As I think we all know, there’s a difference between being cool and trying to be cool. And a lot of bars (like a lot of people) simply try too hard. You know the kind of places I mean – bars that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their interior look like it’s been around for decades and naturally evolved from a shabby but lovable college apartment. Beat-up tables and mismatched chairs. A deliberately random assortment of reclaimed fixtures and vintage film posters. Staff with “attitude.” A menu with quirky food items and a few well-placed expletives. It’s a nauseating blend of narcissism and desperation that screams “Look how edgy we are!” Then there are those bars that try to effect an atmosphere of cool and totally get it right.
JM Curley’s been getting it right since its opening three years ago. The Downtown Crossing bar is known for its creative comfort food, late-night menu, and smart cocktail program. But what’s always impressed me about this place is that it manages to be trendy and relevant while seeming entirely genuine and grounded. They nail the “chill hangout” vibe without ever forcing the issue.
And I feel like it’s the kind of bar that, under different guidance, could do exactly that – go overboard. Devolve into some hipster haven that’s long on attitude and short on substance. The kind of place you have to be in a certain mood for. Instead, it feels like a comfortable neighborhood joint – consistent enough to be familiar but dynamic enough to be a little different every time you go.
Tucked away on Temple Place, the interior of JM Curley is fairly sparse and understated.
The 14-seat, L-shaped bar is topped with a three-inch-thick slab of concrete that gives it a workman-like, industrial appearance. The well-worn hardwood floor contributes to a lived-in feel.
Exposed brick walls are adorned with pictures of the bar’s legendary namesake – James Michael Curley, the 20th century Boston politician who is recalled as much for his popularity as for the controversy he courted.
But it’s the chalkboard to the left of the bar that is easily the most celebrated of JM Curley’s wall ornaments.
This chalk-inscribed treatise on bar etiquette discourages all manner of boorish acts – yelling, passing gas, engaging in public displays of affection, using condescending nicknames for servers. It might be a lot to remember – particularly if you’re the kind of person for whom this list was written – but the theme is concisely summarized at the end: “Just don’t be a douchebag.”
It’s the sort of tongue-in-cheek admonishment that, in another setting, might feel contrived. Why does it work here? Because there’s something genuine about it. Amid the barbs and witticisms are thoughtful suggestions, like don’t write scathing reviews online before talking to a manager who might actually be able to address your gripes. Without sounding patronizing, the board serves as a reminder that drinks are best enjoyed in a casual environment, and customers and bar staff alike can contribute to that.
That simple request to be cool and respectful makes particular sense in the context of JM Curley’s “Supper” menu, a modest selection of comfort food geared toward small plates and sharing.
A complimentary serving of candied bacon popcorn arrived on our table shortly after my party arrived, and disappeared shortly thereafter.
I’m not a huge fan of pickles, but fry them up, and I can’t keep away. A tangy, spicy Creole mayo for dipping really steals the show.
I am, however, a huge fan of deviled eggs, and imbuing them with the flavors of a Bloody Mary is a pretty awesome idea. They manage to pack bacon, celery, tomato, horseradish, Worcestershire, celery, and salt in there, like a heavily garnished version of the brunch cocktail, and the result is a spicy, decadent treat with a nice kick.
Mac and cheese is a staple of any comfort food menu, but JM Curley gives you the option to “hook it up” with barbecue pork. It’s an inspired addition; the dish isn’t overly cheesy, and the smoky, sweet barbecue sauce makes for a vibrant blend of flavors.
Not all of the supper options are designed for sharing, and you could be forgiven for wanting to keep every last bite of your burger all to yourself. In addition to the standard house burger (more on that later), there’s a rotating burger special with all sorts of delicious twists. When I was there over the summer, the special was a “bacon-laced” (!) burger topped with smoked gouda, onions, and special slaw, served on a bacon/cheddar bun. This was truly a phenomenal burger – deliciously smoky, with a crispy texture from the slaw. And a bacon/cheddar bun? Brilliant.
That same spirit of innovation permeates the drink menu, which features some clever twists on the standards and a few totally original offerings.
The Hemingway Heat is a spicy rendition of a Hemingway Daiquiri. Made with Rhum agricole, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime, and jalepeño, it’s a heat-forward drink but isn’t too intense.
The 21 Temple Gin and Tonic neither looks nor tastes like the simple classic. There’s gin in it, as one would expect, and tonic. But yellow chartreuse, bark powder, and citrus make for a crisp, herbal cocktail that looks like it might be sweet but instead has a fairly muted orange flavor.
The Whisky Smash looks more like a mojito, but certainly doesn’t taste like one. JM Curley shakes up this old standard by using a white whisky along with mint, lemon, and soda.
With its layered presentation, the Clover Club is visually striking. It combines gin, raspberry syrup, lemon, and egg white for a fruity, creamy drink with a foamy layer at the top.
Strega means “witch” in Italian, and that’s where the Witch Hunt acquired its name. The herbal Italian liqueur, which gets its yellow hue from saffron, combines with lemon juice and water for a tart, pleasantly bitter drink. Sage leaves provide a fresh aroma with every sip.
Speaking of names, “Mendoza Line” is hardly an auspicious one for a cocktail. The expression derives from the baseball world and refers to the subpar hitting skills of one Mario Mendoza, the 1970s-era major league infielder whose batting average tended to hover around the threshold of .200. Ever since then, hitters whose average falls below .200 are said to be below the Mendoza Line. Not a good place to be.
The Mendoza Line cocktail is far more effective. It’s an unusual, full-flavored mix of tequila, orgeat syrup, lemon, and raisin-infused Angostura. A lavender-mezcal rinse contributes a subtle smokiness and a mild floral essence.
And yet for all the complexity and creativity that infuses the cocktail program, the recipes never go too far. Even the most experimental drinks remain approachable, and some are surprisingly straightforward.
The Jack Rose is, as one bartender described it, an “oldie but goodie” that hasn’t experienced the same resurgence in popularity as other throwback drinks. JM Curley’s version plays it by the book – applejack, house grenadine, and lime. It’s a strong, full-bodied drink with a mild apple flavor, and the custom grenadine contributes a moderate sweetness.
After seeing surprising twists on simple drinks like the Whisky Smash and the 21 Gin and Tonic, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Manhattan. I certainly wasn’t expecting…well, a regular old Manhattan. But sure enough, JM Curley’s approach to this time-honored classic honors the tried-and-true combination of Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a cherry.
A no-frills take on a cocktail that’s been subject to endless experimentation might look out of place alongside so many clever interpretations, but I think it balances out JM Curley’s drink list. And it means that even when they’re sticking to the basics, they can still surprise you.
I clearly remember my first visit to JM Curley, a couple years back. It was the first time I tried Bantam Wunderkind cider, and “Too Young to Fall in Love,” a forgotten album track by Motley Crue, was playing. What does this have to do with the rest of the story? Nothing. It’s just an anecdote I’ve been itching to share.
Here’s another one. I stopped in one afternoon last week, and there was a couple sitting at the bar that had just gotten married at city hall a couple hours earlier. I thought that was pretty cool. Some newlyweds go to Aruba, others go to JM Curley.
And why not? Whether you’re coming from your midweek afternoon nuptials or from the late shift at another Downtown Crossing haunt, it’s a comfortable, come-as-you-are kind of place that doesn’t seem to work too hard at being laid-back.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that every time I’ve been in there, I’ve had excellent service from incredibly nice people. No exceptions. That Law & Order edict may implore you to be a decent human being while you’re there, but it’s not like the staff gives you any reason not to do so, at least in my experience.
Speaking of the notorious chalkboard, there’s one more quote worth sharing: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, we don’t.” The people behind JM Curley might not take themselves too seriously, but they’re pretty serious about their craft.
The modestly named “5-oz natural beef patty” might lack the flair of the rotating burger specials, but it’s been recognized by the likes of Boston magazine and Zagat as among the best in the city. And bar manager Kevin Mabry was named Boston’s Best Bartender earlier this year by Boston magazine.
It’s the sort of thing that makes JM Curley’s humble attitude all the more laudable.
Address: 21 Temple Place, Boston
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