“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.
“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.
Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon Street
Denver, CO 80211
“I think this is the line.”
It was early evening when Kelly and I walked up the large hill of Tejon Street, through the LoHi neighborhood, and towards the small bookstore that stands as the entrance to Williams & Graham. As a couple always looking around for fine cocktails, we have been to Williams & Graham many times. However this was the first time we ever encountered a queue of about ten people, all garishly attired in Hawaiian shirts (the best kind), who stood in front of the bookstore entrance. I generally hate standing in lines for just about anything (damn, my impatience!), but thankfully the wait was not that long. Several new tiki torches flanked the bookstore door to let people know that this was not your standard night at Williams & Graham. No, this was ‘Take Over Night.’ For one evening only, Williams & Graham was now Smuggler’s Cove (of San Francisco.)
Over the last several years, Williams & Graham has become one of our favorite bars in Denver. From the cunningly disguised bookstore entrance, filled with a variety of alcohol-themed books and a framed portrait of Esquire’s booze writer David Wondrich (full disclosure: I did the portrait of Mr Wondrich that hangs in the foyer – an old commission from a past issue of Modern Drunkard Magazine), the swinging bookcase doorway that allows you in the bar proper, to the excellent craft cocktails served; I have always enjoy my time here. Sean Kenyon has made his own small corner of the rapidly gentrifying LoHi neighborhood. Not only is this a great bar, but also an incredible tribute to his father and grandfather (both bartenders).
The interior of Williams & Graham is dimly lit with an impressive bar that reminds you of something out of the Prohibition-era… and that’s the point. Unlike many other speakeasy bars around the country, Sean knows that less is more. This is a place to get great cocktails, not a ‘booze theme park’ where you spend more time looking at the scenery around you then focusing on the glass in front of you.
However this particular night belonged to Smuggler’s Cove, who took over Williams & Graham and brought out the tikis. Kelly and I are both quite familiar with the San Francisco bar. Several years ago, friends of ours in that city lead us through the dark non-descript doorway on Gough Street into the colorful lights and drinks of the Cove. While small (a relator may describe the bar as ‘cozy’) and generally crowded, Smuggler’s Cove has become a must stop for us every visit back to SF (they hate it when you call it that) and also considered (by us, included) to be one of the best tiki bars in the country.
“There are certainly a lot of tikis,” Kelly said as we passed a massive wooden head greeting us as the bookshelf swung open. Over in the corner, a large group from the Fraternal Order of Moai (who I recognized a few from past events) were decked in Hawaiian shirts as well as a few fezzes and set up in one of the booths. Sean K motioned us towards the few seats thankfully vacant at the bar where our buddy, Eric, was already waiting. Kelly and I have mentioned many times about our love of bar seating for getting the feel of a place, so we were thankful to get a seat there, as all the booths were already filled up. Around us, there were even more Hawaiian garbed patrons (as was I), which was fully apt as the bar itself had tikis and leis scattered around it. Even the bartenders came out from San Francisco with the tikis. Smuggler’s Cove’s owner, Martin Cate, came over and placed a garland around Kelly’s neck as I looked over to the most important item: that night’s cocktail list. It was a small menu of about six drinks. Kelly, of course, asked the bartender in a low voice if she could actually get a beer (they happily obliged, passing over a Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager – a favorite). I ordered a ‘Dead Reckoning’, which the menu tells me was created by Martin C in 2009. Eric decided on the more classic ‘Saturn’ (‘Popp’ Galsini, 1967).
Once we had our cocktails, a cheer went up behind us as Vivienne VaVoom swayed out in full tiki dress carrying a volcano bowl toward one of the tables. Martin C came up behind her, ringing a small gong as the drink flamed up. He shook cinnamon over the flame, causing the flames to spark and fly even higher to the crowd’s delight.
“Well, that’s impressive,” Eric said as he finished his drink.
“Wonderful! She looks like Chiquita Banana! You know! With the fruit hat!” Kelly enthused.
“I think you mean ‘Carmen Miranda’, right?” Eric said over his glass.
“You say ‘Miranda’, I say ‘Banana’,” she replied, sagely sipping her beer, and mumbling, “Fruit hat.”
I continued to study the cocktail menu, planning my next avenue of attack.
I did enjoy the ‘Dead Reckoning’, but wanted to get the full scope of the menu. After some time, I decided on the classic ‘Pupule’ (Don the Beachcomber, 1930s… very good.) Eric ordered another ‘Dead Reckoning’ for himself, while Kelly ordered another beer (she is consistent). I keep thinking that Frank R from Modern Drunkard should be here to witness all of this, but when I spoke to him a day or two before letting him know about the event, he told me that he was being a responsible father that night. I decided to reward him for his good diligent work with texted photos of the bar, the tikis, and the cocktails he was missing.
“God Dammit!!! That looks incredible!” replied the text in return a few minutes later. In response, he also started texting me photos of the current cocktail he was enjoying: an Evan Williams and Pepsi (with real limes!) that he was serving up in his kitchen.
“Well… That’s a craft cocktail in some places in Mississippi,” our bartender, Marcovaldo Dionysos (yes… his real name) commented.
While Kelly continued to stick to beer (she has her reasons), we decided to skip over the Volcano Bowl. Eric and I ordered the final two cocktails on the menu that we hadn’t tried as yet: A ‘Tradewinds’ (Jamaican Classic from the 70s) for me and the unpronounceable ‘Lauwiliwilinukunuku’oi’oi (The bartender, Marco’s, custom drink, 2010) for Eric. We got a bit of schadenfreude delight watching people from around the bar try to order that one. It got to the point where people just mentioned the “La La La drink…” while waving their hands.
“My booze has an odd drink to it,” I mention half way through my Tradewinds. The warm fuzzy feeling was settling quite comfortably at the back of my skull.
“So, it has an odd taste?” Kelly laughs. Smirking, I nod in reply. “I think it’s the orange.” Each of my three cocktails were fantastic, but I leaned towards the’ Pupule’ as my favorite. Eric settled on the ‘Dead Reckoning’ as his top cocktail.
“The place is filling up pretty quickly,” Eric mentioned as he looked around. “We may want to think about wrapping this up.”
We nodded in agreement. While it’s a great bar, Williams & Graham is no where near where any of us live, and there’s that hill down Tejon that we have to scale back down. So, we settled up and said our good-byes to Williams & Graham. It was a brief farewell as we will be back again soon.