The hotel bar once represented the high water mark of American drinking culture. As grand hotels became symbols of high society and economic prestige in the early 20th century, the bars and restaurants within them reflected the very same dignified air. Hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Lenox in Boston served not only as comfortable stopovers for business travelers but as upscale drinking and dining destinations for well-heeled locals. A clear step up from taverns and saloons, hotel bars employed master bartenders who used the freshest ingredients to craft exceptional and often experimental drinks for guests. Many of our most enduring classic cocktails, like the Sidecar and the Aviation, originated behind the bar of a hotel.
But the onset of Prohibition in 1920 dealt hotel bars a blow from which they never truly recovered. Career bartenders took their talents to Europe, and by the time Prohibition ended, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and Americans’ drinking habits had changed. Bars in classic luxury hotels endured on the strength of name recognition and continue to thrive today, but the proliferation of chains have largely earned hotel bars a reputation for exorbitant prices and uniform mediocrity. Unless you find yourself in an area otherwise lacking in bars or are actually staying at a hotel, why would you drink at one?
“People find us almost by accident,” admits Shauna Ottina, manager of City Bar in the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel. In the ever-growing but still oddly configured Seaport District, that’s entirely plausible. It’s also easy to see why people stay.
City Bar’s comfortable, den-like atmosphere appeals to hotel guests who might prefer a quiet drink at an upscale lounge to standing in line at the hippest bar in the city. But even a seasoned local can appreciate the contemporary touches and a drink list aimed at modern customers who demand quality and creativity.
The long, sleek bar is surrounded by a dozen leather chairs. A pair of leather sofas in the center of the room set the stage for a leisurely evening of cocktails and conversation.
Candlelit tables offer a chance for a more intimate dinner. And in the middle of the bar, a bed of ice chills a few martini glasses, illuminated from below with soft blue lighting.
City Bar’s cocktail menu balances conservative and contemporary elements – a necessity, Shauna acknowledges, when one considers the sometimes conflicting forces of location and clientele. Having fashionable cocktail bars like Drink and TRADE within walking distance means you can’t get away with Captain and Coke as your signature offering. But given the varying tastes of guests from all over the country, you need to account for travelers who are uninterested in local trends and just want something straightforward and familiar.
“We try to put some of the classics on the menu,” Shauna says, “but we put some curveballs on there too.”
The classics are indeed well represented, with options like a Sazarac, a Sidecar, and a Pisco Sour.
But the “curveballs” actually take up more of the menu, with a variety of original house drinks and modern twists on old favorites.
One of the bar’s most popular items is the Mango Mai Tai. City Bar sweetens up this tiki classic by combining mango puree and pineapple juice with dark rum, light rum, and amaretto. A funky tiki mug contributes the requisite Polynesian flair. The City Stormy adds Fernet Branca for a more bitter version of a Dark and Stormy.
On the more experimental side, the Kentucky Flu combines Maker’s Mark bourbon, Licor 43, and a blend of citrus juices. This one made for an odd mix of flavors, but it grew on me. I was pleasantly surprised to see the seldom-used Licor 43 feature in a drink, but Shauna explained that City Bar encourages a spirit of imagination and exploration among its staff; the bartenders, in fact, are responsible for much of the cocktail menu. “It gets their creative juices flowing,” she said. “They’re not just selling a list.”
That immediately prompted me to ask my bartender, Heather, if she had contributed something to the menu. She told me that her creation, the Pet Dragon, was a mix of butterscotch schnapps, Irish cream, and – much to my dismay – Fireball Whiskey. This put me in a tight spot. On the one hand, I’d look like a tool if I didn’t order Heather’s drink, which I’d just inquired about; on the other hand, I long ago swore off any liquor imbued with the vile flavor of hot cinnamon (let’s just say I’m still feeling the “aftershock” of an unfortunate drinking episode dating back to my college days). Needless to say, I smiled politely and agreed to have one. Heather remarked that the drink tasted like an oatmeal cookie; I was highly skeptical.
In fact, that’s exactly what it tasted like. This wonderfully well-made drink was rich, sweet, and creamy. The Fireball Whiskey, despite my apprehension, was actually quite subtle – no heat, just a warm cinnamon essence.
City Bar’s food menu offers a fairly extensive selection of appetizers, sandwiches, and comfort food standards – calamari, burgers, steak tips, that sort of thing. But as with the drink menu, there are curveballs, too, like a flatbread pizza topped with mashed potatoes, steak tips, and bacon, and a sesame seared tuna salad. I opted for a classic.
Jazzed up with three different types of meat – chorizo, Italian sausage, and ground beef – City Bar’s meatloaf is delicious and unusually complex. Topped with mashed potatoes and a rich mushroom gravy, with a side of green beans, it’s a hearty meal and good for soaking up strong cocktails.
The cookie-esque Pet Dragon would have made for a good dessert drink, but since I’d already blown through that, I asked Heather to recommend something else to close out the evening. She directed me to City Bar’s selection of champagne cocktails and suggested the Sunday Morning, a vibrant, effervescent mix of pomegranate liqueur, blood orange liqueur, orange juice, and champagne.
This potent, spruced-up mimosa might be designed to start your Sunday morning with a bang, but it can also end your Saturday night with a flourish.
By and large, the era of the hotel bar as both a touchstone of upper-class culture and a laboratory of cutting-edge mixology is a thing of the past. And while some of the most renowned cocktail bars in Boston are actually housed within hotels, their identities tend to be distinct – do you ever think of Eastern Standard as “the bar at Hotel Commonwealth”?
Fortunately, the days of the hotel bar being a celebration of commercial blandness, peddling overpriced food and unimaginative drinks to a captive audience, may also be coming to an end. A place like City Bar might not be setting any mixology trends, but they’re aware of a drinking public that’s come to expect at least a little ingenuity. By giving their bartenders the latitude to experiment and contribute to the drink list, City Bar observes an increasingly common practice in today’s cocktail lounges and renews a tradition that began in the celebrated hotel bars of yore.
Aside from guests staying at the Westin, City Bar’s location makes it an unlikely destination for anyone not already planning on being in the Seaport District. But in an area of Boston that continues to see tremendous growth, City Bar is an upscale, laid-back alternative to some of its more boisterous neighbors, like Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest. As Shauna indicated, it may indeed be the kind of place that people simply happen upon. But when they inevitably return, it will be by choice.
Address: 425 Summer Street at the Westin Hotel, Boston
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