Outdoor Seating, Part 1 – On the Waterfront

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Summertiiiiiiiime, and the livin’ is easy… As I mentioned in my Montreal post, sometimes there’s nothing better than sitting outside on a summer evening and enjoying a cold brew or a refreshing cocktail. Maybe you’re unwinding after a long day, having glanced often and longingly out of your office window, wishing you were enjoying the weather. Or if you’re lucky, you’ve got the day off and are just enjoying the city, not adhering to a strict schedule or agenda. Whatever your purpose, sipping a cold one outside is a nice way to kill an hour or spend an evening.

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But I’ve found that drinking outside in a busy city like Boston can be a mixed bag. A lot of outdoor seating areas tend to be small and cramped, a few tables squeezed onto the sidewalk outside a restaurant. Some places can’t serve you alcohol if you aren’t also buying food. And when the seating area is adjacent to a loud street, conversation can be a struggle.

Maybe I’m just being whiny. Or…selective. Regardless, when it comes to imbibing outdoors, I’m always on the hunt for bars that get it right.

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outdoors 085

With that in mind, I’ve been wanting to do a series of posts on bars with outdoor seating – where to find them, which bars do it really well, and so on. I figure I’ll do a few installments as the summer winds down (it pains me to type that, but the calendar doesn’t lie), focusing not just on specific bars but different neighborhoods in and around the city. I don’t intend for these posts to be full reviews of the bars themselves – just a few thoughts on the outdoor sections.

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Now, when it comes to eating and drinking outside, I think ambience is key. If traffic, trolley bells, and honking horns are your thing, maybe you’ll enjoy a bar that overlooks Commonwealth Avenue or Huntington. If you’re in a people-watching mood, maybe something on Newbury Street. Myself, I can’t think of anything better than enjoying a beverage while looking out on the water. So in our first week, we’ll look at handful of waterfront bars.

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RumBa

First up is the outdoor patio at RumBa, the swanky bar at the swanky Intercontinental Hotel. I hear it’s quite an experience inside, but the outside is certainly spectacular in its own right. Situated on the Fort Point Channel, the patio offers a gorgeous view while you sip your drink. And a historical one, as it overlooks the site of the Boston Tea Party.

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Facing the water, surrounded by plush grasses and planters filled with palms, RumBa feels like a patio at a tropical resort, thousands of miles from the hustle and bustle and noise of Boston. There’s an octagon-shaped bar in the center with a dozen seats, surrounded by about 10 tables and a few areas of couch-like seating beneath giant umbrellas. The bar’s name is not an ode to the Afro-Cuban dance but instead a play on the Boston accent – rum bahhhhhhh. Sure enough, the extensive selection of rum they offer can probably rival the wares of any Caribbean island. Peruse the cocktail list, gaze out at the harbor for a while, and you might even forget where you are.

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You’ll remember when you get the check, though. The Intercontinental is a highly upscale hotel, and you’ll pay accordingly. My Captain and Coke ran me $10; last I checked, that’s just a shot of rum and some Coke.

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But if you’re on a budget, and still want a buzz by the water, you can always go with beer. At $6, a Harpoon Summer is just a little higher than you’d pay at most area bars, though inexplicably, a Bud Light is also $6. For reasons I can’t wrap my head around, a Stella Artois will run you $7.

In case you thought you read that wrong, let me state it again: $7 for a Stella.

To be fair, though, you don’t come to a place like this just for a drink – you’re here for a drink and a view you can’t get at most bars in the city. And RumBa feels surprisingly secluded, which is a rare sensation in Boston. The clientele when I visited on a Saturday afternoon seemed mostly to be out-of-town hotel guests and a few locals who can afford to pay $7 for a Stella (I really needed to work that in there one more time).

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rumba

From RumBa, a 5-minute walk along the harbor will bring you to the Alley Bar at Rowes Wharf, part of the Boston Harbor Hotel. Alley Bar doesn’t offer the same sweeping views of the water that RumBa does, given that it’s situated in an alley (hence the name) between the harbor and Atlantic Avenue. But you can still look up and see boats at dock, and detect the salty scent of the ocean that wafts by in the breezy alley.

Alley Bar

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Surrounded by brick walls and the pinkish-red sandstone of nearby buildings, Alley Bar feels like an enormous hotel lobby with no roof. There are about 30 two-person tables with comfortable, high-backed wicker chairs, and a bar in the center of the area with five or six seats. The fire from heat lamps will keep you warm when the summer air carries a chill.

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I arrived at 5:30 on a Wednesday and found about 20 people there, a mix of hotel guests and guys in suits having after-work drinks. I was greeted by a most pleasant hostess, who told me they were offering samples of Solerno blood orange liqueur. Bittersweet, potent, and tasty, the Solerno was featured in a couple of that evening’s specialty cocktails.

Beautiful, dry weather, a free drink sample, and a complimentary oriental mix, complete with wasabi peas. My evening was off to a decent start.

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Intriguing as the liqueur was, I opted for sangria – a simple but satisfying choice for an early summer night.

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Made with Cointreau, brandy, red wine, and fruit juice, and topped with raspberries,

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blackberries, and blueberries, my drink was refreshing and not too sweet, as sangria often tends to be. Delicious as it was, I’m spoiled when it comes to sangria. My friend and fellow barhopper, Ivys, makes the very best I’ve ever had, so I’m not even sure why I order it when I’m out.

Like RumBa, Alley Bar is the outdoor portion of an upscale hotel bar, with prices to match. Stella will again run you $7 (I…I just don’t get it), Harpoon Summer and Bud Light $6. My sangria was $13, like the majority of their cocktails, but it was an admittedly generous pour.

Again, you’re paying in large part for the atmosphere, and Alley Bar’s couldn’t be more relaxed. In a relatively quiet area of the city, and just removed enough from the street so that the sound of cars isn’t a problem, Alley Bar strikes me as the sort of place I’d stop into for an hour on a summer afternoon when it’s a bit too early for dinner.

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A short walk across the bridge over the Fort Point Channel will bring you to a couple of places that are a little more down to earth. First up is the very popular Atlantic Beer Garden. It’s a favorite stop for people leaving Harpoon brewery tours, and in general, it’s probably one of the first bars that comes to mind when people around here think about having a few beers on the water.

Atlantic Beer Garden

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And why not? As outdoor seating goes, Atlantic Beer Garden gives you a few different options on its two floors. There’s a decent-size dining area in the front of the bar, along with a deck that runs around the back of the first floor overlooking the seaport.

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But what most people probably think of is Atlantic Beer Garden’s roof deck. If RumBa conjures up visions of a tropical resort, Atlantic Beer Garden, with its red umbrellas and plastic cups, feels more like a party on a friend’s porch (a friend who lives by the water). Very casual.

Also very popular – I don’t think I’ve ever been here and not found it completely crowded. You might find yourself waiting a bit for one of the 15 to 20 tables, and there’s really no place to stand around outside. It would be helpful if there were a bar on the deck, though there is one right inside where you can bide your time.

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My only other qualm might be one of those “this only happens to me” things, or it could be a peculiarity of the way Atlantic Beer Garden is positioned, but I always feel like I get stuck with a seat where the sun is blazing right in my face. Maybe that’s one of the occupational hazards that accompanies outdoor seating, or it might be because the seaport is a comparatively desolate area, with nothing to block out the sun (though I suppose that makes for some good views). The best way around that would be to visit in the evening; no one ever complains that the moon is too bright. Except burglars. But I digress.

Prices are a bit more reasonable here than at RumBa and Alley Bar. You can get a pitcher of something like Blue Moon for about $20, and you’d be wise to do so – again, it’s always packed, so the wait staff is usually in high demand.

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Right next door is a similar bar called Whiskey Priest. Like Atlantic Beer Garden, it occupies two floors and offers a splendid view. Whiskey Priest’s roof deck is a bit larger and more spread out, though, and it seems a bit less congested than its neighbor’s. There’s more room to walk around, and maybe because of that, it feels a little more laid back.

Whiskey Priest

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One big advantage at Whiskey Priest is that its roof deck actually does have a bar. This is valuable, because it gives you somewhere to stand and mill about if you’re waiting for a table or simply don’t want one. There are also TVs over the bar, an added bonus you wouldn’t expect to find when you’re outdoors.

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The beer selection is broad and reasonably priced; I paid $5.50 for a Harpoon Summer, which is standard just about anywhere in the city.

Last Call

Four bars, two on either side of the harbor. They all provide beautiful views while you imbibe, but each has something different to offer. RumBa can transport you to a tropical resort, while Alley Bar still feels like the city but with a sense of waterfront sophistication. I could see stopping by either one for some refreshment on a summer day. They each get their share of tourists, given that they’re hotel bars, and both have a fairly quiet ambience.

Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest, by contrast, are more your typical Boston bar environment. I can spend (and have spent) entire nights at either place. Atlantic Beer Garden gives you multiple options for outside drinking and dining, while the roof deck at Whiskey Priest feels truly like an outdoor “bar” on account of its…well, bar.

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But regardless of which of these four most suits your purpose, you’ll be enjoying salty air, warm weather, and a refreshing drink. That makes any of them worth a visit.

RumBa: Intercontinental Hotel – 510 Atlantic Avenue, Boston

Website: http://www.intercontinentalboston.com/html/boston-bars.asp

Alley Bar at Rowes Wharf: Boston Harbor Hotel – Rowes Wharf, Boston

Website: http://www.bhh.com/

Atlantic Beer Garden: 146 Seaport Boulevard, Boston

Website: http://www.atlanticbeergarden.com/

Whiskey Priest: 150 Northern Avenue, Boston

Website: http://whiskey-priest.com/