My wife Carrie and I were recently in Boston for a good friend’s wedding and to see my son who lives in New Hampshire. Although my wife and met and lived together in metro Boston, we’d not been back to Boston together for any real time since moving to Seattle. Thus we approached this trip as if it were a brand new city – Carrie researched the restaurants and I researched the bars that looked interesting, plotting them on a map, and strategizing how to hit as many of them as we could while working around scheduled events.
While researching the lists of possible bars, I noticed something interesting: Many of the Boston bars that popped up frequently in “best of” lists were a component of a larger restaurant, or were hotel bars. For example, No. 9 Park’s bar was mentioned often, but the bar is just a portion of the restaurant of the same name. Likewise, The Hawthorne is within the Hotel Commonwealth. While there’s nothing wrong with either attribute, it’s in contrast to Seattle where most of the best bars (Canon, Rob Roy, Rumba, Zig Zag, Knee High Stocking Company, etc…) are indisputably bars first and foremost, even though they do serve food.
We started out at Drink, winner of the 2013 Tales of the Cocktail award for Best Bar in the World. We arrived just as they opened at 4 PM, thus affording us our choice of seating and giving us time to chat at leisure with the bartenders. We had a bit of a challenge finding Drink, as it’s partially underground and the signage is small and in a non-obvious location. Inside, the design is lots of metal and wood, minimalist, and relatively understated. It wouldn’t be out of place at all in Seattle. On the counters were beautiful bowls of citrus and mint, and we enjoyed watching the bar staff prepare for the evening.
Twas no actual cocktail menu to speak of, at least not during our visit. Instead, you give the bartender an idea of what they like and they craft something for you. A brief digression on this topic: It’s great for people who either want to learn more about the world of cocktails, or who don’t readily recognize most of what’s on a cocktail menu. For those folks it can be less intimidating and usually fun as they’re surprised by what they end up with. However, for cocktail nerds like me, it’s hard to give a bartender directions without leading them down a path towards a particular style of drink, often something that I’ve made myself. The reality is that a bartender rarely has the time to come up with something completely new and creative just for you. I much prefer having a menu because it represents (hopefully) some of the best ideas about mixology that the bartenders have. This lets me easily filter out drinks that are similar to what I’ve had before and zero in on something with exotic ingredients or combinations that are unusual.
That said, the bartenders are Drink did well with the somewhat challenging guidance I gave them when ordering. At one point I mentioned to a bartender that I’m not a huge fan of Fernet Branca when it dominates a drink profile. She took the opportunity to slip some into my next drink while she (perhaps) thought I wasn’t looking. I appreciated the subversiveness of it and the Fernet was well balanced within the drink, so no complaints.
Then there was the food! Drink is part of Barbara Lynch’s empire of excellent restaurants. The bar food may have been a bit pricey, but wow! The fries with aioli were easily in the top five best fries I’ve ever experienced, and the trout rillettes knocked my socks off.
The crowd at Drink was a mixed bag – Many well dressed and quite a few in suits. They’d definitely be an anomaly at an equivalent bar in Seattle. There’s plenty of seating so at least during our time there it wasn’t packed with people crowding around every available flat surface.
Next up was Tavern Road. It was a latecomer to my list but since it was close to Drink and we had literally parked in front of it (parking in Boston is hell!), we decided to give it a try before heading to dinner. By the time we got to Tavern Road it was close to 6 PM so the bar was crowded with well-dressed after-workers, mostly sipping on beers or wine while blocking access to the mostly empty bar seats. A kind word to the bartender quickly got us access to the seats where we could observe the goings-on behind the bar.
Tavern Road has craft cocktail aspirations, and the back bar liquor selection was broad but not particularly deep. What they did have in any given category were the good spirits that I’d expect. The Tavern Road cocktail menu is a funky mix of classics and house originals and I naturally I gravitate towards the house originals. My first drink, the “Straight to Hell” (Scotch, Aperol, Amaro, Lemon Bitters) seemed like it had a lot of potential on the menu, but was just OK in practice.
My second drink, “Punchy’s First Strike” (Becherovka, Cherry Heering, Creole Shrubb, Lemon Juice, Allspice Dram, Peychaud’s) was a total hit with me, and very, very red:
After making Punchy’s First Strike, the bartender told me its backstory which centered around an attempt to create an “adult Hawaiian Punch”. After two drinks at Tavern Road we had to leave for dinner so didn’t have time for a tie-breaking third.
The next day we started out at four PM again at Somerville’s Backbar (Hooray for day drinking!) For whatever reason, Backbar had fallen lower on my list of potential bars to visit, but a friend’s comment on Instagram, as well as relative proximity to our hotel bumped it up and boy was I glad I did! I really, really liked what Backbar was about. Finding Backbar was a bit of a challenge, as it’s a tucked into a small court off the main street in what used to be an auto dealership service building.
Backbar targets a younger crowded than Drink and is eccentric without being all frayed edges and neglect:
The bar area is very picturesque and I was constantly pulling out my phone to take yet another picture. As when we arrived at Drink the day before, the bar staff was doing prep work and everything I saw made me suddenly want that particular drink.
The bartender was very friendly and we quickly got into a discussion about local rums (“Medford style”.) Boston used to be a major rum center in the 1700’s, but production had fallen to almost nothing until the recent revival or small, artisanal distillers brought it back. The bartender was eager to talk about all this and in short order a small sample of the rum was in front of us.
Backbar does a cool bit where they have a “drink of the day/week” representing whatever’s got their current interest. My first drink was a “Trois Monts” : “..a frozen shandy with apple brandy, chartreuse, benedictine, and chimay trappist ale”. It started out subtly, but over time as it started to separate into a head and body, the taste became stronger and tastier. For my second drinks, and after eying the good size collection of tiki paraphernalia, I told the bartender to go nuts with a Tiki drink. Out came the ice bag (for crushing ice) and after much work I had a smoky “Three dots and a dash” in a festive yellow pineapple mug. I frequently order the Three Dots at Seattle’s Rumba, but had never had a smoked version. It may sound like a gimmick, but to my palate the smoke added a whole new layer to an already fine drink. With great reluctance we headed out after just two drinks to get ready for the rehearsal dinner. If we’re ever in Boston again, I know we’ll be back.
Brick and Mortar
After the rehearsal dinner wrapped up around 11 PM, Carrie graciously indulged me with one last bar stop. We headed down Mass Ave and ended up at Brick and Mortar, named one of Esquire Magazine’s 25 Best Bars in America. Our visit to Brick and Mortar had one big strike against it, but which is totally not its fault. Being close to MIT and a nightlife neighborhood, at 11:30 PM on a Friday night Brick and Mortar was predictably overrun by the 25-year old crowd ordering beers, wine, and vodka tonics over an extremely loud 80’s soundtrack. There were no bar seats available and we were about to just leave when a waitress suddenly appeared, so we quickly decided to give it a one-drink try. Shortly two seats opened up at bar and we grabbed them.
Doing my best to not let the throngs of people and loud music affect my perception, I observed the bar accoutrements and liquor selection while sipping my drink, a “4, 5, 6” (Sheep Dip scotch, Luxardo, Amaro Abano, Demerrara), which was reasonably good; a 6 out of 10. Studying the rest of the menu, I found a mix of classics (Corn and Oil, Aviation, etc…) and house originals. Also shots – not my thing but you gotta love something called “Crush on a Stripper”.
My overall take on Brick and Mortar is that the menu and space looked interesting enough that I’d willingly go back in much less crowded circumstances.
Wrapping up, on a scale of 1-10 of how likely I’d go back if we had more time in Boston, the results are:
Backbar – 10
Drink – 9 (Would be an 8, but the food brings it up.)
Brick and Mortar -7 (In the right circumstances)
Tavern Road – 5