Refurbishing an old-time neighborhood watering hole can be a risky proposition. Even the humblest dive bar tends to have its share of fiercely loyal customers who are inclined to take a dim view of any attempt to alter the character of their beloved establishment.
I never visited Dorchester’s Lower Mills Pub, so I can’t offer a point-by-point comparison of the decades-old dive and the bar that resides there now. But what I can say about the Lower Mills Tavern is that for all its modern touches, it feels much older than the 15 months it’s been open.
Purchased and renovated by Dropkick Murphys frontman Ken Casey and business partner Brian O’Donnell (the two have also collaborated on Lion’s Tail, among other restaurants), Lower Mills Tavern bears only a passing resemblance to the similarly named pub that once stood at 2269 Dorchester Avenue.
Its windows are wide open when the weather’s warm, filling the interior with natural light and enticing passersby. High-top tables and a few leather booths occupy the dining area, and there’s plenty of comfy seating at the bar.
At the same time, the space feels lived-in. It’s unpretentious, with a vintage-looking tile floor, subway tiled walls, and modest fixtures. On the brick wall behind the bar is a mural depicting an old-school oatmeal ad. It was painted onto the adjacent building many years prior and discovered during the renovation.
The upgraded digs might not resemble the gritty old pub, but it’s hard to deny that Lower Mills Tavern maintains a connection with the past.
I don’t know whether the old Lower Mills Pub served food, but even if they did, I’m going to hazard a guess that they didn’t employ a chef. Lower Mills Tavern executive chef Colton Coburn-Wood has created a menu of upscale pub fare with a distinctive New England character. Seafood, burgers, and a slew of comfort food classics are dressed up enough to appeal to foodies but don’t look out of place in a laid-back pub.
Beneath its crispy, spicy exterior, the fried chicken sandwich is melt-in-your mouth tender.
One of the recent dinner specials was a pizza topped with bacon, sausage, smoked blue cheese, apples, and a maple drizzle. Sweet, savory, and hearty, it was a like a little preview of autumn in New England.
Beer-drinking devotees of the old Lower Mills Pub might balk at newfangled rends like a barrel-aged whiskey cocktail or a drink made with hibiscus-infused tequila. But Lower Mills Tavern’s cocktail program, while contemporary and creative, remains approachable, not to mention fairly economical – each cocktail is $11.
The menu features originals, classics, and a few obscure nuggets, like the Brown Derby. Made with bourbon, fresh grapefruit, honey, and bitters, it’s a complex drink with an intriguing combination of flavors.
Another unusual entry is the AM, combining cognac, Lillet, elderflower liqueur, lychee, and prosecco. The fruity, tobacco-like notes of the cognac shine through in this crisp, floral cocktail.
The Redemption, meanwhile, is like autumn in a glass. Made with apple brandy, whiskey, sweet vermouth, Campari, and Becherovka, it’s fruit-forward and herbal with minimal sweetness.
Simple and satisfying, the Lower Gin Mills combines gin, St. Germain, fresh lime, mint, and a house-made ginger beer. It’s the last ingredient that makes this a true standout; spicy and vibrant, the ginger beer adds a distinctive zing to this floral cocktail.
When a familiar haunt takes on a new identity, whether through renovation or a change in ownership (or both), the reaction from long-time customers is bound to be mixed. Some will mourn the old spot’s passing. Others will welcome something new.
But one thing that people can typically agree on is the joy of live music.
Funk ensemble Speechless have a residency at Lower Mills Tavern on Sunday nights, while an Irish session fills the bar on Tuesday nights. Musicians are welcome to join the Celtic jam, and at times there are nearly as many players as there are patrons.
It makes for a lively environment, and an inviting one: music pouring out of the open windows on a summer night, people walking by and stopping to listen, some deciding to come in for a pint.
Even at a new bar in a neighborhood that’s seen its share of changes, some things remain truly timeless.
Address: 2269 Dorchester Avenue, Boston
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