Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/