Exploring Boston's Hot Chocolate Cafés
When New Hampshire chocolate guru Larry Burdick opened his first Boston-area L.A. Burdick shop in 1999, I was working as a junior staffer at Boston Magazine. One day, two of my colleagues, Lisa and Kelly, decided to head over to Harvard Square to have a look. There were rumors of hot chocolate as thick as pudding, like the kind they make in Spain.
Two hours later, Kelly was lying prone on an office sofa, lights dimmed, arm shielding her eyes. “It was too much for her,” Lisa said. “She drank the whole thing.”
The kind of hot chocolate L.A. Burdick brought to town—essentially chocolate ganache thinned with just a bit of steamed milk—was a decadent novelty. With a nod to its richness, Burdick’s called it “Drinking Chocolate,” and as much as I love it, I’ve never been able to drink more than half of a small serving. But it’s wonderful.
Today, you can find intensely rich hot chocolate in many Boston venues, including cafes like the Thinking Cup in the South End, Flour Bakery, in Cambridge and Boston, and Voltage Coffee & Art in Cambridge. More exciting, Boston has several shops dedicated exclusively to hot chocolate—places where you can buy truffles and bon bons and sit down with a cup. Some also serve food. And in this season of romance and freezing temperatures, it seemed like a good time for a roundup.
This British chain opened its American flagship store on Boston’s Newbury Street in 2009. The company produces a full line of chocolate confections (flavors include Shortbread Cookie Caramel, Orange Praline, Pecan Brownie, Liquorice Caramel, and Hazelnut Melt) and grows beans on its St. Lucia estate, where they also operate a boutique hotel and a restaurant devoted to “cacao cuisine.”
The hot chocolate comes in several varieties, including a 70% cocoa content bittersweet blend with wonderfully rich fruit and nut flavors, plus creamy milk chocolate (40% cocoa) and salted caramel flavors—a customer favorite, according to my barista (I found it too sweet). There are also chocolate-coffee blends and single-variety cocoas. Stick with the classic dark chocolate and grab a seat in the back of the shop. You’ll be surrounded by boxed treats in every flavor, and the shop is generous with samples, so come hungry.
There’s also a room in the back for private tasting parties available by appointment.
Hotel Chocolate, 137 Newbury St., Boston. 617-391-0513; hotelchocolat.com
This large chocolate shop/restaurant—part of a mid-size international chain out of Israel—across Boylston Street from the Prudential Center hits you at the door with the scent of chocolate, thanks in part to the chocolate warming tank right next to the hostess stand.
It’s a lovely way to come in from the cold. The full-service menu offers items sweet and savory, many accented with chocolate (like the waffle fries with chili and cocoa). They have invented a way to combine the salad and the waffle—namely by putting one on top of the other—in a way that I admire. Max Brenner is clearly a man of ideas.
The highlight of the menu, in my opinion, is the chocolate fondue, which comes in milk, dark, or white chocolate flavors and can be paired with everything from churros to banana tempura. I’m less enthralled by the cocoa, which, even in its thickest “Italian” iteration, is thinner than the others I’ve tried. Some customers prefer this style, finding the Burdick too intense, as my long-ago colleagues did. But I’d rather drink a small amount of pure Chocolate intensity than sip a whole cup of pleasant brew.Max Brenner, 745 Boylston St., Boston. 617-274-1741;maxbrenner.com
It’s not just local boosterism that makes this shop my favorite of the three. There is simply no better hot chocolate—excuse me, drinking chocolate—than Burdick’s.
Why? The texture is the creamiest, the flavors more intense. This is a one-two-three punch of chocolate and not for the faint of heart (those folks can choose the milk or white chocolate blends). This is a chocolate to sit and sip and contemplate.
The cozy cafe areas in both the Harvard Square and Back Bay shops invite a mid-day meditation, though limited seating means that your thoughts may be be interrupted by impatient stares from arriviste table-seekers. Just ignore them.
Drink your cocoa straight, or pair it with assorted cakes and dainties from the pastry department.
This is a chocolate nerd’s paradise. The hot cocoa comes in three main blends (dark, milk, and white), plus multiple single source varietals (Bolivia, Grenada, Brazil, etc.). And you can buy finely shaved chocolate in bags to take home and mix up yourself.
Now, I can’t mention chocolate in Boston without giving a shout-out the folks at Taza Chocolate in Somerville. Their stone-ground chocolate makes wonderful hot chocolate, and they also offer factory tours (with samples) every day except Monday. More information here.
Finally, if you’re a fan of chocoalte and history, don’t miss the Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop exhibit at the Old North Church. It takes you through the history of chocolate in the U.S. (did you know there were chocolate houses here in 1700?), shows you how chocolate was made before the invention of tempering machines, and lets you taste a sample of an 18th century chocolate blend. I visited the site last spring and wrote about it here.