[I'm sorry to report that Church closed. The music venue stayed open for a while after the main restaurant closed, but it's gone now.]
I remember being a little wary the first time I heard of the Fenway-area bar Church. I’d been told they had good food and creative drinks, but the name of the place threw me. Church. It sounded like a trendier-than-thou nightclub – maybe because so many of those places have one-word names. I agreed to check it out but remained skeptical; I was prepared for snobbery, a cheesy Gothic theme, and for someone going to take my table away at 10 p.m. to make room for a dance floor.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In fact, of all the places I’ve visited since I started Boston BarHopper, Church remains one of the most pleasant surprises. Where I was expecting pretension, I found a laid-back atmosphere and friendly staff. What could have been kitschy and gimmicky was instead cool and clever – like house cocktails named after the Seven Deadly Sins.
Overall, I found it to be a casual but upscale bar with good food and a warm, neighborhood vibe. And yet…something about it was still mysterious. If nothing else, it was unusual by virtue of its being near Fenway Park and not catering primarily to Sox fans. But what really made it stand out was that the restaurant and bar accounted for only half of Church – the other half was, in fact, a club.
The club shares an address with the restaurant, but the two have separate entrances, and the club usually charges a cover. And despite multiple visits to Church, I never got a look at the club side; the closest I got was when I’d walk toward the restrooms at the back of the restaurant and hear music pounding from the other side of the wall.
So with nothing to go on except my imagination, I figured that Church, the club, would have everything I once expected to find at the restaurant and bar: a rude doorman and a line to get in; overpriced drinks and crappy beer; a DJ playing thumping, repetitive house music; a dance floor awash in colored lights; and a crowd much younger than me and way better dressed.
Church’s club is a small-scale venue with live music every night of the week. It draws local, national, and even international bands of all stripes and styles. “We get mostly jam bands,” says Scott, Church’s general manager, “but there’s a little bit of everything. Country, punk, heavier music.”
The setup is markedly different from that of the restaurant. The club is a long, spacious room with a stage at one end, a bar at the other, and a lot of open real estate in between. While the restaurant has the feel of a cozy, upscale lounge, with leather couches, candles, and warm colors, the club is decidedly sparse – a gray, concrete floor and black walls plastered with flyers and band posters.
Church is also atypical of other music venues in the Boston area. It’s much larger than Wally’s, the classic hole-in-the-wall jazz club, but not as big as midsize places like the Sinclair. It’s not as gritty as the Middle East, but not as lavish as the Beehive. I asked Scott how he would characterize the club, and he thought for a moment before calling it “dive bar meets upscale.” He’s right. Church is basically a no-frills bar with little in terms of décor – a couple of TVs above the bar, a splash of color from some hanging red lights, and two pool tables (which get moved aside on nights when a big crowd is expected). Yet there’s a decent-sized stage, a high-quality sound system, and cool stage lighting. It’s an approachable venue where up-and-coming acts can play, but professional enough to draw more established performers.
My friend Brian and I spent an evening at Church a few weeks back. The headliner that night was a funk/hip-hop band called Eight Feet Tall. Opening for them was a Soul Rebel Project, a local rock/reggae outfit. But Brian and I were there to see the first band of the night – Light Bright. We’d seen them play a few months at the Middle East and were eager to check them out again.
We had time to kill before the music started, which in most music venues would mean standing around drinking expensive PBR tallboys and waiting for something to happen. But Church isn’t a bad place to hang out even before the band takes the stage. There’s a comfortable bar with about a dozen seats, and unlike more traditional concert venues, it isn’t just a pit stop. In places like the House of Blues or the Paradise, no one really hangs out at the bar; you swing by, grab a beer, and squeeze back into the crowd. At Church, you can actually sit at the bar and have a few drinks. And there’s an impressive beer list, with a draft selection devoted entirely to Massachusetts brews, like this BBC Cabin Fever Winter Lager.
Brian went with the St. Botolph’s Town, a smoky dark brown ale from Pretty Things in Cambridge.
Another thing that sets Church apart from similar venues is the food – the full menu from the restaurant side is available. Scott told me that Church had hired a new chef since my last visit, resulting in some notable changes. The modern comfort food theme still prevails, but there are some welcome new additions – like poutine, that wonderful dish of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds. I told Scott that as regular visitors to Montreal, Brian and I have high standards for our poutine. “I’ll go back to the kitchen and scare the cooks,” he responded dryly. Fortunately, Church’s take on the French-Canadian staple doesn’t disappoint, with crispy fries and a flavorful beef gravy.
Despite being entirely different from the restaurant in terms of its appearance and function, the club side of Church possesses the same casual, neighborhood atmosphere. Our bartenders, Jason and Rich, happily recommended beers, talked about the bar and some of the bands that have played there, and introduced us to a few regular customers. “We’re all friends,” Rich said. “It’s like a family here.” It’s the sort of thing that could sound contrived, but he seemed entirely genuine. And while we were there, the bar staff seemed to be enjoying themselves almost as much as the crowd.
One thing you won’t find on the club side – Church’s renowned selection of house cocktails, presumably due to their labor-intensiveness and the size of the typical concert crowd. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good drink. I asked Jason if he could recommend something, and he offered to make me one of his own recipes – the Fhloston Paradise. Named for a holiday destination in the cult sci-fi film The Fifth Element, this was like a combination of a Mai Tai and a Moscow Mule. Made with dark rum, ginger liqueur, and pineapple juice, it was fruity and sweet up front but had a spicy ginger flavor in the back.
For dinner, Brian and I both opted for burgers. I remember the burger on Church’s previous menu being delicious but comically unmanageable, since it was about eight inches in height. This newer version, made with juicy, grass-fed beef and topped with Gouda cheese, red onion chutney, and two surprisingly thick slices of bacon, was easier to handle but no less impressive.
“This is a serious burger,” Brian solemnly declared. Indeed. The burgers came with a heaping portion of fries, which, admittedly, we didn’t really need after the poutine.
Around 9 p.m., Light Bright took the stage. An experimental band of Berklee students with a sound that blends of funk, jazz, and hip-hop, they’re an eclectic group – beyond the usual guitar, drums, and bass, there’s an alto sax, a tenor sax, a vibraphone, and two singers. That’s a lot of disparate elements, but the vibraphone ties it all together, giving their sound warmth and providing a foundation for their sometimes spacey, extended jams.
As Light Bright finished up their set, I polished off my last beer of the night – a Harpoon Boston Irish Stout. Roasted malts and a creamy texture make this stout a worthy addition to the Harpoon line.
The crowd began to swell as Soul Rebel Project got set up, and there was a noticeable following for Eight Feet Tall, which recently began a standing engagement at Church. I was curious about both bands but couldn’t stay; Church may host live music seven nights a week, but some of us have to get up for work on five of those mornings.
Church is one of the most interesting and underrated music venues in the city. With a capacity of 225, it’s considered small as concert halls go; but it’s still a good-size space, so even when it’s full, you never feel crammed in. Plus, there’s usually plenty of room around the bar.
The club attracts a diverse set of performers, from slick cover bands to international touring acts, but there’s definitely a preference for jam bands. Some weeknights are devoted to certain genres – Monday is hip-hop night, Wednesday is typically for funk and reggae. And every Tuesday, Church hosts “Secret Sessions,” a Boston art and music event that brings together national bands and local artists. Music usually starts around 9, but that can vary.
Live music will always be the main draw here, but Church is a decent bar even before the bands plug in. The bar opens at 5 but typically doesn’t get busy until the music starts, so for at least a few hours, it’s a quiet alternative in an otherwise busy area. They’ve even started using the club space for non-music events, such as an upcoming cognac dinner.
The nightly cover charge ranges from $5 to $15, depending on who’s playing. You can avoid it if you show up early enough and avail yourself of the excellent beer selection. But even if you have to pay to get in, the fee is reasonable – and worth every penny if you see the right band.
Address: 69 Kilmarnock Street, Boston
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