There is probably no greater concentration of wealth, power, and high society in Boston than in Beacon Hill. It has been home to U.S. senators, famous writers and poets, signers of the Constitution, captains of industry, and people who can trace their bloodlines to the Mayflower. It is the most expensive neighborhood in the city to live, and despite pockets of affordability, many of Beacon Hill’s historic residences are occupied by people with old surnames and older money.
Not that you have to be among the cultural elite to enjoy Beacon Hill’s countless charms. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the city (imagine that!), and you could spend hours exploring this ancient maze in downtown Boston. Beacon Hill is a portrait of early American history. Walking along gas-lit brick sidewalks and narrow, cobblestone streets, you find yourself surrounded by brick row houses that have stood for centuries. There are museums in private residences, hidden gardens enclosed by tall, wrought iron fences, flowerboxes adorning window sills, and ornate brass knockers affixed to classic-looking wooden doors.
Beacon Hill is probably the most photographed neighborhood in Boston, and it’s easy to see why.
Every street you peer down looks like a painting. At the top of the hill sits the State House, with its opulent gold dome. Along the outer perimeter are the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and Charles Street, with its antique shops, boutiques, and realty offices where you can look at the listings in the window and imagine owning one of those remarkable properties.
The long, rich history and enduring beauty of these majestic environs make Beacon Hill one of the most desirable areas of Boston, whether you live there or are simply content to visit.
Thus, it’s always struck me as amusingly ironic that this unspoiled gem of a neighborhood is home to one of the diviest dive bars in the city – the Beacon Hill Pub.
The BHP, as it’s affectionately known, probably doesn’t make it onto a lot of tourist guides. It’s not exactly the crown jewel of the Beacon Hill; there aren’t many areas it would be the crown jewel of, for that matter. Not that that bothers the proprietors of the BHP, who heartily embrace the gritty character of their bar, or the pub’s many loyal patrons. How many bars would boast about being called the worst dive in the state? That’s right – behind the bar that is a printed quote from a review that calls BHP “a bar scene straight out of Star Wars.” Talk about owning it!
I don’t know exactly how long the Beacon Hill Pub has been around. I’d call and ask, but they apparently don’t have a phone. I’d stop in to inquire, but I think a question like that would be met with a raised eyebrow and a “hey buddy, did you say bottle or draft” response. Regardless of how long this place has been pouring its affordable suds, the BHP looks like it could be as old as some of the beautifully preserved architecture surrounding it, even if it hasn’t been maintained to quite the same level of quality.
You might expect a bar in Beacon Hill to be an old-world, subdued, upscale tavern with mahogany walls and leather wing chairs, serving 40-year-old scotches and bottles of wine to men in suits who remark “Ahhh, the ’67…not quite as fragrant as the ’64.” Instead, the BHP is a decidedly humble and, depending on when you go, surprisingly lively dive bar.
In a neighborhood that boasts swanky lounges like Alibi and modern bars like the Tip Tap Room, the BHP is refreshingly basic. Beyond its nondescript black doors is a large, dark pub that offers no hint of the world outside. The light of day never disturbs the interior of the Beacon Hill Pub, not even through the utterly incongruous stained glass windows. The dim light inside comes mostly from dusty chandeliers with flickering, flame-shaped orange bulbs and the ambient glow of neon Busch, High Life, and Bud Light signs. The rust-colored tile floor probably benefits from the lack of illumination.
For a place that looks and feels like a cozy hole in the wall, the BHP is pretty big. There’s a cavernous space when you step inside that fills up with standees late at night, giving way to a long bar with a laminate wood surface and more than its share of battle scars. There are a dozen brown swivel chairs at the bar and five half-tables with additional seating. There’s even a second full-size bar in another room, though I think it’s only in use late at night or on weekends.
Given its sweet downtown location and proximity to the Charles/MGH subway stop, you’d think the BHP would be jam-packed after work. It’s usually not. I’ve stopped in around 5:30, often on Fridays, and been one of four or five people. But for me, that’s part of the appeal. I certainly enjoy the vibrancy of the after-work crowd – laughing with coworkers about some crap that happened in the office that day, and being part of what feels like the whole city collectively letting off steam. But I sometimes prefer a calmer, more private atmosphere. A place to collect my thoughts, write, watch SportsCenter, or have a quiet conversation while sipping a $3 Narragansett tallboy.
The aforementioned comparison to Tatooine’s Mos Eisley Cantina might be a little unfair; I’ve never personally been threatened by anyone with a death sentence on 12 systems or witnessed a dismembering via lightsaber (although I can’t deny how awesome the latter would be). Still, the BHP does attract a broad cast of characters. The small post-work crowd is often populated by old men grumbling about politics, positing one-dimensional solutions to the world’s problems and commenting on every image and news item that flashes on one of BHP’s three TVs (there’s a fourth TV, actually, but it just shows the security feed from other areas of the bar). But the cheap beer also attracts college students in droves, particularly in the later hours. Mix in MGH workers in scrubs and a few guys in suits stopping in after work, and you’ve got a pretty diverse and colorful crowd at pretty much any time of day.
On one of my recent Friday visits, I found about 15 people occupying the bar around 5:30. As I walked in, Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” started playing on the BHP’s always unpredictable jukebox. It felt fitting, given my surroundings – that warm, familiar intro, the story of a musician playing for spare change in a grungy subway station. In an “only at BHP” moment, it was followed by the obscure Metallica nugget “The Four Horsemen.” Yep.
BHP has about 12 beers on tap, and the selection is pretty well tailored to the clientele – Bud, Bud Light, Miller High Life, and the like, with UFO, Guinness, and Long Trail for those who prefer something with a bit more complexity. Maybe it’s a when-in-Rome thing, but I tend to look right past the taps and stick with the basics when I’m here.
If you’re hungry, go somewhere else first. There’s no food here, although if you’re in a pinch, you won’t starve.
For a generally “no frills” bar, the BHP offers quite a few diversions. There’s a foosball table and a golf arcade game when you walk in, and a couple of dartboards in the main bar area. Now, that’s not uncommon; but a dedicated “game room” is. Yes, once you’ve put back a few tallboys, you can test your aim at Big Buck Hunter, unleash a little post-work aggression with the boxing game, or shoot a few hoops.
You can also play DJ with the jukebox, but unless you can come up with an inspired mix like “Easy Like Sunday Morning” followed by a White Zombie song and a live version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” why not just leave the running playlist to chance?
I usually keep to the beer when I’m here, but since I always try working a cocktail or two into a post, I figured I should see what BHP had to offer. Now this certainly isn’t the kind of place that has a menu of fancy drinks; but before I ordered a gin and tonic or something equally unimaginative, I thought, maybe I should ask the bartender if he has a specialty. I mean, you never know when you’re going to stumble upon some really unique or notably well-made drink, right? So I asked. His answer? “Yeah, whiskey.” So I went for a Jameson on the rocks. No complaints.
The bar began filling up in earnest by 6:45, and as much as I was enjoying hearing “Shout at the Devil” for the first time in a decade or so, I had to excuse myself before the night crowd settled in. While the BHP is quiet in the early evening, it’s a completely different affair in the later hours. The place gets so packed on Friday and Saturday nights, you can barely move; sometimes there’s even a line to get in.
Imagine that – all the nice bars in Boston, especially downtown, and there’s a line to get into the Beacon Hill Pub. Is it the lure of the $3 Narragansett? Or is it because last call at BHP is 2 a.m., while many other nearby bars close up shop at 1?
Perhaps. But I think there’s more to it than that. The BHP is casual and unpretentious. You laugh a little louder there. Maybe you drink a little more, too. And after a long day of answering to people, or a night of having to be on your game, it’s nice to come to a place where you can just relax and be yourself. I think that’s the Beacon Hill Pub’s true appeal.
That, or Big Buck Hunter.
It’s not the most inviting-looking entrance on Charles Street, but it would be hard to feel unwelcome at the Beacon Hill Pub. Like a lot of old dive bars, it’s the kind of place that feels familiar even if it’s your first time there. Between the characters in the late afternoon and the big crowd at night, it’s the sort of bar where you can either fly comfortably under the radar or talk and laugh at the top of your lungs.
As I already mentioned, the BHP is a pretty affordable place to drink. Aside from my usual Narragansett, on my last trip I ordered a PBR and a High Life that came to a total of $6.25. Beyond bottles and cans, the drink prices are a little more typical of the area. I got a Blue Moon on draft for $5.50, and my Jameson was $6.50.
As reasonable as the prices are, make sure you hit the ATM before you go. The BHP is cash only, as they helpfully remind you with a dozen or so signs posted throughout the bar. But there’s an ATM on site if you need one more tallboy and only have $2 (don’t judge, we’ve all been there).
The Beacon Hill Pub makes no bones about what it is. That remark about it being “a bar scene straight out of Star Wars”? They took a jab like that and made it a rallying cry, posting it behind the bar and making it their slogan on Facebook and Twitter. (They update their Twitter feed about once every three to six months, with one recent entry flaunting the bar’s stainless steel toilet seats; again, way to own it, BHP.)
Situated in the most exclusive area in Boston, the BHP is an everyman’s bar. And while a blue collar place like this may seem out of place in a blue blood neighborhood, Beacon Hill and the pub that bears its name are both, in their own way, Boston classics.
Address: 149 Charles Street, Boston
Website: Yeah, right.
P.S. Han shot first.