The Gaff

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One of my most depressing bar experiences occurred a few years ago when I met my friend Brian on Moody Street in Waltham for a few drinks and what we’d hoped would be an engaging game of billiards. A simple plan – and one that would have been more feasible were there a pool hall in the area. Determined to not let such a mere technicality diminish the promise of our evening, Brian and I made our way to Robert’s Pub & Grub, a small dive bar that, despite its ramshackle appearance, was supposedly in possession of a pool table. (I cannot say with confidence that that was its actual name; it was also known as Robert’s Restaurant and Bar, and Robert’s Grub, Pub and Pool. The bar has since passed into shadow, and I cannot confirm its true moniker.) Stepping into Robert’s on that particular Saturday evening was like entering a funeral parlor; a somber organist would not have been out of place. Brian and I were the only two souls in there, aside from the bartender, who looked surprised to see us. In the very strictest sense, Robert’s did have what qualified as a pool table…but it was more like the ghost of a pool table. Its faded green felt had accommodated too many damp beer bottles over the years, had had too many drunken players scrape their pool cues across it. Brian and I stuffed a few quarters into the slot, and out rolled 13 balls (for those of you counting at home, that’s two short of a full set, not including the cue ball).

The drumbeat of indignities continued. The pool cues were so warped, we would have been better served by going outside and looking for a couple of sticks or fallen tree branches and playing with those. And the table was crammed into a space that was only slightly larger than the table itself; the walls were so close that for some shots, you had to hold your cue or tree branch at a 45 degree angle.

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As we began a game with hastily modified rules, I went to the bar to see what they had on draft. “We just have bottles,” the bartender said, before I even asked. “Bud Light and Coors Light.”

On the plus side, Robert’s did have a good jukebox, in proper working order. And there was no wait for the pool table.

I don’t bring up the now-defunct Robert’s simply for the purpose of kicking its corpse. Rather, I offer it as an example of the kind of establishment that once characterized Moody Street.

If you’re new to the area, that might come as a surprise to you. But Moody Street, and downtown Waltham in general, has seen its share of highs and lows over the years. Moody Street was a happenin’ place back in the 1940s and 1950s. There were department stores, movie theaters, dance halls, and an overall a lively vibe.  That began changing in the 70s when shopping malls started popping up, attracting most of the stand-alone businesses, and leaving Moody Street a ghost town of vacancies and dives like Robert’s. Not exactly a destination.

But the Waltham City Council stepped in and took steps to revitalize the area, and gradually, signs of life began returning to Moody. Lizzy’s started churning out homemade ice cream, Watch City Brewing started churning out original craft beer, and customers started returning. The Embassy Cinema opened, new businesses refurbished old buildings, and Moody Street began evolving into the bustling center of diversion and diversity that it is today.

And no establishment better epitomizes Moody’s transition from its moribund past to its vibrant present than the Gaff.

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Handsome, distinguished, but casual, the Gaff is a modern bar with classic charm and a genuine sense of character. Having recently celebrated its third anniversary, the Gaff is still a relative newcomer to Moody Street – yet it feels much older. The crisp black and white color scheme, with beautiful dark wood and a light-colored hardwood floor, look brand new and well cared for, but its personality is more akin to that of its longer-tenured peers. Maybe it’s the classic, throwback cocktails they make so well. Or maybe it’s the laid-back, personable staff who seem kind of like next-door neighbors. It just feels like a new bar with very deep roots.

The Gaff is a cozy little place. There are two comfortable and highly coveted leather couches by a large window that looks out onto Moody Street; a bar with 15 chairs that aren’t as uncomfortable as they look, despite their odd, short seatbacks; and about six small tables. The “Local Art Gallery,” a series of framed black-and-white photos on the wall, contributes to the ambience, and a large chalkboard details the Gaff’s extensive and ever-shifting selection of microbrews.

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My most recent visit to the Gaff was with Melissa and Kelly on that traditional must-go-out-for-drinks night, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We got there around 6:30 and beat the crowd, snagging three seats at the bar. A bowl of free popcorn appeared, much to Melissa’s delight, and we casually began perusing the drink options.

I’ve always been deeply impressed with the Gaff’s beer list; having Gritty’s Black Fly Stout on draft was what initially lured me in several years ago. But a Boston mixologist whose opinion I hold in high regard urged me to check out their cocktails, and I’m glad I did – their drinks are absolutely a cut above everything else in the vicinity. There are faithful classics, smart updates of traditional cocktails, and more than a few contemporary innovations.

I began my night with a sazerac. Made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Pernod, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s bitters, the Gaff’s version remains true to the celebrated New Orleans cocktail. I…might have gotten a second one.

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Melissa opted for a Wild Night Out – tequila with pomegranate liqueur, freshly squeezed lime, and club soda. Mel said it was pretty good, but didn’t blow her away; or maybe she just wasn’t ready for a wild night out.

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Kelly outdid both of us with her Vesper Martini. A cocktail that James Bond would surely approve of, this mix of Hendricks gin, Ketel One vodka, and Lillet Blanc was dry and elegant.

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As the Thanksgiving Eve crowd began trickling in, we sipped our drinks and took a look at the food menu. The Gaff offers a broad array of comfort food that goes beyond the basic bar staples like wings and nachos. We started with fried pickles – or, as they’re called on the menu, “frickles.” We placed our order and then proceeded to gleefully repeat “frickles” among ourselves for the next five minutes. (You know you’re saying it in your head right now.) Hand-breaded, deep-fried, and served with ranch for dipping, they made for a light start to our evening.

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If the frickles (frickles! frickles!) were amusing, the cherry bombs were intriguing. Melissa wondered aloud what exactly constituted a cherry bomb, and the bartender, who apparently has bat-like hearing, swooped in and said they deep fried cherry peppers with cheese, accompanied by a sweet chili sauce for dipping. He described their heat as being similar to that of jalapeño poppers. I’m not sure what kind of poppers he’s been popping, but these babies were intense. He later confessed to being a lover of really spicy food and preferring his Gaff wings with “atomic” sauce, so his barometer might have been somewhat skewed. They were tasty nonetheless, and quickly resolved any sinus issues we may have been experiencing.

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Like the appetizer menu, the dinner options offer time-honored bar basics with some modern twists – like the avocado dog. Only a chef with a solid appreciation of irony would take something as nutritionally maligned as a hot dog and pair it with an avocado. Needless to say, my mind was quickly made up. A quarter-pound hot dog with bacon, caramelized onions, and avocado, served with fries, it was delicious. And healthy! (The avocado makes it healthy; this is known.)

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Kelly opted for the Gaff burger, topped with bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg over easy. She’d never had an egg on a burger and was a little unsure about the concept; but the bartender allayed her fears, and I recounted how I’d had something similar at the Intermission Tavern and that she was in for a treat. (I left out the fact that the volume of food would probably render her groggy.)

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Our appetites satiated, we turned our attention back to drinks. All tuckered out from her Wild Night Out, Melissa opted for a glass of sangria, which the Gaff spruces up with tequila, St. Germaine, and pineapple juice.

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Kelly got a Moscow Mule, which was well made and served in a classy copper cup that reminded me of my experience at Stoddard’s.

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If the cocktails, excellent as they are, fly under the radar, it’s because the Gaff’s beer list gets most of the attention. And justifiably so – with about 20 beers on tap and many more in bottles and cans, the Gaff boasts one of the best selections outside of Boston. They offer an extensive and varied selection of microbrews, along with plenty of old favorites.

First up for me was Kentucky Bourbon Ale. I’ve been hooked on this slow-sippin’ beer since I first tried it at the Tip Tap Room, and I was excited that the Gaff had it on tap. I followed that up with the lighter High & Mighty Beer of the Gods.

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As if the beer selection wasn’t already stellar, the Gaff also has a cask option. Cask conditioned beers are uncommon enough in Boston, let alone outside the city. The cask beer while we were there was Haverhill Commuter Ale, which Kelly got.

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By 9 p.m., Thanksgiving Eve at the Gaff was in full swing. I found myself reflecting on how much I like the place and how happy I am that it’s so been successful. I’m further glad that Moody Street itself has grown into a neighborhood that maintains a sense of character. It could just as easily have become overrun with bland chains like Applebee’s. Instead it’s populated mostly by independently owned businesses, the way it was back in its glory days. The result is an eclectic mix of cocktail bars, Irish pubs, tapas restaurants, ethnic grocery stores, retail shops, sports bars…and yes, a few divey relics of the 70s and 80s. But those humble, townie bars that remain simply represent more choices in an area with tremendous variety. And it’s good to have a few of those places; as I learned when Sadie’s shut its saloon doors, it can be hard to say goodbye to some of them.

Maybe that’s what inspired Kelly and me to close out our night with a couple of classics.

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Old beers in a new bar – one that helps chart a new direction for Moody Street while honoring its past.

Last Call

Maybe my perception is influenced by the pictures on the Gaff’s Facebook page of the new owners demoing the previous site and building a new bar, but this place feels like someone’s pride and joy. I get the sense that it’s a product of original ideas and a lot of elbow grease – not some prefabricated bar or restaurant assembled overnight by a soulless corporation. It feels very personal.

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Nowhere is that pride of having built a successful bar from ground up more evident than in the enthusiasm of the staff. They get excited about getting a new beer on draft. They get excited about their fun regular events, like nights devoted to 80s music, soul music, and trivia, along with periodic comedy and open mic nights. And I don’t know exactly what constitutes the Gaff’s “midweek drinkers club,” but I feel like I should look into joining.

The prices are a refreshing change from Boston. Our outstanding cocktails ranged from $7 to $9, and the microbrews were around $6 (the Schlitz and the PBR, $3.50). The frickles (!) were $5, the cherry bombs $6. My awesome avocado dog was a mere $7, and Kelly’s burger was $11, which was a good deal considering it encompassed both breakfast and dinner. Both are available more cheaply if you forgo the accoutrements (but why would you?).

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I stopped in very briefly on the following Saturday afternoon. As expected, it was pretty quiet, with just a handful of customers; but the atmosphere was still surprisingly upbeat. The bartender regaled me with an amusing tale about his aversion to caffeine, then put on some Motown tunes, which resulted in most of the six patrons singing quietly to themselves (and the bartender singing not so quietly). It again made the Gaff feel very familiar, like drinking in a bar that your friend opened. That seems appropriate – as noted on their website, “gaff” is Irish slang for home, as in “Let’s go back to the gaff for a pint!”

I haven’t been there enough to call it home. But I’ll stop in for a drink and a laugh anytime.

Address: 467 Moody Street, Waltham

Website:http://www.thegaffbar.com/