Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey Toast & Taste

Whiskey is a captivating liquor.

When first poured into a wooden cask, its components are eminently simple – water and a mash of grains. But by the time it’s poured into a glass, years or perhaps decades later, it may be the very pinnacle of complexity.

Whiskey conjures sharply conflicting images. It is a dark brown liquid in a dusty bottle in a dirty saloon in the old West. It is a supporting player in a sugary cocktail. It is a status symbol at $70 a glass in an elegant lounge.

In that respect, it is an everyman’s drink. At the same time, whiskey is very much an acquired taste. The heavenly quality of even the oldest, smoothest single malt would be wasted on the palate of the uninitiated.

I remember my first sip of whiskey, if you can even call it a sip; I don’t honestly recall whether it made it past my lips. As I lifted the glass, I felt a strange presence tickling my nose hairs, and my upper lip twisted upward into an involuntary snarl. How does anyone drink this, I wondered.

Because yes, your first sip of whiskey burns. As does your second. And your third.

But what begins as repulsion grows to a challenge ­– can you drink it without cringing? It then becomes a badge of honor when you can order a glass of whiskey on the rocks and down the whole thing by yourself. Gradually, despite your earlier misgivings, you develop an appreciation. And by the time someone pours you a rich, velvety, 21-year-old single malt whiskey, you’ve fallen deeply, hopelessly in love.

That potent liquid no longer gives you the shivers, but it’s a full-body experience just the same. Your lips tingle as you take the first sip. And you don’t just quaff it down; you sit with it. Its oaky, smoky essence permeates every corner of your mouth, and a small flame burns in the back of your throat when you finally swallow it. After a few sips, a warmth unique to whiskey slowly spreads, up from your belly, across your limbs, and down through your extremities.

A fierce, centuries-long debate continues to rage between the Irish and the Scots as to who is responsible for first distilling this mysterious spirit. As my bloodlines trace to both Ireland and Scotland, I don’t have too much of an opinion on the matter, but I admit more evidence points to the Emerald Isle. If Ireland can claim victory in the argument over who invented whiskey, though, Scotland is the undisputed champion of modern-day distribution. Ninety million cases of Scottish whisky get shipped to all corners of the globe every year, while Ireland ships a relatively modest 5 million cases.

The seeds of that disparity were planted in the late 19th century, when the Scottish embraced cheaper, more efficient methods for distilling whisky while the Irish insisted on a more traditional approach that took more time but yielded more flavor. Quicker production meant a bigger market share for the Scots, and that was even before a series of calamities struck the Irish whiskey industry. First, Ireland’s War of Independence ravaged its export business during 1919–1921. Emerging from that struggle, Irish distillers discovered they had lost their biggest customer, the United States, on account of Prohibition. And worse, bootleg knockoffs of Irish whiskey that proliferated in the States during that period tainted the spirit’s reputation. The U.S. markets reopened in 1933, but by then the world was on the cusp of war, and the effects of World War II nearly destroyed the Irish whiskey industry entirely. Most of the remaining Irish distilleries soon closed or merged, and while the quality of Irish whiskey never diminished, its level of output never recovered.

But an interesting thing happened last year – in 2011, for the first time in decades, Irish whiskey outsold single malt Scotch in the United States. And that’s part of a global trend. While Scottish whisky still captures 60% of the market, sales of Irish whiskey are noticeably on the rise.

I asked Tim Herlihy, U.S. brand ambassador for Ireland’s Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey, why that was, and he attributed the renaissance of Irish whiskey to its accessibility. “There are so many rules about Scotch,” he said. “With Irish whiskey, you can drink it neat, on the rocks, with water, in ginger ale, as a shot; it’s easy.”

Tullamore D.E.W. hosted a whiskey tasting at the Asgard in Central Square this week, and Tim invited me to have a drink with him beforehand to talk shop. Free whiskey and a chance to chat with someone who drinks for a living seemed like the foundation for a pretty decent evening, so I was happy to oblige.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tullamore D.E.W., it’s no surprise. Although Tullamore D.E.W. is the second most popular brand of Irish whiskey in the world, it’s a distant third in the United States, behind Jameson, the almighty industry leader, and Bushmills. But sales of Tullamore D.E.W. have nearly doubled since 2005 on the heels of an aggressive marketing campaign that promotes Tullamore D.E.W.’s long history and tradition. A redesigned label reminds drinkers that Tullamore D.E.W. has been distilling continuously since 1829. Even the name has gotten a subtle makeover: what was once Tullamore Dew is now Tullamore D.E.W. The initials are those of one of the distillery’s earliest owners, Daniel E. Williams, whose struggles to bring his product to prominence in the 19th century are reflected in Tullamore D.E.W.’s present efforts to compete in a crowded global market.

Tim told a few good stories about life in Ireland and his international travels, offered up some traditional Irish toasts, and most importantly, treated me to samples of Tullamore D.E.W.’s four whiskey varieties. First up was Tullamore’s original whiskey – a rich, amber color, spicy and citrusy up front, with a smooth finish.

My first experience with this particular variety was at the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco – the very bar that introduced the wonder of Irish coffee to the United States. The Buena Vista (“a great Irish bar,” Tim said, reverently) makes its famous drink exclusively with Tullamore D.E.W., which means tens of thousands of customers have tried Tullamore whether they know it or not.

Irish coffees being made at the Buena Vista Cafe, San Francisco.

The original blend is easy to drink, just as Tim suggested. But an established Scotch drinker doesn’t require a gentle, accessible whiskey. So what about those of us who enjoy the ceremony and pretension of drinking a more complex spirit? “Well,” Tim said, smiling, “that’s why we have this.” He then unveiled Tullamore D.E.W.’s 10-year-old single malt whiskey. Matured in four casks – bourbon, sherry, port, and Madeira – the single malt was considerably more intense than the original. With a rich, floral aroma, notes of vanilla and toasted wood, and a smooth finish, the single malt would appeal to those who prefer the complexity of a finer whiskey. If you live locally, you’ll just have to take my word for it; sadly, the 10-year single malt is not yet available in Massachusetts.

Next up was a 10-year-old reserve, a soft, medium-bodied whiskey with a spicy finish. This one was altogether different. Luxuriously smooth, the 10-year reserve possessed a sweetness that its predecessors lacked, along with a distinctive, surprising creaminess. It was probably my favorite of the four, and I know I’m not the only one who was impressed – the 10-year reserve won Best in Show at the 2012 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, 2012. Sláinte!

The final sample was a real treat – a 12-year-old special reserve. Full-bodied, spicy, and pleasantly intense, the 12-year is matured in sherry casks and had a nutty flavor with hints of vanilla. It’s garnered several international awards, most recently serving as runner-up to the 10-year reserve in the same spirits competition earlier this year.

As Tullamore D.E.W. rides the wave of Irish whiskey’s global resurgence, things are going well in the homeland, too. Production of Tullamore D.E.W. is about to return to the town of Tullamore for the first time since the original distillery closed in 1954. Owner William Grant & Sons is investing €35 million in a state-of-the-art distillery that is scheduled to break ground next month, creating jobs in Tullamore and restoring a sense of civic pride to a town that has had to endure its namesake whiskey being distilled elsewhere for almost 60 years.

Four satisfying samples later, I found myself more informed about Irish whiskey and Tullamore D.E.W. in particular. I didn’t even know they had more than one variety, and experiencing the whole range was enlightening. Tim closed our evening with a toast – “Here’s to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking. If you cheat, may you cheat death. If you steal, may you steal a heart. If you fight, may you fight for a brother. And if you drink, may you drink with me.”

Any time, good sir.

Last Call: Everything about whiskey requires patience. The liquor itself takes years to mature. When it reaches your glass, you sip it slowly. And a lifetime of enjoying it is equal parts education and appreciation. It takes time to understand the nuances of single malts vs. blends, or the distinct qualities of Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon, and rye. Only a fair amount of trial and error will reveal which brands work well in a Manhattan, which types are enhanced by a cube of ice, and which varieties absolutely, positively must be consumed neat. Your personal preference, like the character of a good whiskey itself, needs time to fully emerge.

If you’re a novice, attending a whiskey tasting can provide for an illuminating introduction to this potent spirit. But even if you’re an established whiskey enthusiast, there’s always something new to learn, or to impart to others. That said, I’m grateful to Tim for inviting me out for a few drinks. Truly, one of the most fulfilling things about appreciating whiskey is having a conversation with someone who understands and shares your passion. After all, learning to enjoy whiskey can be a long journey, and it’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow traveler.

Beacon Hill Pub

There is probably no greater concentration of wealth, power, and high society in Boston than in Beacon Hill. It has been home to U.S. senators, famous writers and poets, signers of the Constitution, captains of industry, and people who can trace their bloodlines to the Mayflower. It is the most expensive neighborhood in the city to live, and despite pockets of affordability, many of Beacon Hill’s historic residences are occupied by people with old surnames and older money.

Not that you have to be among the cultural elite to enjoy Beacon Hill’s countless charms. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the city (imagine that!), and you could spend hours exploring this ancient maze in downtown Boston. Beacon Hill is a portrait of early American history. Walking along gas-lit brick sidewalks and narrow, cobblestone streets, you find yourself surrounded by brick row houses that have stood for centuries. There are museums in private residences, hidden gardens enclosed by tall, wrought iron fences, flowerboxes adorning window sills, and ornate brass knockers affixed to classic-looking wooden doors.

Beacon Hill is probably the most photographed neighborhood in Boston, and it’s easy to see why.

Every street you peer down looks like a painting. At the top of the hill sits the State House, with its opulent gold dome. Along the outer perimeter are the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and Charles Street, with its antique shops, boutiques, and realty offices where you can look at the listings in the window and imagine owning one of those remarkable properties.

The long, rich history and enduring beauty of these majestic environs make Beacon Hill one of the most desirable areas of Boston, whether you live there or are simply content to visit.

Thus, it’s always struck me as amusingly ironic that this unspoiled gem of a neighborhood is home to one of the diviest dive bars in the city – the Beacon Hill Pub.

The BHP, as it’s affectionately known, probably doesn’t make it onto a lot of tourist guides. It’s not exactly the crown jewel of the Beacon Hill; there aren’t many areas it would be the crown jewel of, for that matter. Not that that bothers the proprietors of the BHP, who heartily embrace the gritty character of their bar, or the pub’s many loyal patrons. How many bars would boast about being called the worst dive in the state? That’s right – behind the bar that is a printed quote from a review that calls BHP “a bar scene straight out of Star Wars.” Talk about owning it!

I don’t know exactly how long the Beacon Hill Pub has been around. I’d call and ask, but they apparently don’t have a phone. I’d stop in to inquire, but I think a question like that would be met with a raised eyebrow and a “hey buddy, did you say bottle or draft” response. Regardless of how long this place has been pouring its affordable suds, the BHP looks like it could be as old as some of the beautifully preserved architecture surrounding it, even if it hasn’t been maintained to quite the same level of quality.

You might expect a bar in Beacon Hill to be an old-world, subdued, upscale tavern with mahogany walls and leather wing chairs, serving 40-year-old scotches and bottles of wine to men in suits who remark “Ahhh, the ’67…not quite as fragrant as the ’64.” Instead, the BHP is a decidedly humble and, depending on when you go, surprisingly lively dive bar.

In a neighborhood that boasts swanky lounges like Alibi and modern bars like the Tip Tap Room, the BHP is refreshingly basic. Beyond its nondescript black doors is a large, dark pub that offers no hint of the world outside. The light of day never disturbs the interior of the Beacon Hill Pub, not even through the utterly incongruous stained glass windows. The dim light inside comes mostly from dusty chandeliers with flickering, flame-shaped orange bulbs and the ambient glow of neon Busch, High Life, and Bud Light signs. The rust-colored tile floor probably benefits from the lack of illumination.

For a place that looks and feels like a cozy hole in the wall, the BHP is pretty big. There’s a cavernous space when you step inside that fills up with standees late at night, giving way to a long bar with a laminate wood surface and more than its share of battle scars. There are a dozen brown swivel chairs at the bar and five half-tables with additional seating. There’s even a second full-size bar in another room, though I think it’s only in use late at night or on weekends.

Given its sweet downtown location and proximity to the Charles/MGH subway stop, you’d think the BHP would be jam-packed after work. It’s usually not. I’ve stopped in around 5:30, often on Fridays, and been one of four or five people. But for me, that’s part of the appeal. I certainly enjoy the vibrancy of the after-work crowd – laughing with coworkers about some crap that happened in the office that day, and being part of what feels like the whole city collectively letting off steam. But I sometimes prefer a calmer, more private atmosphere. A place to collect my thoughts, write, watch SportsCenter, or have a quiet conversation while sipping a $3 Narragansett tallboy.

The aforementioned comparison to Tatooine’s Mos Eisley Cantina might be a little unfair; I’ve never personally been threatened by anyone with a death sentence on 12 systems or witnessed a dismembering via lightsaber (although I can’t deny how awesome the latter would be). Still, the BHP does attract a broad cast of characters. The small post-work crowd is often populated by old men grumbling about politics, positing one-dimensional solutions to the world’s problems and commenting on every image and news item that flashes on one of BHP’s three TVs (there’s a fourth TV, actually, but it just shows the security feed from other areas of the bar). But the cheap beer also attracts college students in droves, particularly in the later hours. Mix in MGH workers in scrubs and a few guys in suits stopping in after work, and you’ve got a pretty diverse and colorful crowd at pretty much any time of day.

On one of my recent Friday visits, I found about 15 people occupying the bar around 5:30. As I walked in, Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” started playing on the BHP’s always unpredictable jukebox. It felt fitting, given my surroundings – that warm, familiar intro, the story of a musician playing for spare change in a grungy subway station. In an “only at BHP” moment, it was followed by the obscure Metallica nugget “The Four Horsemen.” Yep.

BHP has about 12 beers on tap, and the selection is pretty well tailored to the clientele – Bud, Bud Light, Miller High Life, and the like, with UFO, Guinness, and Long Trail for those who prefer something with a bit more complexity. Maybe it’s a when-in-Rome thing, but I tend to look right past the taps and stick with the basics when I’m here.

If you’re hungry, go somewhere else first. There’s no food here, although if you’re in a pinch, you won’t starve.

For a generally “no frills” bar, the BHP offers quite a few diversions. There’s a foosball table and a golf arcade game when you walk in, and a couple of dartboards in the main bar area. Now, that’s not uncommon; but a dedicated “game room” is. Yes, once you’ve put back a few tallboys, you can test your aim at Big Buck Hunter, unleash a little post-work aggression with the boxing game, or shoot a few hoops.

You can also play DJ with the jukebox, but unless you can come up with an inspired mix like “Easy Like Sunday Morning” followed by a White Zombie song and a live version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” why not just leave the running playlist to chance?

I usually keep to the beer when I’m here, but since I always try working a cocktail or two into a post, I figured I should see what BHP had to offer. Now this certainly isn’t the kind of place that has a menu of fancy drinks; but before I ordered a gin and tonic or something equally unimaginative, I thought, maybe I should ask the bartender if he has a specialty. I mean, you never know when you’re going to stumble upon some really unique or notably well-made drink, right? So I asked. His answer? “Yeah, whiskey.” So I went for a Jameson on the rocks. No complaints.

The bar began filling up in earnest by 6:45, and as much as I was enjoying hearing “Shout at the Devil” for the first time in a decade or so, I had to excuse myself before the night crowd settled in. While the BHP is quiet in the early evening, it’s a completely different affair in the later hours. The place gets so packed on Friday and Saturday nights, you can barely move; sometimes there’s even a line to get in.

Imagine that – all the nice bars in Boston, especially downtown, and there’s a line to get into the Beacon Hill Pub. Is it the lure of the $3 Narragansett? Or is it because last call at BHP is 2 a.m., while many other nearby bars close up shop at 1?

Perhaps. But I think there’s more to it than that. The BHP is casual and unpretentious. You laugh a little louder there. Maybe you drink a little more, too. And after a long day of answering to people, or a night of having to be on your game, it’s nice to come to a place where you can just relax and be yourself. I think that’s the Beacon Hill Pub’s true appeal.

That, or Big Buck Hunter.

Last Call: It’s not the most inviting-looking entrance on Charles Street, but it would be hard to feel unwelcome at the Beacon Hill Pub. Like a lot of old dive bars, it’s the kind of place that feels familiar even if it’s your first time there. Between the characters in the late afternoon and the big crowd at night, it’s the sort of bar where you can either fly comfortably under the radar or talk and laugh at the top of your lungs.

As I already mentioned, the BHP is a pretty affordable place to drink. Aside from my usual Narragansett, on my last trip I ordered a PBR and a High Life that came to a total of $6.25. Beyond bottles and cans, the drink prices are a little more typical of the area. I got a Blue Moon on draft for $5.50, and my Jameson was $6.50.

As reasonable as the prices are, make sure you hit the ATM before you go. The BHP is cash only, as they helpfully remind you with a dozen or so signs posted throughout the bar. But there’s an ATM on site if you need one more tallboy and only have $2 (don’t judge, we’ve all been there).

The Beacon Hill Pub makes no bones about what it is. That remark about it being “a bar scene straight out of Star Wars”? They took a jab like that and made it a rallying cry, posting it behind the bar and making it their slogan on Facebook and Twitter. (They update their Twitter feed about once every three to six months, with one recent entry flaunting the bar’s stainless steel toilet seats; again, way to own it, BHP.)

Situated in the most exclusive area in Boston, the BHP is an everyman’s bar. And while a blue collar place like this may seem out of place in a blue blood neighborhood, Beacon Hill and the pub that bears its name are both, in their own way, Boston classics.

Address: 149 Charles Street, Boston

Website: Yeah, right.

P.S. Han shot first.

In Memoriam – Sadie’s Saloon

I hope I never lose the joy of discovery. Meeting new people, making new friends, finding new bars, new music, new cities, new common interests. It makes me feel like I’m constantly growing – not just growing older.

Of course, I can’t exactly help that “growing older” thing. And while I try to keep life fresh with regular infusions of new experiences, I find that age brings with it a tendency to cling ever more tightly to traditions. Sometimes with a vice-like grip, as if failing to honor them means forever losing a part of myself. You might check out my Montreal post if you want about a dozen examples of this, ranging from truly meaningful to patently absurd, but I suspect it’s not just me. Life cruises along on its own schedule, never slackening its pace, even when we so desperately need it to. Especially on those rare nights we wish wouldn’t end, like when we laughed until our sides hurt or made a special connection with someone.

It might not be possible to relive those experiences, but I doubt I’m the only one who’s tried to recapture the magic. So we return to the same places with the same people and attempt, deliberately or unconsciously, to recreate the conditions that left us with such a powerful, lasting memory. And however silly those traditions and rituals may seem at times, in truth, they’re rarely ever foolish. If it means something to you, then it’s meaningful.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share with you a special tradition of mine.

My brother Andrew and his girlfriend Linda moved to Florida 5 years ago. The upside of that is that my family has a reason to visit Florida every now and then. And don’t get me wrong – that’s a pretty fun upside.

The downside, of course, is that we only get to hang out with two of our favorite people a few times a year. They come back to Boston for occasional visits, but it’s usually around the holidays, and you know how that goes. Places to go, people to see. And when you see loved ones that infrequently, you really need to make the most of the time you have.

That said, whenever Andrew and Linda have to come to visit, regardless of the purpose of their or how long they’re staying, one event has always been one written on our agenda in indelible ink.

A trip to Sadie’s Saloon in Waltham.

If you’re familiar with Sadie’s, you know it’s a fairly unassuming backdrop for such a key reunion. But it’s always been our place, and it’s the only time that Andrew, Linda, Melissa, Kelly, and I can be assured of having each other’s undivided attention. A chance to catch up on new stories and rehash some old ones, all with cheap pitchers of beer and the best steak tips around. After dinner, we head elsewhere for more drinks and to meet up with other people, but the Sadie’s portion of the night has mostly been just for us (and a few other occasional guests), and it’s one ritual we’d never mess with. For Andrew and Linda, Sadie’s has always been about coming home; for us, it’s been about spending precious time with loved ones.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I write this week’s post – a tribute to Sadie’s Saloon, which after 22 years of business, closed its doors on Friday, October 19.

Sadie’s was the kind of bar that probably looked old the day it opened. And while it was known as “Sadie’s Saloon & Eatery” for 22 years, its story dates back much further. It was apparently preceded by a bar called “Ma’s” (why am I not surprised), and the building’s basement served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. I’m sure it got an upgrade or two over the years, but this was the kind of place where you’d walk in and feel like things hadn’t changed in a looooong time.

But the world around it – specifically, the Moody Street area – changed quite a bit. In a neighborhood that grew to host a microbrewery, a couple of good barbecue places, an Irish pub with live music, a tapas bar, a cocktail bar or two, a Mexican restaurant on the water, sports bars with dozens of big TVs, and a movie theater, Sadie’s maintained its straightforward, down-to-earth appearance and attitude. It was never the main attraction, even before all those other places came along, but I doubt it ever endeavored to be.

No, Sadie’s had all the trappings of a true neighborhood pub. A scuffed-up wooden bar with maybe 10 seats. An adjacent dining area, somewhat separated from the bar. A few TVs. Neon Budweiser signs. Beer mirrors. Keno. A vending machine selling scratch tickets. Booths with vinyl seats. Formica-topped tables – some with aged wooden chairs, others with metal folding chairs.

There was never a big remodeling, or an overhaul of the menu, or a lineup of the latest craft beers, or a list of fancy cocktails. Sadie’s was a decidedly blue collar bar where the beer was a little cheaper, the pours were a little heavier, and the Boston accents were a little thicker.

No frills. But plenty of character.

While neighboring establishments gave a much-needed boost to downtown Waltham, Sadie’s remained a vestige of a time gone by. And if the growing vibrancy of Moody Street made Sadie’s look increasingly dated, its longevity proves that simple never really goes out of style.

Melissa, Kelly, and I stopped into Sadie’s for one last visit before it closed. It wasn’t the same without Andrew and Linda, and we couldn’t get the highly coveted round booth (reserved for parties of four or more), but you can’t have everything. For a bar that was never terribly busy, it was packed on a Tuesday night. The waitress told us a table would only be a 15-minute wait, so we stood at the bar and took it all in one last time. All night I’d see people walk in the door and head straight for the dining area, the way they probably did a hundred times before, only to find every table taken and scant standing room at the bar.

The atmosphere that night was one of both celebration and sadness. I don’t know how many times I overheard someone say “I can’t believe they’re closing.” People came, paid their respects, drank a few beers, and spun some old yarns.

We talked with a long-time Sadie’s regular who rattled off a few hysterical stories about the place, including an incident some years back in which an armed robber stormed in with the intent of sticking the place up. The bartender, apparently, had other ideas – he said “Go f*ck yourself” and threw a bottle that connected with the forehead of the gun-toting, would-be thief. The stunned robber fled the premises, but the bartender wasn’t done. He leapt over the bar, ran down the street, caught the perp, dragged him back to the bar, and held him there until the police arrived.

True story? Maybe, maybe not. But when I heard it, something about the old-school vibe of Sadie’s made me think…yeah, I could see that.

After an hour or so, we asked how much longer our 15-minute wait would be, only to find that our name was no longer on the list. Annoying as this was, it seemed oddly appropriate; in all our years of going there, I don’t think the Sadie’s wait staff ever fully grasped the concept of the list. Hey, I never said the place was perfect.

Although we were short two important regulars, we faithfully adhered to the rest of our traditions. Mel bought a scratch ticket, as always (she often won a few bucks, but not this time).

Kelly joked about playing Keno, but never actually did. And we placed the same order we’d been placing for years.

For drinks? A pitcher of Bud Light.

Followed by Buffalo wings.

And then the main event…

Whatever comforts could be found at Sadie’s – cheap drinks, a sense of camaraderie, a refreshing simplicity – chances are, most people were there for the steak tips. When we’d come with Andrew and Linda, we’d sit around the booth and pretty much all order steak tips with minor variations – medium, medium rare; with mashed potatoes, without; gravy, no gravy.

My order never varied, and with a stiff upper lip, I placed it one last time – Sadie’s tips, medium rare; mashed potatoes with gravy. I was stricken when our waitress told us they had run out of mashed potatoes; but since she said they were also fast running out of steak tips, I counted my blessings and settled for onion rings.

As we finished our meals, and I restrained myself from licking the plate, I wondered whether I should have come here more often. Even though it felt like sacrilege to do so without Andrew and Linda, I thought…I’m never going to have these tips again. But as phenomenal as the tips were, there was a warmth in our Sadie’s tradition that had nothing to do with the food.

The most important parts of that tradition will continue, of course. We’ll see Andrew and Linda the next time they’re in town, and as always, there’ll be at least one night of dinner, drinks, hijinks, and merriment. We don’t need to be at Sadie’s to swap stories and make each other laugh. But we’ll miss it just the same.

Last Call…and I Mean Last Call: Call it what you want – a dive, a townie bar, a hole in the wall, a hidden gem, all of the above. To Andrew, Linda, Melissa, Kelly, and me, Sadie’s Saloon was a very special place. And judging by how busy the bar was during its final week, it meant something to a lot of people.

The reason for closing wasn’t publicized. Some said the economy was to blame; one of the regulars told me it was simply because the owner was retiring. And while we’re on the subject of unsubstantiated rumors, I’ve been told that another establishment on Moody Street uses the same steak tip recipe that Sadie’s did; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you.

As painful as the loss of Sadie’s is, the whole experience makes me appreciate the places I frequent now. My favorite bars aren’t the newest or most glamorous in town; like Sadie’s, they’re the most familiar. They evoke the warmest memories. They’re places I’ve spent hours at with good friends, or maybe even by myself.

If you have a place like that, and I hope you do, then I suggest you make the most of it. It might not be there forever.


I very rarely find myself in Chinatown; which is odd, given its proximity to my office and my fondness for Asian cuisine.

Upon reflection, I attribute the infrequency of my visits to three factors. First, the paucity of bars in the area means that Chinatown normally isn’t part of the “where should we have drinks tonight” conversation. It’s somewhere you go almost exclusively for lunch or dinner.

That brings me to my second issue. While some neighborhoods may suffer from a lack of viable eateries, the reverse is true in Chinatown – there are almost too many options. It’s a densely packed area with dozens upon dozens of restaurants, and unless I’m headed to a particular destination, the prospect of simply picking a place to eat is overwhelming.

Finally, my lingering memory of those few occasions when I have dined in Chinatown is of being squeezed into an absurdly tight space in an already crowded restaurant. The neighborhood’s popularity, combined with the small size of some of the restaurants, often means you’re standing outside while waiting for a table. And when you do get a table, you might find yourself squished into a corner near the utility closet (as once happened to a friend of mine). It can make for a chaotic dining experience.

Then you have Shōjō – which does everything differently.

A first glance alone reveals Shōjō to be distinct from its neighbors. Amid a throng of red and yellow signs advertising dumplings or “exotic” cocktails, its exterior is subtle and understated – a black and white sign against a gray wall, with a row of tall bamboo separating the entrance from the sidewalk. And as soon as you step in, the differences between Shōjō and every other place in Chinatown quickly become apparent.

Shōjō is spacious, refined, and serene. There’s a small, L-shaped bar and 10 or 12 tables, nicely spread out, each with chopsticks wrapped in thick black napkins at the place settings.

The look and feel is equal parts rustic and modern – which, as one of the managers told me, is very much by design. Gleaming wooden tables with handsome black chairs and a shiny gray concrete floor reflect modern-day craftsmanship, while aged-looking exposed brick, a bar made with reclaimed wood from the 1700s and 1800s, and Shinto bar stools recall a sense of tradition. High ceilings and hanging caged lights give the entire space something of an industrial feel.

Painted on the far wall is a mural depicting the journey of the restaurant’s namesake, Shōjō – a Japanese mythical figure, half-man and half-monkey, who scours the world in search of a never-ending river of sake. (I hope he finds it and makes a detailed map.)

It’s an upscale place that could be very serious in tone, but the atmosphere instead seems relaxed. Shōjō was even decorated for Halloween when I was there, cobwebs and spiders adorning light fixtures and walls, making things feel casual and playful. Plus, when the cornerstone of the décor is a monkey man looking for a river of sake, how uptight could a place like this be?

I sought out Shōjō on account of its reputation for well-made cocktails. Again, Chinatown doesn’t come to mind as an obvious destination for drinks, so the idea of a craft cocktail lounge in the neighborhood seemed pretty novel.

I visited on a recent Saturday with fellow barhoppers Kelly, Kat, and Tracy. The bar was full when we arrived at 7 p.m., but only a few of the tables were occupied and we were seated immediately.

We could tell we were in good hands as soon as we sat down. Our waiter, Justin, was one of the friendliest, most helpful servers I’ve had in ages. Whenever we ordered a drink, he inquired as to whether we’d had it before, apprised us of any unusual ingredients, and suggested modifications for us to consider.

Now I freely admit – despite my having heard good things about Shōjō’s cocktails, I was expecting scorpion bowls and Mai Tais, or at least very upscale tiki drinks. What I found instead was a small, well-conceived cocktail menu that put an Asian twist on classic drinks while offering a few unique creations. There’s also an extensive selection of sake (Shōjō himself would approve), including one brand that comes in a can.

I began the evening with an Aberdeen Swizzle – house citrus-infused gin and coconut crème, beautifully garnished with a basil leaf. It had the dryness you’d expect of gin, but the citrus contributed a natural sweetness; the coconut was subtle but gave the drink a certain smoothness, and the pleasant aroma of basil was evident in every sip.

Kat’s selection, the Chairman’s Painkiller, was the most visually striking, served in a funky-looking ceramic tiki cup. Made with Chairman’s spiced rum, coconut crème, and orange, it was a creamy concoction with a subdued tropical flair.

Stoddard’s may make the best Moscow Mule in town, but Shōjō puts its distinct stamp on the drink by swapping vodka for citrus-infused gin and using a house-made ginger beer. The resulting Gin Gin Mule, as Kelly discovered, is a worthy variation on a classic, with the citrus and a little simple syrup mellowing out what could have been a harsh combination of ginger beer and gin.

Tracy’s drink was probably the most elegant selection of the first round. The Lisboa is made with Oolong-infused gin, Lillet blanc, orange bitters, and grapefruit. At Justin’s suggestion, Tracy swapped out the gin for Oolong-infused vodka and seemed pretty happy with the result.

As we sipped our drinks, we began perusing the menu. Aside from only serving remarkably fresh, locally sourced food, the chefs clearly aren’t playing by any strict culinary rules. A word like “fusion,” while applicable, doesn’t do Shōjō justice; combining French and Italian techniques with modern Asian cuisine, the menu is constantly in flux, depending on the availability of local ingredients. The results again distinguish Shōjō from so many of its neighbors. How else would you explain their offering turkey meatloaf with miso gravy as one of that evening’s specials?

Turkey meatloaf? In Chinatown?

French fries are another item you might not expect to see on a Chinatown menu; and even if they were an option…why would you get them? But as we began ordering appetizers, Shōjō’s duck fat hand-cut fries stood out as an enticing, if offbeat, option. Served with a creamy dipping sauce, they were hard to resist.Next up was barbecue pork rib, topped with a crisp Asian slaw. The meat was tender and fell right off the bone.

Shrimp fritters were available on special, but they were going fast and Justin had to consult the chef before offering them to us. With a crunchy exterior and accompanied by a tangy chili sauce, I can see why they were in demand.

With that we moved on to dinner. Tempting as the turkey meatloaf was, I opted for a different special – braised rabbit served with handmade tagliatelle, mustard white wine sauce, and smoked bacon. I don’t have rabbit that often, so I don’t have much to compare my entrée to, but it was tasty and tender (and yeah, pretty much tasted like chicken). But the pasta stole the show. Made on site, these were the thickest, richest noodles I’ve ever had.

Also on special was a roasted half-chicken with smashed potatoes, smoked bacon, red wine sauce, and beech mushrooms. Tracy went for this and said the chicken pretty much tasted like rabbit.

Kelly got honey barbecue pork ravioli, another creative combination of disparate elements. The flavor of the meat reminded me of marinated pork right off the grill; wrapped in more of that house-made pasta, it was delicious.

Kat settled on steamed mussels in lemongrass broth, from the appetizer menu. In hindsight, I’m surprised Kelly didn’t get these, given her professed dislike for seafood and contradictory tendency to order it whenever we go out.

Needless to say, a second round of Shōjō’s excellent cocktails was in order.

I was most intrigued by the Reiko Greene, made with Hendricks gin, green chartreuse, lime, and – get this – cucumber ice. Justin called it a “two-part drink,” because its complexion gradually changes as the cucumber ice melts. That’s if you sip it slowly, which was a challenge given how good it was even as a one-part drink. Sure enough, the flavor and character evolved as the cucumber slowly permeated the cocktail.

Kelly got the Ding How cocktail, which is Shōjō’s take on a French 75. Made with Hendricks gin, lillet rose, bitters, simple syrup, and lemon juice, and finished with rose champagne, it was dry and effervescent with just a hint of sweetness.

We also got to see the Shōjō bartenders shift into improvisational mode when Tracy shifted into diva mode and demanded a special cocktail be made just for her. Undaunted, the bartender crafted Tracy a drink with champagne, ginger, and an orange peel. Simple and refreshing, it calmed Tracy down and made me look forward to coming back and sitting at the bar, trying whatever new cocktails are on the menu, or just telling the bartenders what I like and seeing what they come up with. Judging by what I’ve seen by Shōjō already, I’m sure the results will be impressive.

As we began wrapping things up, one of the managers, Brendan, came by to ask about our meals and to make sure Tracy didn’t have another “make me a drink” outburst. He told us more about his interesting restaurant, which has only been open since August but appears to be thriving. I sensed he and the staff had a lot of pride in Shōjō, and they should. As a one-of-a-kind bar in Chinatown, I hope it enjoys a bright future.

Last Call: You know what bugs me most about my complete lack of knowledge of where to go in Chinatown? The fact that everyone I talk to knows “some little place” that’s a hidden gem. I always hear “Oooh, I know a place in Chinatown that makes the best dim sum,” or “I know a place there that makes the best Vietnamese sandwiches.”

Well now I can finally chime in – I know a place in Chinatown that makes the best drinks.

Shōjō not only finds a way to stands out in this busy neighborhood; it stands tall. If you’re looking for traditional Asian cuisine or colorful Polynesian cocktails, you won’t find them here. What you will find is an innovative approach that seamlessly combines elements of Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese cooking, and doesn’t stop there. Even characterizing the food as Asian seems limiting; the menu might be better described as a collection of thoughtful, creative dishes tied together by a distinct Asian thread.

But more important than the type of the cuisine is how wonderfully fresh it all is. Relying only on locally available ingredients forces the chefs to stay creative, and the results are delicious, beautifully presented, and anything but predictable.

That same sense of freshness and creativity influences the cocktail menu as well. Little things, like infusing their liquors and crafting their own ginger beer, mean Shōjō’s bartenders are working with highly customized ingredients. As a result, even the simplest drink here is unique.

The prices are totally reasonable. Our drinks were $10 each, which is standard for cocktails of that sort. Entrees ranged from $16 to $18, and the appetizers were between $6 and $8.

And as I mentioned, the service was outstanding. Justin was helpful and good-natured (he confessed to being the artistic force behind the Halloween decorations). Even though most of the tables were full by 8:45, we got the same level of attention as when we arrived at a much quieter hour. That, along with Shōjō’s peaceful ambience, made our evening in Chinatown casual and comfortable.

And much better sharing a corner with a utility closet.

Address: 9A Tyler Street, Boston

Website: http://Shōjōboston.com/

Shopper’s Café

When it comes to the local sports scene, we New Englanders have been pretty blessed over the past 10 years or so. In fact, with three Lombardi trophies, two World Series titles, a Stanley Cup, an NBA championship, and a host of deep playoff runs across all four major pro sports, “spoiled” might be the more accurate word.

Things feel a little different this fall. The Red Sox aren’t in the playoffs, and let’s face it – their season effectively ended sometime in July. But at least their season began, which is more than I can say for the Bruins, as yet another NHL lockout begins extinguishing the hockey season. At least we have the Patriots, who are off to a promising start, and the Celtics. (My interest in basketball is passive at best, but in a year with potentially no hockey, I’ll take what I can get.)

This old warrior deserves an honorary championship ring.

With that in mind, I thought I’d start an occasional series on the best bars in which to watch a game. Now, “best” can be pretty subjective. If you’re the anxious owner of a fantasy football team and need to monitor eight games at once, you’ll naturally want a bar with NFL Sunday Ticket and a plethora of TVs. If you moved to Boston from Pittsburgh and are for some reason still a Pirates fan, you’ll need to find a bar that carries out-of-market baseball games. Or maybe you’re just really superstitious and know that if you don’t watch the game while sitting on a particular stool in a particular bar while wearing a particular shirt and drinking a particular beer, the home team will lose. (And on that note, New England fans, you have no idea how great your debt is to my tattered black Nike sweatshirt, which has guided the Pats to many critical victories over the years.)

It’s a combination of warm memories, friendly service, and a great viewing setup that make Shopper’s Café in Waltham my favorite sports bar.

Whenever I mention it, the name elicits the same response – that’s a bar? Yes, it’s a bar, even if “Shopper’s Café” sounds more like the food court in a mall than a place to have a few beers. The moniker apparently dates back to a time when Moody Street was largely a retail district, and husbands would come in for a drink while their wives were out shoppin’ around. And when I say “dates back,” I mean it – Shopper’s recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and it’s been family-owned for four generations.

In my opinion, Shopper’s is ideally outfitted for the sports-viewing experience. For starters, it’s big. There’s a long bar with about 16 seats, plus a few pub tables and a couple of booths in the immediate vicinity. Beyond that is a large dining area with about eight good-size wooden tables, five large booths, and another five pub tables. The bar and dining areas are somewhat divided, but the place is essentially one large, open room.

And the best part? TVs galore.

No matter where you’re sitting, chances are you’ll have a pretty good view of one of Shopper’s’ 22 televisions. The dining area boasts 13 flat-screens of varying sizes, and there are nine more above and around the bar. And Shopper’s carries NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice, and NCAA March Madness packages, so whatever game you’re looking for, you’ll have no trouble finding it.

Hanging out in the Saints’ locker room.

In fact, I might never have discovered Shopper’s Café were it not for their broad offering of out-of-market football games. First, let me make this clear – my family, Melissa, and I are all diehard Patriots fans. But a few years back, our cousin got a coaching job with the New Orleans Saints, and so we started casually rooting for the Saints as well. Our casual interest blossomed into a full-blown love affair after we visited our cousin in New Orleans, toured the Saints’ facilities, hobnobbed with coaches and players, and watched them destroy the New York Giants at the Superdome. We had a glorious long weekend in New Orleans, and it would be difficult say to whether Eli Manning or our livers absorbed the worse beating while there.

No football team will top the Patriots for us, but that unique experience made us Saints fans for life. Thus, after our trip, we had to find a place with NFL Sunday Ticket so we could watch the Saints and the Pats. That’s how we discovered Shopper’s, where we spent pretty much every Sunday that fall. And that’s where we were for Super Bowl XLIV, a special night when Shopper’s was packed, the Saints pummeled a different Manning, and pretty much everyone in New England became Saints fans for at least one night (Saints 31, Colts 17). Since then, Shopper’s has always held a special appeal for us, and that’s where you can find us most Sundays.

For the inaugural game of the 2012 NFL season, Kelly, Mario, Kat, and I arrived at Shopper’s around noon. Though it was still an hour until kickoff, about 20 other people were already there. A place like Shopper’s draws a lot of game-day regulars, so we saw some familiar faces; our waitress recognized us and welcomed us back, which made us feel right at home.

Getting to Shopper’s early on Sunday is a good idea, especially if you’re planning to watch more than just the Pats. The staff usually chuckles at us as Kelly and I try out different tables to achieve the optimal viewing angle. Plus, oddly enough, there’s a table that’s unofficially reserved for a group of older gents who show up every week to watch the Cleveland Browns, so we always know that at least a few seats are spoken for before we even arrive.

Since noon on Sunday is still considered the brunch hour, we often get things under way with a Bloody Mary. Shopper’s makes a nice, spicy Bloody Mary that sets the stage for an afternoon of beer and wings.

By 12:45, Shopper’s was bustling. There were about 30 people in the dining area, another 20 or so at the bar. Shopper’s always fills up on game day, but for the season opener, there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. It was a beautiful day, the staff were all decked out in Pats gear, and they opened the big windows that look onto Moody Street, letting in lots of sunlight and warm, early autumn air.

We drained our Bloody Marys and quickly shifted to beer for the game. Shopper’s offers a pretty respectable beer list, with draft options like Baxter Stowaway IPA, Slumbrew Happy Sol, Long Trail, and Allagash White, among many others. But when you’re settling in for a three- to six-hour day of football, pitchers of Bud Light is the way to go.

Plentiful cheap beer and multiple TVs are essential, but any sports bar worth its salt needs a menu overflowing with appetizers and comfort food. Shopper’s goes above and beyond. They’ve got all the game-day staples, like nachos, wings, and potato skins, along with a few unexpected options like crab rangoon and pork strips. (That reminds me – for any superstitious New Orleans fans reading this, please know that my strategic ordering and consumption of Shopper’s’ toasted raviolis, the specifics of which I will not detail here, helped propel the Saints to their Super Bowl victory; you’re welcome.) We started off with spinach and artichoke dip.

As the Pats began their dismantling of the Tennessee Titans, we ordered up another pitcher and our traditional, must-have order – Cajun chicken wings. I don’t claim to be a wing connoisseur; I know some people take this subject very seriously. But Shopper’s’ Cajun wings are among my favorite wings anywhere. With a dry-rubbed mix of Cajun spices and a Ranch dip, I wolf these things down like they’re going out of style.

Even beyond the snacks and munchies, Shopper’s offers a surprisingly extensive menu of burgers, wraps, entrees, pizza, and plenty of sandwiches – chicken sandwiches, steak sandwiches, regular ol’ sandwiches like Reubens and pastrami, and a “Pilgrim” sandwich made with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. And the food is pretty good! I’m a sucker for the Bruiser Burger – big and juicy, coated in Cajun seasoning and topped with crumbled blue cheese, it’s my go-to whenever we’re staying at Shopper’s for the 4 p.m. game.

I’m also partial to the Steak Monti, made with teriyaki-glazed steak tips, which Kelly got on our last outing.

Shopper’s Café attracts football fans of all stripes, and this is a good thing. While Pats fans dominate the crowd, looking around the bar and seeing people wearing other teams’ shirts engenders a sense of community. Whenever I’m out of town during football season, I seek out a bar that’s showing the Pats, so I can relate. Being immersed in such a diversity of allegiances reminds me that even though we’re cheering for different teams, we all share that passion for the game. (Honestly, I’m not really that high-minded; this is just a little pep talk I give myself when I get stuck next to a table of Jets fans.)

As I mentioned earlier, among the regulars are some Browns fans who seem to range in age from their late 60s to their 70s. What’s always amazed us about these guys – apart from their dedication to the hapless Browns – is that every week they have a table set aside for them, directly in front of the TV that shows the Browns game. I first noticed this when I came in one Sunday to an empty dining area, and the waitress said “sit anywhere…except that table over there.” Now, Shopper’s isn’t exactly the sort of place that takes reservations. So what gives?

Under the auspices of the blog, I took the opportunity during week 1 to approach one of these gents and find out a little more about their weekly tradition. I spoke with Rich, and I can’t say I got a straight answer about how they finagle a dedicated table every week, but I suspect it has something to do with the sort of charm that only guys in their 70s can wield. I did, however, have an illuminating conversation with him about and his love for the Browns.

Surprisingly, Rich is a Browns fan who does not hail from Cleveland. Growing up in New England in the 1950s, he had two options for watching football on TV – the Cleveland Browns or the New York Giants. The Pats didn’t show up until later, and Rich was invested enough in the Browns that he wouldn’t switch his allegiance (and given the bumbling nature of the Pats in those days, I can’t say I blame him). Plus, Rich was there for the Browns’ golden years, and he cheerfully reminisced about watching pigskin immortals like Otto Graham, Jim Brown, and coach Paul Brown in their heyday. He spoke with grim resignation about “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in the 1980s, and of course, the Browns’ controversial move to Baltimore in the 1990s.

I asked Rich what his thoughts were on the Browns’ chances this season, and his response will resonate with any pre-2004 Red Sox fan: “I’m always optimistic.” He’ll need that optimism. During the opening ceremonies of week 1, Browns’ quarterback Brandon Wheeden got caught under a huge American flag as it was being unfurled and needed on-field officials’ assistance to emerge. Not exactly a harbinger of good tidings for long-suffering Browns fans. The team went on to author the kind of ghastly loss that only the Browns could, somehow intercepting the Eagles’ Michael Vick four times yet still managing to lose. But if he’s been carrying the torch this long, I doubt a game like that would deter a guy like Rich.

I enjoyed the conversation, and it gave me visions of, a few decades from now, being able to regale young ‘uns with stories of watching Tom Brady and the Patriots in their dominant glory years. We may be spoiled here in New England, but I’ll take it.

For the countless Sunday afternoons I’ve spent at Shopper’s, I’d never actually been there at night until this past Wednesday. Melissa and I stopped in and found a completely different vibe. I suppose it’s no surprise – it was a cold, rainy Wednesday night, there were no Boston sports on TV, and the NLDS wasn’t exactly luring the masses. When we arrived at 7 p.m., there were about 10 people at the bar, and I got the impression they were regulars.

Since there was no need for a pitcher of cheap suds, I perused the craft beer options and settled on a Baxter’s Hayride Autumn Ale. It was crisp, hoppy, and well suited to the weather.

Melissa got the Shopper’s Margarita, which puts a twist on the traditional version by adding cranberry and pineapple juice. It was an interesting combination – the tartness of the cranberry and the sweetness of the pineapple worked pretty well together. The drink as a whole was a refreshing match for Mel’s spicy Kickin’ Chicken sandwich, made with Cajun spices, jalapenos, Swiss cheese, and honey mustard.

It took all of my restraint to not order my customary wings, but I figured this was a good opportunity to try something else for a change. I opted for the Reuben sandwich, which was well made and satisfying.

And since no blog trip would be complete without a cocktail, I figured I’d give Shopper’s’ intriguing “Honey Manhattan” a whirl. Made with Wild Turkey American Honey, it was deceptively sweet up front, making it the kind of drink that could go down just a wee bit too easily – never a good thing when the alcohol in question is whiskey. I’ll stick with traditional Manhattans, but I do like checking out variations now and again.

Coming to Shopper’s on a quiet weeknight broadened my perspective about a bar I was already immensely fond of. When there aren’t 60+ people cheering, yelling at TVs, and performing impromptu victory dances, the pride and personal touch you’d expect to find in a long-running family business is unmistakable. I sensed a real earnestness among the staff, and it makes Shopper’s feel not just like a good sports bar, but a true neighborhood gem.

Our bartender, Joey, was incredibly nice and took great care of us. He filled us in a bit on some of Shopper’s’ long history, including the fact that it burned down in 2006. They rebuilt it as the top-notch sports bar it is today, with gleaming hardwood floors, posters and memorabilia covering the walls, and all those TVs. Joey rattled off various siblings and cousins who work there, including our regular waitress. “Of course, we hire people who aren’t family,” he assured me. “But they become our family.”

I don’t doubt it.

Last Call: I remember back during the 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox were on the verge of completing one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history, discussing with my friend Brian whether we would watch the game at his place or mine. Then he suggested we might watch Game 7 at a bar.

My response? HELL NO!!!

This was one of the most important games ever, and there was no way I was entrusting my fortunes to the vagaries of a crowded bar. What if we missed out on witnessing history because we didn’t have a good view of the TV? What if we were next to a table of yahoos who wanted to do a shot every time someone hit a foul ball? No, we had to watch at home, so I could focus (and change shirts if necessary).

How things have changed. Don’t get me wrong – I love watching sports from the comfort of my home, with my own customized selection of beer, snacks, and other amenities. But there’s much to be said for watching at a bar, getting caught up in the energy and intensity the home crowd, celebrating or commiserating with friends or complete strangers. And you don’t necessarily need a bar with dozen TVs; if it’s the right kind of place, one TV, a bowl of popcorn, a good game, and a steady supply of PBR might be just as satisfying.

Shopper’s Café caters to casual and diehard sports fans with its TV setup, multiple sports packages, and overall spaciousness. But as I’ve learned, it’s a cool bar even if you’re not there to watch sports. The prices are a welcome change from what I normally plunk down in Boston. Sandwiches and burgers are all under $10, my Baxter’s was under $4, and our mixed drinks were about $7.

Whether it’s a chaotic Sunday or a laid-back weeknight, I’ve always found Shopper’s to be a fun, casual place. When a family can keep a place like this running for 75 years, you know they’re doing something right. Here’s to 75 more.

Address: 731 Moody Street, Waltham

Website: http://www.shopperspub.com/

Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale

Back when Boston BarHopper was in its infancy, and I’d talk with people about cool bars, craft cocktails, and the reasons why I was writing a blog, the establishment that was most consistently recommended to me was Davis Square’s Saloon. And with good reason – devoted to pre-Prohibition-era America, Saloon transports its customers back to the early 20th century with faithfully re-created drinks, food, and décor. I can understand people’s enthusiasm.

What is less clear is why I so rarely hear people raving about Stoddard’s – a Downtown Crossing bar that also pays homage to the American saloon era. And to great effect.

Stoddard’s certainly isn’t obscure – on the few occasions I’ve been there, it’s been at least respectably busy, and sometimes totally packed. And Boston Magazine named Stoddard’s’ Moscow Mule one of Boston’s 30 best cocktails last year, so it’s not like the place has somehow gone unnoticed. I just don’t hear about it that often. And I know I’m not the only one – most people I mention Stoddard’s to either haven’t heard of it or are only vaguely familiar with it.

Maybe it’s the location. Nestled away on a Downtown Crossing side street, it’s not terribly visible. Or maybe it’s the name. “Stoddard’s” sounds kind of…stodgy. Old fashioned.

It’s old fashioned, alright. Similar in some respects to Saloon, Stoddard’s vividly recalls an age gone by. But while Saloon is painstakingly crafted to look like a bar from the turn of the century, Stoddard’s has the street cred to back up its historical milieu.

Stoddard’s is housed in a building that dates back to the late 19th century. It survived the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which wiped out a huge swath of the downtown area, and was the site of various retail shops that sold, among other things, corsets, sewing machines, and cutlery. (In fact, Stoddard’s Cutlery, for which the bar is named, operates to this day in a Boston suburb.)

The people behind Stoddard’s are more than aware of their building’s long, colorful past, and have designed the bar – from the décor to the food to the drinks – with that history in mind. There are vestiges of turn-of-the-century Boston everywhere, along with specific nods to the building’s former tenants – which explains the framed corsets on the wall (originals from the shop that sold them) and the odd sewing machine here and there. Railings from the original Filene’s store in Boston cordon off various areas of the interior, and the foot rail at the bar is supposedly a piece of the original trolley track from Park Street station.

As I would envision any late 19th century bar or restaurant to be, Stoddard’s is very dimly lit. The only natural light comes from a couple of windows near the front door, and the black wooden floor makes for a decidedly nocturnal atmosphere. Most of the lighting inside comes from, of all things, antique lampposts. Squint a little and you might even mistake them for the gaslight street lamps that illuminated Boston evenings in the 1800s.

The lampposts aren’t the only remnants of a bygone era. The bartenders are nattily attired with vests and ties, recalling the more formal dress that was once standard. You might imagine the large wooden barrels on the floor to have once held whiskey or beer. And they double as makeshift tables, something you might have seen a few decades later in a speakeasy. The walls of exposed brick contribute to the classic appearance, and candles on the bar and tables evoke a sense of intimacy.

And then there’s the bar.

My friend John put it best: “The first time I came in here, I just stood there for a few minutes, staring at the bar, like a dork.”

Actually, there’s nothing dorky about it. The bar at Stoddard’s is spectacular. A vision. Imported from England, the bar itself is 30 feet long, with about 15 or 16 seats. Evenly spaced along its dark wooden surface are 20 shiny silver taps that hold Stoddard’s’ excellent selection of mostly microbrews.

Behind it, a 15-foot-high mahogany structure, reaching from the floor to the top of the high tin ceiling, holds a vast array of liquor bottles. It makes for an impressive sight, to say the least. I wasn’t able to get a good picture of it, mainly because Stoddard’s is so dark. Even in good light, though, I doubt I could capture its grandeur; and it’s the sort of thing best experienced in person. In fact, everything about Stoddard’s seems to say “drinking here will be an experience.” And it is.

John was one of the first people to tell me about Stoddard’s. Homebrewer and co-founder of the wildly successful Brew Dudes blog, John’s a beer aficionado who would be naturally drawn to a place like Stoddard’s, given the caliber of its selection and the beautiful presentation. You might remember him from my post on TRADE, where he closed out our fairly elegant dinner with a can of Pork Slap Ale.

John and I stopped in on an early-September day after work. The bar was pretty quiet when we got there around 5 p.m., but there were about 30 people in the bar area within the hour. As is his custom whenever the situation presents itself, John set his sights on the cask offerings. In addition to its 20 microbrews, Stoddard’s has up to five beers on cask at any given time, which is pretty uncommon around here (it’s generally considered a coup when a place has one cask-conditioned beer available). John went with Haverhill Commuter Ale, a light, crisp beer that set a nice tone for the evening.

I had decided on my first drink even before I arrived. As I mentioned earlier, Stoddard’s’ Moscow Mule is lauded as one of the very best in the city. It’s no wonder why. The presentation alone is like a clinic in great cocktail making. The process starts with the bartender chipping away at a house-made ice block – another throwback to the old days. Then comes a classic copper cup, which keeps that hand-crushed ice intact and, of course, your drink nice and cold. Watching the exterior of the metal cup gradually frost over is one of the subtle delights of drinking a good cocktail. And of course, there’s the drink itself. I enjoy Moscow Mules, but I’ve always found that if the mix is even slightly off, the sharpness of the ginger beer can really overpower the flavor. Stoddard’s version was perfectly balanced – Russian Standard vodka, top-quality ginger beer, and just enough lime. Without question, the best I’ve ever had.

One pleasantly strong round in, and it was time to check out the dinner menu. Not surprisingly, the food menu is stocked with traditional American favorites – chicken pot pie, steak, pork loin, and a few seafood offerings. Out of sheer amusement, we considered ordering the “pot of pickles” on the appetizer menu, and we were intrigued by the ballotine of Vermont rabbit – boneless rabbit stuffed with rabbit mousse and wrapped in house bacon. In the end, we played it fairly safe. John ordered chicken, which he said reminded him of the kind his mom used to make. (With a little prodding, I confirmed that this was a compliment.)

I went with the Stoddard’s burger. Made with fresh ground Meyer Ranch beef and topped with aged cheddar cheese, it was an excellent, generously sized burger.

Meanwhile, we kept exploring the extensive cocktail menu. Stoddard’s separates their drinks into three sections – Classics, Contemporaries, and Puritans (nonalcoholic), and each drink has a date to indicate the year or decade in which it was most popular. True to historical form, Stoddard’s draws inspiration for their drinks from the quintessential guide to cocktail making – Jerry Thomas’s “How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion,” first published in 1862. The recipes have been updated a bit, by necessity, but when you look at a cocktail menu and see terms like “slings” and “flips,” it’s clear that someone’s gone to great lengths to ensure that the character and essence of saloon-era mixology is not forgotten.

Good friend of the blog that he is, John went with the most intense drink he could find – the Zombie. It was a potent mix of Appleton rum, Demerera rum, absinthe, 151 proof rum, grapefruit, Falernum, grenadine, “Don’s secret mix,” and Stoddard’s own house-made bitters. Just watching the bartender mix up this concoction was a treat. The result was sweet and strong, with a pleasant spice that we couldn’t quite identify. I’m guessing that had something to do with the aforementioned “secret mix.” We asked our bartender, Dan, if he’d divulge the secret, but he wasn’t having any part of that.

I opted for a Fogcutter – white rum, gin, brandy, lemon, lime, and simple syrup. A drink that combines gin and brandy might sound pretty intense, but the citrus flavors made it seem surprisingly light. Like the Zombie, the Fogcutter is the sort of drink you’d typically see on the menu at a Chinese restaurant. But John appraised Stoddard’s’ version as “much better than that; it doesn’t have the burn of alcohol,” and I got the sense he was speaking from experience. A painful experience.

We closed things out with a couple of beers. John ordered one of my all-time favorites – Gritty’s Black Fly Stout. Any bar that has this on draft is a winner in my book, and Stoddard’s serves it on nitro; as if it could get any better. And since I wanted to try one of the cask-conditioned beers, I opted for Harpoon Summer. It was the first time I’d ever had my favorite summer beer on cask. Well balanced and not overly citrusy, I treated it as an unofficial farewell to summer.

Before we left, Stoddard’s drink coordinator, Jamie, came by to introduce himself. He offered us samples of Founders Breakfast Stout, a keg of which they’d just tapped earlier that day. It’s a rich imperial stout with notes of chocolate and coffee, and Jamie’s exuberance at having it on draft was understandable. He called it “a mouthful of awesomeness”; I might not have phrased it as such, but I wouldn’t disagree.

Needless to say, any bar with a beer and cocktail selection as extensive as Stoddard’s’ requires a couple of return trips. One thing I learned on my subsequent visits is that for a place I tend not to hear a lot about, Stoddard’s attracts quite a crowd. I’ve been lucky to even find a seat on the couple of times I’ve gone back. Fortunately, it’s a cool experience even if you don’t find yourself sitting at that magnificent bar. Standing beneath a lamppost, resting my beer on a wooden barrel, surrounded by exposed brick, I always get the sensation that I’m drinking outside when I’m here. Looking up at the balconies where they store kegs of beer kind of makes the place feel like an alley (a really nice alley, of course).

I’d love to give you a rundown of all different the beers I’ve tried at Stoddard’s, but I rarely get past the Gritty’s Black Fly Stout on nitro. I make no apologies for that. But I have managed to work my way through some of the cocktails.

As a lover of Mai Tais, I was eager to try Stoddard’s take on this Polynesian-style classic. Served in a tiki glass that gave me visions of Greg Brady falling off a surfboard during an incident-plagued trip to Hawaii, and garnished with a lemon peel and a Luxardo cherry, the Mai Tai was delicious. And that hand-chipped ice just seems to make every drink better.

Next up was the more serious Savoy Blackthorne, made with John L. Sullivan whiskey, dry vermouth, bitters, absinthe. I was a little skeptical; I have an uneasy relationship with both dry vermouth and absinthe. But the Savoy was a surprisingly smooth, slow-sipping drink that felt well suited to the atmosphere.

Throwing back weighty cocktails like that calls for a little sustenance. Deviled eggs? Don’t mind if I do! Stoddard’s’ deviled eggs are pretty good and surprisingly numerous; most places just give you three halves, but here you get three full eggs. I held off on the pot of pickles, although I giggle every time I see it on the menu.

And of course, because I can scarcely resist ordering cocktails with interesting names, I closed out my last visit with a drink called Blood of My Enemies. An appropriately red-hued cocktail that combined Rhum Clément, aperol, grenadine, blood orange, bitters, and lemon peel, it was sweet and sharp with a nice bite.

As I sipped it, I pictured a mountain, with me on top, lemon yellow sun, arms raised in a V…

Last Call: Stoddard’s has so many of the qualities I love in bars. It’s dark, a little hidden, and steeped in one of my favorite eras of American history. More importantly, their attention to detail is exceeded by an obvious love for top-notch beer and cocktails. The beer selection, which rotates frequently, is clearly chosen by someone with an understanding and appreciation for high-quality microbrews. And with regard to cocktails, the bartenders really know their stuff and clearly enjoy their craft.

The food prices at Stoddard’s are by no means cheap, but you don’t have to let them break the bank, either. John’s chicken was $19, and most of the other entrees are about $20. My burger was $14; that’s a little high, but I admit it was a pretty big burger and a delicious one. Appetizers are very reasonable, though. I spent $4 for a generous portion of deviled eggs, and there are a couple of other inexpensive bar bites. Most of the other appetizers are $10 or so, and with options as varied as beef tartare and lobster scallion hush puppies, they’re definitely worth a try. If you’re in the mood for something more basic, a dozen wings will run you a very fair $10.

Drink prices are right on the money. Most of the beers are $6, but you can get a PBR for $3 if you’re feeling especially thrifty. Cocktails range from $9 to $12, most averaging about $10.

There’s a lot to discover here. Whether it’s a new craft beer or a very old cocktail, every drink at Stoddard’s is made or poured with tremendous care. And from the opulent bar to the repurposed relics from Boston’s past, a trip to Stoddard’s is almost like a history lesson.

With drinks!

Address: 48 Temple Place, Boston

Website: http://stoddardsfoodandale.com/

Bear With Me…

Dear subscribers, readers, visitors, devoted fans, vocal critics, and barhoppers everywhere:

After months of deliberation, hand-wringing, and procrastination, I have decided to give Boston BarHopper an upgrade.

First, the good news – the final product will have a whole new look and feel. The content will be organized differently, there’ll be some cool new features, and overall, I think it will make for an enhanced reading and barhopping experience.

The bad news? I’m the equivalent of an NFL replacement referee when it comes to the technical side of blogging.

So I’ll ask for your patience if you get test posts sent to your e-mail (which happened earlier today…oops), or if you log on and the site is down, or you find the text presented in wingdings. I might also have to skip a week of posting. But whatever the problem is, rest assured that I’ll be taking regular breaks from my fits of pounding the desk and swearing to get it resolved.

My hope is that BBH Mach II will be up and running within the next week or so. In the meantime, thanks for reading!