Outdoor Seating, Part 2 – Back Decks and Patios

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The first installment of the Outdoor Seating series was all about the view. From the upscale, open-air patio at RumBa to the casual, spacious roof deck at Whiskey Priest, there’s more than one way to enjoy drinks and sweeping water views, whatever your mood or budget. And it’s not just about staring at a body of water while you imbibe. It’s about doing so in a place that feels far removed from the city with its attendant noise, traffic, and crowds. Fresh air and nice weather don’t hurt, either. But waterfront bars aren’t the only way to drink alfresco and still escape the commotion of the city; you can find more than one outdoor respite even in the busiest areas of Boston. Those alternatives may be a little difficult to find – in fact, with regard to each bar in this week’s post, at least one person I talked with said, “I didn’t even know that place had outdoor seating.” With that in mind, we move further inland this week and check out a few bars with back decks and patios – some in places you’d least expect.

Central Square in Cambridge is about as far as you can get from the waterfront, and I don’t mean geographically. Central’s an interesting place. There’s a lot of shops, a lot of restaurants, a lot of bars, a lot of things to do – but mostly, there’s just a lot of stuff there. The area is very dense; picture an endless stretch of tightly packed store fronts and a constant stream of traffic (not that the latter should distinguish it from most places in the Boston area). Don’t get me wrong, Central’s a cool, hip area, but in terms of Cambridge neighborhoods, it lacks the color and richness of, say Harvard Square.

That’s what makes the back patio at The Field such a find (though ask our friend Kayti what a “find” it is, since she had so much trouble finding it). Tucked down a side street, The Field is just far enough from Mass Ave. that it feels a little out of the way, and the inside is comfortably well-worn, homey, and familiar. You probably wouldn’t even think to go through the black exit door at the back of the bar unless it was already open. But when you do, you find yourself in an unexpected oasis in an otherwise busy area.

The Field

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The back patio at The Field offers a surprising dose of fresh air and a sense of distance from the noise of Central. Enclosed by adjacent brick buildings and red garden walls, sitting back here allows you to forget about the cars and the foot traffic for a little while. Plants and flowerbeds offer a hint of nature and a marked contrast to Central’s gray, urban landscape. The patio is a relatively small area, but it’s not jam-packed with tables, and it seems larger because of the open space. There’s also a good-size TV if you need to keep up with the Sox or whatever else is going on.

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I stopped in on a Saturday night with a few fellow barhoppers – my sister Kelly and our friends Kat, Jen, and, once she found the place, Kayti (in The Field’s defense, I’d attribute this more to user error than the actual hiddenness of the bar). There were about 20 people outside at 7:30, but we had no problem getting one of the 9 or 10 tables.

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The Field sports a pretty respectable list of draft beers. They call their Guinness “the best in town,” though I have no idea what would distinguish it as such. We started off with a few Blue Moons, which has become my unofficial beer of summer 2012 (I switched to Magners later just to shake things up).

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Kayti got a glass of wine, the stem of which she later broke under circumstances I can only describe as mysterious. Add in a plate of chili cheese fries, and our night was in full swing. We enjoyed drinks and good conversation as darkness slowly crept in and the lights surrounding the patio clicked on, setting a perfect summer night mood.

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While Central has a very busy feel all year round, summer in Kenmore Square is hectic for a different reason...

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So if you find yourself in Kenmore on game day, and you need a break from the crowds, you might head over to the patio at Audubon Circle.

Audubon Circle

When I first came to Audubon Circle in April, a couple of things really stood out to me. First, despite its proximity to Fenway Park, it eschewed the sports bar trappings that characterize so many of the bars in this area. Second, I was impressed by its unique ambience – it exudes a refreshing, Zen-like minimalism that I haven’t encountered in many bars in the city.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that Audubon Circle’s back patio is also unlike any other in Boston. It reflects the same simple, calm atmosphere that defines the bar. Granted, given Audubon’s general vibe, I wasn’t exactly expecting loud music, plastic tables with colorful umbrellas, and a menu of sugary margaritas. But I was impressed by the degree to which, even on a sunny August day, the essence of the bar’s dark, calm interior seemed to extend to the back patio.

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Audubon’s patio is a small area, enclosed by dark brown wooden fencing, similar in color to the hardwood inside the bar. What’s most striking, though, are the tall bamboo plants that surround the patio, giving the area an unusually serene look. There are six small tables and one large one, with concrete tops that add a stone-like earthiness to the picture.

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I stopped in for lunch on a scorching Saturday afternoon. The Sox were playing later that night, so Kenmore was relatively quiet at that point, and Audubon was sparsely populated. The heat and humidity might not have made sitting outside an obvious choice, but I was undaunted (anything for the blog).

A cold Sam Summer provided a much-needed antidote from the heat.

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And while I sipped my beer and contemplated my surroundings, I noticed that the bamboo plants did more than just offer a unique outdoor décor – in place of table umbrellas, they kept the afternoon sun mostly at bay. Add in a soft summer breeze and a Kobe beef hot dog, and my trip to Audubon made for one pleasant afternoon.

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From Kenmore we head down Commonwealth Ave. to Allston. Yes, Allston. It might not be the most obvious destination for outdoor seating; like Central, the sprawling urban terrain won’t prompt you to say, “Ahhhh, what a great place to experience a little fresh air and bask in some lush scenery.” Then there’s the small matter of the billion or so college students who reside there, making you feel elderly every time you step into an area bar.

But don’t be so quick to dismiss Allston – especially in the summer, when school’s out and the student population is thus greatly diminished. And while, students or no, the prospect of eating and drinking outdoors in this gritty neighborhood might not seem overly appealing, there are a couple of places worth checking out.

Deep Ellum

We start with Deep Ellum. It’s a small, dark bar that attracts a customer base with an elevated palate for beer. And while Deep Ellum is known far and wide for its top-notch selection of craft brews, surprisingly few people know about its comfortable back deck.

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Enclosed by dark wood and brick, Deep Ellum’s outdoor area echoes its interior’s aesthetics but not necessarily its atmosphere. For all the good things I can say about drinking indoors at Deep Ellum, it also tends to get very loud in there, even when it’s not crowded – which it usually is. And when it’s a full house, just moving around can be a challenge.

The back deck stands in stark contrast. It’s not a large space, but it feels very open. There are 15 to 17 small tables with metal chairs, and a wooden bench running around the perimeter. Flowers and plants, along with vines crawling up the brick walls of the adjacent buildings, give it a garden feel. Large orange umbrellas cut down on the sun, and a few surprisingly powerful fans keep the space pretty cool.

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Kelly graciously offered to accompany on my recent Allston tour, and we stopped by on a Saturday afternoon. There was a surprising number of people inside, but only a few on the back deck. We grabbed a corner table and began perusing the extensive beer selection.

Deep Ellum’s draft beer list is second to none; this is not the kind of place you come to for a Bud Light. The beer menu is heavy on Belgian offerings, half of which I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce, like Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck (I could handle the “Van” part). I opted for a Mayflower Summer Rye, Mayflower having become one of my favorite breweries in recent years.

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Light, crisp, and refreshing – not a bad choice for a hot summer day.

While I’ve always thought of Deep Ellum as a destination for great beer, I recently learned that their cocktails aren’t too shabby either. Kelly went with one called Summer in Sao Paulo – Germana aged cachaca (a liquor made from fermented sugar cane, popular in Brazil), honey ginger syrup, mint, and lime. It was reminiscent of a mojito, but cachaca in place of rum gave it a noticeably different flavor. Sweet, cold, and ideally suited to the sweltering weather.

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Deep Ellum would thrive even if they didn’t serve food; the fact that they offer an excellent menu is just a splendid bonus. I’ll speak more to that in a future review, but on this trip, Kelly and I got deviled eggs. They come four to a plate and incorporate a little variety – two are Deep Ellum’s standard recipe, and two are part of a rotating daily special, which in this case was truffle oil and garlic. (This makes Deep Ellum the only place I know of that has a daily deviled egg special.) Once a summer picnic staple, they were well suited to our garden-like surroundings.

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My last selection is probably going to make you laugh. Like me, you’ll probably be astonished to learn that Allston’s White Horse Tavern, a quintessential “college” bar, actually has outdoor seating. Well, they do. And I have to admit…in terms of patios and back decks in Boston, it’s one of the best I’ve been to.

White Horse Tavern

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When I mentioned that I was headed to White Horse Tavern for a review, most people giggled and said, “Wow, I haven’t been there since…” If you’re past the age of, say, 25, White Horse feels like the last page of a chapter long closed. And your memories – however fuzzy – are probably something like this: a dark, somewhat dingy room; burgers, nachos, and cheap beer; a big group of friends; and a rowdy night climaxing in a round or two of shots. Sound about right?

I certainly have no issue with White Horse Tavern, but I can’t say I would have paid them a visit had I not heard about the back patio. And my expectations weren’t terribly high. I figured, “Well, I’m going to Deep Ellum anyway, I’ll walk up Brighton Ave. and have a look; what have I got to lose?” I wasn’t even sure White Horse truly had outdoor seating. Apart from my general incredulity, I found no mention of this on their website, and it wasn’t until set foot out the back door that I was truly convinced – and pleasantly surprised.

The back patio has its own bar, covered by an enormous, retractable awning that suitably blocks out the sun. There are about 15 wicker chairs, and two large TVs that were showing the Olympics when Kelly and I were there. Aside from the immediate bar area, there are 10 to 15 tables of varying size, most protected by blue Sam Adams umbrellas.

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There are two beers on draft – Sam Summer and Harpoon Red Paint, which is a British IPA brewed exclusively for the owner of White Horse and his other bars. There’s also a full liquor offering, along with the regular food menu from indoors and a separate “patio menu” of mostly extended appetizers – tater tots, that sort of thing. Exactly what you’d want to snack on while sipping drinks on a summer afternoon.

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Enclosed by wooden fencing with hanging flower baskets, this is an attractive setup. And I’m told it looks really cool at night, when the lights come on.

I have to say…this is not the White Horse I remember.

I made a beeline for the Harpoon Red Paint, which is poured via a neat paintbrush tap handle, while Kelly went for Sam Summer. The bartender, Jessie, took great care of us, and when I explained my purpose in being there, happily told us all about the bar, the patio, the food specials, the nightly events, you name it.

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As I looked around the patio, perused the extensive menu, and chatted with Jessie, I started to get the impression that the reputation of being “just a college bar” rankles the staff somewhat – and I think they’re attempting to broaden White Horse’s appeal. Just investing in this patio (which has apparently been open for a few years) shows a willingness to upgrade a place that could easily thrive year-round as a simple dive bar.

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But it’s not just the back patio that make me think White Horse would like to shed its old identity as a burger-and-cheap-beer hangout. For starters, having a beer brewed exclusively for your establishment by Harpoon tends to set you apart from other Allston bars. What really sealed the deal, though, was when Jessie persuaded us to visit the “Lemonade Stand” section of the drink menu. It’s a selection of alcoholic lemonade cocktails that Jessie exuberantly insisted we try. Since she came up with one of the recipes herself, and because it was a perfect day for a cold lemonade, how could we say no?

Now, when a bar that traditionally caters to the college crowd offers a “lemonade drink,” what do you figure it will be? Some artificial, sugary mix thrown in a blender with ice and cheap vodka. Gut rot and the promise of a wicked hangover.

But at the White Horse back patio, the surprises just keep on coming.

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I watched Jessie whip up a strawberry lemonade the likes of which I’d never before encountered. Freshly squeezed lemons, muddled fresh fruit, served in a Mason jar – a Mason jar! The drink was phenomenal – wonderfully fresh, with a natural sweetness and a rich, thick texture. It felt like there was fruit in every sip, and it was dangerously smooth! I could have sat there for hours with one (or two).

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Given its proximity to Boston University, White Horse will always be a “college bar.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t try to be more, and from what I’ve seen, the effort pays off. The strawberry lemonade prompted Kelly to remark that their other drinks might be worth a try sometime. Likewise, the experience as a whole made me think…I should really come back here.

Last Call

Sipping cocktails at an outdoor bar on the waterfront makes all kinds of sense. But right smack dab in a busy city? That can be more challenging. As I said earlier, most people I talked with were surprised that the four bars in this week’s post even had outdoor areas. What’s more surprising is how well they work – especially in some of the last places you’d imagine.

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Of course, that might be because each of these patios or back decks takes you out of your urban environment and offers in its place a peaceful and detached atmosphere. I’m not going to try to say that each one transports you to a whole other place – just peer over the fences and you’ll remember you’re in the city. But when you’re surrounded by tall, green bamboo plants at Audubon Circle or lounging beneath the big canopy at White Horse, it’s hard not feel a sense of relief from crowds, cars, and pavement.

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Drink prices at all the bars I went to were very typical for the city – $5 to $6 for the beers, $10 for Kelly’s cocktail at Deep Ellum, $9 for the strawberry lemonade at White Horse (and worth every cent). The snacks are reasonably priced, too – $4 for the hot dogs at Audubon, $6 for the deviled eggs at Deep Ellum.

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Even on the hottest days, all four bars offer some kind of protection from the sun. But twilight is an even better time to visit, when the air cools down, the lights come on, and you can sip a drink and soak up summer while it lasts.

The Field: 20 Prospect Street, Cambridge

Website: http://thefieldpub.com/

Audubon Circle: 838 Beacon Street, Boston

Website: http://www.auduboncircle.us/

Deep Ellum: 477 Cambridge Street, Allston

Website: http://www.deepellum-boston.com/

White Horse Tavern: 116 Brighton Avenue, Allston

Website: http://www.whitehorseboston.com/