Anytime I tell someone I’m writing about Rosebud, I’m greeted with the same query: “Did you ever go there before it reopened?”
It’s a fair question.
The Somerville institution has seen its share of changes in its 75-year history, but none as dramatic as when it changed hands in 2013, closed its doors for renovation, and reopened a year later.
For the record, no – I don’t recall ever having gone there prior to its recent refresh. I must have walked or driven past it a thousand times, but with plenty of other options in Davis Square, it was never my first (or second, or third) choice. Despite the novelty of its dining car façade, Rosebud never struck me as anything more than a rundown greasy spoon.
And by most accounts, that’s exactly what it was. A shabby relic in an increasingly hip neighborhood.
From Afterthought to Destination
But about three years back, Rosebud’s longtime owner sold the business to a restaurateur, who gutted the place, completely redesigned the interior, and hired a respected chef to create a new menu.
It still looks the same from outside, and probably always will – that iconic dining car was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, so it’s not going anywhere. But inside, the present incarnation of Rosebud bears little resemblance to its former self.
First off, I never realized how big the place was – I thought the dining car was all there was to it. I was vaguely aware that there was a bar behind the dining car, but I didn’t know the buildings were connected. Car and bar definitely occupy the same address, and the space is surprisingly large.
The new look is a blend of modern and traditional, with hardwood floors, black leather booths, and exposed brick walls. A long bar is surrounded by about 20 comfortable seats; behind it are handsome wooden cabinets that hold an expansive array of spirits. The space is dimly lit and laid back, and cozy despite its size.
Of course, the most charming place to sit may well be the dining car. With classic cherry red leather booths and old-school tables, it’s a gleaming tribute to 50s-era American diner culture.
As with any divey old neighborhood joint, Rosebud certainly had its devotees, and you can be sure that plenty of them weren’t pleased with the reboot. But even if runny omelets and meatloaf have given way to upscale, contemporary American cuisine made by an actual chef, there’s still a meat-and-potatoes simplicity at the heart of the menu.
The griddled cheeseburger is straightforward but outstanding, with house-blended beef, yellow cheese, lettuce, shaved onion, “wicked good sauce,” and a side of crinkle-cut fries.
The Texas Rachel in a Skirt takes a few liberties with the Reuben sandwich, swapping out corned beef for smoked brisket and adding BBQ onions, horseradish sauce, and creamy cole slaw. The “skirt” refers to the cheese oozing out of the sides and onto the plate.
Smoked chicken wings are spicy and delicious, with “competition rub” (reflective of Chef John Delpha’s days of competitive grilling) and agave glaze.
Rosebud boasts a dynamic beverage program, with cocktail offerings change with the season, if not more frequently. (The bar is well into its fall cocktail menu, but since my first visit was in late summer, you’ll see some drinks from that period here.)
The Pain Killer is a beautifully presented twist on the tiki classic, made with Plantation 3 Stars rum, Old Monk rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, coconut, pineapple, orange, and lemon, with an orchid garnish.
Named for the famous dining car, the Lunch Car #773 blends New Amsterdam gin, lemon, and lavender syrup in a simple cocktail with soft floral notes and crisp botanicals.
The traditional Jack Rose invokes flavors of autumn in New England, with house-apple-spiced brandy, lemon, and a house-made grenadine that’s not too sweet.
The Whiskey Club
Rosebud takes its whiskey pretty seriously; there’s even a “Whiskey Club” that guests are welcome to join. To achieve membership in this league of extraordinary drinkers, all you do is download Rosebud’s app on your phone and start building up credits whenever you order whiskey (as part of a 2-ounce pour, a flight, or a qualifying cocktail).
Once you’ve tried 25 whiskies, you get an engraved whiskey glass and some additional swag. Knock back 50, and you get a free four-course dinner. And when you hit the century mark, pack your bags – 100 whiskies scores you a complimentary round trip flight to Louisville, Kentucky, where you can traverse the Bourbon Trail.
Between the extensive whiskey collection and rotating whiskey drinks, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to the Bluegrass State on Rosebud’s dime. A grapefruit syrup infused with Mosaic hops gives an unusual aromatic essence to an otherwise traditional rye Old Fashioned, while yuzu bitters contribute a citrusy punch.
The Kentucky Pearl features Buffalo Trace Single Barrel bourbon combined with peach syrup, basil, lemon, and peach bitters. It’s sweet and peach-forward (unsurprisingly).
A Diner at Heart
Among the multitude of trendy bars, eateries, and shops that populate Davis Square, vestiges of the neighborhood’s working-class past remain conspicuous. Longtime fixtures such as the Somerville Theater, Sligo, and Mike’s Pizza hold a certain reverence among those who are determined to preserve the soul of a neighborhood even while its identity has changed.
So it’s seems appropriate that despite Rosebud’s transformation, two of the most popular menu items are classic diner staples.
First there’s the milkshake, which is spiked with bourbon and comes in a different flavor each week. I was fortunate to be there when the Pumpkin Spice Bourbon Milkshake was featured, and it was just as decadent as it sounds.
And then there’s the pie.
A glass display case of Rosebud’s homemade pies is the first thing you see when you walk in – reminding you, even before you sit down, to save room for a slice. Despite the variety and revolving selection, it’s hard to top the apple pie, and not just because it’s delicious.
Rosebud may be unrecognizable to a patron from an earlier era, and the same could be said for Davis Square. But something about enjoying the quintessential American dessert in an establishment that, in some form or other, has endured since 1941, makes the setting feel truly timeless.
Address: 381 Summer Street, Somerville
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