If you live in the Boston area, then you likely did not escape the wrath of the February nor’easter that spent last weekend walloping us.
Perhaps you enjoyed it. I did not. I never do. For despite spending all of my life in the New England area, my tolerance for snow – and winter in general – diminishes with every passing year.
It was not always such.
When I was a kid, having a big snowstorm was like hitting the lottery. On a weekday evening, with worksheets of math equations in front of me, I’d listen with glee as the weather forecast worsened. I’d sit breathlessly by the radio or TV and wait for the announcement that school was canceled for the day. It meant that quizzes and homework were suspended in favor of sledding, building snowmen, and hurling snowballs at friends and younger siblings. Maybe a little igloo construction would be in order if a few of us were feeling industrious. Not a bad way to spend a winter day.
The change was gradual. As I got a little older, those snowbound pursuits would have to wait until I had helped shovel the porch and the driveway. A small price to pay for a day off, I suppose. But later there’d be movies, dates, and parties, long-awaited and carefully coordinated plans thrown into chaos by inclement weather and the threat of slippery roads. Sure, it was still nice to have a day off now and then, but when it came at the expense of the all-important social life of a high school teenager, the scales began to tip.
And then, seemingly overnight, all the joy was gone. Schools being closed for the day didn’t necessarily mean your employer was giving you a mulligan. The weather that once signaled a carefree day of building a snow fort or reenacting the battle of Hoth now meant getting up an hour early to shovel out the driveway and enduring the biting cold while waiting for the inevitably delayed T. Walking to the bus stop or the office, an ordinarily uneventful act, became a test of agility and quick reflexes. The mere mention of snow in the forecast has become a harbinger of inconvenience and an invitation to media-induced hysteria. Oh, and a shit-ton of shoveling.
But I’ll admit that once in a great while, I still recognize the charm of a snowy night. One such occasion that stands vividly in my memory took place a few years ago, when I was meeting some friends after work at Emmet’s pub in Boston. Since Emmet’s is just up the street from my office, I had time to kill before the others arrived. I took a seat at the far end of the bar, ordered a Guinness, and picked up one of the newspapers that were strewn about the bar. Midway through my beer I looked up and noticed it had begun snowing.
Have you ever had the experience of mentally stepping back, taking stock of a moment, and seeing yourself in the context of your environment? It’s like stepping outside of time, briefly, and seeing yourself through the eyes of a storyteller with a keen sense of detail.
This was one of those moments – drinking a hearty stout in a warm, quiet, Irish pub; reading the paper; watching big flakes of snow fall softly, filling up the window panes, against the backdrop of a dark winter night, punctuated by streetlights and headlights. It was simple, peaceful, and recalled the traditional notion of the bar as a public house – a place in your neighborhood where you’d stop in, warm your hands by the fire, unwind with a pint, and chew the fat with the bartender and maybe a few other locals.
It’s an image that’s stayed with me over the years, and while it hasn’t much improved my opinion of the winter weather, it’s given me an enduring fondness for this underrated bar.
Situated on the outskirts of Beacon Hill, Emmet’s is an unassuming little place. Its proximity to the State House and many downtown businesses makes it an obvious after-work destination, but it’s a little less conspicuous than the bars on nearby Cambridge Street and along the Boston Common, so it tends to not become quite so packed.
Dark woodwork, cream-colored walls, and a worn-looking hardwood floor give Emmet’s the look and feel of a classic Irish pub. Framed black and white pictures of Irish people doing Irish things in Ireland offer accents of authenticity. An ornate wooden structure behind the bar gives the space a formal feel, and the bartenders look distinguished in their black vests and white shirts. Chandeliers cast a warm glow over the entire bar, and candles on the tables contribute a sense of intimacy.
For a place that feels so cozy, Emmet’s is actually pretty spacious. There are about 15 seats at the bar and a surprising number of tables. But the tables are set up in distinct groups in various areas of the bar – a few tables by the windows overlooking the street, a few partitioned off in the central part of the room, and still more in the back part of the bar. The configuration makes each area of the bar feel small unto itself; and if you’re coming in with a group, you can easily commandeer your own little section. Further maximizing the space, the square support posts are outfitted with large wooden shelves that serve as makeshift tables with stools tucked underneath – also convenient for standing around chatting.
Our sudden winter wonderland put me in the mood for drinking at a place like Emmet’s, so I stopped in on this past Tuesday evening with my friend and coworker Jen. (Incidentally, Jen was really hoping for the recent snowstorm; Jen also doesn’t have to shovel where she lives, but I digress.) Things were pretty quiet at 5; only about half a dozen people were there.
There are a dozen beers on draft, and the options are pretty standard – Guinness, Harpoon, Sam Adams, Stella, and so on, with a couple of less common choices like Whale’s Tale and Goose Island Honker’s Ale. I began my night with Harpoon’s Rye IPA, a crisp, hoppy beer that I’d been wanting to try since my recent visit to the Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall .
Jen started off with a Malbec, which she pronounced to be “OK!”
We shook off the winter chill and began perusing the appetizers. Emmet’s’ menu consists mostly of your basic pub fare and comfort food – wings, nachos, burgers, sandwiches, and so forth. There isn’t much in terms of traditional Irish cuisine, aside from the Irish bacon that finds its way onto some of the sandwiches (and, interestingly enough, corned beef raviolis). But the food is good, and Emmet’s makes an effort to use as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, which is laudable.
We began with Buffalo chicken nachos, which packed some surprisingly intense heat. Jen captured the experience eloquently and succinctly: “My face is sweating!” That didn’t stop us from devouring them.
Now, one of the benefits of drinking with Jen is that she often has the inside track on alcoholic beverages that are just beginning to gain widespread notoriety. Granted, living life on the cutting edge of cool can have its drawbacks; her Four Loko phase, for instance, was as regrettable as it was short-lived. But it was Jen who led me to Meadhalllast summer for the sole purpose of trying Downeast Cider, for which I am eternally grateful. And at Emmet’s, she introduced me to Crabbie’s – an alcoholic ginger beer. Served over ice in a glass garnished with a lemon and a lime, it’s like the lazy man’s Moscow Mule. In a bottle. Brilliant.
Nachos and malternatives are all well and good, but by this point I was ready to switch into full-on Irish pub mode. And that, of course, begins with a Guinness.
For dinner I went with the excellent shepherd’s pie. If there’s a better comfort food to have at an Irish pub on a cold winter’s eve, I don’t know what it is. Made with very tender ground beef and vegetables beneath a blanket of mashed potatoes, topped with a thick, rich gravy, and served with crispy bread on the side, Emmet’s’ shepherd’s pie is top notch. I was completely full about halfway through, but it was so good, I just kept on shoveling it down. (It’s a choice I regretted later, but that’s another story.)
I closed out the night with a Palm, which I ordered in part because of the distinctive glass it was served in and partly because it was billed as “Belgium’s amber beer.” I confess to not being a huge fan of the spicy, fruity flavor that emanates from Belgian yeast; I’d never encountered a Belgian amber, though, and was curious. I was pleasantly surprised by the Palm, which was smooth and rich, and entirely unlike the more typical Belgian style.
For a Tuesday night, Emmet’s was surprisingly packed by 7:30 or 8; maybe because it was Mardi Gras, and where better to celebrate than at an Irish pub on Beacon Hill? Before it got so busy, though, I witnessed an interesting scene. A woman in her 70s walked in shortly after I arrived and sat at the bar. She knew the bartender and chatted with him while reading the newspaper and drinking what appeared to be a customary glass of white wine. She exchanged a few more pleasantries with the staff and left shortly thereafter.
It reminded me of that night when I had an hour to kill, watching the snow fall from within the warm confines of Emmet’s. It also helped me appreciate the neighborly atmosphere this bar exudes – which is kind of odd. As far as I know, Emmet’s isn’t some renowned Boston institution that’s been pouring beers for a century; nor is it tucked away in a residential area, serving a dedicated crew of regulars. It doesn’t even necessarily stand out among Irish bars, which would be tough to do in this city anyway. But whenever I’m here, I always feel very welcome; like the staff is genuinely glad I stopped in. And that – more than corned beef on the menu, Guinness on draft, or a Celtic folk band playing in the corner – may be the true essence of an Irish pub.
Like I said at the outset, Emmet’s is an underrated, unassuming little place. I don’t often hear people raving about it or planning their nights around it; but I’ve also never heard anyone say they don’t like going there. And what’s not to like? It’s a comfortable bar in a great location with a friendly staff. That’s good enough for me.
Their beer selection is respectable, if not outstanding. Having a couple more Irish beers on tap, like Murphy’s, would be cool – and a cask option would put them over the top. But just because there aren’t more extensive or exotic options doesn’t mean Emmet’s doesn’t take its beer seriously. Case in point – I overheard a guy ask for “a PBR or High Life,” and I swear to God, the bartender feigned deafness. The guy asked again and was politely told that those beers were not available.
Prices are fairly standard for a downtown Boston pub. My Harpoon was $5.50; the Guinness and the Palm, $6. Jen paid $8 for her wine and $7 for the Crabbie’s. Nachos were $10, and my delicious shepherd’s pie, $12.
One last note – Emmet’s has always been a convenient after-work destination for Jen and me, but the impetus for our recent visit was not merely to blow off steam after a long day. Jen is the creator of the always entertaining Mismatched Disharmony blog, in which she recounts the triumphs and pitfalls of online dating. Jen and I will be teaming up for an occasional series of blog posts in which we’ll visit some bars and discuss whether they’d be a good place to bring a date. We came up with a lot of fun ideas while at Emmet’s, and I can’t wait to get started. We’re aiming to get our first post up within the next couple of weeks.
And if the topic of “where to take a date who loves shepherd’s pie” ever arises, I’ll know what to suggest.
Address: 6 Beacon Street, Boston
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