Statistically speaking, 2013–2014 was not the worst winter New England’s ever seen. There were no real blockbuster storms to speak of. It was a little colder than average, but nothing worthy of the record books. Other parts of the country got it far worse than we did, really.
But the true, insidious character of this past winter can’t be expressed in snowfall totals and thermometer readings. Raw data somehow fails to capture the endurance and pervasiveness of the slate-gray gloom that descended on us in October and lingered through much of May. What this winter lacked in blizzards and nor’easters, it made up for in persistent little storms. A few inches here, a few inches there; just enough snow and ice to be a constant nuisance. Every week, it seemed there was another storm in the forecast, along with a bone-chilling cold that arrived early and refused to let up.
We stumbled, ungracefully, into spring, and while the gray skies were slow to clear, there were signs that Mother Nature was gradually loosening her grip. In my mania for warmer weather, I celebrated every milestone – the first evening I left the office and noticed that the sun had decided to linger. That glorious morning when I left the house without a jacket. The first weekend when I rolled down the windows and opened the sunroof.
The warm weather may have taken its time getting here, but the first full week of summer hasn’t disappointed. And it seems like everyone in the city has gleefully embraced it. There are sailboats and kayaks on the Charles, sunbathers on Boston Common, and picnic lunches in the Public Garden.
And with that, it gives me great pleasure to begin the 2014 Boston BarHopper Outdoor Seating Series. I introduced this recurring feature back in 2012, and for whatever reason, never got around to it last summer. This year, I have a renewed sense of urgency and an even greater appreciation for the simple pleasure of eating and drinking al fresco. For the first installment, we’ll hit a few spots in Boston proper.
Gather may be best known for its striking interior design, with its wide open spaces, funky hanging light bulbs, and minimalist décor.
But in the summer months, it’s the front patio that steals the show. Overlooking Boston Harbor, and offering a splendid view of the city at night, Gather’s patio is ideally suited to casual conversation over good drinks and eclectic cuisine.
While Gather offers a respectable selection of local microbrews, the cocktail list seems especially geared toward summertime drinking. Sangrias, lemonades, and tiki drinks abound, like this tall, refreshing Mai Tai. Made with dark and light rums, orgeat syrup, lime juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine, this potent rendition of the tiki classic is fruity but not too sweet.
Whiskey smashes are becoming ubiquitous, but Gather’s version is far from typical. Swapping out the traditional bourbon for Bulleit rye gives the Smash a spicy edge, and ginger cognac, combined with lemon and mint, provide an unexpected vibrancy. It’s a slow-sipping cocktail that works well on a warm night.
Gather’s food menu has won widespread acclaim for its innovative style and use of locally sourced ingredients. And while it deserves much more attention than I can give it here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one of the highlights of the extensive appetizer list – chicken and waffles. Creating an appetizer version of what is usually a decadent, belt-loosening dish is brilliant. Served with a delicious sausage gravy, each bite-sized piece bursts with flavor.
Address: 75 Northern Avenue, Boston
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From the edge of Boston Harbor, we head to the heart of Boston. In a city blessed with some truly beautiful scenery, the tightly packed Financial District might not be the most obvious place to put an outdoor patio. Imbibing in the shadows of tall, gray buildings simply lacks the more traditional appeal of drinks by the water or lunch on fashionable Newbury Street.
But Battery Park smartly converts a brick-laden alley into a long, comfortable patio that serves as a little oasis amid the banks, law firms, and brokerages of Boston’s commercial epicenter.
There’s a small service bar along with 15 to 20 tables and plenty of standing room. Surrounding buildings tower over the patio, but they also offer shade, keeping things cool on a hot day.
Battery Park offers a pretty decent beer selection, with some local favorites on draft and a few harder-to-find craft brews in cans and bottles. (I’d skip the overpriced cocktail menu.) I used the occasion of my recent visit to have my first Harpoon UFO of the season. With its notes of citrus and spice, I’ve always found this crisp, easy-drinking beer to be perfect for the summer months.
I hadn’t intended to have anything more than the UFO on this particular evening. But as I was perusing the beer list, I was suddenly taken aback by one of the draft options – Natural Light, for a modest $2. “You guys really have Natty Light on draft?” I asked. The waitress assured me it was no joke. “And a lot of people get it,” she added. For $2, I was only too happy to join their ranks. A flood of hazy, college-era memories came rushing back as she presented me with a pale beer in a clear plastic up. I honestly couldn’t recall the last time I had a Natty Light.
And with one sip, I remembered why.
Address: 33 Batterymarch Street, Boston
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Few things herald the arrival of summer in Boston like the onslaught of tourists. Inevitably, they flock to Faneuil Hall, the historic marketplace that we locals generally avoid.
But while out-of-towners are busy drinking at Cheers and taking pictures with Red Auerbach, they might not take notice of a nearby Financial District bar with a patio that overlooks this bustling hive of tourist activity.
What’s immediately striking about the patio at Sterling’s is its size. While most Boston bars have to make use of limited available space for their outdoor seating areas, Sterling’s has a large section of 60 State Street all to itself. Even better – they have a dedicated patio bar.
Outdoor seating isn’t hard to find in Boston, but freestanding outdoor bars are comparatively rare. Sterling’s’ 20-seat bar even has three flat-screen TVs, making it the ideal spot for whiling away a summer afternoon.
Along with a solid beer list and some seasonal offerings like sangria, Sterling’s’ regular cocktail menu offers a mix of house drinks and time-honored classics. The Southside Sling combines gin, fresh mint, lemons, and simple syrup, making for a refreshing warm-weather drink.
And while it wasn’t advertised, the bartender told me about one of Sterling’s’ summer specials – $3 bottles of Red Stripe. I’ve always had a soft spot for this beer; maybe it’s the diminutive bottle, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a good beer and great deal at $3 (and in terms of quality, makes me think the $2 Natty Light was overpriced by about $1.50).
If you’re hungry, Sterling’s also offers a small menu of happy hour specials, Monday through Friday, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wings, sliders, and the like are available for $6.
Address: 60 State Street, Boston
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Kinsale Irish Pub & Restaurant
It’s not the hippest or sexiest new spot. The view from the patio isn’t exactly breathtaking, though the massive construction project across the street doesn’t help in that regard. And if, like me, you work anywhere within the vicinity of Government Center, you’ve probably had after-work drinks here often enough to take it for granted. And that’s too bad, because in the past decade-plus of shifting trends and countless bar openings, Kinsale has not only endured but thrived by sticking to a pretty basic formula – an expansive, accessible selection of microbrews and a broad menu of above-average pub food.
But I’m not here to praise Kinsale’s longevity or to examine its bona fides as an Irish pub. In fact, I’m including it mainly for personal reasons. As I mentioned, my office is nearby, and almost every day, I take a walk at lunchtime. On the way back to work, my route typically leads me past Kinsale; and in the summer months, walking by that patio is pure torture.
As I enjoy the final minutes of fresh air and re-focus my attention to the second half of the workday, I can’t help but notice the droves of people filling up the Kinsale patio. Some are just on their own lunch breaks, of course, but plenty others are in shorts and t-shirts, sipping beers, devouring heaping piles of nachos with friends, enjoying their day off. Ah, what I wouldn’t give, just once, to make a detour and blow off the rest of the day.
Kinsale’s location in Center Plaza, while convenient, does have a couple of drawbacks. It’s on busy Cambridge Street, so you have to contend with a constant stream of cars, noise, and foot traffic. The view of City Hall Plaza across the street isn’t exactly inspiring, either. But the entirety of the sidewalk is under cover, which means the summer sun won’t roast you and sudden thunderstorms won’t force you inside.
And Kinsale’s beer selection is highly respectable, stocked with plenty of local and regional brews and all the old standbys.
Portland’s Peak Organic Fresh Cut is a crisp, dry-hopped pilsner, but with its pronounced hoppy character, seems more like an IPA.
Otter Creek Fresh Slice is a white IPA. Its mild citrus notes make it a pleasant, drinkable summer beer, but it’s hoppier than one might expect.
As with Battery Park, Kinsale’s more of a beer bar than a cocktail destination. But their white sangria, an occasional summertime special, is a big hit. And if you do want a classic drink, of course they can whip one up for you.
Given its proximity to my office, I tend to think of Kinsale as little more than a place to have lunch or an after-work drink. But nighttime visits to the patio can be surprisingly charming. Eventually the traffic dies down and the crowds thin out, making the general atmosphere a little mellower. And when the bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows are open, you can watch the Sox or World Cup from your outdoor vantage point and hear the live music emanating from inside the bar.
Honestly, not a bad way to spend an evening.
Address: 2 Center Plaza, Cambridge Street, Boston
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You know what’s worse than walking by Kinsale’s busy patio on a summer day? Walking past it in the fall. In September, I notice the crowds starting to dwindle. By October, most people are eating indoors. And then, one day, without ceremony or fanfare…the patio’s gone. The chairs and tables are put into storage for the winter, just as they are at Sterling’s, Battery Park, Gather, and at bars all over the city.
The calendar says we have a ways to go before that happens, but you know how fleeting the New England summer can be. So savor every moment. This year, as much as any other, we’ve earned it.
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