“I think I’m now officially sick to death of the ‘Keep Calm and…’ meme. Why can’t people just keep it classy and stick with the original meaning? Why do you have to add every single geek reference to it? ‘Keep Calm and Chive On?’ What the hell?”
It was another day at Boston Comic Con, where my faith in humanity was daily shattered by attendee’s fashion choices (“oh.. that must be his fancy dress Batman tshirt.”) I have no problem with kids wearing these shirts, but people over 30? Even 40 years old doing it? I just find something really ‘off’ about that.
While sales were steady, I started debating with myself if I should have spent a couple days the week before working on portraits of Tom Brady or David Ortiz. I would have been more comfortable with doing something like that then with doing some random superhero illustration, which you couldn’t swing a dead cat finding seven different copies of from artists around me. Could probably cover all the bases if I did a Steampunk Tom Brady.
In the end, I did a quick illustration of ‘Lemongrab’ (from ‘Adventure Time’) which turned into a sort of blessing and a curse. It was very sweet seeing a fair number of children that passed by my table and pointed at the drawing with a huge smile upon their face. On the other hand, the amount of people (all adults) that passed screeching ‘Unexceptable!’was fairly annoying and had me debating some of the artistic choices of my life.
It was a bit after 7pm, with the Con over, that Kelly and I walked by Drink (348 Congress St.) with the idea of getting a cocktail. Over the last year or two, Drink has been getting a lot of press about the high quality of their craft cocktails (including on David Wondrich’s list of ‘Best Bars in America.’) We had visited the new cocktail lounge late one Monday night on our last visit to Boston. While the decor of Drink is very minimal, the drinks were excellent. However, this time there was a line out the door and we passed it by. There was no way we were going to wait in line (I hate waiting for the bus as well.) Kelly and I needed a drink now.
So, after a quick T ride out of South Station, we made our way into the South End and another favorite haunt: Delux (10 Chandler St.), which was back in operation after a short hiatus.
After many years, Delux was sold and had closed its doors earlier in the year when we were last in the city. Images of slick mainstream high end cocktail lounges serving the club crowd rapidly passed through our minds. Thankfully however, this was only a temporary event as the business was sold to some of the former employees, so it had “stayed in the family.”
This was one of the first bars that I took Kelly to during her first visit. Because of that, this is one of the places that epitomizes Boston for her.
“It’s exactly the same… but cleaner,” Kelly commented as we walked in and sat down at the end of the bar. … And it was. Delux was still Delux. Sure, it looked as if it was given a good scrubbing, clean wood and a new dark ceiling, but the old Elvis memorabilia and Christmas lights were still scattered about the bar. The record sleeves and nude oil paints covered the walls, joined by a large portrait of Nick and Nora Charles (how apt!) The lone TV set high up on the right hand side of the bar was no longer set to the Cartoon Network, but to TV Land. Old Partridge Family episodes played that eventually bleed into the 80’s film ‘Beat Street.’
The whole place gave me an instant feeling of nostalgia of when I lived in the area. This was one of the first bars that I took Kelly to during her first visit. Because of that, this is one of the places that epitomizes Boston for her (the other place being Bukowski’s, which we’ll get to soon.) Kelly ordered a Long Trail Ale while I went again for a Narragansett. I only had a couple days back in Boston, so I was drinking it as much as I could. I knew it would be months before my next trip back.
We start chatting with Thomas, our bartender, about all the changes and how the bar was back in the day. He tells me about a ‘Myrna Loy’ cocktail that he and the other bartenders came up with late one night. Of course, I instantly wanted to try one. He grinned and told me that he would make me one if he could actually remember the recipe (he never did.) After a quick break, Kelly told me that even the restrooms were also cleaned up. The women’s room had been papered entirely in pages from Kay Thomson’s ‘Eloise’ which Kelly loved. She said it was ok, though – they may have taken away “Eloise” but they replaced it with framed vintage bra ads, which was just fine. I wondered how the men’s room fared. When I opened the door, sure it was cleaned up, but… it was exactly the same: Old comic book pages covered in years of graffiti. I mentioned it to Thomas. “Oh, there was no way that we could have changed that. It’s iconic.”
After a couple texts, some of my cartoonist friends from Colorado stumbled out of a cab and joined us. It was their first trip to the city and I thought we would show them a little slice of Boston. We also met a great young lady named Maddie at the bar, who was interested in comics, Comic Con, and wondered how the day went. After another round and a quick snack, all of us decided to hit the road and work our way up Boylston.
As I was paying my tab and saying goodbye to Thomas, the waitress approached me. “Didn’t you use to drink at Flash’s? About ten years ago…” Christ… where did the time go? Yes, I did indeed use to drink there… and after a moment (it was slightly out of context) I also recognized the waitress. I was more shocked that, not only was this the second time during this trip to be recognized, but also after ten years.
We headed out, through Copley, and up Boylston on our way to Bukowski Tavern (50 Dalton St).
I have friends in Colorado who, when I mention this bar in Boston, get all uptight. “Why would they name it that?”, “Would Bukowski even drink there?”, “Can I get a whiskey there? Bukowski loved whiskey. You can’t call a bar Bukowski’s if you don’t serve booze!” These friends are missing the point. No, they don’t serve whiskey. Just beer… great beer. In fact, they have about 20 taps, and more bottles than you can count, all from a diverse range of breweries from the locals to the imports and everything in between. Trust me, if you like beer, it’s good.
Bukowski’s door is right on the edge of an overpass, and the few windows it has look down onto the highway below – the only thing distinguishing the bar from the gray concrete surrounding it is its bright red paint. Oh, and a neon sign reading “Dead Authors Club”. It’s a long shotgun space, with a bar that runs most of the length. Hanging above the bar, for the whole length, are large glass mugs, and the back wall is lined with bottles. So, it’s a small place, and a well-loved place. And a crowded place.
Luckily, our usual table by the window was free, so we crammed all of around it, looked over the beer book, and the daily specials. I continued with Narragansett, and Kelly went for an Avery Ellie’s Brown. The rest of the table ordered their beers and soon, snacks started arriving – tater tots, white-trash cheese-dip with fresh made tortilla chips, sweet potato fries. The next few hours were a blur of more beers, tater tots, and comics talk. Lots of comics talk.
“30 Miles of Crazy?… So, what’s your book about?”, one of the many convention-goers asked me as they pass and stop by my table at the Seaport World Trade Center in South Boston that afternoon.
“Well, it’s drinking stories. Some from Denver, Boston, and Philadelphia. Stories about the strange people you meet in bars or on street corners.”
“Oh… I’m only 18, so I don’t know anything about that.”
“My boyfriend is 21… but he’s kinda straight-edge, so he won’t be interested either.”
… and that’s pretty much how most of the afternoon went for us at our table over Day One of Boston Comic Con. I never thought it would be that hard to sell a comic about drinking stories (or portraits of famous drunks) to a Boston crowd. But the crowd was quite young and this was probably the most mainstream show I’ve ever done (and I’ve done San Diego every year for close to 10 years straight.) There was a notable lack of Indy cartoonists. People were just uninterested and I didn’t really deal in Batman or Spider Man prints.
“So, where would you like to get a drink? I don’t know this area,” Kelly said to me as we left the convention hall and headed across Fort Point Channel. We originally stopped in to check out the hotel bar across the street from the Con (I believe it was called TAMO), but a quick glance offered a tame inoffensive bar, a club crowd with pink cocktails, and very offensively loud techno music. Not our scene at all. Part of me had thought it may be wise to stick around, bear through it all, try to talk and have a drink with some of the rest of the artists at the convention… but I was back in my hometown. I’d rather go visit some of the old stomping grounds.
Kelly and I walked over the Channel, passing by several bars (like ‘Whiskey Priest’ and ‘The Barking Crab’) that held little interest, and started wandering through the Financial District till we approached Downtown Crossing, an area I was much more familiar with. Walking up Summer Street, took a turn at Kingston, and again found ourselves at J. J. Foleys at Downtown Crossing (21 Kingston St.)
“Wait… you have Yuengling?!” Kelly asked wide eyed.
Now, this isn’t the original Foleys, which is further south on E Berkeley Street, off Washington Street in the South End; but this is the Foley’s that I visited when I worked in the area. It’s a family-run Irish pub that can get quite loud with the blend of young college students and people from the neighborhood. Walking in, I was surprised how quiet it was for a Friday night. A dimly lit room with a scattering of people in some of the booths lining the left hand wall, mirrors along the wall, and a deep wood bar. More people were in the further back area that was more open (and better lit) for dining. Kelly and I sat at the bar, underneath one of the TVs turned to ESPN and ordered a pair of Guinnesses. As the bartender turned and raised his hand to the tap…
“Wait… you have Yuengling?!” Kelly asked wide eyed.
“Yes, we do.”
“I’ll have a pint of that instead!” Kelly was excited. This was her first Yuengling in some time (since our last trip to Delaware Valley, two some years ago.) We had heard some rumors from my friends that the Pottsville, PA beer had finally made it up to New England. While I enjoy the beer, I also grew up with it. Kelly only discovered it about ten years ago and still gets excited whenever she has a chance to order one.
“Yuengling. Yuengling. Yuengling. It’s so fun to say!” Kelly was delighted. As usual.
One of the things we also noticed in Boston, which is quite different from most of the bars we frequent back in Denver, is that most of the bartenders are older – they’ve been working behind the bar for most of their adult lives, not just as something to do while they look for a 9-to-5. They are quite happy to talk and deal with you, but this is their livelihood, their career. I respect that. Now, we know many great bartenders back in Denver, but most of them are younger (many under 50). It was a striking difference.
After two rounds, the tension from the con started to leave us and we were debating our next step, which was dinner. So, we left J.J. Foley’s, walked through Chinatown, and headed over towards Stuart Street and the Theatre District.
“I love you so much…”, the drunken man said as he groped a potted bush outside one of the clubs along Stuart Street as we walked up to Jacob Wirth (31 Stuart Street), one of the oldest restaurants in Boston (since 1868), second oldest continuously operating one (after Union Oyster House.)
In a city known for its Irish heritage, it’s nice to find an old fashioned German beer hall smack dab in the middle of the city. An old, well-worn wooden bar, photos, framed famous signatures on menus, beer banners, and the late Sox game on the few TVs scattered about the place. The place was pretty crowded as well as we found ourselves walking into some sort of ‘singing night.’ No, this wasn’t karaoke. A gentleman played the piano in the larger back dining area and the crowd joined in. This was good old German beer hall group singing. Of course, the difference being that the crowd was singing the various hits of the 1970s: Abba, Journey, Beatles, and such.
Kelly and I found a cocktail table towards the front of the bar. We were away from most of the singing so we could talk; but still close enough to appreciate the roar of the crowd. We both ordered some of the House Dark and House Lagers, thinking German.. beer… House brew… Let’s go for that! It was only natural that both were very good. We were on our second round when the waitress accidentally brought me a cider instead of a lager (I guess it’s about the same color.)
Let’s stop for a moment to point out another rule of drinking that we’ve found to be utter true: If the waitress brings you the wrong drink, keep it. Not only will you have an extra drink, but likely get the correct drink for free. … and this was still the case. So, Kelly and I (and our buddy Chris B, who joined us) sipped our beers, talked, and watched the Sox as the crowd started singing ’Sweet Caroline.’ A warm feeling came up inside me and I smiled. Forget the con. I was back home
Several years ago, while Kelly and I were in New York for a couple days, we ran into and met David Wondrich at a bar (it was at Swift Hibernian Lounge, if you need to ask.) Over the course of our conversation, he asked the pair of us what bars have we been to and where are we going. Kelly pulled out a photocopied map of Lower Manhattan that was filled with little dots and x’s.
“Are those all bars?”, Mr Wondrich asked slightly surprised.
“Yep.”, Kelly replied. “That’s how we travel. We pretty much sightsee in local bars. You get a better idea of a place by their bars then at the local sites. We’re heading to the Double Down next…”
Yes, that is how we travel.
“Dammit, I need a smoke”, Kelly said in the early evening as we came up the escalator of from the train and onto Concourse C of Denver International Airport (D.I.A.)
“There is always Timberline”, I mentioned with a nod of my head towards the foggy windows in dark shadowy corner of the main rotunda of the Concourse. Being an international airport, D.I.A used to have several bars where you could take a break and have a smoke (one on each concourse as well as another in the main terminal before you passed through security) even after Colorado passed smoking bans almost ten years ago. The way D.I.A. got around the smoking ban was that it was an ‘international’ airport, so people passing through may not be from areas that have the ban. Why should they be punished? D.I.A. needed to give these travelers a place to relax as they passed through this airport – with only one central security area, once you are in, it is a really problem going back outside for one last smoke – especially if you are delayed. D.I.A. is also stuck in the middle of nowhere, fifty or so miles from anywhere (why again did they build it all the way out there? Oh yeah… corruption), meaning that if you do decide to leave to airport during a layover (or delay) there is absolutely no place to go. Unfortunately, as smoking bans became more popular in each state, there was a crackdown on these last remaining bars… until only the Timberline in Concourse C was left standing as the only smoking bar left at D.I.A.
Opening the door, we were hit face first by the predictable wall of smoke that had me for a small moment remembering what smoking in bars used to be actually like before the bans. That lasted for about five seconds. My nosed itched and I started coughing. Has it really been that long since the ban started? Though I have a cigarette (or a cigar… or a pipe) every now and then, it’s been many years since I’ve been a regular smoker. I was a bit surprised at my reaction. I waved at Kelly, who was in the middle of ordering a drink (you have to purchase a drink to stay in the smoking lounge), and surprisingly she saw me through the fog. I told her that I would meet her somewhere else… at another bar that wasn’t so choking.
For the most part, Kelly and I do really enjoy airport bars. They are so much like hotel bars, where you meet strangers in transit and hear their stories of other places, where they are heading, and random chatter. That’s one of the reasons Kelly always looks for a smoking lounge whenever she flies – nothing sparks conversation with random strangers like sharing a smoke.
I grabbed my bags and walked across the rotunda over to the Root Down.
The Root Down is another one of the new bar/restaurants that have been popping up all around the LoHi (Lower Highlands… why must everything have a trendy shortened name?) section of the city (they also own Linger, in the same neighborhood and mere blocks away – you might remember that place from our review a few weeks ago…). Recently, Root Down opened up a location here in D.I.A… cause what is better than having a trapped clientele that HAVE to drink/eat there? Nothing, apparently.
I mentioned to the hostess (there a hostess? In D.I.A?) that I just wanted to sit at the bar and started moving through the crowd with all my bags. This is a tedious exercise that all travelers have to manage. The problem was that the whole restaurant was tightly packed (they really do cram seats in there) and the only free seat left at that bar was in the far, far back corner, next to a business man tapping away on his computer who didn’t realize (or didn’t care) how much room he and his bags were actually taking up. I finally got to my seat and had to start battling for room between the wall, the bar, and the Gordon Gecko wannabe. Getting to my bar stool was a trial and felt way too much like the desk fighting scene from Brazil.
Apparently, sweetness does count for something.
I gave a great sigh as I finally settled down, ordered a rye from the bartender, and only gave Mr. Gecko a slight sarcastic frown. I was surprised to see Kelly come up moments behind me, smile at the business guy, and ask if the seat all his bags were on was taken. He gave a long grumble, but moved them without saying anything. Apparently, sweetness does count for something.
“I usually really enjoy having a drink and smoke over there,“ she gestured across the rotunda, “but it’s packed, there are no seats, and no one seems to really care about being polite and offering a seat to a lady anymore!” she said with a harrumph. Sometimes, the fact that she was raised by Southern parents comes out in odd ways. Or maybe she was making a point to Mr Gecko, next to us.
Anyway, Kelly got her beer while I looked around at the space. It was done in that kind of faux-mod 70’s style that I remember being really popular in trendy bars and diners about fifteen years ago. Apparently it’s making another resurgence. However, I did really like the random assortment of open suitcases underneath the bar top. Nice touch in an airport bar. The design of Root Down really did remind me that this was the same company that also owns Linger. There are those little things, random items placed out of context, which make me think of a redone hipster-ized version of Bennigans.
But enough of the design… how was the booze, you may well ask? Well.. it was fine and got the job done. They only real problem (aside from the price… this is an airport bar after all) was that since the place was so busy, it was hard to get the bartender’s attention. It was at some point during my second drink that Kelly informed me that our flight was now delayed two hours. I sighed. Another of the perils of traveling. I contemplated ordering another drink.
So our flight back to Boston was late… which was bad for another reason as well: most of the other passengers had another two more hours to get loaded up. Once we finally boarded our flight, the ten or so people behind us seemed to be of the belief that this flight was actually a party bus. As Kelly commented, “It was as if someone threw some wings and a jet engine onto an anonymous strip mall bar and shot it into the sky. A bunch of tracks suits, bad hair, and horsey laughter – the kind of older after-hours office crowd, normally sucking on Long Island Ice Teas and feeling naughty that they weren’t at home being responsible home-owners.” The horrifying thing was that after a long shift, the flight attendant was feeding them booze and joining in.
It was a long flight and the random singing of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ didn’t help at all. Why do they always choose THAT song?
It was after midnight when we finally landed in Boston, and drifting towards 1:30 am when we finally got out of the cab and arrived at our hotel: The Omni Parker House. We checked in and found that both of the hotel bars had just shut down. Dammit. After that flight, I needed a nightcap. I debated heading out around the corner to Barracuda Tavern for last call. I debated hitting the mini bar. I wound up simply going to bed and just starting fresh in the morning.
“Can you tell me where the Freedom Trail starts?” I heard the man ask me in a slow southern drawl as Kelly and I walked across Charles Street and entered the Public Garden the next morning.
“Oh yeah…”, I replied as I pointed across the street and into Boston Commons. “Just walk across the Commons, follow the path towards the church and Pahk Street Station. You’ll see a sign and the red brick path up to the State House.”
Kelly snickered. Not only was I still confused for a local, but the Boston already started to slip out again. It was only natural. I was back in the city that I still consider my home. Yes, I’m always up for a visit, but this time we came out to exhibit at Boston Comic Con over the weekend. However, that didn’t start till the next day, giving us a free afternoon just to wander around and hit some of the old haunts.
Now the amount of times I think about moving back to New England, I have to remind myself about one big thing: there are no happy hours. I was always told that it was based on some old puritanical law about selling alcohol at a discount, but yes, there are no happy hours in Boston. Sure, you may find a place claiming to have happy hour, but it is always discounted food specials, not booze. It’s a shame really.
Kelly and I wandered around Comm Ave and Newbury Street for a while before walking into Solas (710 Boylston St.) in Back Bay to meet some friends for lunch. I’d been here only a couple times while I lived in Boston. The reason being that the pub seemed a bit too… manufactured… like something you may see at Ireland exhibit at EPCOT for my tastes. You can’t swing a dead cat in this city without hitting any number of decent Irish pubs. However, we’ve been stopping by Solas during recent trips simply because it was an easy place to meet friends working in the office buildings in the area. In the end, any place that can pour a decent Guinness… I’m fine with. We came in early. Kelly and I moved towards at the same corner of the bar we always find ourselves in.
“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?” the bartender commented as he threw down some coasters in front of us. “About six-seven months since you were last here? And you sat right there as well.”
That’s a sign of a great bartender.
Kelly and I were surprised. It has been that long since we were last back in Boston… and the bartender remembered us. That’s a sign of a great bartender.
Owen (the mindful bartender) got us a couple Guinnesses as Etain and Kristen arrived. Both were people that I used to work and drink with up and down Boylston and through the South End as well. In the years since I left, they have become responsible adults, married, started families, and no longer tear through the evening with a beer and a shot.
“God, I miss it,” Kristen tells me after her second pint. “I hate having to be responsible.” She originally told us that lunch with us would have to be brief as she had a meeting in the afternoon. As the second pint became a third one, Kristen kept on her blackberry, pushing the meeting back, and planning another round. After two or so hours, she couldn’t put it off any longer and left, swaying slightly.
Leaving Solas, Kelly and I continued wandering around, heading back across the Public Gardens and Boston Common towards the statehouse. Half a block down Park Street from the capitol is a small little cocktail lounge that we were told about on one of our previous trips. We’ve been there a couple times now and our buddy, Brant, wanted to meet us there as they opened for a drink. Unlike Solas, catering more to the office worker crowd, the location of No. 9 Park (9 Park St.) made it much more suited for the political statehouse worker.
Brant was waiting outside just as the doors of the bar were opening and we walked up to take seats at the bar. Kelly went for the Jack’s Abbey Framingham Ale while I did my standard Old Fashioned. While I do like this bar, and they also make a good cocktail, there is something that throws me off about the place. I don’t think it’s the size (it is a small lounge), but more of the lack of character. Could be the closeness to the Statehouse, but the only thing I could really write about No. 9 Park was “it’s very nice.”
After our second round, we decided to keep the party moving along. Brant was on his way home, through Davis Square in Somerville. So, all of us jumped onto the T and took the Red Line out to Davis. Now, this is the area I lived in when I first moved to Boston from Philadelphia many years ago. Because of that, I still really enjoy the vibe of this place (and oddly, keep thinking about Man or Astroman when I walk through it – I was listening to a lot of them back then.) Sure, the area is rapidly gentrifying and Tufts is right around the corner, but a lot of it is still an old Somerville neighborhood a block or two away. The only other remnant of the area’s ‘neighborhood’ past is the Sligo… which I was happy to see was still open as we passed by. The wood door was still there and some neon show through the slatted windows, but it looked like the same old bar where I watched way too many Sox and Patriots games.
A friend had introduced us to the Saloon (255 Elm Street – another one of the hidden speakeasy type bars that are popping up all over the place) the last time we were in town. Both Kelly and I enjoyed our time there and were willing to give it another go, though it also seemed a bit artificial (slap a handlebar mustache and apron on a guy and make him a bartender!) and I think they use way too much Fernet Branca in most of their custom cocktails. Still, my Old Fashioned was quite good as Kelly downshifted to a Narragansett.
After the second round, Brant stumbled off while Kelly and I walked around the corner to our favorite BBQ place in the nation: Redbones (55 Chester Street), which I know is a bold claim (especially for a place in Somerville, MA). Most people I mention Redbones to dismiss me simply cause I’m from the East Coast (“What the hell would you know about BBQ?”), however Kelly’s family is firmly from the south… and she will tell you. This is one of the best.
Aside from the food, a big reason we love Redbones is the bar – just sitting at the bar, away from the restaurant area. It’s a great one, with locals from the all around the neighborhood who wouldn’t go into the more flashy college bars (Joshua Tree?) that have been popping up as the area’s been gentrifying. Kelly and I sat in the corner, drinking Narragansetts, with pulled pork (Kelly) and a catfish sandwich (me), chatting with the locals about the Sox, the coming Patriots season (the first pre-season game was on the TVs just then), and Boston Comic Con that was starting the next day (“So… there will be all these people in costumes, right? Wanting to be Spider Man or something?”). Redbones is always a great way to ease our way back into the Boston we love.
After drinks and dinner, Kelly and I walked down Elm Street and over to Porter Square in the cool summer evening. We ran into a lovely older woman walking her dog.
“You’re out from Colorado? They have all the weed there, right?” she commented as we smiled and nodded. “I don’t see what the big deal is. In the 60’s, marijuana was everywhere.”
She was utterly brilliant. She mentioned that she’s lived in the neighborhood almost her entire life; that it’s getting way too expensive, and the costs are threatening to chase her out. Kelly tried to pet her little dachshund – “Don’t mind him – he’s old and blind and deaf. He barely pays attention to me!” she said. After chatting a bit more about the changes in her neighborhood over the past few years, we said ‘good night’, hopped back onto the T, and back over to Pahk Street and our hotel. Thankfully, Parker’s Bar inside the Omni Parker House (60 School Street) was still open for a night cap. The beer list was limited, so we both settled for some Sam Adams. The Pat’s pre-season game had ended, they lost, but no one really cared. It was pre-season.