The Back Bay is quite possibly the most fashionable neighborhood in Boston. Successful Bostonians occupy the historic brownstones. Visiting celebrities stay in the Back Bay’s 5-star hotels. Professional athletes dine in the neighborhood’s fancy restaurants. Tourists and locals alike flock to the high-end shops and boutiques that line Newbury Street. Of course, the Back Bay draws more than just tourists and the well-to-do; and when it comes to food and drink in the area, there’s something for every taste and budget. But the heavy hitters, unsurprisingly, are the ones that reflect and cater to the Back Bay’s affluence and glamour.
That said, it would be easy to make assumptions about Forum.
Without a doubt, it looks like the sort of upscale, trendy lounge that would be right at home among the Back Bay’s most attractive and exclusive destinations. Leather couches and armchairs overlook Boylston Street through floor-to-ceiling windows. A white brick wall adorned with artwork from local galleries stands in sharp relief to the sleek, dark, wooden walls and hardwood floor, all softly illuminated by chandeliers from above and recessed floor lighting from below. Metal racks suspended above the bar display top-shelf liquors in between flat-screen TVs – modern amenities amid a tasteful minimalism.
But beyond Forum’s trendy aesthetics is a refreshing sense of depth, personality, and casual charm. Granted, it’s not the kind of place you’d stumble into late at night for one last PBR before you catch the T. But it’s also devoid of the pretension you might expect of a contemporary Back Bay bar.
Upscale but approachable, Forum occupies two floors and offers its guests the best of both worlds – a vibrant bar scene downstairs, an intimate dining atmosphere upstairs. While the first floor has a lounge area in the front and a few tables for dining, the highlight is the massive, angular, island bar. Candles along the dark wood of the surface cast a warm glow, and the 45 cushioned chairs surrounding the bar ensure that even on a Saturday night, getting a seat isn’t too difficult.
Such was the case when I visited last weekend. There were about 20 people at the bar when I arrived around 7 p.m., but given how spacious it is, it didn’t feel terribly crowded.
I began perusing the cocktail list, which is divided into three sections – one with some Forum originals, one with house-infused liquors, and a handful of timeless classics. As usual, I was immediately drawn to the latter, and got things under way with a drink I’ve always yearned to try – a Blood & Sand. Named for a 1920s-era bullfighting movie, this mix of Dewar’s scotch, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and blood orange made for an exceptional blend of dry, sweet, and tart flavors.
Sipping my Blood & Sand, I looked over Forum’s menu, which is composed primarily of new and traditional American cuisine – plenty of steak and seafood options, with a few mouthwatering standouts like lobster ricotta gnocchi. But it was the bevy of interesting “starters” that really caught my eye, with options that are considerably more fun and inventive than what you might expect in an area known for its fairly conservative dinner menus. I debated offerings as varied as short rib dumplings, hog wings, and duck confit puff pastry before settling on prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Now, I’m something of a connoisseur of bacon-wrapped scallops (if I were ever offered a last meal, they’d be the first course). But I’d never had them wrapped in prosciutto, and this was a simple yet inspired twist. These babies were delicious and surprisingly filling.
I could have stayed at the downstairs bar all night. The friendly bartenders, the steady soundtrack of classic rock, and the general energy of the bar area combined to create a lively atmosphere. Plus, I was intrigued by the beer setup. I saw that Forum wisely uses generic black tap handles instead of colorful brand taps, which would stand out amid the mostly black-and-white color scheme. More interesting, though, were the towers that housed the taps. They looked like they were made of a white ceramic, which again would fit the décor. But upon closer inspection, I discovered they were actually coated in ice.
I knew a beer coming through those lines had to be mighty cold. As if that isn’t awesome enough, one of the bartenders told me that when they take pint glasses out of the dishwasher, they stand them by the icy towers so that they can properly cool before being put back into circulation.
For this, Forum gets my undying respect; one of my biggest bar-related pet peeves is when a cold beer is poured into a glass still radiating with the heat of the dishwasher. Bravo, Forum.
But I digress. As much as I was enjoying the downstairs vibe, I could no longer resist the allure of the cool, illuminated staircase that led to the second floor. Those frosted taps would have to wait.
The same atmosphere of casual elegance that characterizes the first floor continues at the top of the stairs, where you’ll pass by a glass display that holds a portion of Forum’s 1,300 wines. Upstairs is where you’ll find Forum’s beautifully appointed dining room, along with an eight-seat martini bar.
It was only about 8 p.m. or so, and while the dining area was gradually filling up, the upstairs bar was empty. I shifted to the “Forum Fusions” side of the cocktail list and ordered a drink called Larceny. This wintry cocktail was made with Larceny bourbon infused with apples, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, blended with vanilla cinnamon syrup and apple juice, and garnished with an apple slice. The spiced apple and vanilla flavors were bold and prominent, making this a good seasonal choice for a cold night.
I got talking with the bartender, Matt, who, in addition to being a nice guy with a very cool name, clearly had an expansive knowledge of cocktail composition an obvious pride in making quality drinks. He asked me if I had a preferred liquor or cocktail, and I described my fondness for whiskey and Manhattans. He then proceeded to whip up one of the most inventive variations of a Manhattan I’ve ever encountered. It was made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Campari, sweet vermouth, and most intriguingly, a liqueur called Root – a pre-Prohibition-era spirit that ultimately evolved into root beer. It would have been lost to the ravages of time and the temperance movement were it not for an enterprising artists’ group in Pennsylvania that re-created it.
Now distilled in California, it’s a liqueur made with allspice, anise, and a host of other herbs and spices; and yes, it has a natural root beer taste, too. It made for a remarkable addition to my cocktail. Oh, and on top of all that? Chocolate mole bitters. Matt explained that this wasn’t his recipe but that of a mentor of his, but I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was just enjoying this incredibly complex drink.
Emerging from my reverie, I mentioned that I was also into gin, and after discussing the merits of various brands, Matt mixed me a a Corpse Reviver #2, made with gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, and Lillet, in an absinthe-coated glass. The anise flavor of absinthe, which I’m ordinarily not a huge fan of, was subtle, and it contributed nicely to the drink’s tartness. We both lamented the fact that while some classic drinks become trendy again, others, like the Corpse Reviver #2, exist only in the pages of a dusty recipe book beneath a bar. Stoddard’sis one of the few places in Boston where I’ve seen it available; it isn’t even on Forum’s menu.
Although I was still full from the scallops I’d had downstairs, I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t try one more appetizer – the stuffed meatball. I figured the only way a ball of meat could be exceeded in its inherent awesomeness is by stuffing it with cheese. This mammoth meatball was made of pork, beef, and veal, and was stuffed with ricotta. I could try to describe it further, but either you’re already drooling or you’re a vegetarian.
I returned very briefly a few days later, because there was no way I could skip a beer from those icy taps. Forum’s dozen draft beers consist mostly of standards like Guinness and Sam Adams, along with some regional microbrews like Clown Shoes and Wormtown.
The bartender who served me was named Dave, and in the course of about two minutes, he excitedly told me about the variety of Forum’s beer list, their efforts to maintain the tap lines, how regularly they swap out the kegs, the frosted towers, and how they keep their beers at the proper temperatures. And he graciously noted that despite Forum’s efforts to serve quality beer in the best way possible, I could get a High Life for $3. If Matt upstairs was the craft cocktail guy, Dave seemed like the beer guy.
Quickly perusing the beer list, I saw that they had something from Harpoon’s Leviathan series, which I’d previously tried at the Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall . So I asked, “What Harpoon Lev-“
I didn’t even finish saying “-iathan” before he had a sample of the Imperial IPA in front of me. Sure enough, the beer was ice cold. The fact that Forum keeps their glasses chilled in a freezer beneath the bar didn’t hurt, either.
It was about 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, and there were only a few customers at that point. So as I sipped my beer, I listened while Dave talked about all things Forum – the food, the drinks, the beers, the music, the prices, the clientele, the management, the atmosphere, you name it. The funny thing? I hadn’t even told him I was writing about Forum for BBH. He just seemed genuinely excited about the place.
That sort of enthusiasm can be infectious, and you don’t find it just anywhere. Yet in an area with so many attractive destinations, it’s just one more way that Forum distinguishes itself.
The owners of Forum also run The Tap, which is a beer bar near Faneuil Hall, and Griddler’s, a burger and hot dog joint on Cambridge Street. Both are pretty casual, to say the least. And maybe that would help explain why such an upscale-looking place in the Back Bay has such a down-to-earth soul.
Regardless, Forum is equal parts comfortable and elegant. And in an area of town where cocktail lists rarely get more daring than martinis and cosmos, Forum’s drinks are innovative, authentic, and fun.
The prices are pretty decent. Entrées cost a little less than what you’ll find nearby, and the appetizers are not only fairly priced – $8 to $16 – but come in surprisingly large portions. Cocktails are fairly typical at $10 to $12, and draft beers are eminently reasonable at $5 and $6.
The beer offerings rotate pretty frequently, and the cocktail list has already changed since I was there; so take all my reviews with a grain of salt. But if Forum maintains the same fresh, inventive approach to their cocktails, you can count on their drinks being among the best on Boylston Street. And as long as the ice doesn’t thaw on those taps, they’ll have the coldest beer in town.
Address: 755 Boylston Street, Boston
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