Move over New York. Boston has the charm and the shops. With the arrival of a chic Mandarin Oriental hotel, our correspondent finds the city has much to excite and delight

Stylish luxury at the trendsetting store Louis Boston

Stylish luxury at the trendsetting store Louis Boston

Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library

During a recent week, a Los Angeles Lakers star eyed a rare 12-carat blue diamond ring at a 212-year-old jewellers, while Arnold Schwarzenegger commissioned a portrait at a nearby art gallery, and Prince Aga Khan purchased organic perfume from the neighbourhood’s venerable antiques store. Welcome to the new old Boston. What would Henry James have thought?

The scene was set for what would become an unprecedented display of glamour in the one-time antithesis of glitz

A Valentino storefront

A Valentino storefront

The interior of Shreve, Crump & Low

The interior of Shreve, Crump & Low

Indeed, a generation ago – never mind a century – such displays of purchasing power for luxury goods and services would have been unthinkable in Boston’s hidebound Back Bay district. Anything more showy than a spring tulip was decidedly not Proper Bostonian. Sure, since the Back Bay was created by landfill in the latter half of the 19th century, it has had some shops catering to the carriage trade. But they were literally and figuratively overshadowed by the area’s many landmark institutions, from Trinity Church to Boston Public Library.

Bordered by historic Boston Common on the east, Back Bay extends nearly a mile to Massachusetts Avenue on the west. (A block or two further are the revitalised Kenmore Square and the World Champion Red Sox’s Fenway Park.) Back Bay comprises three stately residential streets paralleling the Charles River (Beacon, Commonwealth and Marlborough), with a broad grassy promenade running the length of Commonwealth. There are two boulevards with shops, restaurants and apartments, Boylston and Newbury, and eight short cross streets, running from Arlington to Hereford.

It was not until the late 1990s, propelled by an influx of affluent international students, that Back Bay’s 18-block primary shopping area began to rival New York or Los Angeles for luxury emporia. (As if to underscore the transition, by then the magazine of the moment was the Improper Bostonian.) The scene was set for what would become an unprecedented display of glamour in the one-time antithesis of glitz.

The Charles River at dusk

The Charles River at dusk

A display at Barneys

A display at Barneys

When Mandarin Oriental opens its doors this summer in the heart of Boston’s Back Bay, it will find itself at home amid the thrill of the new and the comfort of the established. Among others coming to the MO complex are a world-class salon, yoga-inspired leisurewear company, fine bedlinen brand and caviar store. Tired shoppers can retreat to The Spa and indulge in an exclusive range of treatments that will delight the senses. It will also be the new home for the restaurant, L’Espalier, which the Boston Globe called ‘the epitome of formal dining in Boston’. The elegant dining room is moving from its ornate but cramped townhouse on Gloucester Street around the corner to Mandarin Oriental, where it will double its size. Famous for food and service since 1978, L’Espalier is a primary destination for memorable meals in Boston.

Chef McClelland at L’Espalier at Mandarin Oriental, Boston

Chef McClelland at L’Espalier at Mandarin Oriental, Boston

The entrance to Vose Galleries

The entrance to Vose Galleries

To be sure, the neighbourhood sparkles these days like the $385,000, 20-carat, yellow canary diamond at Shreve, Crump & Low. But the atmosphere, like the store – America’s oldest jewellers – is imbued with respect for tradition. Established in 1796 on downtown Washington Street, Shreve’s moved to Back Bay in 1933. Creator of tennis’s Davis Cup and its signature Gurgling Cod pitchers, Shreve’s had fallen on difficult times when, in 2006, local jeweller David Walker bought the company, saving it from bankruptcy.

Walker restored the store’s location at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston streets, wooing back popular staff, valued sellers of its crystal and china, and patrons. (He wouldn’t identify the Lakers player ogling the blue diamond.) ‘For the first time in 30 years,’ says Walker, who designs many of the store’s pieces, ‘Shreve’s can offer premium merchandise and ownership by a local Bostonian.’ He points with pride to the grandfather clock in the corner. On its face is engraved ‘Jones, Ball & Poor, Boston’, which, explains Walker, was an earlier name of what is now Shreve’s. ‘I’ve been offered a hundred thousand dollars for that clock,’ he says, ‘but it’s not for sale. It’s part of the Shreve legacy.’

Directly across Boylston Street from Shreve’s is Louis Boston, another example of Boston-baked merchandising, now a retail trendsetter. With perhaps the hippest collection of couture under one local roof, Louis Boston looks like the natural history museum it once was. The brick edifice is home to four levels of luxury clothing, accessories, home goods and Boston Public bistro (where Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen were spotted cosying up over lunch).

Hancock Tower on Copley Square

Hancock Tower on Copley Square

‘What we offer, and what is mostly abandoned these days,’ says Louis Boston owner Debi Greenberg, ‘is that we make the customer look like an individual. If something is too recognisable, I won’t sell it.’ From Louis Boston – with $17 campy ‘Queen of Clean’ greetings cards to $3,000 Kiton and Brioni suits – it’s mere steps across Berkeley Street taking you back in time.

Brooks Brothers, ‘established 1818’ (albeit in New York), epitomises the Harvard Yard look, like the ubiquitous bronze historic markers scream Back Bay. Today, with rows of pastel shirts, sweaters and, yes, women’s clothes, the brand is Boston proper with a twist. Egyptian cottons are now, for instance, ‘non-iron’.

Echoing the new/old Boston chorus of the neighbourhood, a block or so from Brooks Brothers to the eastern tip of Boylston, are a coterie of the finest designer shops in the world, including Hermès, St John, Sonia Rykiel, Escada and Jacadi. Steps away, on Newbury, the fabulous parade continues with Burberry, Chanel, Armani, Akris, Cartier, DKNY, Ermenegildo Zegna and Valentino. All on the first block.

Meandering a few more blocks west on Newbury, that is if you can tear yourself away from, for instance, the butter-soft sweaters at Loro Piana, you reach MaxMara, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren (four levels), Nanette Lepore and Kate Spade, to name a few. For household and personal adornments, continue on to visit Diptyque, with its custom candles; Kiehl’s and MAC for deluxe cosmetics; Teuscher chocolatier and (not that we mean to imply cause and effect of the sweets) Emerge day spa and salon.

At Marcoz Antiques on Newbury, Prince Amyn Aga Khan bought a favourite of his, the natural fragrance, Agraria. Proprietor Marc Glasberg has amassed a stock of rarities, especially 18th- to 20th-century European furnishings that, he says, attract connoisseurs like Paul Newman, the Kennedys and Ralph Lauren. On a recent visit, a local lady spotted an 1880s Spode porcelain basin for $150. ‘I thought it would be $4,000,’ she warbled. ‘Incredible.’

Boston has energy and style. It’s old but young. You feel you’re in a city, just without the chaos and mayhem

‘This is a city in blossom,’ says Glasberg, who has been in business 35 years. ‘Probably due to the hospitals and universities, there is an international flavour. But it’s easy to navigate. We can walk out the door and have all this shopping, plus the arts, museums and libraries.’

Antiques at Mohr & McPherson

Antiques at Mohr & McPherson

Indeed, the shopping – while fortuitously clustered on Newbury – encompasses two luxury malls, Copley Place and the Shops at Prudential Center, plus bustling Boylston Street. New at Copley Place is Barneys, an offshoot of the New York emporium perhaps most famous for its Simon Doonan windows. The Boston version, which opened last year, is indoors, but it snaps with sass and style, a concierge and, of course, personal shoppers. From the headless mannequins to the ‘It’s Always Downtown Even When It’s Uptown’ Co-Op boutique, from the 38 lines of women’s designer shoes and a denim department all of its own, to its two floors of Balenciaga, Doo.Ri, Etro and more, Barneys has become a Back Bay destination.

Home to Tiffany & Co, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Jimmy Choo and more, Copley Place also houses Neiman Marcus, with three floors of labels including Prada, Gucci, Kosta Boda and Yves Saint Laurent. Among its 100 shops are boutiques for Boston girl, Gretchen Monahan, of Gretta Luxe and Grettacole. Monahan opened shop in Boston in 1995. She now owns five salons, spas and boutiques, is featured on television show, A Makeover Story, and offers wisdom in the book, Ladies Who Launch.

Attached to Copley Place by enclosed walkways are the 75 upgraded and expanded shops at Pru. They include anchors Saks Fifth Avenue and a revamped Lord & Taylor, plus boutiques such as Sephora, Swarovski and Godiva. Outside again, backtrack a bit on Boylston Street to browse in charmers like The New England Historic Genealogical Society or the Gloucester Street Cigar Company. Head east on Boylston back to the A-B block (between Arlington and Berkeley), no more than a 10-minute walk, to explore Mohr & McPherson.

Via Matta Restaurant

Via Matta Restaurant

Launched nearly 20 years ago by Kevin McPherson, this importer and purveyor of furniture, carpets and accessories from around the planet is, excuse the pun, a real trip. Among the delights are hand-selected Chinese altar tables, vintage teak, Japanese tansu and much more.

As might be expected, Back Bay is also home to celebrated international cuisine. French, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Asian, Indian, Korean and more abound in bistros, cafés, steakhouses and world-famous dining rooms.

The shopping district is bracketed by two of the best known, most highly acclaimed restaurants in the country. On the eastern end, off Arlington Street in Park Square, is Via Matta, a creation of famed chef, Michael Schlow. It’s a favourite haunt of the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Bono and corporate mogul Jack Welch.

Women’s fashion at Louis Boston

Women’s fashion at Louis Boston

‘Boston has energy and style,’ says Via Matta co-owner Esti Parsons, herself named by the Boston Globe as one of the city’s ‘most stylish’ people. ‘But it is a peaceful city. It’s old, but young. It has great shopping, but in an atmosphere that is less frenetic than other cities.’

At the western end of Back Bay is restaurant Clio, owned by chef Ken Oringer, winner of the  James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Northeast award in 2001. A former chef at Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco, Oringer has opened four restaurants in Boston in the past 10 years. ‘Back Bay is perfect for me,’ says Oringer. ‘Everyone who comes to Boston comes to Back Bay, and can stroll Newbury Street or Commonwealth Avenue as if they live there. It’s the city’s most sophisticated area, but has a very neighbourhood-y feel.’

Similarly, the small town/big city feel is embraced by Mario Russo, the district’s high-end hair stylist, with salons on the first block of Newbury and in Louis Boston. ‘I have clients from all over the world,’ says Russo, who opened here in 1985, ‘who are always saying how clean and beautiful the city is, and everyone is so nice.’

Peaceful calm on the chic streets of Boston

Peaceful calm on the chic streets of Boston

Russo, who sits on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art, singles out another  aspect of Back Bay: its galleries. On the proper Bostonian side is Vose Galleries, in business since 1841. Almost as established is the Copley Society of Art, America’s oldest non-profit art organisation. Founded in 1879 and named for John Singleton Copley, the nation’s most famous 18th-century artist, the aged gallery showcases – you guessed it – young artists.

For more contemporary works, visit the galleries on Newbury Street of Barbara Krakow or Kidder Smith. It was at the latter that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, were browsing recently, no doubt attracted by a modernistic likeness of Shriver’s uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, in the window. ‘No,’ said the gallery’s Erika Carlson of the titular Terminator, Schwarzenegger didn’t buy that. ‘But he asked the artist, Ann Strassman, to do a portrait of him and his family.’

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Mandarin Oriental, Boston

776 Boylston Street,
Boston, MA 02199 USA

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