“Have you been to Backbar yet?” Adam at The Boston Shaker asked Kelly and I as he wrapped up our new cocktail glasses and bottle of bitters (Bittermens Boston Bittahs). The Boston Shaker (66 Holland St.) has become a ‘must stop’ in Davis Square, Somerville for us at every trip back. It’s pretty much a booze supply store. No, not a liquor store, but for everything else: glassware, muddlers, a staggering amount of different bitters, recipe books, booze history books, and all things needed to make your craft cocktail excellent.
“No,” Kelly replied. “Where is it?”
“Up in Union Square in Somerville. Try to make it there. Also, Brick & Motar in Central Square.”
“We’re supposed to hit Wink and Nod tonight. Know anything about that?”
Adam frowned. “Not really. That place is really new. In the South End, right?”
I nodded, gathered up our purchases, and told Adam that I would send him the latest copy of Modern Drunkard Magazine. Kelly and I headed out for our last full day in Boston and towards Harvard Square. After some brief stops for shopping (Harvard Book Store, Oona’s Vintage Clothing…), we walked through the door to basement bar of Shay’s (58 JFK St.)
Shay’s is another ‘coming home’ bar for me (yes, I know I have quite a few of them in Boston.) I used to sit at the corner of the well worn wood bar, drinking a Bass, reading Bukowski, and watching the Sox play on a Saturday afternoon. Nothing has changed in the 10 or so years that I’ve been coming here. It’s still a good beer bar (with some wines), low basement ceiling, red brick walls, several beer mirrors (the Yuengling one is new), and a TV in the far corner. This was a quiet pub atmosphere that makes you want to just spend your days sitting at the bar, looking through the basement window, and watching the feet of the students and tourists pass through Harvard Square.
It was a Monday afternoon, so not many people were in the bar. Just us, the bartender David, and a young woman at the far end who we quickly surmised was David’s girlfriend. After getting our drinks (a Yuengling and a Narragansett), David went quickly back to his lady friend. He seemed like a nice guy, but had horrible bar eyes. It took us a while to get our second round as he seemed loathed to be away from his friend.
After a bit, and a few more shopping stops down Mass Ave, Kelly and I wandered into the Central Square. Kelly loves this area because, while most of the rest of Boston & Cambridge are filled with students and university areas (Harvard on one side, MIT on another, Tufts is further up, BU is right across the Charles…), Central Square is a cross roads that reminds her of the grittiness of Colfax Avenue in Denver. Homeless, streetwalkers, and random screaming events all happen here. It’s no wonder that years ago, while wandering around the city on her own and through here, she was approached by a pimp kindly asking if she was looking for work.
Of course, while in the area, we had to hit the Cantab Lounge in Central Square (738 Massachusetts Ave.) Now, if any of my friends back in Denver ever came out to Boston with me (and getting them to do so would be like pulling teeth), THIS is the bar I would first take them. In the middle of the gentrifying Central Square, this is one of the last remnants of the old neighborhood. The Cantab is a straight cash only, beer and shot bar; and a live venue featuring jazz, blues, comedians and open mic nights. Years ago, I brought Kelly here to see the amazing Little Joe Cook on one of the many nights he performed each week. Sadly, Little Joe had recently passed away (age 91) and this was the first time we had been back.
The Cantab was dark, with the ever present Budweiser glass lampshades and Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. A few old men were huddled over their bottles of beer at the bar. Several times, various passersby stopped to peer through the window into the bar to see what was going on. Several of the old regulars sat in easy chairs in the back of the bar watching game shows (Family Feud) on the few TVs about the place. I recognized one of the gentlemen in the back as someone I got into drunken discussion about Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox years ago. He was someone that had been very proud of that his ‘Yankee Haters’ ball cap was sometime confused as a real Yankees cap.
“Karl! I just met the Poet Laureate of the Cantab! Right out front! And he recited a poem about me!”
“This place always reminds me of the South.” Kelly said, “… which is odd, I suppose… It’s the smell of the bar, I think. The old lingering smoke, the humidity, the coolness of the air, and the fact that there are game shows on all theTV. It reminds me of my Southern grandmother’s friends watching the same thing with their drinks and smokes.” She then excused herself to step outside for a smoke.
A few moments later, Kelly came in delighted! “Karl! I just met the Poet Laureate of the Cantab! Right out front! And he recited a poem about me!” She had stepped outside for a smoke and ended up chatting with some of the regulars, one of whom was a retired fireman (“He taught me the fireman’s handshake”) and the other, a slight man with ragged gray hair under a baseball cap was the Poet Laureate of the Cantab (he was also, apparently, a pool shark, and bowling master, and his poems have been in Harvard). Kelly got all of this information from the retired fireman, as the poet himself was quite shy.
As she was telling me all about her conversation, the Poet himself walked over and handed us a note. It seems that we inspired him to write a poem about us, wishing us well. Kelly, of course, was utterly delighted and thanked him profusely.
The two of you
It was my pleasure to meet
As a couple
You seem to get along real sweet
Do not argue or fight
Dance/drink and a night that together
That turns out dynamite
Our buddy Chris P joined us right after we got our second round of Yuenglings. Chris, while shipping strange and unusual things and body parts around the world for Harvard, is also our favorite bartender back at Shays. We caught up, discussed the convention, and all the places we’ve hit so far on this trip.
“Have you been to Backbar yet?” Chris asked. Christ… we are going to have to make it to this bar. But not on this trip…
After another hour or so, Kelly and I had to move on as we had dinner plans with more old friends (whom I’ve known since way back in Philadelphia) in the South End at Five Horses Tavern (535 Columbus Ave.)
This was a second trip to this restaurant, and it was just as lovely as our previous time, although much less crowded (probably cause it was early on a Monday night.) I enjoyed their Red Sangria as Kelly sipped on her Raspberry White while we perused the menu.
“The old Indian words out here are fantastic. I love the word ‘Woonsocket’! It sounds all medical and creepy”, Kelly says to me. “Oh dear lord, you came down with a case of Woonsocket!”
We eventually decided on some pork belly tacos, a couple of fish tacos, and the pork belly mac & cheese. I ended up with all the mac & cheese once Kelly discovered that it was made with blue cheese – a particular non-favorite of her (it makes her angry.) So, she ordered another fish taco instead.
We finished dinner, said our good-bye’s (after a quick stop back to the Piano Craft Guild where I once had a loft), and made our way to our friend’s house in the South End.
“Are you ready for Wink & Nod?”, Chris B asked as he handed me a glass of Green Spot whiskey at his place in Worcester Square.
“Sure. Is it far?”
Chris shrugged. “Not really. A good twenty minute walk. How has the rest of your trip been?”
“Pretty good.” I said taking another sip of the whiskey. “It was pretty cool that Kelly and I have been recognized by staff at three different bars over the weekend.”
“I can see why.” Claire, Chris’ wife mentioned. “You two stand out and are memorable. However, in New York, there’s couples like you on every corner.”
Dammit… New York…
Our walk through the South End was for the most part uneventful, till we encountered the massive film trucks and lighting rigs about Tremont Street near the Cyclorama. Something was going on and we found our later, it was the filming of ‘Ted 2’ (there’s another one coming out? Apparently). We passed by and walked over to the darkened entry and doorman of Wink & Nod (3 Appleton St.)
Wink & Nod is a recent downstairs cocktail lounge that several of my friends have been clamoring about. Just walking in, I could see why. Not only the door man, but the dim light, dark wood, vintage travel posters, and leather booths in a sunken bar area had me thinking that I walked into some 60’s Rat Pack film. It was easy to imagine Frank Sinatra holding court in one of the dark corner booths.
Chris and Claire had brought us to Wink & Nod, not only knowing we’d appreciate the atmosphere and cocktails, but also because it was ‘Tiki Monday’: service night at the bar. Kelly went straight for (and stuck with) the Clementine Clown Shoes Ale (which caused her to smile and repeat ‘Clown shoes!’ periodically) while I perused the special tiki drink list. I quickly noticed that all the tiki drinks on the limited menu were gin based… Nolet’s gin. Must have been a sponsor.
So, I started with ‘The Jerk’ (Nolet’s dry gin, cardamaro, fresh oj, fresh lemon juice, house falermum, coconut creme, old monk float) which also came in a faux-coconut mug. Pretty tasty, but didn’t rock my world. The second round was a ‘Forse Armate’ (gin, liquore strega, lemon juice, house orgeat), which I found good, but very ‘Gimlet-y.’ For the last round I went with the utterly ridiculously named ‘Anna Banana Fe Fi Fo Fanana Anna’ (gin, gifford’s banana, fresh pineapple, jerry thomas’ decanter bitters), which was likely my favorite of the lot.. and not just because it came in an excellent tiki mug. After that, it was getting late and time for the long walk back to the hotel.
We said our goodbyes (for now) to Boston the next morning. Kelly and I did a quick walk up Comm Ave to once again look at the trees and statues, had a drink and snack at Bukowski’s, took a cab out to Logan Airport, and had once last Yuengling at the Vineyard Grille in Terminal E (1 Harborside Dr.)
We did have a layover in Kansas City, MO on our way back to Denver. The only reason I mention it was that we also experience THE WORST AIRPORT BAR EVER. The airport itself was no great experience either, but then again… what airport is? The problem was that from our gate we could see a bunch of bars and restaurants, but all of them were on the other side of the security wall. You could not get to them without leaving and having to pass through security all over again. No thanks. We spied signs saying that the ’Stella Artois Brewpub’ was just down the hall, but when we found it… it was just a pop up bar in the back corner against a wall. Sure we could get a beer or cocktail, but that’s about it. Like drinking at a bus depot while waiting for your boarding number to be called. Both Kelly and I were startled by the complete lack of options at the airport. This led to further annoyance when, after we ordered the first round, the bartender asked if we would like another since “the final flight from this gate is heading out. I’m closing up in about 15 minutes.”
We ordered another round and grimly waited for our flight to be called.
“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?” the bartender, Megan, said to Kelly and I as we sat down that evening at the polished bar at the ever-classy Hawthorne (500 A Commonwealth Ave.) in Kenmore Square. “Weren’t you here back in January?”
“Wow. Yes, it has,” Kelly replied slightly startled. “You actually remember us from back then?”
“Yes,” Megan smiled. “It was my first week here and the two of you kind of stand out.”
This was the third time during this trip that we were remembered, which is truly a very nice feeling. On our last visit to the Hawthorne, back in January, we spent most of the evening here on Super Bowl night (as The Hawthorne, gratefully, has no televisions), drinking cocktails and having some excellent charcuterie. Now, Boston Comic Con was finally over and we were having a much needed recovery cocktail. It had been a frantic packing up of product and mad dash of getting everything back to the hotel, but that was behind us and we could finally get a drink. Most of our trips back to Boston normally always begin with drinks at The Hawthorne, as you may as well start from the top and work downward. However for this trip, we were ending the Con here.
The Hawthorne is a hotel bar that I always forget is actually a hotel bar. The Eastern Standard, the other great bar, is a few doors away; but I always prefer to come here. The bartenders are excellent (Megan and Jason were with us that night), the drinks are impeccable, and feel and ambience of the bar is amazing. The decor is kind of minimalistic, but not the industrial minimalism of a place like Drink in South Boston. The Hawthorne has an understated elegance and simplicity – the dark wood of the tables and floors complement the muted colors behind the marble-topped bar, allowing all the focus to be on the drinks and snacks. The low light and gypsy jazz over the speakers just add a great exclamation point on the whole experience. Yes, this place is that good. Kelly and I were coming down from the frantic pace of con exhibition. This is just what we needed.
“Treat this one with respect it deserves, gentlemen!” – CHB.
Gone, however, was the large bookish cocktail menu from our last visit to the Hawthorne. Megan tells us that they had gotten rid of that and replaced it with a set menu that changes every week. I found it fantastic when she told me the menus have been based on Charles H. Baker’s excellent book from the 40’s, ‘The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask’, which I had recently finished reading.
“We are still heartily of the opinion that decent libation supports as many million lives as it threatens; donates pleasure and sparkle to more lives than it shadows; inspires more brilliance in the world of art, music, letters, and common ordinary intelligent conversation, than it dims.” – Charles H. Baker
Kelly was more excited about the idea of having a ’true’ Champagne Cocktail (just champagne, sugar, and bitters – nothing else added). I went for the “Remember the Maine” (rye, vermouth, cherry herring, absinthe… “Treat this one with respect it deserves, gentlemen!” – CHB.)
As usual, Kelly also ordered a little selection from their small bites menu – the pretzel bites (which we love) – warm, chewy, with a bit of sea salt, served with a spicy bourbon mustard; and the spicy whipped ricotta (creamy ricotta mixed with sriracha , sprinkled with red pepper flakes and a drizzle of olive oil) which is served with pita and fresh veggies – a nice alternative to the ubiquitous hummus one usually finds. Megan also brought us a dish of olives to snack on as well. Kelly continued to study the small plates menu in case our hunger has not been sated.
For the second round, I went for the ‘East India Cocktail’ (amontillado sherry, dry vermouth, orange bitters, olive… “Being one for any man’s book, & garnered in The Royal Bombay Yacht Club, India (1932).” -CHB) while Kelly went for the Spencer Brewing Trappist Ale. This was one of the great booze finds of our trip. This Trappist Ale (from the monks at Saint Joseph’s Abbey) was from the first Trappist brewery in America, located in Spencer in “Western Massachusetts” (actually, right outside Worcester… which is west of Boston. True, though not that far out.) Kelly spent a bit of time admiring the beer before setting on her first sip – which left her delighted, “Ooooh! This is such a pretty beer! Slightly fruity, light and crisp, and it smells so lovely! It’s big without being –big- if you know what I mean? It is gorgeous – I am definitely going to want more of this!”
As the second round ended, we both ordered a Spencer Trappist Ale for the third. By this point, our buddy Joe S. joined us for a drink. We chatted and caught up on everything. After the third round, Joe offered to give us a lift back to the hotel. We said our goodbyes to Jason, Megan, and the Hawthorne (but it would be a brief hiatus as we were told the Hawthorne was doing a ‘Take Over Night’ at Denver’s Williams & Graham in October. We will be there.), but the problem was that I wasn’t ready to call it a night just yet. Once back by Park Street, I suggested we have a night cap at the bar that the hotel originally suggested to us our first night in: Barracuda Tavern (15 Bosworth Street).
The original idea was to stop by for one drink and to just check it out. It was located by the old ‘Littlest Bar’ that I used to frequent and is much missed (I’ve been told that it reopened somewhere in the Financial District, but that it’s a pale shade of its former self… and not so ‘little’ anymore). We passed by the overly flashy Nine Zero hotel and walk down the street back behind the Beantown Tavern… (a bar I don’t think I would ever set foot in. Sure it looks like a touristy sports bar [strike 1, to keep the sports metaphor going], but also ‘Beantown’? No, thank you), through the small nondescript doorway, and up the flight of steps to the Barracuda Tavern.
This was our first time there and it was fantastic. A small crowd of locals sat around the bar and the few tables. As soon as we walked up the stairs, the bartender came out, shook our hands saying “Hi! I’m Mickey! What will you have?” and I was sold. There were no fancy cocktails here. No, this is your father’s bar. This is a beer and a shot bar. Old reggae played over the stereo. There beer selection was amazing and a quick look at the food menu posted up on a chalkboard (pulled pork pizza, lobster sliders, salmon buffalo wrap, Lamb tacos…) had my eyebrow raised and wondering if the small plates we had at the Hawthorne were enough.
Kelly went for a Yuengling while I decided the try the House Stout. The idea of having “just one more” was quickly fading away as we talked to Mikey, Matt (“Wait, you do a comic about bar stories? I can give you bar stories!”), and some of the other regulars (including a gentleman from Scotland who commutes for work to Boston every couple of weeks.) The Boston accents were thick and made us feel right at home. Sure, there was some gentle ribbing (“You were at the Hawthorne? How classy! What the hell are you doing here?”) and we all laughed about it. Soon, Mickey wasn’t even asking me if I’d like another… just holding up a clean glass with a questioning look. Brilliant.
The house stout soon became a can of Narragansett (which I was happy to see was in a throwback classic can.) That ‘one last round’ also turned into four or five more. Kelly gave me that wide grin that I could tell that she was having a great time. Her large hug towards Mickey as we left only confirmed it.