taps

Support your Local Dive Bar

A couple of years ago, local writer and twitter superstar Luke O’Niel wrote Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown, a handy and funny guidebook to finding the best worst bars in my city. It’s a good read. It was published two years ago, however, and quite a few of the places he mentions have disappeared, often replaced by places that serve great appletinis.

Are dive bars truly an endangered species? Will the neighborhood dive go the same way as the local video store, travel agent, or bookstore? Will there be no place I can go get a drink without showering first, at ten thirty in the morning, without judgement?

Apparently this is a real trend, even the New York Times says so. I still occasionally hear people talk about how they love dive bars. I guess there is some appeal to the idea of drinking in some gritty, out of the way, hole-in-the-wall joint, it brings a sense of adventure, but maybe people like the idea of drinking in a dive bar better than actually drinking at one.

Today, however, I come  to praise the dive bar, not bury it.

Here, in no particular order, are some great things about dive bars:

ld6

What Part Don’t You Understand?

Cash only – There is now an entire generation that has a hard time with the concept of cash only. I find that amusing. If you are too much of a d-bag to stop at an ATM before you come in, you probably don’t belong here anyway.

Unicorn, with shades.

Unicorn, with shades.

Weird Animal Head – The weirder the better. Finding a spot with a jackelope is like hitting the jackpot. Ideally, said head would be wearing a hat.

Too Much Neon – Nothing and nobody looks good under a neon light, which is kind of the point. You probably don’t want to see the place with good lighting.

Year-round Christmas Lights – Perhaps intended to keep the degenerates inside in a jolly mood. Besides, why take them down when you just have to put them up again in eleven months?

A Bartender That Can Kill You – It’s quite unlikely that the bartender will kill you. I’m just saying the bartender can kill you. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

Sociable People at the Bar – If you wanted to drink quietly, you should have stayed home. Of course, many will be crazy or unintelligible, but they are also social.

Lorettas%20Last%20Call%20-%20Chris%20Coe%20-%2007r

Tom Waits Would Be a Fine Choice

Jukebox – There has to be a jukebox. Put on a boy band if you never want to be welcomed there again.

A Colorful History – some patron who has been sitting at the bar since the 70’s will joyfully recount an old murder in the back alley, or the guy with the pinky ring that hasn’t been around in a while. Best not to ask too many questions.

A Bathroom that Makes You Think Twice – How bad to you need to go? What’s your true bladder capacity? Maybe it’s dirty, maybe you have to jiggle the toilet, maybe it’s down a dingy stairwell in an even dingier basement, but no one uses the bathroom at a dive bar unless they really have to.

A List of Banned Patrons – Despite my negligible character, I have never been banned from a dive bar. I have, however, been in dive bars many times where someone has walked in and been told they were banned. Again, not a time where you want to ask too many questions.

keno2

Hoping for the Chicken Dinnah

Keno – Because everybody loves Keno! Especially degenerate day drinkers with no particular place to be for the next few hours. Or days. It’s all good.

Bar Pets – A bar with a cat roaming around is a good sign, as they keep less desirable creatures away. Mice? It happens. Rats are kind enough to keep to themselves. As to the other tiny patrons, eh, what are you gonna do?

Better Than Drinking Alone

Better Than Drinking Alone

So grab a pocketful of cash and head down to your local dive bar. They will be happy to see you. Or they won’t care either way. Trust me, you will miss the place when it’s gone.

ld1

Where I’m Drinking – Lower Depths Taproom – Kenmore Square

Drinking in a basement bar named the Lower Depths might bring up an image of a dive bar. This would be wrong. True, it does have some of the items on a dive bar checklist, they are cash only and have the required animal-head-with-a-hat, but anyone who calls this is a dive bar really hasn’t been to one. Lower Depths is a small place, but the space is used well. It is bright, the décor is artsy and fun, and the staff is first-rate.

ld1

The Lower Depths is a very good beer bar. They only sport a few taps, but they are filled with craft beers, many of them local brews. The taps rotate regularly, which brings beer nerds like me back on a regular basis. Following their twitter feed brings announcements of  tap changes and new selections. I wish other places did this, as I pass through Kenmore Square regularly, and am easily enticed by a new beer. A tweet with a promise of something new is often all it takes for me to stop in for a pint and a bite. I appreciate that The Lower Depths puts in the effort to properly train their staff, bartenders and servers know the beers and their flavor profiles. The staff is helpful with choices and happy to give out samples. If, like me, you enjoy sipping and discussing beer, the Lower Depths is a fine choice.

ld2

Taps at the Lower Depths

The kitchen, like the bar, is quite small, but they put out some damn good food. The menu isn’t extensive, but everything comes out fresh and tasty. They are a must-stop on any Tater Tot crawl, the Mexicana, with queso fresco, and pickled jalapeños is my personal favorite. The buffalo mac and cheese has a big following here, but I am always drawn to their foot long hot dogs. They are so good and pair so well with a cold pint.

slide-121

The Lower Depths has a small front deck, great for people watching on a sunny day. Be warned, however, that it is a small place and fills very quickly, especially when the Red Sox are in town. The crowd is a mixed lot, many students and tourists mix with the beer nerds and construction guys. Please keep in mind that they only take cash here, which perhaps keeps the crowd free of too many hipsters and the intense business types.

ld8

Hey, I know that sign!

The Lower Depths is a small, casual place that squeezes a lot into a limited space. It is committed to good pub food and craft beer. A good relaxing spot in the occasional madness of Kenmore Square. If you can find a seat.

landsdowne

A Guide to Bars Around Fenway Park

It’s still hard to believe that spring has come to Boston. I still will not tempt fate by putting my shovel away, and while I have (hopefully) retired the winter coat for the season, I’m still sporting my winter hat. Such is life up here in Boston this year.

landsdowne

It must be spring though, because Opening Day is here for the Red Sox. Yes, I am one of those obnoxious diehards who watch every game I can, who curse at the TV and offer deep insights into batting orders and pitch counts to my barmates. Yes, I’m one of those guys.

Fenway Park is more of a piece of history now than an actual place to go watch a ballgame.   I don’t mind so much that it’s now a place for the tourists and rich people rather than actual Sox fans, but I do sometimes lament the fact that I can’t really afford the place much anymore. The neighborhood itself has gone upscale with the ballpark. This isn’t really a bad thing, since my days of slam dancing at the Rathskeller have been over for a while now anyway.

There are so many good bars around Fenway, a full list would be terribly exhaustive. Instead, here are just a few notes about places I get to often enough. Not ranked, just listed in the order that they popped into my head.

Be warned, however, that on game day every one of these places is likely to be filled to the rafters, often with many inebriated people. If, like me, you are past the point of throwing elbows at drunken bro’s to get a drink, or have no patience for the pinkhats, go on a day when the Sox are out of town. If nothing else, the staff will be happy to see you on those days.

Fenway Bars – My List

Cask ‘n Flagron – One of the oldest places in the neighborhood, with probably one the best location of any bar in the world. They renovated it from a stick-to-the-floor beer place to a more respectable pub a few years ago. The food is pretty good, and the menu is a bit more expansive than you would expect. There are a few good beers on tap, I can always find  a pint Jack’s Abby, which makes me happy enough. A friend of mine says they make good cocktails, which is surprising when you remember what the place used to be.

Cask & Flagon

Cask & Flagon

Loretta’s Last Call – Loretta’s opened last year with a southern food theme and a rather weird accusation of menu stealing. I wrote about Loretta’s when it first opened here. Think barbeque, pulled pork, moonshine cocktails. Try the fried chicken if you are hungry enough. They have live music regularly, and they do a nice job with the southern theme without getting too cutesy about it.

Loretta's Porch

Loretta’s Porch

Game On – Located right on the ground floor of Fenway Park itself, Game On is a big, popular place. It is a fun place, if a bit touristy and generic. If it weren’t actually part of the park itself, you could easily imagine this place being in a suburban industrial park. They have a great TV setup, and enough screens to watch a couple of different games at once. Food is good enough but quite forgettable. Some real hardcore fans show up here, but there are also a good number of Pinkhats. They have a separate ping pong bar in the basement called Blazing Paddles if that’s your thing. I can honestly say it’s the best ping pong bar I’ve ever been to.

Game On

Game On

Bleacher Bar –If you only have time for one stop, you should probably go to Bleacher Bar. Like Game On, it’s built right into the stadium. Bleacher Bar has what no other bar has in town, a window to the stadium. A big glass wall opens right onto the outfield of Fenway Park. Any time of year it’s really cool, but when the Red Sox are playing, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. Bleacher Bar is a small place, so it gets crowded fast, go extra early on game day for the best spots. Menu is bar snacks and sandwiches, but it’s pretty good and portions are large. I like the pretzel sticks and gravy fries myself, but if Beef on Weck is more your style, this is the place to be.

Bleacher Bar

Bleacher Bar

Bleacher Bar window

Bleacher Bar window

Boston Beer Works – This place is part of a local chain of brewpubs in the Boston area. A bit pricier than other spots, they serve good fresh beers, styles change with the season. Beer works is a nice place and the food is pretty good. The crowd here skews a bit older and more mellow. Honestly, if you’ve been to a brewpub before, Beer Works is pretty much what you would expect. It’s a good spot, but aside from the location, rather forgettable.

Yard House – Yard House is part of a national chain. It’s a big place, and very nice, if a bit soulless. Yard House has a huge beer selection, good food served in big portions and a really nice outdoor seating area. The service there has always been good, but it does suffer from what I’ve dubbed “Too Many Taps Syndrome” where selection is so huge it’s tough for the staff to stay on top of it. They do have a well-managed rotating tap program though, dubbed the Chalkboard Series. It’s a great place for groups, and it’s a good pre-game option if you have the kids in tow.

Landsdowne Pub – Landsdowne is an Irish-themed pub, with all that entails – dark wood, Guinness on tap, so on. I’ve always liked the food here, the menu is pretty much what you would expect from a casual Irish spot. I’m a big fan of the corned beef and cabbage spring rolls, and the sliders are only a buck on Mondays. They have live music regularly and schedule a lot of special events there, particularly off-season. Landsdowne is a big place, they have a good TV setup and bring out the big screen for games – including the Euro soccer games, if that’s your thing.

Landsdowne Pub - Irish Spring Rolls

Landsdowne Pub – Irish Spring Rolls

Baseball Tavern – The name sounds touristy, but this is much more of a neighborhood bar than anything else. Yes, like other places, it gets packed on game day, but other days you are likely to see a crowd of locals, college sports fans, or BU kids hanging around. Baseball Tavern has some divey aspects to it, like a rickety staircase to the basement bathrooms, but I wouldn’t call it a dive. More of a blue collar spot in a neighborhood that’s losing them. Baseball Tavern also has a kickass roof deck. They food menu is mostly pub snacks, but they do have fried clams. They might not be the best you’ve ever had, but they ain’t bad.

Baseball Tavern

Baseball Tavern

Jerry Remy’s – Last month I wrote that Remy’s had closed, but my reliable sources (internet) have told me that they plan on being open and ready before the first pitch. I guess they changed management or something, so hopefully they will fix a couple of the problems I touched on. Basically, it was a great space and a great place to watch a game, but little else – touristy, overpriced, food a solid meh. I will make it a point to get to the roof top this year. It’s important to have goals in life.

Jerry Remy's

Jerry Remy’s

So enjoy your trip to the old bandbox, but be prepared to defend your choice of bar. And please don’t wear a pink hat.

Where I’m Drinking – Harry’s Bar and Grill – Brighton

harrys

Brighton is an area that certainly doesn’t want for drinking spots. Harry’s Bar and Grill, however, is in a bit of a dead spot, about halfway between Cleveland Circle and Allston’s Union Square. Like Brighton itself, the crowd at Harry’s is a nice mix of hipsters, young professionals, working people, and shady quirky locals. Also reflecting the neighborhood, Harry’s is a bit of a hangout for the industry folks, I’ve run into many staff and kitchen folks from other local places while hanging out here. In a way, the crowd at Harry’s is Brighton in a box.

This is a neat little corner bar. Harry’s sells itself as a neighborhood bar, and although it’s owned by one of the bigger restaurant groups in Boston, they get a lot of things right here. Harry’s works pretty well as a typical “neighborhood bar”.

Harry’s is smaller than it looks, but it has a nice big bar. The dining area is raised, and hey, there’s a pool table. It has a nice T.V. setup no matter where you sit, and for a big game they bring down an old-style movie screen behind the bar. There are also enough T.V.’s spread out so they can show a couple of different games at once, which is nice if you want to catch, say, a Euro football match rather than the Red Sox. I always appreciate that in a bar setup.

The menu is somewhat elevated pub food. You can’t go wrong with the pulled pork or Cubano sandwiches, do yourself a favor and upgrade to the sweet potato fries for an extra buck.  The mac and cheese is pretty good and quite filling. The fresh ingredients they use really lift any dish. Some folks love the flatbread pizzas, I’m partial to the veggie quesadilla myself. They also have daily lunch specials, which always is a sign to me that a place lets a chef run a bit. Good things tend to happen when you let a good chef stretch his legs..

I really the food here, but what really keeps drawing me back is the rotating taps. I’m a sucker for rotating taps. There is nothing I enjoy more than walking into a place and spotting a new seasonal beer on tap, and a barman who knows what to recommend.  Many beer bars have tried putting in taps without taking the time to educate the staff about what they are serving. That just doesn’t work. Harry’s does not make this mistake, the barmen always know what they are serving, and will be happy to give a sample or two. Last time I was there, I had an Anderson Valley Winter Warmer, one of my favorite winter ales. Next time I go I will look forward to trying a new spring beer or two, I’m confident I’ll find something.

Harry’s is a place that is comfortable in its skin, a neighborhood spot with good food, good drinks, and the service here has always been great. It’s a very good place to watch a game. There is no place to park there, but maybe, the next time you are riding the B line, you should thing about hopping off for a pint.

Harry’s Bar and Grill – 1430 Commonwealth Ave

Brighton, MA 02135    (617) 738-9990

10271629_10152584994993656_8180574768046515248_n

Where I’m Drinking – The Tap Trailhouse – Government Center

10271629_10152584994993656_8180574768046515248_n

An unusual work thingy brought me to Government Center last week, and I decided to take the opportunity to try a new spot. I had heard some good things about both the food and the beer selection at Tap Trailhouse, so I stopped in to sample both.

Given the location right near Fanueil Hall, and its semi-hokey Paul Revere logo, I was a bit afraid that the Tap Trailhouse would be too touristy. When I first walked in, I was greeted by a very friendly gentleman in a suit and tie, so I became afraid that the place might be too upscale. My suspicion of upscalery seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the TV behind the bar was tuned to the Fox business channel, my worries about it being touristy were reinforced by the fake old-timey printing on the menu. Both of these fears were soon put to rest.

1555446_10152713165823656_9187944259193580097_n

The Tap Trailhouse is not a brand new place, but a remodeled, upscaled version of a semi-crappy beer bar named the Tap. I can’t remember a damn thing about the old Tap.  If I ever went in there, it didn’t make much of an impression. The “new” space is quite impressive, however. The bar is not too big and just a wee bit fancy. The theme of the place seems to be local craft beers and modern spins on traditional New England food. The beer list is pretty impressive, they have about twenty-five taps and feature smaller Massachusetts and New England brews. They promised me that they would be rotating the taps regularly, both for seasonal brews and to keep the variety. They don’t serve Bud, Miller, or any other national brand either on tap or in bottles, the closest they have to a “big beer” is Sam Adams. For a place in the heart of tourist country, that’s kind of brave. I chose a Slumbrew Happy Sol Hefeweizen, which was refreshing, light and a bit citrusy.  The bartender was nice enough to offer me samples of a couple of others. I do wish the beer menu would include the location of the brewery and alcohol content, but I’m nitpicking.

I was starving when I walked in, so it took me about two seconds to order the Country Rabbit Sausage, served with pickled cranberries and served on a johnnycake. It was delicious, and much more filling than it looked. Whille that was all I ate there, the appetizers look much more interesting than the rest of the menu – Harpoon venison chili, oyster tacos, blue crab nachos. I don’t see those kinds of things every day.

As to my fears of the place being pretentious and touristy, neither one proved true. The well dressed gentleman who greeted me was the manager covering the hostess station, he stopped by and asked me how my meal was and we talked beer for a few minutes. The Fox business channel soon gave way to football highlights. My neighbors at the bar were, like me, locals who were in the area on some type of business, we talked football and a bit of politics. It wasn’t busy at that time, service was quick, friendly and polite.

As much as I like a routine, and my regular haunts, every now and then it does me a bit of good to get out there and try something new. I don’t know when I’ll end up in Government Center again, but when I do, at least now I know a good place to stop.

pictures from Facebook

The Tap Trailhouse

19 Union Street, Boston, MA. 02108

 (617) 367-0033

 

Last Call Daisy Buchanan’s

I heard last week that Daisy Buchanan’s in the Back Bay was closing up.

I won’t tell you exactly how old I was when I first went to Daisy Buchanan’s, let’s just say I should not have been there. Things were different then, and getting into a bar was based more on who you knew or who your sister was dating than other matters, such as an ID that said you were eight inches taller or had shocking blond hair.

daisys

I happened to be around the Back Bay the other day, and, feeling a bit nostalgic, I stopped in. While I admit that my memories of the place are kind of fuzzy, it didn’t seem to have changed much, except that it occurred to me that the last time I was there it was filled with cigarette smoke.

I was from the inner suburbs, and for some reason (other than their liberal ID policy) Daisy’s was a destination for us. I don’t know what the Bostonian translation of “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd” is, but that was us. When my high school buddy came back from the Marines, we headed for Daisy’s. Beer was cheap, there were girls there, what more do you want at that age?

Alas, there were no girls there on my last trip, save the bartender. It was an early crowd, for sure, but I don’t think there was a single person there without gray hair. Men sat at the bar and read the Herald, played Keno, and talked about the World Series. So, yes, many years after my first visit, I felt right at home.

Until I put the coaster over my beer and stepped out for a smoke, and remembered this was Newbury Street. I went out with my friend, who rocked his navy peacoat, I was fighting the cooler weather with my New Balance windbreaker. We stood and watched the beautiful people walk by. More than anything, we looked like a couple of old-school Irish cops.

There are a million stories better than mine about the place, but with dive bars becoming something of an endangered species in my city, I stood there on the corner and wondered how this unpretentious watering hole held onto such a fancy corner for so long. I don’t want to say it was the “good old days” of smoke-filled bars, bouncers with brass knuckles in their pockets, nineteen year old drinkers, and people doing nefarious things in the bathroom stalls, some change is for the good.

I’m not lamenting Daisy’s. She had as good a run as any of us could expect. I’m lamenting a small piece of my misspent youth.

Boston Herald – Daisy Buchanan’s Will Serve its Last This Fall

Sometimes, a Hundred Taps is Too Much

I am a beer nerd.

I like beer. I also like beer bars, I like trying new beers that I have never had before, and get strangely excited when I see something new on the tap list. I like seeing something from a brewery that I’ve never heard of before, or trying a style that I’m not too familiar with.

Part of my life as a beer nerd is that I am a sucker for those click-bait “Best Local Beer Bars” lists. If you publish such a list, I will most likely read it.

I recently came across one such list on Thrillist, by Travis Talbot titled “The Best Beer Bars in 18 Boston Neighborhoods”.  It’s a pretty good list. I am more familiar with some spots than others, and there are a few that are still on my “get to” list (looking at you, Trophy Room) but overall I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these places.

Unlike Talbot’s list, however, many of these “Best Of” lists, are not written by locals, they are a result of a perusal of Yelp reviews, Google searches and fuzzy memories of a good bar someone went to once six years ago. Some writer from New York or Indiana or some such place makes a list and waits for his view count to grow. Talbot is a local guy who knows the scene here very well, but it’s true of a lot of pieces out there.

Many of these lists also promote a particular fallacy about beer bars: the idea that “More is better.” They find the spots with the most beer taps and decide that must be the place to go for craft beer. My favorite place to try new stuff, however, has about twenty taps, half of them devoted to craft beer, which are rotated regularly (often announced via a Twitter post, which makes me want to run there as fast as the bus will carry me).   Let me give you a short list of reasons why I prefer a smaller selection for my beer expeditions.

taps

I don’t get overwhelmed with the selection. Talbot lists The Sunset Grill as the best spot in my neighborhood, and I can’t fault him for that. It’s a very nice place, many of my fellow beer nerds love it. I, however, often find the selection a bit much. With 112 beers on tap, the process of finding the right beer is sometimes just too much.

I get better recommendations at a smaller place. Many spots, particularly the bigger chains, don’t take the time and energy to educate their staff on the selection, and truthfully, unless your bartender is some kind of beer savant, no one can remember the ins and outs of over a hundred beers anyway.

A smaller selection means that a good bartender knows what is there, and can make recommendations. They can tell you the characteristics of the beer, knows the style, and compare it to something else.  If you are drinking with your fellow beer nerds (also known as semi-creepy wierdos at the bar), they often chime in to give thoughts on the selection. We are beer nerds, we talk about beer, it’s what we do.

Managing over 100 taps is a bitch. Everyone knows that a tapped keg has a shelf life. A well-run place can manage the tapped kegs and pull them, empty or not, when it’s time. A place that doesn’t put in the time and training to do this, however, means a skunked beer waiting to happen. A place with twenty taps, however, has a much easier job of managing things.

In my little drinking spot, changing the taps is a big deal. They announced it on Twitter like a baby’s birth, a sort of bat-signal to the beer nerds. The rotating tap systems means I know everything is fresh, the seasonals are up to date, and I’ll have something new and exciting to try.

There are many big beer bars that do a fabulous job of these things. The Sunset Grille in Allston Village and Lord Hobo in Inman Square are two great examples from Talbot’s list. I visit these places, I sample their wares, but my drinking home will always be the place with the twenty taps, and the staff that knows how to run them.