What comes to mind when you think of having drinks in Kenmore Square? Sports bahhhhs!!
You know as well as I do – all things in Kenmore seem to revolve around the Red Sox in some manner or other. Bars in particular. Some of these places seem to owe their very existence to the presence of Fenway Park – Game On, Baseball Tavern, Remy’s, Bleacher Bar, and of course the venerable Cask & Flagon.
These are very casual places with lots of huge TVs, neon beer signs, and menus composed mainly of burgers, sandwiches, and fried goodies. They’re designed to accommodate tons of people squeezing in and standing around before, during, or after a Sox game. The atmosphere is characterized by a high-energy wait staff, loud music, or booming game-day audio.
This isn’t a bad thing.
But if you’re looking for an alternative to the typical bars in this area, take a quick jaunt down Beacon Street and over the Mass Pike. Audubon Circle is a unique, quiet bar that probably doesn’t rely quite as much on Fenway foot traffic. And while it’s only a five-minute walk from Kenmore, it feels like it’s a thousand miles away – in terms of both location and style.
Audubon Circle exudes an air of calm that stands in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kenmore Square. It is a dark, quiet bar with a strikingly minimalist décor – one long, open room; a lengthy, curving bar with about 30 stools; and maybe 15 small tables lining the walls. And there’s one odd triangle-shaped table, not quite in the center of the room, with a vicious-looking pointed edge.
You walk in and find yourself surrounded by cool, dark wood – wood paneling on the walls, hardwood flooring, wooden barstools, even hardwood in the bathroom (though the important parts are still porcelain). It gives the room a very serious tone, but also a very peaceful one. The floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the bar and a skylight in the center of the ceiling let in enough natural light to keep the place from feeling somber. Plus, friendly service and a steady soundtrack of jazz, Motown, and R&B help liven the mood.
There’s a certain comfort to be found in a bar with no flash, no blinking signs, no memorabilia on the walls. Even the liquors and the beer taps are kept beneath the bar or hidden away in cabinets, giving the space a very neat, clean look. It’s almost kind of…Zen.
And thus, the antithesis of a Fenway sports bar.
I stopped in here with Mario on a Monday night in March. It was pretty empty – no more than 10 customers. Granted, it was a Monday, but this strikes me as the kind of place that, even when crowded, never feels too busy.
We started off with a couple of beers, and while there’s only a handful of draft options, they’re good ones – Notch Session Pils, Fisherman’s Ale, Harpoon UFO, Dogfish, and Guinness. The bottled beer selection is more expansive and no less interesting, with microbrews like Pretty Things, Grey Lady Ale, and BBC Steel Rail Ale, to name a few. And there are some conventional standbys, such as Bud and High Life (in a can!).
I with a Notch Pils and Mario with a Sam Light, we took a look at Audubon’s small but eclectic menu. It’s an unusual mishmash of choices borrowing from all manner of international cuisines. There are appetizers like a potsticker box, steamed veggie dumplings, a white bean puree with grilled bread, and New England-style crabcakes with chipotle aioli. Pork schnitzel and a porcini-rubbed ribeye highlight the entrees, and a handful of artisan sandwiches round things out.
Impressive as the menu is, Mario and I knew what we were ordering even before we walked through the door: Kobe beef hot dogs. Yeah, you read that right. It’s the best beef money can buy in what is probably considered the worst possible form. A delicious contradiction in a toasted bun, served with packets of mustard and hot sauce – and at $4, a better deal than what you’d get at Fenway.
Ordinarily, a couple of beers and a hot dog would have been more than enough, but we were headed to see Band of Skulls at the Paradise later that night, which somehow justified our ordering more food (remind me of this logic a year from now when I give up the bar blog in favor of a weight loss blog).
Mario got a pressed turkey sandwich with bacon, Swiss, and Asian slaw. To quote the man himself: “It’s good!”
I went for the burger with bleu cheese and bacon. And I realize, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be thinking “Jeez, all he ever gets at these places is a burger!” That’s not true; sometimes I skip food altogether and just have drinks.
Anyway, it was a great burger on a buttery, crispy bun accompanied by roasted potatoes with a deceptively spicy chipotle ketchup. In terms of how it stacks up to the others I’ve mentioned, I’d put it just behind the one I get at Scholars but ahead of the decadent one at Intermission Tavern.
The same inventiveness that permeates the dinner menu can be found in Audubon’s short list of signature cocktails. There are old-time classics like a Pimm’s Cup, and a summery sounding “Tea Party” made with tea-infused vodka, mint, lemonade, and lime. While I was tempted by the Spicy Margarita (made with habanero-infused tequila), I remembered my last encounter with a spicy drink, the Pissed-Off Pirate at the Barracuda Tavern, and thought better of it. I settled instead on the Kiwi-Cucumber Gimlet – Hendricks gin, kiwi, cucumber, and lime. A very refreshing drink with a surprisingly strong cucumber essence. It reminded me a bit of the Tres Curieux at Marliave, but the kiwi really sets it apart.
Mario and I headed off to our show after that, but I returned later that week with Melissa to check out the Friday scene. It was certainly busier than it was on Monday, but even with twice the number of customers, there were still open tables and plenty of room at the bar.
Mel got a house-made bean burger with chili mayo while I continued exploring the cocktail list, opting for the Vanilla Eight Ball – Stoli Vanilla, pineapple and lemon juices, and a lemon twist. I’d call it tropical sophistication. And it went down waaaaaay too easy.
Although Audubon Circle has been open since 1996, I’d only heard about it for the first time fairly recently. Seems its reputation is as quiet as its décor. Our waitress told me that they have a solid group of regulars, don’t do much in terms of marketing, and rely on word of mouth for new customers. “So spread the word,” she added.
Consider it done.
It’s only three blocks from the Kenmore T station, but this is no Fenway bar. Just one TV. Open parking meters nearby. A quiet, Zen-like ambience. No one chanting “Yankees suck!”
Audubon Circle is a unique alternative to the bars typical of Kenmore Square. The menu is innovative and well executed, the bartenders put great care into making cocktails, and the beer options are more than admirable. Prices are probably a little higher than what you’d pay in one of the many sports bars in the area, but are far from prohibitive – $10 or $11 for a burger or sandwich, $10 for one of the exquisite cocktails, beers for $5 or $6. If you’re eating on a budget, there are appetizers to share, and the Kobe beef hot dogs are pretty cheap.
The minimalist décor of Audubon Circle is uncommon in Boston and unheard of in Kenmore. I enjoyed the cool, clean look of it, but it might not be everyone’s speed. The bartender told me some people love it, and others say “You really gotta do something with this place.” To each his or her own, I suppose.
One caveat – I was here before baseball season started. I have no idea what this place is like when the Sox are in town, and while it doesn’t seem like the sort of place fans would descend upon before a game, you can at least forget what I said about plentiful street parking on game day. But even with a game-day crowd, I think Audubon Circle would maintain its peaceful, refined character.
Address: 838 Beacon Street, Boston