From Watertown With Love

IMG_1555.jpg

“What’s your favorite bar?” It’s a question I get often, which makes sense; I do, after all, have an entire website devoted to the topic of Boston-area bars. But I always get a little flustered when I try to answer (which, ironically, makes me sound like I know very little about the subject). I try to tell people that I don’t really have a favorite; what I enjoy most is the variety that our fair city offers. I explain to them how the contours of my evening or mood play a key role in determining what bar I’ll go to on a given night (or day). Am I headed out to watch a Bruins game? Am I meeting one of the Brew Dudes for good, complex microbrews? Am I playing pool with a friend? Am I going out with a group? Do I want fancy cocktails? Is it a dive bar kind of night?

DSC_0124

DSC_0124

Usually people listen, nod along, and then ask “But which one is your favorite?” I sigh, resignedly, and just say Stoddard’s (and why not, it’s awesome).

The thing is, that question always puts me in an awkward spot. My website certainly isn’t the ultimate resource for Boston nightlife (yet), but often enough, someone will tell me they tried a bar based on my recommendation. That makes me feel like I have a certain responsibility to be credible. So when I’m explaining my project to a complete stranger who’s wondering why I’m taking pictures of my drinks, and then they want to know what my favorite bar is, I feel like I should respond with one of Boston’s best. I mean, what am I supposed to say? “Oh, I really love these two townie bars down the street from me”?

That’s the truth, though. As much as I love drinking in pubs with 50+ microbrews on draft and chatting with artists of alcohol who can whip up unique cocktails, my favorites are decidedly unremarkable. They aren’t even in Boston. See, I live in a town just outside the city; perhaps you’ve heard of it…

IMG_1646

IMG_1646

Yes, that Watertown. We were a quiet, under-the-radar suburb that was close to Boston but without the traffic, congestion, and exorbitant living expenses. We were known for good restaurants and some quirky shops – if we were known at all. I’ve had to describe Watertown’s existence and geography on more than one occasion. That all changed at about midnight on April 19, when the two men suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon sped into Watertown in a stolen car.

It was approximately 1:40 a.m. when Melissa woke me up. I’d slept maybe two hours. “You have to see this,” she said, turning on the TV. All we knew at first was that there was some serious police activity about a mile away and shots had been fired. Soon, though, creepy amateur footage of cops firing their weapons at unseen assailants made it onto the news. Filmed through a window by someone with an iPhone, the video was dark and grainy, but the sounds of the gunshots were clear, unmistakable, and utterly chilling. Reporters soon revealed what we’d all suspected – the marathon bombers were in Watertown.

IMG_1552

IMG_1552

In the wake of that news came the police instructions, which grew increasingly ominous as the minutes dragged on: Stay in your house. Close the windows. Move to the rear of your home. Do not answer your door.

For hours, the only lights in our house came from the TV and our phones when we’d get a text or check Twitter to see if anyone had any news. The details were sketchy, but eventually we learned that one of the two suspects was dead and the other was at large somewhere in our town. He was considered armed and dangerous; but armed with what, we didn’t know. A gun? Another bomb? A suicide vest?

Morning brought with it a sense of relief; at least sunlight limited the bomber’s ability to hide. But he was still unaccounted for. And thus began a strange, interminably long day marked equally by anxiety and tedium. Like the rest of Boston and the towns surrounding it, we were instructed to “shelter in place” – a term I hope never to hear again that essentially meant we had to stay in our homes. And in the case of Watertown, there was the added precaution of roads being closed. No one drove in, no one drove out.

IMG_1539

IMG_1539

There was little to do but watch the news. Not that there was much news, mind you; just anchors repeating themselves while interspersing the previous night’s footage with shots of the growing army of Watertown and state police, military personnel, and FBI and ATF agents. Every now and again there’d be a big commotion when a SWAT vehicle drove 50 feet down the road and then parked, or when the governor or police chief would hold a press conference to announce that there was nothing to announce. As the day stretched into the late afternoon, the prohibition on driving meant that Mel wouldn’t be making her scheduled flight out of town to meet a friend, and I wouldn’t be making it to a concert with my friend Mario (who also lives in Watertown).

Our plans scuttled, our patience sorely tested, one thing kept running through my mind – if the Halfway Café is open tonight, I’m making a beeline for it the second they lift this stupid lockdown.

IMG_1569

IMG_1569

When I first moved to Watertown, the Halfway Café possessed something of a mythic quality. Whenever I told someone where I was living, I’d hear “Oh, have you been to the Halfway Café? I used to love that place.” Despite its legendary status, nothing about my first visit blew me away. It was pretty much your standard pub. There was a dining room and a bar area, the latter of which seemed narrow and felt cramped. The food was pretty good, and it was affordable. The beer selection was average. The best thing about it, from my perspective, was that it was within walking distance of my house.

halfway 026

halfway 026

But as my personal roots in Watertown deepened, the Halfway Café went from being a typical neighborhood bar to a beloved home away from home. It’s where I go after a long day of shoveling snow. It’s where Melissa and I go when we’ve had a tough week or just don’t feel like cooking. It’s where Mario, my sister Kelly, and I have watched countless Sox games and eaten our weight in wings. Mario's wife (and basketball aficionado) Ivys tries to drag me to the Halfway a couple nights a week for whatever hoops game she’s got money on.

It’s the first bar at which I ever considered myself a regular.

halfway 002

halfway 002

Halfway has a fair beer selection, which they’ve expanded since I first started going. Nothing extraordinary, mostly standards like Guinness, Harpoon, and Sam Adams, but it’s nice to find less common options like BBC Steel Rail and Batch 19. I typically start off with something decent – a Guinness in the winter, a Blue Moon or a Sam Summer when it’s warm out – before downshifting to a PBR (at $2, it’s hard to beat).

halfway 004

halfway 004

You could probably eat enough of the complimentary popcorn to have it count as a meal, but I usually order something more sustaining. The menu is mostly your standard pub fare; for me, it nearly always comes down to a choice between a burger and wings. The Halfway’s chicken wings are their bread and butter. I realize that like barbecue food, wings are often the subject of heated debate among aficionados. I don’t know where the Halfway’s wings rank on the regional respect scale, but they’re easily my favorite. It’s a good size portion for $11, but you can get a double portion if that’s the way you roll (and you will roll if you have the double portion all to yourself).

halfway 020

halfway 020

But the burger always gives the wings a run for their money. The burgers themselves are pretty standard, but the toppings can be inventive. Take, for example, the decadent Reuben burger, topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, served on griddled rye. I mean, they’re essentially taking a burger and topping it with an entire Reuben sandwich for a gastronomically shocking yet satisfying experience. I’d suggest ordering that only on special occasions. My go-to choice is the pub burger, topped with citrus chipotle BBQ sauce, jalapeno bacon, and smoked gouda and cheddar cheese. That’s a whole lotta flavor goin’ on there, and worthwhile at $9.99.

halfway 030

halfway 030

Comforting as my old standbys are, they’re challenged on a monthly basis by the Halfway’s “8 for $8” specials. That’s eight monthly specials for $8 a pop. The specials run the gamut from painfully ordinary to somewhat creative, but either way, it’s a good deal for dinner.

halfway 012

halfway 012

Wings, PBR, and any environment that was not my living room were the very things I was dreaming about when we got the word that the lockdown had been lifted. It was around 6 p.m., and while there was still a madman on the loose, we could finally go outside again. The world hurriedly tried to return to something resembling normal, and the Halfway announced it would open at 8. Melissa and I made plans to meet Mario and Ivys there later, but first things first – we were getting out of the house, at long last, and going for a much-needed walk.

IMG_1564

IMG_1564

If the bombers were looking to further infuriate the people of the Boston area after Monday’s attack, forcing us to stay inside on the first 75 degree day of the year certainly did the trick. We took a stroll around the neighborhood and saw so many people out of doors, happy to stretch their legs and feel the fresh air.

IMG_1639

IMG_1639

It turned to be a brief respite. Barely 20 minutes had gone by when helicopters suddenly passed overhead and sirens wailed in the distance. We got home and discovered that the day had taken a dramatic turn – Suspect #2 was holed up in a boat in somebody’s backyard. We reluctantly settled in for another hour or so of must-see TV. Eventually, the 9,000-to-1 man-advantage that law enforcement held proved to be too much for the wounded 19-year-old to overcome. He succumbed to the inevitable and the standoff was over. Cue the Standells’ “Dirty Water.”

In the tense interim, the Halfway decided not to open after all. Fortunately, my other favorite Watertown bar did.

asiana-edit

asiana-edit

My first impression of Asiana Fusion was, like that of the Halfway Café, underwhelming. I went there a couple of times and it seemed just alright. Then one night, Melissa and I were supposed to meet Mario, Ivys, and Kelly at the Halfway, only to find it too crowded; we went to Asiana instead, and kind of never left.

It’s a quirky place, that Asiana Fusion is. There’s a decent-size dining area with about a dozen tables, but the 12-seat horseshoe bar, with its sleek metal siding, is where you’ll normally find the BBH crew and me. There’s more of a lounge vibe to the place anyway. They’ve got a couple of TVs if you’re there to watch a game, as Mario and I often are. Asiana hosts trivia on Thursdays – behold, the spoils of recent third-place finish by Mario, Ivys, Kelly, and me.

IMG_1625

IMG_1625

They used to have karaoke nights on the weekend, but I think they dropped that. There’s also a pool table, surrounded by some comfy leather sofas; as far as I know, it’s the only place in Watertown with billiards.

IMG_1572

IMG_1572

As their helpfully descriptive moniker would imply, Asiana’s menu is a mix of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine, with some distinctly Americanized touches like steak-and-cheese spring rolls. Bizarrely, they also have a dedicated frozen yogurt station.

froyo-edit

froyo-edit

But what I most associate Asiana Fusion with is their Mai Tai. A Polynesian-style drink by way of Oakland, California, the Mai Tai is a staple at any Asian restaurant. Its recipe has endured countless variations; the only ingredients on which anyone can agree are rum, pineapple juice, and some sort of orange flavor, either from juice or a liqueur. I’ve had very simple versions as well as inordinately complex renditions; I’d put Asiana’s version somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it’s a sweet, potent cocktail that often comes to mind when I’m slogging through a brutal workweek.

IMG_1577

IMG_1577

Since it is most unwise to consume Asiana’s Mai Tais on an empty stomach, mine are nearly always accompanied by chicken and shrimp Pad Thai. The regularity with which I order this meal is such that the bartenders don’t even bother giving me a menu anymore. Is it the very best Pad Thai around? Probably not. But I’m enamored of it, and at $9.95, it’s reasonably priced (especially since I usually bring half of it home).

IMG_1594

IMG_1594

I wish I could tell you more about Asiana’s food, but I rarely venture beyond my typical order. I can vouch for their delicious scallion pancakes. And when I was last there, Kelly ordered General Gau’s chicken, just to lend the post a little culinary variety; she was pretty pleased with it.

IMG_1587

IMG_1587

Also in the spirit of variety, I asked our regular bartender if there was a drink other than the Mai Tai she’d recommend. She whipped me up something original and off-menu – the Rockstar. A mix of whiskey, Southern Comfort, Chambord, cranberry juice, and Sprite, it was fruity and intense.

IMG_1617

IMG_1617

There’s a small but decent draft beer selection, including Sam seasonal, Blue Moon, Rapscallion Honey, Baxter Brewing Company’s Stowaway IPA, and Angry Orchard cider. But after a couple of Mai Tais, about all I can handle is a Bud Light – which, at $2.50, is a pretty good deal.

As with the Halfway Café, at some point, Asiana became my local. When I walked in the other night, I wasn’t even in my seat before the bartender said “Hey there…Mai Tai?” We had a similar exchange shortly thereafter about the Pad Thai. I always tell her that one day I’m going to surprise her and order something completely different. It’s an idle threat, though. Further solidifying my predictability is that if I walk in alone, I always get the same question – “Where’s everyone else?” That would be some combination of Mario, Ivys, Kelly, and Melissa. And yes, at least one of them is usually on the way.

IMG_1604

IMG_1604

So yes, I go to Asiana with the same people, order the same drinks, eat the same food, and see the same bartenders. But that familiarity is what made it such a comforting destination at which to meet Mario and Ivys after such an unusual, tense day. The post-lockdown atmosphere at Asiana wasn’t necessarily celebratory; no USA chants broke out, no one gave a loud toast to law enforcement. I would call it more of a collective sigh of relief. It was the kind of night where you’d laugh a bit and swap stories with people, whether you knew them or not. We’d been through an ordeal, after all, the likes of which we’d never experienced in our hometown.

How appropriate, then, that we’d all gather at the neighborhood bar. From its very earliest incarnation, the public house was often central to its community – it was where people met, exchanged news, and engaged in public forums. We might not think of a bar that way anymore, but when people in Watertown needed to connect after a traumatic day, that’s where a lot of us went. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t rush out that night because I wanted to get drunk. I simply felt the need to act normal again and be with people who could relate to my experience.

halfway-edit

halfway-edit

The Halfway and Asiana were the first and only places that came to mind. As I said earlier, on the surface, neither bar is extraordinary. If you lived in Boston, I doubt you’d come out to Watertown to eat and drink at either place. But the value a bar can bring to a community isn’t neatly calculated by how many beers it has on draft or how trendy its drink list is. It’s measured in loud fits of laughter, quiet conversations, and hugging a complete stranger after watching an exhilarating playoff win. It’s measured in the comfort of a familiar environment. It’s measured in catching up with a friendly bartender while sipping a beer and watching TV. My favorite bars might not look like anything special to you, but they mean the world to me.

bottles-edit

bottles-edit

Likewise, Watertown is a relatively low-key place. We’re unaccustomed to midnight shootouts and national media scrutiny. The police log in the local paper doesn’t exactly read like an episode of Law & Order. But in the face of potential catastrophe, our town exhibited character and strength. Boston underwent a terrible tragedy on Marathon Monday; it affected all of us. We wish it had never happened, and we would have been happy not to have two murderous terrorists set foot in our quiet town. But we answered the call, just the same. And while I’ve only lived here for 5 years, it made me proud to call Watertown my home.

IMG_1637

IMG_1637

Halfway Café: 394 Main Street, Watertown

http://www.thehalfwaycafe.com/

Asiana Fusion: 1 Waverley Avenue, Watertown

http://www.asianafusion.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.