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.