History on Tap: A stumbling tour of some of Boston’s storied watering holes
by Adam Tokarz
| March 09, 2012
Photo: JOEL VEAK
If likened to a cocktail, the Commonwealth’s capital might be a fresh twist on an Old Fashioned. After all, Boston is a modern city that pays endless homage to its historic past (hence all those cobblestones and tourist dollars). So in the spirit of our Liquid issue, we’ve explored a host of Boston establishments where history and booze intersect. Allow us to be your inebriated guide on a stumbling tour of some of Boston’s most storied pubs and clubs, from traditional taverns once frequented by founding fathers to modern nightspots that nod to their properties’ past lives. Whether you wind up sipping martinis where Sylvia Plath once waxed poetic or enjoying a Sam Adams seasonal over the oldest hard-carved bar in America, you’ll discover that local history has never seemed quite so lush.
Jazz producer and native Bostonian George Wein opened the original Storyville nightclub — named after the red-light district of New Orleans, often cited as the birthplace of jazz — in the Copley Square Hotel in the 1940s. It soon hopped to Harvard Square and then Kenmore Square, and all the while its walls reverberated with the dulcet tones of legendary musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, who recorded a live album there. Decades after Wein’s storied spot closed, a new Storyville (90 Exeter Street, Boston, 617.236.1134) opened last September in the original locale. Its loungy Bordello Room and fleur de lys motifs nod to its NOLA namesake, and ceiling coves adorned with lyrics from songs once performed at Storyville riff on its musical heritage. So does the Lady Day, a tasty blend of gin, Campari, passion fruit, and honey that should help loosen limbs on the dance floor.
Contrary to popular belief, Jeremiah was not a bullfrog. Nay, he was a simple Boston bar owner who came over from Ireland’s County Kerry and set up shop in 1909. His legacy, however, continues to be a good friend to you, me, and anyone else who’s looking for a sip and a sandwich in the South End. The oldest continuously family-owned pub in Boston, J.J. Foley’s (117 East Berkeley Street, Boston, 617.728.9101) has seen its fair share of mischief over the decades. During Prohibition, the bar fronted as a shoe store (we presume the pumps were very popular). And it’s been a frequent backdrop for the shenanigans of sports heroes, Herald writers (whose offices were long located just down the street), and politicians. In fact, then-State Senator Barack Obama partied here during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In 2007, J.J. Foley’s made one of its few major changes in a century, opening a café that offers moderately priced fare in a ’hood full of expensive eats, causing fans to raise the pressed-tin roof in celebration.
The Warren Tavern
Erected in 1780, The Warren Tavern (2 Pleasant Street, Charlestown, 617.241.8142) is said to be the oldest watering hole in Massachusetts, and its old-timey interior — think exposed beams, rough wooden columns, and framed black-and-white photos of historic Charlestown — has welcomed many a famous wigged face in its time. Why, when he wasn’t busy trading bayonet blows with the Redcoats, George Washington could be found there washing down anti-Anglo sentiments with a healthy glass of grog. So in honor of General George and his service to our country, trek down to the tavern and order a “colonial” cocktail that (perhaps coincidentally) bears his name: the Washington Apple Martini, a mixture of Crown Royal, apple Pucker, and cranberry juice. While our first president probably wasn’t a huge appletini fan, we’ll assume he’d appreciate the sentiment, shrug his stately shoulders, and say, “Hey, whatever keeps you warm while fording the Delaware in the dead of winter, right?” Amen to that, George. Amen.
Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale
Handrails from the bygone Filene’s Basement and original tracks left over from the construction of Park Street Station do not an episode of Vintage Hoarders: Boston Edition make. Rather, they serve as period décor at Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale (48 Temple Place, Boston, 617.426.0048), a veritable museum of Boston-related mementos (including streetlamp posts that double as coat hangers . . . and a place to steady yourself after one too many). Erected in 1868 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building was first home to Chandler’s Corset Store, a boutique where high-profile women shopped for high-end unmentionables — hence the corsetry now adorning the walls. Later, it became a cutlery shop, from which the modern-day Stoddard’s takes its name. Nowadays, the gastropub infuses new energy into old traditions, creating craft cocktails à la “Professor” Jerry Thomas, who wrote the 1862 barkeep bible How to Mix Drinks. Try a classic from their impressive list, like the 19th-century-appropriate Martinez, made with Hayman’s Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino, and orange bitters.
The Bar at Taj Boston
“The hotel formerly known as the Ritz” has been a Boston landmark since 1927. And with its proximity to Newbury Street shopping and enviable views of the Public Garden, the hotel attracted quite the famous crowd in years past. Notable guests have included crooners (Frank Sinatra), swooners (Judy Garland), and everyone in between. The Bar (15 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.536.5700) was no exception. In fact, the stately first-floor watering hole was a favorite of two of the Bay State’s most legendary scribes. In the late ’50s, after auditing Robert Lowell’s poetry class at BU, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton would regularly head to the bar, where they’d talk of poetry and suicide attempts over martinis and free potato chips. The two confessional queens were joined by fellow poet George Starbuck, who struck up an affair with Sexton. The hotel’s 2002 “facelift” was followed by an ownership change in 2007, but the Bar’s allure is as palpable as it was half a century ago, making it a perfect place to drink in martinis and the views proffered by those floor-to-ceiling windows.
Jacob Wirth Restaurant
The son of Prussian grape growers, restaurateur Jacob Wirth immigrated to America and soon put his boozy pedigree to good use. Established in 1868 and moved across the street to its current location 10 years later, his namesake restaurant was a humble spot with hearty fare and sawdust-covered floors. But it boasted a giant mahogany bar that served many big Boston names, including bare-knuckled champion John L. Sullivan, who is rumored to have been dealt a rare knockdown there thanks to a runaway keg barrel. It persevered through Prohibition and two World Wars, earning the title of Boston’s second oldest continuously operating restaurant (the Union Oyster House claims the top spot). Today, the sawdust has been swept away — blame the Board of Health — but the Greek Revival exterior of Jacob Wirth (31–37 Stuart Street, Boston, 617.338.8586) has been painstakingly restored to its 19th-century splendor. And that long bar is still an ideal spot to enjoy a draft. (Fun fact: the Wirths and the Anheusers hailed from the same small town in Germany.)
McGreevy’s (911 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.262.0911) is a perfect place to make like a starting pitcher in September and get your drink on. (What, too soon?) The original incarnation, McGreevy’s Third Base Saloon, has been called America’s first sports bar, having opened its doors Papi-wide to the public in 1894. Founded by avid Red Sox fan Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevy, the Roxbury spot was covered in museum-quality memorabilia (like light fixtures made from game-used bats) and quickly became a celebratory hotspot for the likes of Babe Ruth and Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, the notorious gambler credited with fixing the 1919 World Series. The bar was given the hook and sent to the showers during Prohibition, but in 2008, Dropkick Murphys front man Ken Casey stepped up to the plate and lifted the once-vibrant venue off the disabled list. Now the new location is frequented by Red Sox stars and fans and packed with pieces of baseball history — including an original portrait of the bar’s namesake and light fixtures made from new Sox sluggers’ bats.
The Last Hurrah
If we were to meet the Omni Parker House at a cocktail party, it’s safe to say we might be a bit intimidated, hearing him go on about hanging with Teddy Ballgame after epic battles with the Yankees and hosting literary greats like Emerson and Longfellow for drinks at his Saturday Club. And when he casually mentions that he hosted JFK’s bachelor party and has had this sort of social life for more than 150 years? Well, now he’s just bragging, right? Call it what you will, but the Parker House has been a constant source of rich and varied history since its 1855 opening. Freedom Trail walkers can duck inside and do their own name dropping at its classic whiskey bar,
The Last Hurrah (60 School Street, Boston, 617.227.8600). Ask for a Harvey
Parker, named after the hotel’s original proprietor, and treat yourself to Jameson’s Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters, served with a Maraschino cherry.
Woody’s L Street Tavern
A senator, a football star, and a sports trophy walk into an Irish bar. A set-up for a lousy joke? Not quite. In the past several months alone, Senator Scott Brown, Patriot Wes Welker, and Lord Stanley’s Cup have all stopped in for a nip at the popular Southie pub (no word on whether the trophy preferred an ale or a stout). Famously featured in Damon and Affleck’s Good Will Hunting, Woody’s L Street Tavern (195 L Street, South Boston, 617.268.4335) is a cozy space where you’ll find plenty of movie memorabilia and a long, narrow bar whose brews are cold and cheap. Depending of the time of day and week, the clientele ranges from local yokels to yuppies, xenophiles to college kids. While they don’t serve food, they do allow you to bring in outside eats from the pizzeria across the street. Plus, there’s a jukebox for pumping up the crowd with the Dropkicks’ latest ode to Boston. To recap: music, Hollywood history, and cheap beer. How do you like them apples?
A true Boston institution, Amrheins (80 West Broadway, South Boston, 617.268.6189) has been scoring points with locals and tourists alike by offering generous portions and pours since 1890. Located on the corner of West Broadway and A Street, the Southie staple is outfitted with wrought-iron chandeliers, cozy booth seating, and ornate woodwork, creating the perfect neighborhood-pub ambiance for knocking back a few cold ones. The restaurant underwent a renovation in 2005, but it maintains its century-old appeal with alcohol-inspired artifacts — like the oldest hand-carved bar in America and the first draft beer pump in Boston. Our advice? Grab some upscale pub fare (like the lobster macaroni and cheese), order a frosty brew, and let history repeat itself. And if you overindulge, take advantage of one of the spot’s more modern amenities: Amrheins recently introduced a free shuttle service, which picks up and drops off patrons in South Boston every evening.
The prospect of “hanging out” at a bar takes on new meaning at The Gallows (1395 Washington Street, Boston, 617.425.0200). Its name nods to its proximity to the former site of the city’s gallows, which stood near South Boston Bay; the waterfront location may have helped perpetuate the legend that many a pirate was hanged there (pickpockets and other criminals, as well as nonconforming Quakers, were more frequent victims). It’s also a stone’s throw from the South End Burying Ground, which “broke ground” in 1810 and saw some 11,000 burials over the course of 50-odd years. Today, this boo-tiful South End space serves up juicy burgers, to-die-for poutine, and shareable boards laden with artisanal cheeses and cured meats. Pair any of these delectable dishes with Preston’s Poison (made with banana- and spice-infused vodka, Punt e Mes, and a drop of honey and finished with lemon), and you’ll be able to go home and rest in peace.
Built on the approximate Boston Harbor site where a certain tea party jumpstarted the American Revolution, the InterContinental Boston’s curved facade and glass towers evoke the sails and masts of the tall ships that once dropped anchor there. And within the hotel’s high-class cargo hold lies RumBa (510 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, 617.217.5752), a bar inspired by the city’s long history in the rum trade. Behind its U-shaped pewter bar, you’ll find more than 100 rums, from new local brands like Bully Boy and Privateer to Jamaica’s British Royal Navy Imperial Rum, one of the world’s oldest commissioned rums. In anticipation of the June reopening of the nearby Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum (the original closed after a 2001 fire), RumBa is pouring some special tea-infused drinks. Our favorite? The Life and Liber-Tea, a delicious concoction of Privateer silver rum steeped with Earl Grey tea, fresh lemon, and honey syrup direct from the hotel’s apiary. This is one tea you’d be a fool to dump.
The Liberty Hotel
It’s downright criminal to bypass Alibi and the Liberty Bar, two nightspots located inside the swanky Liberty Hotel (215 Charles Street, Boston, 617.224.4000), the former home of the Charles Street Jail. Before a $150 million acquisition and renovation gave it new life, the space spent more than 130 years housing prisoners, including notable inmates Malcolm X, Mayor James Michael Curley, and Sacco and Vanzetti. These days, more modern mug shots hang in Alibi’s first-floor space. (That orange jumpsuit really brings out the dollar signs in Paris’s eyes.) And horizontal stripes are totally optional on Fashionably Late Thursdays at the rotunda’s Liberty Bar, where beautiful models strut their stuff to house beats and eligible singles hope to get patted down. Thirsty? Alibi’s got your Jailbait, a blueberry mojito with silver rum that’s worth going away — and out — for.
The Bell in Hand
The Bell in Hand (45 Union Street, Boston, 617.227.2098) has had people shouting its praises for more than two centuries. The first, of course, was Jimmy Wilson, Boston’s town crier for 50 years, who opened the Bell in Hand in 1795. Though it moved from its original location, it claims to have been in operation ever since (not counting the dark days of Prohibition). And in that time it’s played host to historic heavyweights like orator Daniel Webster and war hero Paul Revere, who fueled up on Smith’s Philadelphia Cream Ale — the only drink available until 1919. (Jimmy and, presumably, several successors weren’t fans of the hard stuff.) Nowadays, the breadth of offerings has expanded considerably, as curious tourists and local history buffs can come in from the cobblestones to indulge in a Bell in Hand ale, a specialty craft brew by Sam Adams that’s only available at the pub, and wax nostalgic with beers in . . . well, you get the idea.