert tart.
501 Cambridge St.
Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t the only option for coffee and something to soak it up. This no-frills mom-and-pop donut shop has long been an Allston mainstay. If you’re there when doors open at 4 a.m. (6 a.m. on Sundays), you’re likely to see cabbies and other early risers sitting across the table from students who haven’t been to bed yet. The glazed donuts are the big draw. Get there early while they’re still warm.
One North Beacon St.
Vegetarians and vegans flock to Grasshopper. The spicy steak fillet, for example, is actually sliced soft tofu, pan-fried with red bell peppers and onions in a black bean sauce and served over a bed of steamed spinach. The No Name—battered gluten in a sweet and sour sauce served with steamed vegetables and sesame seeds—is another popular dish. The restaurant offers inexpensive lunch options, which include a main dish, soup of the day, and choice of rice.
477 Cambridge St.
Offering high-low cuisine (from a homemade charcuterie plate to pretzels with beer cheese) alongside an impressively long cocktail list, Deep Ellum opened in 2007 and quickly became a Cambridge Street hot spot. Named for the trendy Dallas, Tex., neighborhood famous for its nightlife, this eatery offers guests a variety of tastes in a fun and casual setting.
Mixx Frozen Yogurt
66 Brighton Ave.
If you’re craving a little fro-yo, Mixx is the place to go. With a “weigh and pay” system, you pay for only how much you order. Pick your favorite fro-yo flavor (18 to choose from) and cover it with toppings like fresh fruit, cereal, candy bars, and fudge. Mixx is locally owned and the frozen yogurt is made in-house daily, using 2 percent reduced fat milk, probiotic-focused culture, and a tart base. It’s a great place to hang out with friends while enjoying a little something sweet.
70 Brighton Ave.
Nile Lounge opened in 2007 as the first hookah lounge in Allston. Popular with college students, Nile offers high-quality hookah at a reasonable price, and has a large beverage and food menu. The laid-back atmosphere is perfect for either an afternoon hookah session and snack with friends or for an evening of upbeat entertainment; the lounge features local DJs. The signature hookah blends are the most popular, including the Habibi, Cleopatra, and Café Nile. For a full list of special flavors, check here. You can request additional flavors for your hookah and even get a fruit bowl, a switch from the traditional clay bowl style of smoking. You must have a current ID showing you are 18 years of age or older to enter.
White Horse Tavern
116 Brighton Ave.
White Horse Tavern’s casual, comfy ambience is a fine backdrop to a sit-down meal or a casual game of billiards. It features thrice-weekly trivia games as well as 15 high-def plasma TVs. It’s a little on the expensive side if you’re on a student budget, but a great place to take the parents when they come to visit.
155 Brighton Ave.
Known for its chill and relaxed vibe, Refuge Café is a favorite spot for students to meet friends, grab something to eat, or get some work done. The café has free Wi-Fi and lots of table space, and if you get bored studying and need inspiration, you can stare up at the ceiling with its replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos. Prices are cheap, and they brew a great cup of coffee.
Brighton Music Hall
158 Brighton Ave.
Formerly called Harper’s Ferry, this music venue is a favorite of Allston residents, but attracts music lovers from all over Boston. It is known for hosting some of the nation’s best touring indie and alternative acts. Tickets are available at the Paradise Rock Club box office, 967 Comm Ave, Boston, 617-562-8800, and at the Music Hall itself one hour before events begin. Check here for upcoming shows.
200 Brighton Ave.
This dive bar is an Allston staple: the mostly-under-30 crowd gathers here on weekends to take advantage of the free darts and unlimited free popcorn, as well as the cheap pitchers of beer. Although food is not served and the bar is cash-only, the place is popular with students, who come to enjoy the pool table and jukebox. This is the place to go for a night of socializing, as the Sil is famous for attracting a wide spectrum of patrons from all of Boston’s scenes. But be warned: single guys may have trouble getting in by themselves, so be sure to show up with a diverse group of friends.
At the Buzzer
81 Harvard Ave.
Sneakerheads, unite. This sneaker-hat consignment shop opened in 2008 and works with sellers to set the price of the sneakers they bring in. The seller gets 80 percent of the total sale, the store 20 percent. Current offerings can be viewed online. In addition, the store is a licensed retailer for New Era and Kangol. Its walls are lined with limited-edition, throwback, and just plain upscale sneakers and more than 100 styles of caps and snapbacks. You’ll find a large selection of Air Jordan and Nike, as well as many lesser-known brands. At the Buzzer also runs a basketball league that competes in circuits around Boston. More information on the league can be found here.
155 Harvard Ave.
If you’re thinking about a tattoo, this is the place to come. There are currently five artists on staff and consultations can be scheduled over the phone. Prices are lower than, or comparable to, other tattoo parlors in the area. If you’re a tattoo novice, you can flip through the artists’ portfolios to decide who can best draw what you have in mind. However, make sure you are over 18 years of age and bring an ID with you or service will be refused.
180 Harvard Ave.
This “new and recycled fashion” chain offers a counterpoint to Urban Renewals. The store is well organized by type of clothing and size, with a friendly staff and a wide selection. It sells both men’s and women’s clothing (including tons of shoes for both sexes). The store buys or exchanges clothes. Just make sure to call ahead (617-779-7901) to find out what styles it is interested in purchasing.
Getting there: By foot, walk down Comm Ave away from Kenmore Square. You’ll know you’ve reached Allston when the avenue veers left. By MBTA, take the Green Line B trolley to either Harvard Avenue or Packard’s Corner.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Allston area.
This story originally ran August 6, 2008; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.
Learn more about neighborhoods around Boston here.