29 September 2010

From the Archives: My Dirty Secret -- I Like the New Bar that Killed the Old Man Bar

Sullivan's Pub, Charlestown, MA
Here's a 2005 food/drink feature of mine that's no longer available online. I wrote it in response to several articles bemoaning Boston’s relentless tide of gentrification. I’ve echoed that line myself, but found some reasons to dissent from it here, in the process reviewing a few bar/restaurants I liked. It's also notable as my first piece referring to Boston's embryonic craft cocktail scene, then just gaining momentum at The B-Side Lounge.

MY DIRTY SECRET: I LIKE THE NEW BAR THAT KILLED THE OLD MAN BAR
By MC Slim JB
[originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig, November 16, 2005]

Everywhere I turn these days, someone’s howling about the death of the neighborhood bar. Longstanding hangouts like the Littlest Bar on Province Street in Downtown Crossing are headed for oblivion, or worse, conversion into upmarket boîtes. The new Alchemist Lounge that will soon replace Triple D’s in Jamaica Plain is still under wraps, but the name alone is enough to nauseate the folks who’ve been drinking in that spot for 15 years. They can guess what The Alchemist will be like: soigné bartenders straining pink concoctions into delicate glassware, small nibbles of weird ingredients at $10 a plate, alien downtempo electronica wafting from a DJ booth in the corner.

Triple D's, Jamaica Plain, MA
I share some of their pain, having passed many hours in B&B’s (my Somerville-native pal’s shorthand for “Beer and a Beatin' bars") since I moved here after college. I don’t qualify as a townie, but I still believe every neighborhood needs a place that locals can call their own, where transplants like me are the minority -- a bar where you might order a PBR because your dad drank it and it’s $2.50 a throw, not because snarky hipsters think it confers ironic blue-collar cred.

Consider the venerable Sullivan's Pub in Charlestown, just down Main Street from the yupscum fine-dining hellhole that Olives has become. One night, my crew and I sat drinking draft High Lifes and watching the Bruins on the tube while two retirees shared a half-hour harangue about the game that slowly boiled into a shouting match over the merits of some long-retired winger. The barman insisted they take it outside, and they did, proceeding to swap four or five slow-motion punches, then fall down and wrestle feebly on the sidewalk for ten seconds. Then they helped each other up, dusted themselves off and shakily returned to resume drinking and yakking, which is how we left them two hours later. I’d guess they were both about 68 years old, friends since they were five. Now that’s an Old Man Bar.

I’ve bent an elbow in a few nearly-forgotten Boston saloons. How many Back Bay residents ever ventured into Jack Lynch’s Webster Lounge on Dalton Street? That crepuscular little cave featured Fifties-vintage rec-room paneling, the same five ancient patrons glued to stools molded to their buttocks, and a jukebox of 45s unchanged since the “Theme from Hawaii Five-O” was a hit. Better yet, I could get a Scotch and soda for $1.60, no brows furrowed at my mangy vintage threads, and the same surly service that the regulars got from the ex-boxer-looking barkeep in the ratty black bow tie. Here’s the odd thing: that singular Old Man Bar whose passing I mourned is now Bukowski Tavern, a place I admire for its hundred-strong selection of beers, ear-splitting punk-rock soundtrack, and decent, cheap food.

The Hammond Lounge in Brookline was a similar haunt, a seedy dump plopped in the middle of a nice block, windowless and cigarette-befogged. My brother-in-law and I nearly cried the day the smoking ban and creeping rents finally killed it for good, buying our last $2 Buds and some logo-emblazoned sweatshirts that had been stapled to the wall for years and took 20 washes to get the nicotine reek out of. I still miss it, but I also really enjoy its successor: the Washington Square Tavern, a convivial, upscale pub serving excellent, unfussy fare.

Which isn’t to say that these places were all chummy. I once strolled into the Windsor Tap near Kendall Square one sunny Saturday with a pal, looking to enjoy a cold one and check the Sox score. What seemed not-too-dubious from the curb turned out to be dark and dank within, airless and claustrophobic. A knot of leathery, inky bikers across the bar gave us the cold fish-eye. We ordered longnecks from the stony barman (“Um, no glass, thanks”), downed them in two minutes and fled. A friend who lived around the corner winced at us later: “The Windsor? That’s the best place in Cambridge to pick up an eightball and a stab wound.”

The B-Side Lounge, Cambridge, MA
Just saying -- not every Old Man Bar deserves protection from the wrecking ball. I’ll venture an unpopular corollary, too: not every OMB replacement will necessarily become a trendy hive of yuppie villainy. Even revered old gin-mills that have been mercilessly cored and polished and refitted with craft-brew taps can become superb hangouts. In fact, some of these upstarts rank among my favorite places for a drink. I don't hold it against them that they are pretenders, resented by old-timers, too free of grit to be deemed genuine neighborhood places yet.

The B-Side Lounge is a favorite example, and not just because it superseded a harrowing bucket of blood (the aforementioned Windsor). I love it because it features some of the most serious, skilled bartending in the city. Spirits are top-notch, fruit juices fresh-squeezed, each carefully-crafted drink served in the proper ice-chilled glass. The cocktail menu includes classics as well as creative updates of standards like the Stardust: Nicaraguan rum, fresh lemon juice and the rare, violet-tinged Parfait Amour. These guys know why you shake some drinks and stir others, that Manhattans are traditionally made with rye whiskey, and what my usual is, even when I haven’t been by in a while. The fact that the food is good -- solid, modestly-priced New American served up by a cute and sassy waitstaff ‘til the wee hours -- is a bonus. A cast-iron skillet of baked gouda with garlic crostini ($10.50) makes a rustic fondue: hearty, delicious, easy to share standing at the bar. Brunch is also fantastic and served until 4pm for late Sunday risers.

The Mission Bar and Grill supplants the old Choppin’ Block Pub, long a hideous, dingy slab of a building that nevertheless was a versatile venue for live jazz, hip-hop, noise and metal. Now fronted with wide, tall windows, The Mission is warm, airy, inviting. The menu is American bistro by way of Irish pub. A perfectly cooked medium-rare burger ($9) has a beautiful char, grilled red onions and mushrooms, a good roll and a side of fine fries. Sweet-natured staffers pull pints at the long wooden bar while the game blinks from flatscreens, and small groups and couples fill the tables. A few Choppin' Block veterans rub elbows with the college kids and new homeowners. Seems they’ve forgiven the slick changeling that took their ugly old baby’s place. That amazing burger probably helps.

I’m too young to remember the scary juice joint that the current Franklin Café replaced. Long before they received the odious label “SoWa,” the adjacent blocks hosted dozens of decrepit rooming houses, and the Franklin opened daily at 6am to a brisk shot-and-beer trade. That onetime war zone was gentrified away years ago, and the area now risks teetering too far the other way into pricey, vanilla dullness. With its United Nations mix of straights and gays, the Franklin is now the throwback to an edgier, more diverse South End. It remains a godsend: a softly-lit space with booths, great cocktails, cool music on the sound system and a creative menu served ‘til 2am. The turkey meatloaf with fig gravy ($14) is as satisfying as it was before the tight-assed empty-nesters from Wellesley and Weston started to drain the funkiness out of the neighborhood.

I witnessed one indelible example of the Franklin's unique charm on the night a cherubic blond bartender decided she’d had her fill of some yelling-into-his-cellphone suit who was dumb enough to insult Southie, her boyfriend's 'hood. She flew out from behind the stick, and with a series of sharp forefinger jabs to his chest -- “GET! [poke] the EFF! [poke] OUT! [poke] of my BAR! [poke]” -- drove him stunned and backpedaling right out the front door. It was a glorious moment; we practically cheered. No one wanted that jackass in our place. Hmm, maybe I do have an old neighborhood joint to defend after all.

The Waltham Tavern, Boston, MA
I can’t extend the same sentiment to the Waltham Tavern, a tiny Mob-owned dive just down the street, the last fading relic of a far-shadier South End. Despite my six years of regular visits for beers and billiards, nobody ever makes an illicit bet or buy when I'm around. I'm the square interloper there, a tolerated outsider. I could live right across the street, but I didn’t grow up on the block. By contrast, the folks at the Franklin treat me as one of their own, and I’ve returned the favor by making it my local. I can’t stop the OMBs from disappearing, but maybe the next best thing is to give my custom to a place where someday I'll rate as one of the true regulars, a righteous Old Man myself.