09 August 2011

Green Street in Cambridge, MA: Sterling Cocktail Craft in a Plain Brown Wrapper

[This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for Serious Eats, originally published on May 23, 2011. All photos by MC Slim JB.]

Acolytes of Boston's craft cocktail revival periodically bow in the direction of Cambridge's bygone B-Side Lounge, which in 1998 debuted the area's first modern bar program focused on lovingly-made pre-Prohibition cocktails and modern drinks inspired by them. Equally significant, the B-Side trained a generation of bartenders that have since fanned out to evangelize the craft cocktail movement at bars all over the city. One of its first true progeny was Green Street, a venerable old haunt in Cambridge's Central Square that B-Side alumnus Dylan Black bought in 2006 and thoroughly reinvented. Green Street still attracts a local crowd that reflects the remarkable diversity of its Cambridgeport neighborhood, but also now ranks as one of Boston's foremost places to get a serious drink.

Green Street's weathered brick façade nestles between an ancient Greek-American club and a featureless parking garage on a nondescript block just off Mass Ave. Nothing about its exterior suggests it might compete with swank Boston craft-cocktail kingpins like Drink and Eastern Standard. Granted, its current interior is handsome compared to its prior incarnations: the funkily run-down bar / live-music venue / tropical-food joint Green Street Grill, or the gritty workingman's tavern Charlie's Tap. But it still has the casual, inviting feel of a local hang: a long, narrow, dimly-lit bar that leads to a bustling open kitchen at the back, with a quieter, more spacious dining room a few steps up and to the left. At its face, you'd never guess its bar program might be remarkable. Ask the barman for a bourbon cocktail, watch him stir up a beauty like The Hague ($8.50: W.L. Weller Special Reserve, green Chartreuse, French vermouth), and you might start to wonder otherwise.

Another reason that Green Street flies under the radar is that craft cocktails aren't its only draw. The kitchen turns out a popular menu of mid-priced, updated New England cuisine with plenty of local seafood ($8-13 starters, a terrific $11 burger, $17-24 mains.) There are also fine simple bar snacks like housemade potato chips and dip ($4). The geeky beer list favors small artisanal producers: ten on tap ($5.50-$7) and another couple dozen in bottles and cans (mostly $4-$6), including some large-format and high-ABV entries ($10-$21). Wines are well-suited to the straightforward food: four whites and four reds by the glass ($8-$10), a dozen whites and another two dozen reds by the bottle ($31-$56), plus a few sparklers and dessert wines. Green Street wants all comers, not just the cocktail nerds.

But cocktail aficionados will quickly notice the presence of craft touchstones like the 30s-vintage Zombie, an authentic Tiki drink, and the Golden-Age classic Monkey Gland ($8.50: gin, absinthe, fresh orange juice, house-made grenadine). Cognoscenti know to ask for the "Big List", which features 100 entries. (Changed a few times a year, it's actually a subset of an even-larger master cocktail list.) The range here is staggering, covering the length of the quality-spirits waterfront, showcasing Black's globetrotting interest in rum but also touching every of-the-moment craft-bartending staple.

There's pure-agave tequila and single-village mezcal; American straight rye, bourbon and applejack; British gin and blended Canadian whisky; monastery cordials and bracing bitters; interesting aromatized and fortified wines. There are hot drinks, Champagne-topped drinks, and drinks with raw eggs, like the refreshing fizz that is the Taxco ($7.50: silver tequila, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, orange bitters, egg white and seltzer). The Big List runs the gamut from the Colonial period through the Golden Age right up to the modern moment. It's a wonderland, an imbiber's amusement park with too many rides to explore in a month, let alone a weekend.

In addition to simpler snacks, the bar menu reflects the old-time kitchen craft of the gastropub, as evidenced by nightly-changing $5 plates of offal (like one evening's Buffalo-style fried chicken livers) and charcuterie (like gorgeous pork rillettes with rhubarb chutney). As important as quality drinks and food, Green Street embodies a humble hospitality ethos that makes it an excellent venue for introducing the uninitiated into the sometimes daunting world of craft cocktails. For example, it carries a decent selection of vodka, a hugely popular spirit that many craft bartenders sneer at as too featureless to merit shelf space. You can peruse Green Street's short cocktail list in a couple of minutes, finding plenty of accessible if not familiar choices, like the Bohemian (gin, St. Germain, fresh grapefruit, Peychaud's bitters), Stone Fence (bourbon, cider, Angostura bitters), and Aqueduct (vodka, apricot liqueur, Cointreau, fresh lime juice). Non-beer-geeks can comfortably order $3 Buds and High Lifes.

Even the most pedestrian cocktail order is filled with precision, quality spirits and fresh ingredients, as in the Margarita Bermejo ($8) of pure-agave silver tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lemon and lime juices. Green Street's bartenders are serious and scholarly, but they won't try to shame you out of your regular tipple, or regale you with an unsolicited lesson in cocktail history. This is first and foremost a neighborhood bar; it just happens to select and pour its drinks with extraordinary care and creativity, as in Avery's Arrack-Ari ($8.50: Batavia arrack, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and a rinse of Talisker 10-Year-Old single-malt Scotch.)

You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate this place, but there's a reason you'll spot many of the city's best bartenders drinking here on their own time. In creating a bar program that is at once ambitious and highly accessible, Black had done both the neighborhood he grew up in and his B-Side roots proud. Cloaking its reverence for cocktail craft in unpretentious conviviality, Green Street is slyly advancing the movement, reaching a cross-section of customers that might never patronize its tonier peers across the river. It's a lively tent-revival meeting, not a grand cathedral—a welcoming place to bring your cocktail-skeptical pals, where Green Street's gifted staff can work their understated, friendly proselytizing. Say amen, somebody.

Green Street
280 Green Street, Cambridge, MA 02139- (near Pearl Street; map)
617-876-1655; greenstreetgrill.com