Papa Razzi Metro

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I'm sorry to say that Papa Razzi Metro closed in October 2016.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you’ve probably noticed that I avoid writing about chain restaurants. That’s not to say that I never go to a chain restaurant, or that I always have a subpar experience when I do. But very rarely do I have an excellent experience at one. And that’s no surprise, because most chains aren’t striving for excellence – their goal is predictability. The corporate muckety-mucks of chain restaurants want to ensure that your favorite meal or beverage is available every time you come in, that it’s just as you remember it, and that if you’re ever visiting another restaurant in the chain, you can count on finding it there, as well. All of that would be well and good if it didn’t so frequently translate into mediocrity. But that’s inevitable when you’re offering a menu with the broadest possible appeal and trying to ensure an identical dining experience in dozens or even hundreds of restaurants. There’s little room for spontaneity or improvisation. Market data is privileged over innovation or fresh ideas, and individual creativity takes a back seat to heavily vetted research.

Applying those same principles to a beverage program seems incredibly dull – particularly in an age when cocktails have enjoyed such a spectacular renaissance. And what I find even more satisfying than a well-crafted drink is the experience that goes along with it. I love it when a bartender introduces me to a new spirit or brand, something they’re personally excited about. I appreciate the opportunity to learn why a particular cocktail tastes the way it does. I especially enjoy feeling like a bartender is genuinely invested in what they’re doing – knowledgeable of their craft, enthusiastic about their drinks, and interested in making sure I am, too.

That’s simply not a level of engagement I expect to find at the bar of a chain restaurant. And thus it was with an open mind but a hearty sense of skepticism that I agreed to write about Papa Razzi Metro.

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Papa Razzi is a familiar name to many New Englanders. The regional chain has been offering decent Italian fare since 1989 in an atmosphere that’s upscale but affordable. But when the Rhode Island-based Newport Restaurant Group took over a few years ago, they decided it was time to refresh the Papa Razzi brand – a new food menu and beverage program, a whole new look, and the addition of “Metro” to the name.

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Burlington’s Papa Razzi Metro is the first of the chain to undergo a complete renovation. The appearance is more modern and sleek, with a long, curvy marble bar and red leather sofas, but also aims for a traditional look with its hardwood floor and old-school lamps along the bar.

But what might be more jarring to longtime Papa Razzi diners is the revamped menu. Heavy dishes in red sauce are scaled back in favor of small plates designed for sharing. Certified Neapolitan pizzas are made in an oven shipped over from Italy that reaches a temperature of 900 degrees and cooks the pizza in a mere 90 seconds.

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Traditional favorites like calamari are jazzed up with Maine shrimp misto, flash-fried zucchini, and a spicy peppadew aioli.

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Fall-apart tender and bursting with flavor, beef and sausage meatballs are elegantly presented with slices of grilled bread.

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A selection of salumi boards is available, like this one featuring speck, gorgonzola, apricot jam, and almonds.

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Vestiges of the previous menu remain, but Papa Razzi’s objective seems clear – appeal to a younger generation of diners, particularly those moving from the city to the suburbs, and push longtime customers out of their comfort zone without completely alienating them.

And that brings us to the beverage program, which, along with the menu and the space, got a makeover of its own. While wine may be the traditional accompaniment to an Italian meal, Papa Razzi Metro now offers a menu of craft cocktails. On the surface, that might look like a typical chain move – chasing a trend, long after it’s become one, and adapting it for a suburban audience. But a conversation with beverage director Shawn Westhoven convinced me otherwise.

“I want nothing to do with being the beverage director of a chain,” he says, which may seem like a curious remark coming from someone who is exactly that. But as Shawn explains how a chain beverage program is run, and how Papa Razzi runs theirs, it becomes clear that Newport Restaurant Group wisely gave him latitude to create a bar with an independent spirit that doesn’t slavishly adhere to the conventional best practices of a chain restaurant.

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“We go the opposite way from a chain,” he says of Papa Razzi’s evolving beverage program. “The way that a chain has to make decisions, they look at data, and they see what’s trending; and then that’s what they do, because they’re trying to appeal to what guests are asking for. They have to try to line up what’s in their inventory with what the most number of people are going to want. And I want to have the stuff that I want to have.”

What Shawn wants most of all is for customers to have an experience at Papa Razzi bar that they won’t have at another chain restaurant. Indeed, many of the trappings of a chain cocktail menu are absent. In place of cheap, processed mixers are fresh juices and house-made syrups. Where you’d ordinarily see 15 bottles of artificially flavored vodka, you’ll find small-batch spirits from local producers like GrandTen, Bully Boy, and Privateer. And instead of faux martinis and sweet, colorful drinks, the cocktail list is populated with classics and originals, many featuring herbal liqeurs like amaros and vermouths.

The Negroni, made with GrandTen Wireworks gin, Campari, and Carpono Antico vermouth, is a true standout.

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“We dial back the Campari, which is the bitter, quite a bit, and ratchet it up with the vermouth, which is the sweet,” Shawn explains. “A classic Negroni is much more bitter. But the gin is so good, we can’t have too much Campari in there.” The result is an approachable Negroni for someone who’s new to the drink, which can be an acquired taste.

The Negroni’s predecessor, the Americano, is crisp and bitter, combining Contratto Americano vermouth, Campari, and soda.

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For those who aren’t ready for a bitter cocktail, the Italian Greyhound is made with Bully Boy vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit. I’ve always found the Greyhound to be a fairly boring drink, but the fresh grapefruit elevates Papa Razzi’s version.

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So how do customers in a suburban market respond cocktails like that? “With hesitation,” Shawn admits. “Until you get it in their hands.”

The best way to get an unfamiliar drink into a customer’s hands is to have bartenders who are talented, engaged, and willing to encourage their guests to branch out a bit. At Papa Razzi, that starts with inviting bartenders to contribute to the cocktail program. Half of the drink list is devoted to rotating cocktails that are devised by bartenders throughout the chain. Several times a year, Shawn sends out an email that gives the bar staff some general parameters to follow – seasonal ingredients to consider, trends to follow or avoid, spirits he wants customers to start drinking – and gets back a hundred or so recipes that he narrows down.

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“I don’t have a team of hotshot bartenders like an independent place from Cambridge would have,” he acknowledges. “But we have people who have an interest in this, and they’re willing to work at it; I want to foster that.”

By encouraging staff to contribute drink ideas, the bartenders get acquainted with different products and styles, gain a better understanding of how to create a balanced drink, and have a personal stake in the menu.

The Goliardico, made with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, and fresh grapefruit juice, is one contribution. The floral elderflower is a natural companion to Hendrick’s, with its notes of cucumber and rose petals, and the fresh grapefruit adds a vibrant, sour punch.

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The Tempo Triplo is another. Combining three vermouths and orange bitters, it demonstrates Shawn’s desire to get his staff familiar with a particular spirit and then introduce it to customers. “The reason for this cocktail is to get our guests to taste and enjoy vermouth,” he says. “Most people want to leave vermouth out of the drink; they have this idea that it’s a bad thing. But they’re delicious. You can have a cocktail made just with vermouths and it’s awesome.”

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It may take patience and persistence, but it’s an approach that’s bearing fruit. One of Shawn’s additions to the beverage program is a selection of four Italian craft beers, each of which sells for about $9. That’s a lot to pay for a beer, even in the city; but remarkably, the four beers (together) are now outselling Bud Light.

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As our conversation winds down, we turn to the after-dinner drinks, where one of Italy’s most popular liqueurs awaits. In principle, limoncello is fairly simple – lemon zest is steeped in a neutral spirit that draws out the oils, and the resulting liquid is mixed with simple syrup. But it’s notoriously difficult to perfect, and Shawn’s insistence on offering a house-made version led him to months of experimentation, with discouraging results. Finally he asked whether anyone at Papa Razzi knew of a good recipe, and a general manager from the Burlington restaurant had one from about 8 years prior. It worked like a charm. Made with organic lemons, this vibrant house limoncello practically leaps from the glass, like someone squeezing a lemon right in front of you.

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Also available is an unusual variation – “figcello” follows a similar formula but uses figs instead of lemons. It wasn’t available the night I was there, so I asked Shawn to recommend a different dessert cocktail. His suggestion caught me off-guard: the Café Mocha Menta Panna is hot chocolate with Fernet Branca and mint cream. I was wary; I’m not a big fan of Fernet, nor do I ordinarily drink hot chocolate on a broiling July night.

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But I trusted my host and was glad I did. Neither too bitter nor too sweet, this satisfying drink tasted like a cup of minty dark chocolate. And Shawn seemed genuinely pleased to note that he’d managed to push me out of my comfort zone – which he tries to do with so many customers.

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“No one’s ever going to walk in here and ask for an amaro,” Shawn acknowledges. “But I say, let’s put some amaros on the menu and introduce them to the guests.”

Just letting people know they’re available – and if necessary, explaining what they are – is a start.

“We’re always trying to find ways to say, 'your life is pretty great: you came into Papa Razzi and you know you’re going to have great Italian food, but I’m going to give you one thing tonight that’s going to be special. It’s going to be this craft beer, this vermouth cocktail, whatever'; and people love that. And I love it,” he says.

“And that’s how I try to keep us separated from the idea of a chain restaurant.”

Address: 2 Wall Street, Burlington

Website:http://paparazzimetro.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Menotomy Grill & Tavern

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When you think about the early battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War, towns like Lexington and Concord quickly spring to mind. You never hear much about Arlington. That might be, in part, because Arlington wasn’t called Arlington back then – it went by the name Menotomy, an Algonquin word meaning “swift running water.” But Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride from Boston to Concord took him straight through Menotomy, and British and American blood was most certainly spilled on the streets of the town we now know as Arlington. You tend to pick up little nuggets like that during a visit to Menotomy Grill & Tavern.

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Arlington’s Menotomy Grill celebrated its two-year anniversary earlier this summer, but if you tell owner Billy Lyons that his restaurant looks a lot older than it is, he’ll probably take it as a compliment. Lyons is a lifelong Arlington resident and a history buff with a particular affection for the American Revolution; once in a great while, you might even see him decked out in Minute Man garb.

His restaurant reflects his passion. Paying homage to the town’s history, Menotomy Grill’s décor recalls the character of an 18th century American tavern.

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Brick walls, hardwood flooring, and an exposed ceiling give the space a simple, functional look, while a tall stone fireplace, antique-style chandeliers, and candle-lit tables contribute a sense of warmth. Reproductions of old town maps and the official flag of Menotomy adorn the walls.

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Iron lanterns resting on fixtures add a historical touch; you can almost picture rebels huddled around flickering candlelight, sipping ale and fomenting revolution.

Of course, they probably never had a bar as nice as this one. A large, wraparound bar is surrounded by 24 comfortable seats, and cozy booths round out the bar area.

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And speaking of ale, Menotomy boasts an impressive selection of microbrews that changes on a near-weekly basis. There’s plenty of New England fare among the 20 draft offerings, including Slumbrew, Downeast, and Peak Organic. Wormtown Be Hoppy, brewed in Worcester, has distinct notes of grapefruit, and is just as hoppy as its name implies.

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The spirit selection is expansive as well, and that’s not something to take for granted. It was only in recent years that Arlington, long a dry town, shrugged off some of its more arcane liquor laws and allowed restaurants like Menotomy to pour more than just beer and wine. Freed from such restrictions, Menotomy’s cocktail program is modern, inventive, and diverse. Bar staff are encouraged to contribute drink recipes, and the broad spirit assortment features offerings from Massachusetts distillers such as GrandTen, Privateer, and Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

The New Old Fashioned is a smart twist on the most classic of cocktails, combining Maker’s 46 bourbon, muddled Luxardo cherry, orange, brown sugar, and rhubarb bitters. It’s a bit sweeter than a traditional Old Fashioned, but the rhubarb bitters give it an earthy touch. This is an excellent cocktail.

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The Menotomy Sunset is an original drink created by one of the bartenders. This mix of Milagro silver tequila, Aperol, agave, and lime has shades of a margarita, but the Aperol gives it an unexpected herbal bitterness and – true to its name – a warm, orange hue.

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So it Goes, meanwhile, is crisp, floral, and dry. Made with Berkshire Greylock gin, lavender simple syrup, and lemon, it’s a simple, refreshing cocktail with a lot of flavor.

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And have no fear – rosé, the most fashionable of wines at the moment, is available too.

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Overall, Menotomy’s beverage program is thoughtfully balanced. While the beer selection leans heavily toward popular microbrews (definitely not a bad thing), the cocktails are as modern as they are accessible. That’s a smart move – given Arlington’s location, the bar draws customers from Cambridge and Somerville who may be accustomed to the latest trends in mixology, along with guests from farther-out suburbs who might be nonplussed by, say, a bone-marrow-fat-washed scotch.

Menotomy’s food program takes a similar approach. Chef Mark Thompson, who’s previously worked as a chef at Stoddard’s and the defunct Chez Henri, has authored a dynamic menu that is both creative and approachable. Upscale but reliable pub fare is served alongside daily specials that allow Thompson and his kitchen to flex their culinary muscles. The taco of the day always offers some surprises, like the combination of braised beef, purple potatoes, quinoa, and shaved radish that was available during my first visit. Topped with a spicy ají sauce, these bad boys were peppery and vibrant.

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Brussels sprouts with bacon and mustard are available as a side dish, but their ample serving size makes them perfect for sharing with the table. The mustard adds a little pungency, and what vegetable dish is not elevated by bacon?

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There’s no bacon in the chef’s vegetarian tasting, but it’s artfully presented and offers a mix of seasonal veggies, like orange glazed beets (which might make me rethink my aversion to beets), yucca rosti, and grilled green onions, served with gingered quinoa pilaf. The crispy yucca patty steals the show.

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One of the true highlights of the menu is the seared mahi mahi. This generous portion of tender fish in a crunchy coating is served on a bed of coconut scallion rice with vanilla-scented pineapple and crispy plantain. A habañero vinaigrette provides a distinct kick, but the sweeter notes from the fruit serve to complement the heat. There are plenty of unique flavors on this plate, but they work in concert – no individual component stands out or, worse, gets lost. At one point I wasn’t even hungry anymore but just kept eating.

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Which is not to say that I couldn’t manage to force down some dessert. Menotomy’s pastry chef creates a rotating array of mouthwatering treats and confections, like the orange creamsicle bomb. With a name like that, I was expecting something heavy and decadent, and was surprised to find that this mix of ice cream, orange, and a graham cracker crust was simple and light.

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And yes, it did sort of taste like an orange creamsicle. Elegantly presented, it made for a sweet conclusion to a summer evening.

Last Call

Arlington’s always had its share of culinary treasures. It’s short on chains and long on independently owned restaurants. But Menotomy Grill & Tavern is the only place I know of that embraces so many of the culinary and beverage trends that characterize the bar and restaurant scene in Boston and Cambridge. They have their finger generally on the pulse of what’s popular in the city, but they’re not just mimicking that. Their approach is fresh, authentic, and tailored to a diverse customer base. And the enthusiasm of the staff, from owner Billy Lyons on down, seems entirely genuine.

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Oh, and one more thing. As I mentioned earlier, chef Mark Thompson previously worked in the kitchen of Chez Henri, the popular French-Cuban restaurant that closed in 2013 after a 19-year run just outside Harvard Square. While Chez Henri’s inventive, high-end cuisine garnered widespread acclaim, it was the Cuban sandwich, available only at the bar, that won the restaurant such a fervent local following. That sandwich was absolutely amazing, and ever since Chez Henri closed its doors, countless fans (myself included) have mourned its loss.

Well, good news – chef Thompson made more than his share of those sandwiches during his time at Chez Henri, and he hasn’t forgotten the recipe. The Cubano isn’t on the regular menu at Menotomy Grill, but it does appear as an occasional special.

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I was fortunate to get one on a return visit to Menotomy, and it was just as divine as I remembered – house-roasted pork loin, cheese, ham, spicy aioli, and pickles on buttered, grilled, crunchy bread. I haven’t laid eyes on this beauty in far too long, and yet with just one taste, the lost time melted away and I fell in love all over again.

Address: 25 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington

Website:http://www.menotomygrill.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Stellina

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Few of life’s pleasures are more satisfying in combination than jazz and cocktails. The two have enjoyed a long, productive relationship, dating back at least to the 1920s, when illicit speakeasies jumped and swayed to the sounds of live jazz. The pair may have reached their cultural zenith in the nightclubs of the mid-20th century; the image of men in sharp suits and women in glamorous dresses, sipping martinis while a crooner and big band fill the room with swing music and sultry classics, remains iconic. Jazz and cocktails have never truly been out of style, though their popularity has certainly ebbed and flowed over the years. Today you can find exceptional craft cocktails in any number of Boston-area establishments, and there are plenty of places where you can hear some smokin’ jazz. If you’re looking for nightly jazz played by an ever-shifting lineup of locals, Wally’s is your best bet. If nationally renowned performers are your thing, there’s Scullers and Regattabar. Fashionable entries like the Beehive and Beat Hotel fall somewhere in the middle.

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Watertown’s Stellina probably isn’t even on your radar. That’s understandable – it’s a suburban Italian restaurant, not a jazz club, and they only have live jazz on Tuesday nights. But for me, Stellina hits the sweet spot – solid jazz, above-average cocktails, a cozy bar, affordable food options, and a laid-back atmosphere. (It’s also a 10-minute walk from my home, which doesn’t hurt.)

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Having served Watertown for nearly 30 years, Stellina is a bona fide institution. Their Italian cuisine has won awards from Boston Magazine, and their beautiful back patio provides for elegant dining beneath the stars. Walled off from the main dining room is Stellina’s bar area, with a 14-seat bar and several two-seat tables. Dark wood and red lighting give the space an intimate appearance, but the mood is decidedly casual.

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This is where the Noteworthy Jazz Ensemble, the house band since 2008, sets up around 6 p.m. every Tuesday. The quartet – sax, guitar, bass, and drums – seamlessly blends timeless standards like “Caravan,” “Black Orpheus,” “Moanin’,” and “A Foggy Day” with original numbers and off-the-cuff jams (you might even hear a Black Sabbath riff or two thrown in).

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Overall, it’s a laid-back affair. The band fields occasional requests from customers and chats with regulars during breaks. If you’re sitting close enough, you can hear them discussing which key to play a particular song in. The music isn’t so intense that it inhibits conversation, but it doesn’t fade into the background, either. And while you can hear the Ellington and Coltrane tunes from just about anywhere in the restaurant, the bar is the place to be if you’re a jazz fan.

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Obviously, it’s the best place to be for drinks, too. Italian restaurants may be better known for wine than for cocktails, but Stellina is the only place I know of in Watertown with a cocktail program of this caliber. The rotating drink menu reflects some of the broader trends in nearby Boston and Cambridge, updating classic cocktails with inventive twists and offering a few original concoctions with house ingredients.

The Cool-Manhattan is the quintessential partner for some cool jazz. It’s an appropriately straightforward Manhattan made with Maker’s 46 (aged a little longer than the flagship Maker’s Mark), Carpano sweet vermouth, bitters, and a Luxardo cherry.

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In a similar vein is the Cocktail Italiano, combining Old Overholt Rye, Amaro Montenegro, grapefruit bitters, and lemon syrup, garnished with a mint leaf. Dry and sour, a fresh, minty aroma accompanies every sip.

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The Hot Toddy has no doubt been a popular item in this hellish winter, and it demonstrates Stellina’s tendency to mix things up a bit with some of the supporting ingredients. Applejack brandy combines with lemon peel and a ginger- and chamomile-infused honey for a sweet, apple-forward drink with plenty of flavor. Warms the belly and the soul on a brisk night.

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The Cocktail 47 (named after Stellina’s address) is sort of a vodka-based riff on the Hemingway daiquiri. Made with Belvedere grapefruit vodka, maraschino liqueur, fresh grapefruit, and lime, there’s a lot going on in this one – a blast of sourness and a prominent grapefruit flavor.

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The Caipirinha Sour is a more recent addition to the menu, and one of the few missteps. This mix of cachaça, muddled lime, homemade sour mix, and fresh tangerine has all the right ingredients for a refreshing variation of traditional Brazilian cocktail, but it’s topped with a flat soda that mutes those great flavors.

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There are plenty more creative high points, though, like the simply titled “Pear.” Made with Belle de Brillet Pear Cognac, Grey Goose vodka, reduced pear, and vanilla nectar, it’s a soft, smooth drink that nonetheless packs a punch.

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The Ransom Citrus-Lavender combines Ransom Old Tom gin, a lemon cordial, and lavender-citrus infused agave. It’s dry and full-flavored, with a distinct citrus component and a delicate floral essence.

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The Royal Snap is an unusually complex rendering of a whiskey and ginger, made with the intriguing Whippersnapper Oregon whiskey, which has some gin-like botanical notes to it, along with muddled blood orange, homemade orange bitters, a ginger reduction, and ginger beer.

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For those craving something more straightforward, the Moscow Mule is simple and traditional – Tito’s Handmade vodka, ginger beer, and lime, served in the customary copper cup.

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My good friend and fellow barhopper/Watertown resident/jazz fan Mario and I have resolved to hit Stellina at least one Tuesday a month for this jazz-and-cocktail combo, and so far we have a perfect record in 2015. It’s an endeavor made easier by some fairly economical dinner selections. On the antipasti menu, the handmade sweet potato gnocchi, tossed with Gorgonzola, sage, and Parmesan, is generously sized and delicious. I’ve always been curious to try gnocchi made with sweet potato; it adds a nice dimension.

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There’s a selection of flatbreads that you can customize if you so desire. This smoked prosciutto, garlic, Fontina, and rosemary pizza, with hot sausage added, is becoming my go-to order.

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And if you’re craving something sweet, the Crème Brulee Napoleon tastes as good as it looks. Layered with phyllo pastry, caramel sauce, and toasted hazelnuts, it’s crunchy and surprisingly light (I’m not necessarily speaking form a caloric standpoint here).

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Concluding with such a beautifully presented dessert seems fitting, in a way. Nearly everything about Stellina reveals a fondness for performance and artistry – from hosting live jazz to serving contemporary craft cocktails with lemon cordials, infused syrups, and fruit reductions. In addition to the weekly jazz nights are occasional opera nights, author nights, and wine tastings. Even the blog on their website is well written and regularly updated. To me that signals a creative spirit, and whether it’s in a restaurant in Watertown, a jazz club in Boston, or a modern cocktail bar, that’s a great attribute to have.

Address: 47 Main Street, Watertown

Website:http://www.stellinarestaurant.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

The Mad Raven

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Given that I write about bars in a city that proudly basks in its Irish heritage, you might think I treat St. Patrick’s Day like it’s Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, my birthday, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. A day that I mark on my calendar and count down to with breathless anticipation. I mean, it’s an unofficial drinking holiday, right? What’s not to like?

Standing in line outside a bar that would never otherwise have a line, and paying a cover charge that would never otherwise be levied, for the privilege of squeezing into an overcrowded room with revelers who’ve been at it since 11 a.m., while struggling to order a beer, not spill it, and make audible conversation with my companions. That’s what’s not to like.

Look, I’m not trying to be a wet blanket here. If you spend a few minutes perusing this site, I’m sure you’ll discover that my fondness for Boston drinking culture is beyond dispute. And if your preferred mode of celebration is to take St. Patty’s Day off from work, deck yourself out in green, strap on your drinking shoes, and wait for the bars to open, far be it from me to criticize. You have my unending support. And trust me, I understand the importance of honoring personal traditions.

The thing is, you’ll never have to twist my arm to spend a night in a warm pub chatting over shepherd’s pie and a few pints of Guinness. I don’t need a holiday or any sort of special occasion. And I don’t have to pretend to be “Irish for a day,” since I’m Irish every day. So in terms of actually celebrating St. Patty’s Day, I’ve come to see it as something of a hassle. Kind of like shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, except you’re not getting any good deals.

Which is not to say that I don’t celebrate at all. I just prefer something a bit more low-key, and I tend to stay outside the city. So this week we head out to Waltham and visit a comfortable old favorite of mine – the Mad Raven.

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There’s no O’ in the name, and the walls aren’t cluttered with black-and-white photos of Irish farmers eking out a hardscrabble existence during the potato famine. But the Mad Raven is the real deal. Owner Mark McAuliffe, a native of County Cork, Ireland, and his wife Maura have run the place for nearly 15 years, and it’s everything a good Irish pub should be – casual, approachable, and familiar. A long, spacious bar with a worn, wooden surface is surrounded by 15 comfortable chairs.

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Green and amber lights above the bar give things a festive, St. Patty’s Day glow. A large dining area with about 10 to 15 tables keeps the bar area from getting too cramped. Hardwood floors, exposed brick, and warm, orange-yellow walls result in a very homey feel.

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And then there are the ravens.

All throughout the bar, you can find the bar’s namesake bird. Ravens behind the bar. Ravens on the walls.

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Apparently there are ravens all over Ireland, too, but that’s only part of the reason behind the name. “Mark’s father was into theater and stuff in Cork,” bartender Willie Egan explains. “He liked the Edgar Allen Poe poem about the raven, thus the name.”

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My sister Kelly and I stopped in on a recent Saturday for a laid-back evening of conversation, comfort food, and best of all, a few of Ireland’s famously recognizable beverages. But we started with a couple of local offerings. First up was the Harpoon’s appropriately named seasonal brew, the Long Thaw.

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A beer ideally suited to the month of March, this powerful white IPA is loaded with hops, but softer notes of citrus and spice serve as a reminder that spring is (reportedly) on the way.

Sam Adams also offers a seasonal white ale, though the Cold Snap is considerably less hoppy than Harpoon’s brew. Smooth, citrusy, and highly drinkable, it’s a sturdy beer that can stand up to a long, chilly New England winter.

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The Raven’s appetizer menu is stocked with standard pub fare like wings and nachos, but we opted for the evening’s special – Buffalo calamari. Topped with thinly sliced carrots, bleu cheese, and a plethora of jalepenos, it was a spicy start to the evening (for me, anyway; Kelly picked out most of the peppers) and a nice twist on traditional calamari.

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The rest of the night was spent celebrating all things Irish. Starting, of course, with arguably the grandest of Ireland’s gifts to the rest of the world. What can be said about Guinness that hasn’t already been said? Even after two-plus centuries, it’s a beer that never gets old.

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It’s also a beer that plays surprisingly well with others. There’s Guinness and its old English friend, Bass, making up the traditional Black and Tan.

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Kelly opted for the Black Velvet, a mix of Guinness and Magners Irish cider.

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The Raven’s dinner menu is heavy on comfort food, with burgers, sandwiches, and old standbys like mac and cheese. But they also throw in a few curveballs, like Creole jambalaya and blackened swordfish tacos. Kelly and I kept things traditional.

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The Raven’s shepherd’s pie is stuffed with beef, carrots, corn, and a rich gravy, topped with homemade mashed potatoes. This fortifying dish is a longtime favorite at the Raven, even among the staff. “The shepherd’s pie is good, huh?” one of the bartenders asked as I dug in. “It’s good from behind the bar, too,” he added. “I can order it, and 15 minutes later, it’s still hot.”

Kelly opted for the fish and chips, a generous portion of deep fried cod and crispy golden fries.

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Like any Irish pub worth its salt, the Raven hosts live music every Saturday night, and some Fridays too. As we ate our meals and sipped our Guinness, we were treated to the acoustic stylings of Dennis McCarthy, who impressed with Irish standards such as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

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I closed out with one of Ireland’s oldest and most distinguished exports. A Jameson on the rocks is a strong way to cap off any night, whether you’re toasting the patron saint of Ireland or just enjoying a quiet evening.

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And it makes me wonder, as I do every year, how St. Patrick’s Day got so blown out of proportion. I know plenty of people still observe it as a cultural and religious holiday. But you don’t need the luck of the Irish – or even a special occasion – to find good food and beer, live music, and friendly company in the confines of a comfortable pub.

But I can’t fault anyone for getting into the spirit, and if that’s your plan this weekend, the Raven’s ready for you. In addition to regular menu items like the shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and corned beef reuben, the weekend’s food specials will include a full Irish breakfast (served until noon), Guinness beef stew, corned beef and cabbage, and bangers and mash. Saturday night, the talented Ryan Palma will be entertaining what is sure to be a full house, and green-clad revelers will likely be out in full force all weekend.

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Come Tuesday, things will get back to normal. The Raven will go back to being a relaxed, familiar neighborhood pub with plenty of Guinness, Jameson, and shepherd’s pie to go around. The regulars will congregate around the bar, watch March Madness or speculate about the upcoming Sox season, and chat with their regular bartender. “That’s what an Irish bar is all about,” Willie reminds me. “Socializing over a pint. TVs optional.”

And that’s worth a pot of gold any night of the week. Sláinte!

Address: 841 Main Street, Waltham

Website:http://www.ravenpubs.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Sky Restaurant

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One of my favorite things about enjoying a drink in a top-notch cocktail bar is being able to talk with the person who made it. Having the chance to hear a skilled mixologist explain why he or she uses one liquor brand over another, or what modifications they’ve made to a traditional recipe, can be fascinating. I especially enjoy those occasions when a bartender inquires after my preferred spirit and then crafts a drink based on that. Under such circumstances, I often don’t even bother looking at the drink list and instead rely on their judgment and recommendations. It doesn’t happen all the time, but with so many excellent cocktail bars in Boston, it’s not an uncommon experience.

Admittedly, it’s not a dynamic I was expecting to find 30 minutes south of the city in the town of Norwood. But then again, there’s a lot about Sky Restaurant that’s unexpected.

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Most people in Massachusetts know Norwood as the home of “the automile,” a stretch of Route 1 dominated by auto dealerships and punctuated by strip malls and fast-food restaurants. There’s more to the town than that, of course, but cruising down Route 1 doesn’t usually prompt anyone to say, “Hey, we should really come here sometime for dinner and drinks.”

This monotonous landscape of commerce makes Sky stand out all the more. Endeavoring to offer upscale, city-like dining in a casual, suburban environment, Sky is a huge restaurant with two separate dining rooms and a second floor with function space. But the stylish cocktail lounge is what makes Sky a true suburban destination.

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There’s a long, L-shaped bar with 15 comfortable leather seats; candles dot the polished wooden surface, casting an intimate glow. Beyond the bar is a spacious dining area with a fireplace. Dark red and mahogany colors give the lounge a traditional, conservative look, but funky, modern lighting fixtures contribute to a more casual, relaxed atmosphere.

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The cocktail menu is fairly expansive, featuring original concoctions and creative twists on some of the classics. What really sets Sky apart, though, is its growing array of liquor infusions. Now, infusing alcohol is nothing new; at plenty of bars, you’ll see the obligatory glass dispenser loaded with fruit and vodka. But it’s rare that infused liquors figure prominently into a bar’s nightly offerings.

“We had a pineapple vodka infusion and a green apple one for a long time,” says Nadine, one of Sky’s four bartenders. “And we thought, what else can we do?”

Get creative, that’s what. Unsatisfied with merely soaking pineapple rings in a gallon of vodka, Sky’s bar manager, Kyle, teamed up with head chef Andy DiPace to develop infusions with greater complexity and character. They started small and played it safe, infusing vodka with a combination of golden, red, and green apples and adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract. The result was not only a better-quality infusion but a new signature cocktail – the Apple Orchard.

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Representing everything that a well-conceived vodka infusion can be, the Apple Orchard quickly took off among Sky’s customers. Simple and approachable, but with complexity and balance on account of the apple blend, it’s like a fresh slice of apple pie in a glass. A cinnamon stick garnish adds a spicy aroma to every sip.

The drink’s popularity inspired further experimentation and bigger risks, like a vodka infused with poblano peppers, onions, tomato, garlic, and peppercorn, which features in the house Bloody Mary.

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Emboldened by their early successes, Kyle and company then took a much more daring leap – infusing whiskey.

With even the most cursory understanding of the differences between these spirits, you can see the problem here. The best vodka is odorless and tasteless; that makes it ideal for infusing, since it easily takes on the flavors of whatever you put in there. Whiskey, with its complex flavor profile, is quite another matter. “There’s a different range of things you can put in bourbon,” Kyle says. “Things like bananas, nuts, and spices work well with it,” he explains. “Pineapple and bourbon, probably not.”

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Those challenges are not lost on customers, some of whom are inclined to be skeptical. “Some people, when they hear we’re infusing whiskey, they say you just can’t do that,” Kyle admits. “But they try it, and most of them are surprised.”

It’s hard to imagine even a whiskey purist not appreciating the Maple and Rye, which infuses rye whiskey with banana, crushed candied walnuts, and Vermont maple syrup. The flavors are well balanced; the banana is prominent but not overpowering, and there’s only a touch of syrup, so the final product isn’t overly sweet.

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The Bourbon Smash takes on the warm, earthy flavors of figs, apricots, golden raisins, and orange peel. Bourbon and citrus are long-time friends anyway, but the sweetness of the fruit and the depth of the bourbon make this luxuriously smooth and eminently drinkable.

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“A lot of it is trial and error,” Kyle says of the whiskey infusions. “And they don’t always come out the same way, depending on the state of the fruit.” He discovered that green bananas and riper, brown bananas, for example, yield very different results in terms of both flavor and smoothness.

Not all of Sky’s drinks are infusion-based, but that same spirit of innovation and experimentation permeates the entire cocktail list. On the first of my two recent visits, Kyle asked whether there was a particular spirit I favored and seemed pleased when I mentioned bourbon. He recommended the Fashion Nut, a smart variation of an old fashioned that he devised after seeing something similar on a cooking show. Combining bourbon, brown sugar, and black walnut bitters, it’s an exceptional cocktail with a mild, molasses-like sweetness and a nutty, smoky essence from the bitters. An orange twist provides the requisite citrus.

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The Lavender Honey Sidecar offers another modern interpretation of a classic. A traditional sidecar recipe made with Remy VS cognac, Cointreau, and fresh lemon juice, the addition of honey and lavender make it soft and floral, with muted sweetness and a hint of vanilla.

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Even a comparatively simple drink like a margarita benefits from a couple of unique touches. A house-made sour mix cuts down on the usual sweetness, and a rim coated in black sea salt is visually striking.

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It is the culture of creativity behind the bar that encourages such novelty and nuance. As explained to me by J.C., a mellifluously voiced mixologist working alongside Kyle, all four of Sky’s bartenders contribute ideas and drink recipes, thriving on the sense of friendly competition. Their passion for mixology is evident as well, especially when J.C. explains that the unusually large chunk of hand-chipped ice cooling my drink is leftover from a 300-pound ice block they used during a recent whiskey event. When I mention to Kyle a whiskey he hadn’t heard of, he pulled out a notebook and jotted it down. I have to admire anyone who keeps a whiskey notebook.

The innovative spirit that infuses the drink list extends to the food menu as well. You could probably make a meal just out of the extensive appetizer list, with items as diverse as lobster sliders, lettuce wraps, and baja egg rolls.

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Deviled eggs are jazzed up with smoked bacon, blue cheese, and micro arugula. The crab cake trio is accompanied by a trio of tangy sauces – pineapple salsa, sweet chili, and a traditional remoulade.

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The dinner menu is stocked with traditional Italian dishes, seafood, and a host of classic comfort foods with modern twists (I’ll admit to feeling a slight pang of regret in not trying the apple bacon pear pizza). The delicious winter vegetable spaetzel, one of several seasonal offerings, is a hearty combination of roasted brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, sweet potatoes, and heirloom carrots, topped with a rich demi glace.

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Frutti del Mare, which translates to “fruits of the sea,” was one of the evening’s specials. This outstanding dish was a mix of haddock, calamari, and shrimp stuffed into fresh, house-made raviolis, tossed with sautéed spinach, and served in a sherry cream sauce.

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When dinner arrived, I asked Kyle if he could suggest a cocktail that would go with my meal. Given my new appreciation for the challenges of pairing food and cocktails, I realized this was no simple request. Kyle responded admirably, though, with a drink combining Nolet’s Silver gin, St. Germain, ginger liqueur, peach bitters, and a splash of pineapple and cranberry juice. One of Nadine’s recipes, it was a vibrant drink with a sweetness that nicely complemented the creamy sauce.

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It may be hard to justify dessert after two appetizers, a filling meal, and a few drinks, but Sky’s “minis” make it easy to allow for a little post-dinner sweetness. These artful, sample-size desserts made by the restaurant’s pastry chef are served in individual glasses, and a few bites of apple pie, key lime pie, and strawberry cheesecake are manageable even if you’re full.

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The chocolate fondue, on the other hand, is the very epitome of decadence. If there was one thing we didn’t need right then, it was a chocolate fondue with marshmallows, cookies, and cake pieces for dipping. But one of Sky’s regular customers insisted my wife and I try it – then ordered one for us and put it on his own tab.

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It was wonderfully generous, and our benefactor’s enthusiasm was entirely justified; the fondue was delicious. Granted, being rolled out to the car a few minutes later was not my most dignified exit.

Last Call

It’s tough for any suburb to compete with a city when it comes to nightlife. Boston will always have more bars and restaurants, and thus more variety, than any of its distant neighbors. But even in a city with a preponderance of cocktail bars, finding a staff with the same talent, enthusiasm, and good nature as the one at Sky is not always a given.

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My visits were as illuminating as they were entertaining. The creative and competitive spirit that fuels the Sky’s cocktail menu is also evident in the animated dynamic behind the bar, with liberal amounts of witty banter, verbal jabs, and bickering over things like the proper way to arrange a place setting. It makes for a relaxed environment conducive to conversation and exploration – something I find more valuable than simply placing an order. To that end, Kyle, J.C., and Nadine seemed genuinely happy to discuss the finer points of the cocktail menu and offer helpful suggestions.

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And they listen, too. Not long after Nadine and I had a chat about rum, she surprised me with a drink that she’d just made up. “It’s kind of a rum sidecar,” she explained. Combining Gosling’s rum, cognac, peach schnapps, and orange bitters, garnished with an orange twist, it was fruit-forward but with considerable depth and complexity from the cognac. I was impressed with both the cocktail and her attentiveness. “It’s not every day that someone says they like Nadine’s drinks, so it’s good for morale,” Kyle noted dryly.

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As for Sky’s liquor infusions, the experiments continue. Tonight they’re unveiling a tequila infused with jalapeno peppers, avocados, and limes, which will feature in their new Angry Sombrero cocktail. That sort of inventiveness and originality makes you wonder whether city bars will start taking cues from the suburbs for a change.

Address: 1369 Providence Turnpike Highway, Norwood

Website:http://www.sky-restaurant.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

From Watertown With Love

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“What’s your favorite bar?” It’s a question I get often, which makes sense; I do, after all, have an entire website devoted to the topic of Boston-area bars. But I always get a little flustered when I try to answer (which, ironically, makes me sound like I know very little about the subject). I try to tell people that I don’t really have a favorite; what I enjoy most is the variety that our fair city offers. I explain to them how the contours of my evening or mood play a key role in determining what bar I’ll go to on a given night (or day). Am I headed out to watch a Bruins game? Am I meeting one of the Brew Dudes for good, complex microbrews? Am I playing pool with a friend? Am I going out with a group? Do I want fancy cocktails? Is it a dive bar kind of night?

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Usually people listen, nod along, and then ask “But which one is your favorite?” I sigh, resignedly, and just say Stoddard’s (and why not, it’s awesome).

The thing is, that question always puts me in an awkward spot. My website certainly isn’t the ultimate resource for Boston nightlife (yet), but often enough, someone will tell me they tried a bar based on my recommendation. That makes me feel like I have a certain responsibility to be credible. So when I’m explaining my project to a complete stranger who’s wondering why I’m taking pictures of my drinks, and then they want to know what my favorite bar is, I feel like I should respond with one of Boston’s best. I mean, what am I supposed to say? “Oh, I really love these two townie bars down the street from me”?

That’s the truth, though. As much as I love drinking in pubs with 50+ microbrews on draft and chatting with artists of alcohol who can whip up unique cocktails, my favorites are decidedly unremarkable. They aren’t even in Boston. See, I live in a town just outside the city; perhaps you’ve heard of it…

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Yes, that Watertown. We were a quiet, under-the-radar suburb that was close to Boston but without the traffic, congestion, and exorbitant living expenses. We were known for good restaurants and some quirky shops – if we were known at all. I’ve had to describe Watertown’s existence and geography on more than one occasion. That all changed at about midnight on April 19, when the two men suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon sped into Watertown in a stolen car.

It was approximately 1:40 a.m. when Melissa woke me up. I’d slept maybe two hours. “You have to see this,” she said, turning on the TV. All we knew at first was that there was some serious police activity about a mile away and shots had been fired. Soon, though, creepy amateur footage of cops firing their weapons at unseen assailants made it onto the news. Filmed through a window by someone with an iPhone, the video was dark and grainy, but the sounds of the gunshots were clear, unmistakable, and utterly chilling. Reporters soon revealed what we’d all suspected – the marathon bombers were in Watertown.

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In the wake of that news came the police instructions, which grew increasingly ominous as the minutes dragged on: Stay in your house. Close the windows. Move to the rear of your home. Do not answer your door.

For hours, the only lights in our house came from the TV and our phones when we’d get a text or check Twitter to see if anyone had any news. The details were sketchy, but eventually we learned that one of the two suspects was dead and the other was at large somewhere in our town. He was considered armed and dangerous; but armed with what, we didn’t know. A gun? Another bomb? A suicide vest?

Morning brought with it a sense of relief; at least sunlight limited the bomber’s ability to hide. But he was still unaccounted for. And thus began a strange, interminably long day marked equally by anxiety and tedium. Like the rest of Boston and the towns surrounding it, we were instructed to “shelter in place” – a term I hope never to hear again that essentially meant we had to stay in our homes. And in the case of Watertown, there was the added precaution of roads being closed. No one drove in, no one drove out.

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There was little to do but watch the news. Not that there was much news, mind you; just anchors repeating themselves while interspersing the previous night’s footage with shots of the growing army of Watertown and state police, military personnel, and FBI and ATF agents. Every now and again there’d be a big commotion when a SWAT vehicle drove 50 feet down the road and then parked, or when the governor or police chief would hold a press conference to announce that there was nothing to announce. As the day stretched into the late afternoon, the prohibition on driving meant that Mel wouldn’t be making her scheduled flight out of town to meet a friend, and I wouldn’t be making it to a concert with my friend Mario (who also lives in Watertown).

Our plans scuttled, our patience sorely tested, one thing kept running through my mind – if the Halfway Café is open tonight, I’m making a beeline for it the second they lift this stupid lockdown.

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When I first moved to Watertown, the Halfway Café possessed something of a mythic quality. Whenever I told someone where I was living, I’d hear “Oh, have you been to the Halfway Café? I used to love that place.” Despite its legendary status, nothing about my first visit blew me away. It was pretty much your standard pub. There was a dining room and a bar area, the latter of which seemed narrow and felt cramped. The food was pretty good, and it was affordable. The beer selection was average. The best thing about it, from my perspective, was that it was within walking distance of my house.

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But as my personal roots in Watertown deepened, the Halfway Café went from being a typical neighborhood bar to a beloved home away from home. It’s where I go after a long day of shoveling snow. It’s where Melissa and I go when we’ve had a tough week or just don’t feel like cooking. It’s where Mario, my sister Kelly, and I have watched countless Sox games and eaten our weight in wings. Mario's wife (and basketball aficionado) Ivys tries to drag me to the Halfway a couple nights a week for whatever hoops game she’s got money on.

It’s the first bar at which I ever considered myself a regular.

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Halfway has a fair beer selection, which they’ve expanded since I first started going. Nothing extraordinary, mostly standards like Guinness, Harpoon, and Sam Adams, but it’s nice to find less common options like BBC Steel Rail and Batch 19. I typically start off with something decent – a Guinness in the winter, a Blue Moon or a Sam Summer when it’s warm out – before downshifting to a PBR (at $2, it’s hard to beat).

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You could probably eat enough of the complimentary popcorn to have it count as a meal, but I usually order something more sustaining. The menu is mostly your standard pub fare; for me, it nearly always comes down to a choice between a burger and wings. The Halfway’s chicken wings are their bread and butter. I realize that like barbecue food, wings are often the subject of heated debate among aficionados. I don’t know where the Halfway’s wings rank on the regional respect scale, but they’re easily my favorite. It’s a good size portion for $11, but you can get a double portion if that’s the way you roll (and you will roll if you have the double portion all to yourself).

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But the burger always gives the wings a run for their money. The burgers themselves are pretty standard, but the toppings can be inventive. Take, for example, the decadent Reuben burger, topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, served on griddled rye. I mean, they’re essentially taking a burger and topping it with an entire Reuben sandwich for a gastronomically shocking yet satisfying experience. I’d suggest ordering that only on special occasions. My go-to choice is the pub burger, topped with citrus chipotle BBQ sauce, jalapeno bacon, and smoked gouda and cheddar cheese. That’s a whole lotta flavor goin’ on there, and worthwhile at $9.99.

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Comforting as my old standbys are, they’re challenged on a monthly basis by the Halfway’s “8 for $8” specials. That’s eight monthly specials for $8 a pop. The specials run the gamut from painfully ordinary to somewhat creative, but either way, it’s a good deal for dinner.

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halfway 012

Wings, PBR, and any environment that was not my living room were the very things I was dreaming about when we got the word that the lockdown had been lifted. It was around 6 p.m., and while there was still a madman on the loose, we could finally go outside again. The world hurriedly tried to return to something resembling normal, and the Halfway announced it would open at 8. Melissa and I made plans to meet Mario and Ivys there later, but first things first – we were getting out of the house, at long last, and going for a much-needed walk.

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If the bombers were looking to further infuriate the people of the Boston area after Monday’s attack, forcing us to stay inside on the first 75 degree day of the year certainly did the trick. We took a stroll around the neighborhood and saw so many people out of doors, happy to stretch their legs and feel the fresh air.

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It turned to be a brief respite. Barely 20 minutes had gone by when helicopters suddenly passed overhead and sirens wailed in the distance. We got home and discovered that the day had taken a dramatic turn – Suspect #2 was holed up in a boat in somebody’s backyard. We reluctantly settled in for another hour or so of must-see TV. Eventually, the 9,000-to-1 man-advantage that law enforcement held proved to be too much for the wounded 19-year-old to overcome. He succumbed to the inevitable and the standoff was over. Cue the Standells’ “Dirty Water.”

In the tense interim, the Halfway decided not to open after all. Fortunately, my other favorite Watertown bar did.

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My first impression of Asiana Fusion was, like that of the Halfway Café, underwhelming. I went there a couple of times and it seemed just alright. Then one night, Melissa and I were supposed to meet Mario, Ivys, and Kelly at the Halfway, only to find it too crowded; we went to Asiana instead, and kind of never left.

It’s a quirky place, that Asiana Fusion is. There’s a decent-size dining area with about a dozen tables, but the 12-seat horseshoe bar, with its sleek metal siding, is where you’ll normally find the BBH crew and me. There’s more of a lounge vibe to the place anyway. They’ve got a couple of TVs if you’re there to watch a game, as Mario and I often are. Asiana hosts trivia on Thursdays – behold, the spoils of recent third-place finish by Mario, Ivys, Kelly, and me.

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They used to have karaoke nights on the weekend, but I think they dropped that. There’s also a pool table, surrounded by some comfy leather sofas; as far as I know, it’s the only place in Watertown with billiards.

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As their helpfully descriptive moniker would imply, Asiana’s menu is a mix of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine, with some distinctly Americanized touches like steak-and-cheese spring rolls. Bizarrely, they also have a dedicated frozen yogurt station.

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But what I most associate Asiana Fusion with is their Mai Tai. A Polynesian-style drink by way of Oakland, California, the Mai Tai is a staple at any Asian restaurant. Its recipe has endured countless variations; the only ingredients on which anyone can agree are rum, pineapple juice, and some sort of orange flavor, either from juice or a liqueur. I’ve had very simple versions as well as inordinately complex renditions; I’d put Asiana’s version somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it’s a sweet, potent cocktail that often comes to mind when I’m slogging through a brutal workweek.

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Since it is most unwise to consume Asiana’s Mai Tais on an empty stomach, mine are nearly always accompanied by chicken and shrimp Pad Thai. The regularity with which I order this meal is such that the bartenders don’t even bother giving me a menu anymore. Is it the very best Pad Thai around? Probably not. But I’m enamored of it, and at $9.95, it’s reasonably priced (especially since I usually bring half of it home).

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I wish I could tell you more about Asiana’s food, but I rarely venture beyond my typical order. I can vouch for their delicious scallion pancakes. And when I was last there, Kelly ordered General Gau’s chicken, just to lend the post a little culinary variety; she was pretty pleased with it.

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Also in the spirit of variety, I asked our regular bartender if there was a drink other than the Mai Tai she’d recommend. She whipped me up something original and off-menu – the Rockstar. A mix of whiskey, Southern Comfort, Chambord, cranberry juice, and Sprite, it was fruity and intense.

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There’s a small but decent draft beer selection, including Sam seasonal, Blue Moon, Rapscallion Honey, Baxter Brewing Company’s Stowaway IPA, and Angry Orchard cider. But after a couple of Mai Tais, about all I can handle is a Bud Light – which, at $2.50, is a pretty good deal.

As with the Halfway Café, at some point, Asiana became my local. When I walked in the other night, I wasn’t even in my seat before the bartender said “Hey there…Mai Tai?” We had a similar exchange shortly thereafter about the Pad Thai. I always tell her that one day I’m going to surprise her and order something completely different. It’s an idle threat, though. Further solidifying my predictability is that if I walk in alone, I always get the same question – “Where’s everyone else?” That would be some combination of Mario, Ivys, Kelly, and Melissa. And yes, at least one of them is usually on the way.

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So yes, I go to Asiana with the same people, order the same drinks, eat the same food, and see the same bartenders. But that familiarity is what made it such a comforting destination at which to meet Mario and Ivys after such an unusual, tense day. The post-lockdown atmosphere at Asiana wasn’t necessarily celebratory; no USA chants broke out, no one gave a loud toast to law enforcement. I would call it more of a collective sigh of relief. It was the kind of night where you’d laugh a bit and swap stories with people, whether you knew them or not. We’d been through an ordeal, after all, the likes of which we’d never experienced in our hometown.

How appropriate, then, that we’d all gather at the neighborhood bar. From its very earliest incarnation, the public house was often central to its community – it was where people met, exchanged news, and engaged in public forums. We might not think of a bar that way anymore, but when people in Watertown needed to connect after a traumatic day, that’s where a lot of us went. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t rush out that night because I wanted to get drunk. I simply felt the need to act normal again and be with people who could relate to my experience.

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The Halfway and Asiana were the first and only places that came to mind. As I said earlier, on the surface, neither bar is extraordinary. If you lived in Boston, I doubt you’d come out to Watertown to eat and drink at either place. But the value a bar can bring to a community isn’t neatly calculated by how many beers it has on draft or how trendy its drink list is. It’s measured in loud fits of laughter, quiet conversations, and hugging a complete stranger after watching an exhilarating playoff win. It’s measured in the comfort of a familiar environment. It’s measured in catching up with a friendly bartender while sipping a beer and watching TV. My favorite bars might not look like anything special to you, but they mean the world to me.

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Likewise, Watertown is a relatively low-key place. We’re unaccustomed to midnight shootouts and national media scrutiny. The police log in the local paper doesn’t exactly read like an episode of Law & Order. But in the face of potential catastrophe, our town exhibited character and strength. Boston underwent a terrible tragedy on Marathon Monday; it affected all of us. We wish it had never happened, and we would have been happy not to have two murderous terrorists set foot in our quiet town. But we answered the call, just the same. And while I’ve only lived here for 5 years, it made me proud to call Watertown my home.

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Halfway Café: 394 Main Street, Watertown

http://www.thehalfwaycafe.com/

Asiana Fusion: 1 Waverley Avenue, Watertown

http://www.asianafusion.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

The Local

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Fond as I am of British culture, I’ve spent precious little time in England – less than a week, to be exact. So, I’m no expert, but I understand that some of our friends across the Pond refer to a neighbourhood pub as their “local.” As far as bar-related colloquialisms go, it’s the kind of term that’s packed with meaning. “Local” implies a certain sense of comfort and familiarity – the kind of place where you and the staff are fairly well acquainted after many nights of seeing each other from opposite sides of the bar. Maybe the bartender knows your drink of choice or your favorite dish. Perhaps you stop in once a week for a pint and to chat with a few other regulars.

Whether that’s what the owners of The Local had in mind when they designed it, I don’t know; more likely, the name refers to their locally sourced food, beer, and spirits. But the casual, convivial atmosphere of this Newton bar is exactly what might prompt someone to make it their local.

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At once upscale and cozy, The Local has a contemporary look with an old personality. Framed black and white pictures on the wall suggest deep New England roots, and even though The Local has only been open since 2008, it feels a true neighborhood fixture. Dark blue and wainscoted walls, hardwood floors, and candle-lit tables set the scene for a quiet, intimate dinner.

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But at the center of the room is a square, two-level bar with about 18 seats, where the atmosphere is decidedly lively. Large picture windows overlooking the street add a classic sense of style and let in plenty of natural light during the day.

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Not that there was any natural light beaming through the windows when Melissa and I were there. We stopped by The Local on yet another raw, dreary evening in what’s felt like a neverending winter. But it was a night tailor-made for comfort food in a warm pub, so we got a couple of seats at the fairly crowded bar and began perusing the cocktail list.

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If my experience at the Gaff taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t be shocked to find a bar outside Boston that has a selection of creative, well-conceived drinks. But what jumped out at me about The Local’s cocktails was how many of them employed spirits from regional distillers, like Bully Boy, Berkshire Mountain, and GrandTen. To be sure, The Local isn’t the only bar that promotes locally sourced food and regional beers; but I think this is the first time I’ve seen that philosophy extended to cocktail ingredients.

I don't know what goes in these funky glasses, but I wish I'd ordered one!

I don't know what goes in these funky glasses, but I wish I'd ordered one!

Mel went with the Bully Cocktail, made with Bully Boy white whiskey, fresh lime juice, grapefruit juice, agave syrup, and mint. It was a pleasing mix of flavors, with the mellowness of the white whiskey and the zing of the citrus, along with a nice freshness contributed by the mint.

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Local 001

I opted for the Cubano Be Cubano Bop – spiced rum, fresh lime juice, agave, and mint, with a prosecco float. A vibrant update of the traditional Old Cuban cocktail, The Local’s version swaps out white rum for spiced, champagne for prosecco, and simple syrup for agave.

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Local 010-edit

As the drinks took the chill out of our bones, we moved on to the food menu. Here, too, the focus is on the New England area, and the menu is divided into different…um…things: Snack Things, Small Things, Flatbread Pizza Things, and Bigger Things. But there are no boring things ­– the menu is composed of fun and inventive options like fried pickles with spicy mayo, truffle parmesan fries, seared tuna sashimi, and a catfish po’ boy, to name a few. They also have an eclectic list of nightly specials (which are not, unfortunately, called “Special Things”), which is where Mel got her Southwestern turkey burger sliders. Served with tortilla chips and house-made guacamole, the burgers incorporated a rich blend of spices and, as sliders tend to be, were just adorable to look at.

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Local 015

I was sorely tempted by another of that evening’s specials, turkey chorizo chili. But how could I turn down a burger described as “sourced by the ‘Godfather of Meat, John Dewar’”? I mean, what must one achieve in life to be honored with such a lofty title? Whatever it was, John Dewar, a local purveyor of meat, did it. The Godfather of Meat’s burger was solid and satisfying, though nothing remarkable. The real story was the fries – seasoned with rosemary, they were crispy, awesomely spiced, and utterly delicious. If the fries have a godfather, I’ll kiss his ring.

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Local 021

As I tried to restrain myself from eating rosemary fries by the fistful, I found myself struck by the obvious neighborhood vibe. Sure enough, this seems to be many people’s “local,” as I heard customer after customer talking amiably with various Local staff. And even though we certainly didn’t know anybody there, it was easy to get swept up into the atmosphere. The bartenders, Stephanie and Billy, were chatty and happy to discuss the menu or offer suggestions. A woman sitting next to us asked Mel about her sliders and then ordered her own after one of the bartenders encouraged her to forgo her usual order.

As my french fry feeding frenzy finally wound down, I began debating my next cocktail move. Conflicted, I asked our bartender, Stephanie, for her advice, and she steered me toward the Ward 8, the signature drink of Boston’s historic but recently shuttered Locke-Ober restaurant. I never had one there, but The Local’s version, made with Vermont’s Berkshire Mountain Bourbon, fresh lemon juice, orange juice, and house-made grenadine, seemed like a well-made tribute to a classic drink.

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Local 026

Nowhere is The Local’s devotion to New England-made goods more obvious than with its beer selection. Ten of the 13 draft beers are popular local microbrews like Clown Shoes, High and Mighty, and Slumbrew, along with more mainstream favorites like Harpoon and Sam Adams, and a few entries from New Hampshire and Maine. I went with the Mayflower IPA, which had some pretty intense hops going on but also a noticeable citrus flavor.

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Local 036-edit

The draft beer comes in 16- or 20-ounce options, which is convenient. But if this place ever becomes my own local, I’m sure they’ll just give me the 20-ounce without even asking.

Last Call

OK, so The Local bases much of its menu on ingredients made here in New England. What’s the big deal about that, anyway? Would your experience there be somehow diminished if that were not the case? I doubt it. But there’s something satisfying about enjoying a great meal and a good beer made right in your my own backyard, so to speak. It contributes a certain sense of community.

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And speaking of community, The Local has the neighborhood vibe down pat – and that’s something you can’t simply manufacture. It’s the kind of atmosphere that grows over time when customers return again and again, but I think it starts with a friendly environment and a menu that balances consistency with innovation.

Affordability doesn’t hurt, either, and the prices here are a bit lower than you’ll find in Boston. Our cocktails were $9 and the beer was $6 (for 20 ounces, of course). The sliders were $16, and my burger was $12 ($11 if you don’t want cheese). And with fun snacks and small plates to share, there’s something for almost any budget.

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What I’m curious about is whether the things that make this place worth visiting – an eclectic menu, creative specials, and a sense of community – will change as The Local expands. With locations opening soon in Wellesley and Wayland, and possibly more in the works, it would be unfortunate if The Local’s character succumbs to the blandness of the typical suburban restaurant chain. Hopefully, any new location will be able to grow at its own pace, develop its own personality, and become, for customers, a true local.

Address: 1391 Washington Street, West Newton

Website:http://thelocalnewton.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

The Gaff

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One of my most depressing bar experiences occurred a few years ago when I met my friend Brian on Moody Street in Waltham for a few drinks and what we’d hoped would be an engaging game of billiards. A simple plan – and one that would have been more feasible were there a pool hall in the area. Determined to not let such a mere technicality diminish the promise of our evening, Brian and I made our way to Robert’s Pub & Grub, a small dive bar that, despite its ramshackle appearance, was supposedly in possession of a pool table. (I cannot say with confidence that that was its actual name; it was also known as Robert’s Restaurant and Bar, and Robert’s Grub, Pub and Pool. The bar has since passed into shadow, and I cannot confirm its true moniker.) Stepping into Robert’s on that particular Saturday evening was like entering a funeral parlor; a somber organist would not have been out of place. Brian and I were the only two souls in there, aside from the bartender, who looked surprised to see us. In the very strictest sense, Robert’s did have what qualified as a pool table…but it was more like the ghost of a pool table. Its faded green felt had accommodated too many damp beer bottles over the years, had had too many drunken players scrape their pool cues across it. Brian and I stuffed a few quarters into the slot, and out rolled 13 balls (for those of you counting at home, that’s two short of a full set, not including the cue ball).

The drumbeat of indignities continued. The pool cues were so warped, we would have been better served by going outside and looking for a couple of sticks or fallen tree branches and playing with those. And the table was crammed into a space that was only slightly larger than the table itself; the walls were so close that for some shots, you had to hold your cue or tree branch at a 45 degree angle.

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balls

As we began a game with hastily modified rules, I went to the bar to see what they had on draft. “We just have bottles,” the bartender said, before I even asked. “Bud Light and Coors Light.”

On the plus side, Robert’s did have a good jukebox, in proper working order. And there was no wait for the pool table.

I don’t bring up the now-defunct Robert’s simply for the purpose of kicking its corpse. Rather, I offer it as an example of the kind of establishment that once characterized Moody Street.

If you’re new to the area, that might come as a surprise to you. But Moody Street, and downtown Waltham in general, has seen its share of highs and lows over the years. Moody Street was a happenin’ place back in the 1940s and 1950s. There were department stores, movie theaters, dance halls, and an overall a lively vibe.  That began changing in the 70s when shopping malls started popping up, attracting most of the stand-alone businesses, and leaving Moody Street a ghost town of vacancies and dives like Robert’s. Not exactly a destination.

But the Waltham City Council stepped in and took steps to revitalize the area, and gradually, signs of life began returning to Moody. Lizzy’s started churning out homemade ice cream, Watch City Brewing started churning out original craft beer, and customers started returning. The Embassy Cinema opened, new businesses refurbished old buildings, and Moody Street began evolving into the bustling center of diversion and diversity that it is today.

And no establishment better epitomizes Moody’s transition from its moribund past to its vibrant present than the Gaff.

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Handsome, distinguished, but casual, the Gaff is a modern bar with classic charm and a genuine sense of character. Having recently celebrated its third anniversary, the Gaff is still a relative newcomer to Moody Street – yet it feels much older. The crisp black and white color scheme, with beautiful dark wood and a light-colored hardwood floor, look brand new and well cared for, but its personality is more akin to that of its longer-tenured peers. Maybe it’s the classic, throwback cocktails they make so well. Or maybe it’s the laid-back, personable staff who seem kind of like next-door neighbors. It just feels like a new bar with very deep roots.

The Gaff is a cozy little place. There are two comfortable and highly coveted leather couches by a large window that looks out onto Moody Street; a bar with 15 chairs that aren’t as uncomfortable as they look, despite their odd, short seatbacks; and about six small tables. The “Local Art Gallery,” a series of framed black-and-white photos on the wall, contributes to the ambience, and a large chalkboard details the Gaff’s extensive and ever-shifting selection of microbrews.

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My most recent visit to the Gaff was with Melissa and Kelly on that traditional must-go-out-for-drinks night, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We got there around 6:30 and beat the crowd, snagging three seats at the bar. A bowl of free popcorn appeared, much to Melissa’s delight, and we casually began perusing the drink options.

I’ve always been deeply impressed with the Gaff’s beer list; having Gritty’s Black Fly Stout on draft was what initially lured me in several years ago. But a Boston mixologist whose opinion I hold in high regard urged me to check out their cocktails, and I’m glad I did – their drinks are absolutely a cut above everything else in the vicinity. There are faithful classics, smart updates of traditional cocktails, and more than a few contemporary innovations.

I began my night with a sazerac. Made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Pernod, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s bitters, the Gaff’s version remains true to the celebrated New Orleans cocktail. I…might have gotten a second one.

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Melissa opted for a Wild Night Out – tequila with pomegranate liqueur, freshly squeezed lime, and club soda. Mel said it was pretty good, but didn’t blow her away; or maybe she just wasn’t ready for a wild night out.

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Kelly outdid both of us with her Vesper Martini. A cocktail that James Bond would surely approve of, this mix of Hendricks gin, Ketel One vodka, and Lillet Blanc was dry and elegant.

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As the Thanksgiving Eve crowd began trickling in, we sipped our drinks and took a look at the food menu. The Gaff offers a broad array of comfort food that goes beyond the basic bar staples like wings and nachos. We started with fried pickles – or, as they’re called on the menu, “frickles.” We placed our order and then proceeded to gleefully repeat “frickles” among ourselves for the next five minutes. (You know you’re saying it in your head right now.) Hand-breaded, deep-fried, and served with ranch for dipping, they made for a light start to our evening.

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If the frickles (frickles! frickles!) were amusing, the cherry bombs were intriguing. Melissa wondered aloud what exactly constituted a cherry bomb, and the bartender, who apparently has bat-like hearing, swooped in and said they deep fried cherry peppers with cheese, accompanied by a sweet chili sauce for dipping. He described their heat as being similar to that of jalapeño poppers. I’m not sure what kind of poppers he’s been popping, but these babies were intense. He later confessed to being a lover of really spicy food and preferring his Gaff wings with “atomic” sauce, so his barometer might have been somewhat skewed. They were tasty nonetheless, and quickly resolved any sinus issues we may have been experiencing.

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Like the appetizer menu, the dinner options offer time-honored bar basics with some modern twists – like the avocado dog. Only a chef with a solid appreciation of irony would take something as nutritionally maligned as a hot dog and pair it with an avocado. Needless to say, my mind was quickly made up. A quarter-pound hot dog with bacon, caramelized onions, and avocado, served with fries, it was delicious. And healthy! (The avocado makes it healthy; this is known.)

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Kelly opted for the Gaff burger, topped with bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg over easy. She’d never had an egg on a burger and was a little unsure about the concept; but the bartender allayed her fears, and I recounted how I’d had something similar at the Intermission Tavern and that she was in for a treat. (I left out the fact that the volume of food would probably render her groggy.)

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Our appetites satiated, we turned our attention back to drinks. All tuckered out from her Wild Night Out, Melissa opted for a glass of sangria, which the Gaff spruces up with tequila, St. Germaine, and pineapple juice.

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Kelly got a Moscow Mule, which was well made and served in a classy copper cup that reminded me of my experience at Stoddard’s.

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If the cocktails, excellent as they are, fly under the radar, it’s because the Gaff’s beer list gets most of the attention. And justifiably so – with about 20 beers on tap and many more in bottles and cans, the Gaff boasts one of the best selections outside of Boston. They offer an extensive and varied selection of microbrews, along with plenty of old favorites.

First up for me was Kentucky Bourbon Ale. I’ve been hooked on this slow-sippin’ beer since I first tried it at the Tip Tap Room, and I was excited that the Gaff had it on tap. I followed that up with the lighter High & Mighty Beer of the Gods.

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beercollage

As if the beer selection wasn’t already stellar, the Gaff also has a cask option. Cask conditioned beers are uncommon enough in Boston, let alone outside the city. The cask beer while we were there was Haverhill Commuter Ale, which Kelly got.

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By 9 p.m., Thanksgiving Eve at the Gaff was in full swing. I found myself reflecting on how much I like the place and how happy I am that it’s so been successful. I’m further glad that Moody Street itself has grown into a neighborhood that maintains a sense of character. It could just as easily have become overrun with bland chains like Applebee’s. Instead it’s populated mostly by independently owned businesses, the way it was back in its glory days. The result is an eclectic mix of cocktail bars, Irish pubs, tapas restaurants, ethnic grocery stores, retail shops, sports bars…and yes, a few divey relics of the 70s and 80s. But those humble, townie bars that remain simply represent more choices in an area with tremendous variety. And it’s good to have a few of those places; as I learned when Sadie’s shut its saloon doors, it can be hard to say goodbye to some of them.

Maybe that’s what inspired Kelly and me to close out our night with a couple of classics.

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Old beers in a new bar – one that helps chart a new direction for Moody Street while honoring its past.

Last Call

Maybe my perception is influenced by the pictures on the Gaff’s Facebook page of the new owners demoing the previous site and building a new bar, but this place feels like someone’s pride and joy. I get the sense that it’s a product of original ideas and a lot of elbow grease – not some prefabricated bar or restaurant assembled overnight by a soulless corporation. It feels very personal.

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Nowhere is that pride of having built a successful bar from ground up more evident than in the enthusiasm of the staff. They get excited about getting a new beer on draft. They get excited about their fun regular events, like nights devoted to 80s music, soul music, and trivia, along with periodic comedy and open mic nights. And I don’t know exactly what constitutes the Gaff’s “midweek drinkers club,” but I feel like I should look into joining.

The prices are a refreshing change from Boston. Our outstanding cocktails ranged from $7 to $9, and the microbrews were around $6 (the Schlitz and the PBR, $3.50). The frickles (!) were $5, the cherry bombs $6. My awesome avocado dog was a mere $7, and Kelly’s burger was $11, which was a good deal considering it encompassed both breakfast and dinner. Both are available more cheaply if you forgo the accoutrements (but why would you?).

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I stopped in very briefly on the following Saturday afternoon. As expected, it was pretty quiet, with just a handful of customers; but the atmosphere was still surprisingly upbeat. The bartender regaled me with an amusing tale about his aversion to caffeine, then put on some Motown tunes, which resulted in most of the six patrons singing quietly to themselves (and the bartender singing not so quietly). It again made the Gaff feel very familiar, like drinking in a bar that your friend opened. That seems appropriate – as noted on their website, “gaff” is Irish slang for home, as in “Let’s go back to the gaff for a pint!”

I haven’t been there enough to call it home. But I’ll stop in for a drink and a laugh anytime.

Address: 467 Moody Street, Waltham

Website:http://www.thegaffbar.com/

In Memoriam – Sadie's Saloon

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I hope I never lose the joy of discovery. Meeting new people, making new friends, finding new bars, new music, new cities, new common interests. It makes me feel like I’m constantly growing – not just growing older. Of course, I can’t exactly help that “growing older” thing. And while I try to keep life fresh with regular infusions of new experiences, I find that age brings with it a tendency to cling ever more tightly to traditions. Sometimes with a vice-like grip, as if failing to honor them means forever losing a part of myself. You might check out my Montreal post if you want about a dozen examples of this, ranging from truly meaningful to patently absurd, but I suspect it’s not just me. Life cruises along on its own schedule, never slackening its pace, even when we so desperately need it to. Especially on those rare nights we wish wouldn’t end, like when we laughed until our sides hurt or made a special connection with someone.

It might not be possible to relive those experiences, but I doubt I’m the only one who’s tried to recapture the magic. So we return to the same places with the same people and attempt, deliberately or unconsciously, to recreate the conditions that left us with such a powerful, lasting memory. And however silly those traditions and rituals may seem at times, in truth, they’re rarely ever foolish. If it means something to you, then it’s meaningful.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share with you a special tradition of mine.

My brother Andrew and his girlfriend Linda moved to Florida 5 years ago. The upside of that is that my family has a reason to visit Florida every now and then. And don’t get me wrong – that’s a pretty fun upside.

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floridacollage3

The downside, of course, is that we only get to hang out with two of our favorite people a few times a year. They come back to Boston for occasional visits, but it’s usually around the holidays, and you know how that goes. Places to go, people to see. And when you see loved ones that infrequently, you really need to make the most of the time you have.

That said, whenever Andrew and Linda have to come to visit, regardless of the purpose of their or how long they’re staying, one event has always been one written on our agenda in indelible ink.

A trip to Sadie’s Saloon in Waltham.

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If you’re familiar with Sadie’s, you know it’s a fairly unassuming backdrop for such a key reunion. But it’s always been our place, and it’s the only time that Andrew, Linda, Melissa, Kelly, and I can be assured of having each other’s undivided attention. A chance to catch up on new stories and rehash some old ones, all with cheap pitchers of beer and the best steak tips around. After dinner, we head elsewhere for more drinks and to meet up with other people, but the Sadie’s portion of the night has mostly been just for us (and a few other occasional guests), and it’s one ritual we’d never mess with. For Andrew and Linda, Sadie’s has always been about coming home; for us, it’s been about spending precious time with loved ones.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I write this week’s post – a tribute to Sadie’s Saloon, which after 22 years of business, closed its doors on Friday, October 19.

Sadie’s was the kind of bar that probably looked old the day it opened. And while it was known as “Sadie’s Saloon & Eatery” for 22 years, its story dates back much further. It was apparently preceded by a bar called “Ma’s” (why am I not surprised), and the building’s basement served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. I’m sure it got an upgrade or two over the years, but this was the kind of place where you’d walk in and feel like things hadn’t changed in a looooong time.

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But the world around it – specifically, the Moody Street area – changed quite a bit. In a neighborhood that grew to host a microbrewery, a couple of good barbecue places, an Irish pub with live music, a tapas bar, a cocktail bar or two, a Mexican restaurant on the water, sports bars with dozens of big TVs, and a movie theater, Sadie’s maintained its straightforward, down-to-earth appearance and attitude. It was never the main attraction, even before all those other places came along, but I doubt it ever endeavored to be.

No, Sadie’s had all the trappings of a true neighborhood pub. A scuffed-up wooden bar with maybe 10 seats. An adjacent dining area, somewhat separated from the bar. A few TVs. Neon Budweiser signs. Beer mirrors. Keno. A vending machine selling scratch tickets. Booths with vinyl seats. Formica-topped tables – some with aged wooden chairs, others with metal folding chairs.

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seatcollage

There was never a big remodeling, or an overhaul of the menu, or a lineup of the latest craft beers, or a list of fancy cocktails. Sadie’s was a decidedly blue collar bar where the beer was a little cheaper, the pours were a little heavier, and the Boston accents were a little thicker.

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beer-edit

No frills. But plenty of character.

While neighboring establishments gave a much-needed boost to downtown Waltham, Sadie’s remained a vestige of a time gone by. And if the growing vibrancy of Moody Street made Sadie’s look increasingly dated, its longevity proves that simple never really goes out of style.

Melissa, Kelly, and I stopped into Sadie’s for one last visit before it closed. It wasn’t the same without Andrew and Linda, and we couldn’t get the highly coveted round booth (reserved for parties of four or more), but you can’t have everything. For a bar that was never terribly busy, it was packed on a Tuesday night. The waitress told us a table would only be a 15-minute wait, so we stood at the bar and took it all in one last time. All night I’d see people walk in the door and head straight for the dining area, the way they probably did a hundred times before, only to find every table taken and scant standing room at the bar.

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DSC00435

The atmosphere that night was one of both celebration and sadness. I don’t know how many times I overheard someone say “I can’t believe they’re closing.” People came, paid their respects, drank a few beers, and spun some old yarns.

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We talked with a long-time Sadie’s regular who rattled off a few hysterical stories about the place, including an incident some years back in which an armed robber stormed in with the intent of sticking the place up. The bartender, apparently, had other ideas – he said “Go f*ck yourself” and threw a bottle that connected with the forehead of the gun-toting, would-be thief. The stunned robber fled the premises, but the bartender wasn’t done. He leapt over the bar, ran down the street, caught the perp, dragged him back to the bar, and held him there until the police arrived.

True story? Maybe, maybe not. But when I heard it, something about the old-school vibe of Sadie’s made me think…yeah, I could see that.

After an hour or so, we asked how much longer our 15-minute wait would be, only to find that our name was no longer on the list. Annoying as this was, it seemed oddly appropriate; in all our years of going there, I don’t think the Sadie’s wait staff ever fully grasped the concept of the list. Hey, I never said the place was perfect.

Although we were short two important regulars, we faithfully adhered to the rest of our traditions. Mel bought a scratch ticket, as always (she often won a few bucks, but not this time).

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lottery-collage

Kelly joked about playing Keno, but never actually did. And we placed the same order we’d been placing for years.

For drinks? A pitcher of Bud Light.

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Followed by Buffalo wings.

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And then the main event...

Whatever comforts could be found at Sadie’s – cheap drinks, a sense of camaraderie, a refreshing simplicity – chances are, most people were there for the steak tips. When we’d come with Andrew and Linda, we’d sit around the booth and pretty much all order steak tips with minor variations – medium, medium rare; with mashed potatoes, without; gravy, no gravy.

My order never varied, and with a stiff upper lip, I placed it one last time – Sadie’s tips, medium rare; mashed potatoes with gravy. I was stricken when our waitress told us they had run out of mashed potatoes; but since she said they were also fast running out of steak tips, I counted my blessings and settled for onion rings.

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As we finished our meals, and I restrained myself from licking the plate, I wondered whether I should have come here more often. Even though it felt like sacrilege to do so without Andrew and Linda, I thought…I’m never going to have these tips again. But as phenomenal as the tips were, there was a warmth in our Sadie’s tradition that had nothing to do with the food.

The most important parts of that tradition will continue, of course. We’ll see Andrew and Linda the next time they’re in town, and as always, there’ll be at least one night of dinner, drinks, hijinks, and merriment. We don’t need to be at Sadie’s to swap stories and make each other laugh. But we’ll miss it just the same.

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Last Call…and I Mean Last Call

Call it what you want – a dive, a townie bar, a hole in the wall, a hidden gem, all of the above. To Andrew, Linda, Melissa, Kelly, and me, Sadie’s Saloon was a very special place. And judging by how busy the bar was during its final week, it meant something to a lot of people.

The reason for closing wasn’t publicized. Some said the economy was to blame; one of the regulars told me it was simply because the owner was retiring. And while we’re on the subject of unsubstantiated rumors, I’ve been told that another establishment on Moody Street uses the same steak tip recipe that Sadie’s did; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you.

As painful as the loss of Sadie’s is, the whole experience makes me appreciate the places I frequent now. My favorite bars aren’t the newest or most glamorous in town; like Sadie’s, they’re the most familiar. They evoke the warmest memories. They’re places I’ve spent hours at with good friends, or maybe even by myself.

If you have a place like that, and I hope you do, then I suggest you make the most of it. It might not be there forever.

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Shopper’s Café

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When it comes to the local sports scene, we New Englanders have been pretty blessed over the past 10 years or so. In fact, with three Lombardi trophies, two World Series titles, a Stanley Cup, an NBA championship, and a host of deep playoff runs across all four major pro sports, “spoiled” might be the more accurate word. Things feel a little different this fall. The Red Sox aren’t in the playoffs, and let’s face it – their season effectively ended sometime in July. But at least their season began, which is more than I can say for the Bruins, as yet another NHL lockout begins extinguishing the hockey season. At least we have the Patriots, who are off to a promising start, and the Celtics. (My interest in basketball is passive at best, but in a year with potentially no hockey, I’ll take what I can get.)

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With that in mind, I thought I’d start an occasional series on the best bars in which to watch a game. Now, “best” can be pretty subjective. If you’re the anxious owner of a fantasy football team and need to monitor eight games at once, you’ll naturally want a bar with NFL Sunday Ticket and a plethora of TVs. If you moved to Boston from Pittsburgh and are for some reason still a Pirates fan, you’ll need to find a bar that carries out-of-market baseball games. Or maybe you’re just really superstitious and know that if you don’t watch the game while sitting on a particular stool in a particular bar while wearing a particular shirt and drinking a particular beer, the home team will lose. (And on that note, New England fans, you have no idea how great your debt is to my tattered black Nike sweatshirt, which has guided the Pats to many critical victories over the years.)

It’s a combination of warm memories, friendly service, and a great viewing setup that make Shopper’s Café in Waltham my favorite sports bar.

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Whenever I mention it, the name elicits the same response – that’s a bar? Yes, it’s a bar, even if “Shopper’s Café” sounds more like the food court in a mall than a place to have a few beers. The moniker apparently dates back to a time when Moody Street was largely a retail district, and husbands would come in for a drink while their wives were out shoppin’ around. And when I say “dates back,” I mean it – Shopper's recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and it's been family-owned for four generations.

In my opinion, Shopper’s is ideally outfitted for the sports-viewing experience. For starters, it’s big. There’s a long bar with about 16 seats, plus a few pub tables and a couple of booths in the immediate vicinity. Beyond that is a large dining area with about eight good-size wooden tables, five large booths, and another five pub tables. The bar and dining areas are somewhat divided, but the place is essentially one large, open room.

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And the best part? TVs galore.

No matter where you’re sitting, chances are you’ll have a pretty good view of one of Shopper’s’ 22 televisions. The dining area boasts 13 flat-screens of varying sizes, and there are nine more above and around the bar. And Shopper’s carries NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB Extra Innings, NHL Center Ice, and NCAA March Madness packages, so whatever game you’re looking for, you’ll have no trouble finding it.

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In fact, I might never have discovered Shopper’s Café were it not for their broad offering of out-of-market football games. First, let me make this clear – my family, Melissa, and I are all diehard Patriots fans. But a few years back, our cousin got a coaching job with the New Orleans Saints, and so we started casually rooting for the Saints as well. Our casual interest blossomed into a full-blown love affair after we visited our cousin in New Orleans, toured the Saints’ facilities, hobnobbed with coaches and players, and watched them destroy the New York Giants at the Superdome. We had a glorious long weekend in New Orleans, and it would be difficult say to whether Eli Manning or our livers absorbed the worse beating while there.

No football team will top the Patriots for us, but that unique experience made us Saints fans for life. Thus, after our trip, we had to find a place with NFL Sunday Ticket so we could watch the Saints and the Pats. That’s how we discovered Shopper’s, where we spent pretty much every Sunday that fall. And that’s where we were for Super Bowl XLIV, a special night when Shopper’s was packed, the Saints pummeled a different Manning, and pretty much everyone in New England became Saints fans for at least one night (Saints 31, Colts 17). Since then, Shopper’s has always held a special appeal for us, and that’s where you can find us most Sundays.

For the inaugural game of the 2012 NFL season, Kelly, Mario, Kat, and I arrived at Shopper’s around noon. Though it was still an hour until kickoff, about 20 other people were already there. A place like Shopper’s draws a lot of game-day regulars, so we saw some familiar faces; our waitress recognized us and welcomed us back, which made us feel right at home.

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Getting to Shopper’s early on Sunday is a good idea, especially if you’re planning to watch more than just the Pats. The staff usually chuckles at us as Kelly and I try out different tables to achieve the optimal viewing angle. Plus, oddly enough, there’s a table that’s unofficially reserved for a group of older gents who show up every week to watch the Cleveland Browns, so we always know that at least a few seats are spoken for before we even arrive.

Since noon on Sunday is still considered the brunch hour, we often get things under way with a Bloody Mary. Shopper’s makes a nice, spicy Bloody Mary that sets the stage for an afternoon of beer and wings.

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By 12:45, Shopper’s was bustling. There were about 30 people in the dining area, another 20 or so at the bar. Shopper’s always fills up on game day, but for the season opener, there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. It was a beautiful day, the staff were all decked out in Pats gear, and they opened the big windows that look onto Moody Street, letting in lots of sunlight and warm, early autumn air.

We drained our Bloody Marys and quickly shifted to beer for the game. Shopper’s offers a pretty respectable beer list, with draft options like Baxter Stowaway IPA, Slumbrew Happy Sol, Long Trail, and Allagash White, among many others. But when you’re settling in for a three- to six-hour day of football, pitchers of Bud Light is the way to go.

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Plentiful cheap beer and multiple TVs are essential, but any sports bar worth its salt needs a menu overflowing with appetizers and comfort food. Shopper’s goes above and beyond. They’ve got all the game-day staples, like nachos, wings, and potato skins, along with a few unexpected options like crab rangoon and pork strips. (That reminds me – for any superstitious New Orleans fans reading this, please know that my strategic ordering and consumption of Shopper’s’ toasted raviolis, the specifics of which I will not detail here, helped propel the Saints to their Super Bowl victory; you’re welcome.) We started off with spinach and artichoke dip.

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As the Pats began their dismantling of the Tennessee Titans, we ordered up another pitcher and our traditional, must-have order – Cajun chicken wings. I don’t claim to be a wing connoisseur; I know some people take this subject very seriously. But Shopper’s’ Cajun wings are among my favorite wings anywhere. With a dry-rubbed mix of Cajun spices and a Ranch dip, I wolf these things down like they’re going out of style.

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Even beyond the snacks and munchies, Shopper’s offers a surprisingly extensive menu of burgers, wraps, entrees, pizza, and plenty of sandwiches – chicken sandwiches, steak sandwiches, regular ol’ sandwiches like Reubens and pastrami, and a “Pilgrim” sandwich made with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. And the food is pretty good! I’m a sucker for the Bruiser Burger – big and juicy, coated in Cajun seasoning and topped with crumbled blue cheese, it’s my go-to whenever we’re staying at Shopper’s for the 4 p.m. game.

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I’m also partial to the Steak Monti, made with teriyaki-glazed steak tips, which Kelly got on our last outing.

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Shopper’s Café attracts football fans of all stripes, and this is a good thing. While Pats fans dominate the crowd, looking around the bar and seeing people wearing other teams’ shirts engenders a sense of community. Whenever I’m out of town during football season, I seek out a bar that’s showing the Pats, so I can relate. Being immersed in such a diversity of allegiances reminds me that even though we’re cheering for different teams, we all share that passion for the game. (Honestly, I’m not really that high-minded; this is just a little pep talk I give myself when I get stuck next to a table of Jets fans.)

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As I mentioned earlier, among the regulars are some Browns fans who seem to range in age from their late 60s to their 70s. What’s always amazed us about these guys – apart from their dedication to the hapless Browns – is that every week they have a table set aside for them, directly in front of the TV that shows the Browns game. I first noticed this when I came in one Sunday to an empty dining area, and the waitress said “sit anywhere…except that table over there.” Now, Shopper’s isn’t exactly the sort of place that takes reservations. So what gives?

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Under the auspices of the blog, I took the opportunity during week 1 to approach one of these gents and find out a little more about their weekly tradition. I spoke with Rich, and I can’t say I got a straight answer about how they finagle a dedicated table every week, but I suspect it has something to do with the sort of charm that only guys in their 70s can wield. I did, however, have an illuminating conversation with him about and his love for the Browns.

Surprisingly, Rich is a Browns fan who does not hail from Cleveland. Growing up in New England in the 1950s, he had two options for watching football on TV – the Cleveland Browns or the New York Giants. The Pats didn’t show up until later, and Rich was invested enough in the Browns that he wouldn’t switch his allegiance (and given the bumbling nature of the Pats in those days, I can’t say I blame him). Plus, Rich was there for the Browns’ golden years, and he cheerfully reminisced about watching pigskin immortals like Otto Graham, Jim Brown, and coach Paul Brown in their heyday. He spoke with grim resignation about “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in the 1980s, and of course, the Browns’ controversial move to Baltimore in the 1990s.

I asked Rich what his thoughts were on the Browns’ chances this season, and his response will resonate with any pre-2004 Red Sox fan: “I’m always optimistic.” He’ll need that optimism. During the opening ceremonies of week 1, Browns’ quarterback Brandon Wheeden got caught under a huge American flag as it was being unfurled and needed on-field officials’ assistance to emerge. Not exactly a harbinger of good tidings for long-suffering Browns fans. The team went on to author the kind of ghastly loss that only the Browns could, somehow intercepting the Eagles’ Michael Vick four times yet still managing to lose. But if he’s been carrying the torch this long, I doubt a game like that would deter a guy like Rich.

I enjoyed the conversation, and it gave me visions of, a few decades from now, being able to regale young ‘uns with stories of watching Tom Brady and the Patriots in their dominant glory years. We may be spoiled here in New England, but I’ll take it.

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For the countless Sunday afternoons I’ve spent at Shopper’s, I’d never actually been there at night until this past Wednesday. Melissa and I stopped in and found a completely different vibe. I suppose it’s no surprise – it was a cold, rainy Wednesday night, there were no Boston sports on TV, and the NLDS wasn’t exactly luring the masses. When we arrived at 7 p.m., there were about 10 people at the bar, and I got the impression they were regulars.

Since there was no need for a pitcher of cheap suds, I perused the craft beer options and settled on a Baxter’s Hayride Autumn Ale. It was crisp, hoppy, and well suited to the weather.

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Melissa got the Shopper’s Margarita, which puts a twist on the traditional version by adding cranberry and pineapple juice. It was an interesting combination – the tartness of the cranberry and the sweetness of the pineapple worked pretty well together. The drink as a whole was a refreshing match for Mel’s spicy Kickin’ Chicken sandwich, made with Cajun spices, jalapenos, Swiss cheese, and honey mustard.

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It took all of my restraint to not order my customary wings, but I figured this was a good opportunity to try something else for a change. I opted for the Reuben sandwich, which was well made and satisfying.

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And since no blog trip would be complete without a cocktail, I figured I’d give Shopper’s’ intriguing “Honey Manhattan” a whirl. Made with Wild Turkey American Honey, it was deceptively sweet up front, making it the kind of drink that could go down just a wee bit too easily – never a good thing when the alcohol in question is whiskey. I’ll stick with traditional Manhattans, but I do like checking out variations now and again.

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Coming to Shopper’s on a quiet weeknight broadened my perspective about a bar I was already immensely fond of. When there aren’t 60+ people cheering, yelling at TVs, and performing impromptu victory dances, the pride and personal touch you’d expect to find in a long-running family business is unmistakable. I sensed a real earnestness among the staff, and it makes Shopper’s feel not just like a good sports bar, but a true neighborhood gem.

Our bartender, Joey, was incredibly nice and took great care of us. He filled us in a bit on some of Shopper’s’ long history, including the fact that it burned down in 2006. They rebuilt it as the top-notch sports bar it is today, with gleaming hardwood floors, posters and memorabilia covering the walls, and all those TVs. Joey rattled off various siblings and cousins who work there, including our regular waitress. “Of course, we hire people who aren’t family,” he assured me. “But they become our family.”

I don’t doubt it.

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Last Call

I remember back during the 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox were on the verge of completing one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history, discussing with my friend Brian whether we would watch the game at his place or mine. Then he suggested we might watch Game 7 at a bar.

My response? HELL NO!!!

This was one of the most important games ever, and there was no way I was entrusting my fortunes to the vagaries of a crowded bar. What if we missed out on witnessing history because we didn’t have a good view of the TV? What if we were next to a table of yahoos who wanted to do a shot every time someone hit a foul ball? No, we had to watch at home, so I could focus (and change shirts if necessary).

How things have changed. Don’t get me wrong – I love watching sports from the comfort of my home, with my own customized selection of beer, snacks, and other amenities. But there’s much to be said for watching at a bar, getting caught up in the energy and intensity the home crowd, celebrating or commiserating with friends or complete strangers. And you don’t necessarily need a bar with dozen TVs; if it’s the right kind of place, one TV, a bowl of popcorn, a good game, and a steady supply of PBR might be just as satisfying.

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Shopper’s Café caters to casual and diehard sports fans with its TV setup, multiple sports packages, and overall spaciousness. But as I’ve learned, it’s a cool bar even if you’re not there to watch sports. The prices are a welcome change from what I normally plunk down in Boston. Sandwiches and burgers are all under $10, my Baxter’s was under $4, and our mixed drinks were about $7.

Whether it’s a chaotic Sunday or a laid-back weeknight, I’ve always found Shopper’s to be a fun, casual place. When a family can keep a place like this running for 75 years, you know they’re doing something right. Here’s to 75 more.

Address: 731 Moody Street, Waltham

Website:http://www.shopperspub.com/

Halfway Cafe – Brief Thoughts on Memorial Day

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I really enjoy writing for this blog, and my goal is to have a new post up every week. But I’ll by honest – it ain’t easy. I’m currently trying to write about Church, an excellent and unusual bar in Boston. But to adequately cover two visits, five people, nine very unique cocktails, an array of appetizers and desserts, and one very cool bartender, and do it all justice…well, that takes a little time. So my solution, going forward, is to get a few shorter posts up on a regular basis. Lighten the load a bit while still trying to keep myself sort of relevant in the blogosphere. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about the Halfway Cafe in Watertown.

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Someday, I’ll do a full review of this place. I’ve been a regular at the Halfway since I moved to Watertown several years ago. I’ve been here countless times with my wife, my friends, and by myself, and as local bars go, this pretty much feels like home. So when I do write about it, I’ll want it to be a special post. But for now, I’m just sharing my experience on a picture-perfect holiday afternoon in May.

One of the best things about the Halfway is that it’s very customer-driven, as evidenced by aggressive food specials. They offer all-you-can-eat wings on Sundays, $1 hot dogs during Sox games (a blessing and a curse), and a rotating “7 for 7” special – seven entrees that cost a mere $7.

And just this morning, I heard the Halfway was offering their classic burger for $5.99 and Bud Light drafts for $1.99.

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It’s Memorial Day. I’m not working. The Halfway is right down the street from me. It was inevitable.

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I stopped in with Melissa at about 2 p.m. All told, there were about 10 people inside, a few of whom had come from the Watertown Memorial Day parade that had just finished up. The Sox were on TV, playing an afternoon game against the Tigers. There’s no substitute for being at Fenway, but seeing that lush green grass on a sunny day, even on a TV screen, is still thrilling in its own way.

I was briefly tempted by the dollar dogs, but I came for the special and that’s what I got – a burger with fries and two beers for $10. Beat that! The burger at Halfway, like the restaurant itself, is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s the kind of burger you’d have right off the grill at a friend’s afternoon barbecue. No frills – just a nice, juicy burger that always hits the spot.

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Gorgeous weather and a day off. A burger and a couple of beers. Watching baseball on TV and hanging out in the neighborhood bar. Does it get any more American than this? (Mel got the decidedly un-American Mediterranean wrap, which I have excluded from this review.)

The Halfway Cafe in Watertown is a cozy place with friendly staff. I’d come here all the time even if they didn’t have so many attractive food specials.  The burger and beer deal runs through June 3, so get it while you can. And if you miss it, I’m sure they’ll follow it up with another good offer – they always do.

I hope everyone had a pleasant Memorial Day – especially those who have lost family members defending our country and fighting so that people like me have the freedom to do relatively silly things like write blogs about bars.

Address: 394 Main Street, Watertown

Website:http://www.thehalfwaycafe.com/watertown.html