Back Bay

Craft on Draft at Tico

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“I just changed the keg” isn’t the sort of thing one typically hears when the subject is cocktails. Kegs are for beer. Cocktails are a matter of bottles, shakers, fresh ingredients, and the deft hands of a skilled bartender. And yet those were the very words Erin Surprenant spoke as she led me toward the bar at Tico, the hip, upscale Back Bay restaurant at which she is the general manager. This past Thursday, Tico hosted a pre-Valentine’s Day party, replete with drinks, complimentary appetizers, and elaborate floral bouquets. Now I enjoy VD as much as the next guy, but the event also served to showcase the latest addition to Tico’s cocktail menu – a Moscow Mule on draft.

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Tico isn’t the first Boston-area establishment to serve cocktails on tap. Respected bars like Alden & Harlow and Fairsted Kitchen have experimented with the technique, and it makes sense – the popularity of cocktails continues to soar, but labor-intensive drinks and a big crowd can be a challenging combination.

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Still, the notion of a cocktail stored in a keg and delivered via draft might invite a little skepticism. This great renaissance of craft cocktails has taught us to not only enjoy the drink in our glass but also to appreciate the process by which it got there. But as Erin explained to me, being efficient isn’t the same as taking shortcuts.

Such is the case with Tico’s Moscow Mule. It may flow easily from beneath its novel custom tap handle, but it’s the product of the same hard work and trial and error that accompanies any new cocktail recipe or variation of a classic.

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Tico starts by making its own ginger beer, with fresh ginger, and it’s unlike anything you’ll find in a bottle or can. That gets combined with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, widely considered the standard in an industry that tends to lean toward more colorful and flavorful spirits.

The result is one of the spiciest, most vibrant, most aromatic Moscow Mules I’ve ever had. The fresh ginger gives it an unexpected kick, but the cocktail remains refreshing and easy to drink.

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The Moscow Mule’s straightforward composition might make it an obvious choice for the tap, but Erin explained that making a cocktail in five-gallon batches has its own set of challenges, because it’s much harder to get the portions right with that kind of volume.

“The first batch was sugar water,” she admits with an eye roll.

That first batch may have suffered from some missteps, but it’s clear that Tico ironed out the kinks somewhere along the way. I saw plenty of customers try a sample and then order the full cocktail, which comes in a good-size Tito’s jar. Erin tells me that Tico first dabbled with draft cocktails at its other location in Washington, D.C., and while it was a hit in the nation’s capital, there was some hesitation about trying it in a city known for its craft cocktail scene. But as long as the people making the drinks know what they’re doing, it’s easy to have confidence in the final product, whether it’s from a bottle, a tap, or stirred over ice. And judging by the rest of Tico’s cocktail menu, they definitely know what they’re doing.

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Tico is known for its Latin-American fare, and it’s got the drinks to match. There’s a selection of craft margaritas, from traditional to one made with ghost-chili-infused tequila. The Mayahuel’s Garden is less intense that, but it’s still got a little heat with its grilled jalepeño-infused tequila, muddled orange and poblano pepper, agave nectar, and fresh lemon and lime juice.

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The Paloma is made with Exotico Reposado tequila and grapefruit juice. This understated classic is simple, refreshing, and pleasantly sour.

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Tico’s also offer a few impressive twists on some traditional cocktails, like the 23 Bulleit. This Manhattan/Old Fashioned-like drink features Bulleit bourbon, ginger maple, Cinzano sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.

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If you don’t hear much about Tico’s cocktails – and I admit, they rarely show up on my radar – that’s probably because the food program gets all the glory. So it goes when a restaurant’s owner/chef has achieved near-celebrity status. Chef Michael Schlow has been named Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, and a slew of other high-profile TV shows.

So even a cocktail-centric night like this would be incomplete with some of that award-winning cuisine. Tico treated us to some passed hors d’oeuvres, including chorizo tortilla Española, a pastrami and pickle mustard quesadilla, and spicy deviled eggs with Aleppo, crispy chicken skin, and hot pepper. All three were as good as they sound.

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I also got to try a few bites from the regular menu, starting with crispy manchego cheese. These little pillows of awesomeness had a perfectly crispy exterior, and a side of spicy pomegranate-honey sauce provided an earthy sweetness.

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The lamb tartare with avocado puree and poblano salsa was like a work of art. The flavors were wonderfully balanced, with the poblano salsa contributing some mild heat. Some people are naturally squeamish about anything “tartare,” but I have no such reservations (YOLO, etc.).

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And yet the little suckers on the octopus did briefly give me the creeps. But I pushed through and was happy I did. This rich, smoky dish of Spanish octopus was served with salsa veracruz, sautéed spinach, black garlic, and potatoes, and it was excellent.

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I’ve only sampled Tico’s wares, but I can see that the praise Schlow’s won is richly deserved. Amid all the accolades, it would be a mistake to overlook Tico’s drinks; they hold their own against food made by a top chef. It would also be hasty to dismiss a pre-made cocktail served via draft. It’s tempting to write the idea off as one that privileges efficiency over quality. But Tico’s draft Moscow Mule demonstrates how effectively it can be done. If bars are willing to hold themselves to the standard of using fresh ingredients and avoiding shortcuts, then whether your drink is handmade or simply hand-poured will be secondary to how good it tastes.

Address: 222 Berkeley Street, Boston

Website:http://www.ticoboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

In Memoriam – Crossroads Irish Pub

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[UPDATE: Crossroads, which closed in April 2013, reopened in January 2014. That's great news...even though it renders my farewell post irrelevant.]

This week we say farewell to a Boston institution. Nestled among the brownstones of Beacon Street, Crossroads Irish Pub has long been a humble, unassuming fixture of the Back Bay. On April 15, after more than 30 years, they’ll wipe down the bar one last time, turn off the lights, and lock the doors for good.

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In a city full of Irish-themed pubs, nothing about Crossroads was particularly remarkable. They had a decent beer selection, but not an extraordinary one. You wouldn’t go there if you were looking for hip, fancy cocktails. There wasn’t anything on the menu you couldn’t get somewhere else. But in a neighborhood dominated by trendy, upscale bars and eateries, Crossroads stood as one of precious few alternatives. It was comfortable, homey, and down to earth.

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I wish I could regale you with some personal stories about Crossroads. I’d love to tell you how badly I’m going to miss it. The truth is, apart from my brief visit this past week, I probably only went there once or twice over the years. But it’s impossible to set foot in a well-worn bar like this and not hear the distant echoes cast by three decades’ worth of clinking glasses and boozy, late-night sing-a-longs.

Crossroads’ atmosphere was friendly and unpretentious, but the vibe changed depending on when you were there and what you were in the mood for. If you worked or lived in the Back Bay, it was a regular after-work watering hole. For students, it was an affordable, late-night destination with good music and tables pushed against the walls to make room for mingling and dancing. On Tuesday nights, it was all about trivia. It was a place to relax and throw some darts.

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But for some people, it was much more than that. Crossroads is where someone bought their first legal beer. More than one couple had a first date here. A nervous crowd, clad in baseball hats, watched the Sox break an 86-year championship drought on Crossroads’ TVs. Throngs of students from nearby schools came here to blow off steam after finals. New jobs or promotions got celebrated here. Broken hearts were numbed with tequila shots and High Lifes at the bar.

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Experiences like these make a bar bigger than the sum of its parts, and Crossroads possessed the sort of character that can only be sculpted over many years. Its closing doesn’t diminish those memories or cheapen any milestones celebrated within its walls. But if those were your memories or your milestones, it hurts anyway. It’s one less place you can walk by and say “Oh, remember the night when…”

I’m not sure exactly why Crossroads is closing. There was a rumor that Boston University bought the building and is repurposing it. That’s entirely plausible, given BU’s apparent quest to own every building in the city, but BU says it isn’t so. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whether we shake our fist at a heartless antagonist or cry in our beer, it is what it is.

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As for Boston losing an Irish pub…well, I think we’ll survive. There are always exciting new bars opening. There are new experiences to be had, new traditions to begin. Even the people who own Crossroads have a new bar, Carrie Nation, opening this month. But that’s small consolation if Crossroads was your place. With enough capital, anyone can build a nice new bar. But replacing a neighborhood pub that had deep roots and a sense of character? That’s another matter.

If Crossroads was dear to you, go celebrate it while you can; you won’t be alone. If you’ve never been but want check it out, there’s no reason you can’t. Your first visit might also be your last, but that doesn’t mean you won’t make a few memories while you’re there.

Last Call

Crossroads wasn’t a bar I frequented, but I know how it feels to see one of your favorite haunts close its doors. And clearly, people are going to miss this place. A Facebook page dedicated to Crossroads’ closing is full of warm reminiscences and old pictures; maybe you have a story of your own to contribute.

Or maybe you want to stop in for one more look at the old place. Last call for Crossroads Irish Pub is on Monday; between the weekend and the marathon, chances are the bar will be packed. So you might be elbow-to-elbow with other revelers; it might take you a few extra minutes to get the bartender’s attention; and at some point, they’ll probably run out of food.

But you only get so many chances to say goodbye.

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Address: 495 Beacon Street, Boston

Website:http://crossroadsirishpubboston.com/

Update: If you missed your chance to have one more Guinness at Crossroads, you're in luck – they're now staying open until Saturday, April 20.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Forum

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The Back Bay is quite possibly the most fashionable neighborhood in Boston. Successful Bostonians occupy the historic brownstones. Visiting celebrities stay in the Back Bay’s 5-star hotels. Professional athletes dine in the neighborhood’s fancy restaurants. Tourists and locals alike flock to the high-end shops and boutiques that line Newbury Street. Of course, the Back Bay draws more than just tourists and the well-to-do; and when it comes to food and drink in the area, there’s something for every taste and budget. But the heavy hitters, unsurprisingly, are the ones that reflect and cater to the Back Bay’s affluence and glamour.

That said, it would be easy to make assumptions about Forum.

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Without a doubt, it looks like the sort of upscale, trendy lounge that would be right at home among the Back Bay’s most attractive and exclusive destinations. Leather couches and armchairs overlook Boylston Street through floor-to-ceiling windows. A white brick wall adorned with artwork from local galleries stands in sharp relief to the sleek, dark, wooden walls and hardwood floor, all softly illuminated by chandeliers from above and recessed floor lighting from below. Metal racks suspended above the bar display top-shelf liquors in between flat-screen TVs – modern amenities amid a tasteful minimalism.

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But beyond Forum’s trendy aesthetics is a refreshing sense of depth, personality, and casual charm. Granted, it’s not the kind of place you’d stumble into late at night for one last PBR before you catch the T. But it’s also devoid of the pretension you might expect of a contemporary Back Bay bar.

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Upscale but approachable, Forum occupies two floors and offers its guests the best of both worlds – a vibrant bar scene downstairs, an intimate dining atmosphere upstairs. While the first floor has a lounge area in the front and a few tables for dining, the highlight is the massive, angular, island bar. Candles along the dark wood of the surface cast a warm glow, and the 45 cushioned chairs surrounding the bar ensure that even on a Saturday night, getting a seat isn’t too difficult.

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Such was the case when I visited last weekend. There were about 20 people at the bar when I arrived around 7 p.m., but given how spacious it is, it didn’t feel terribly crowded.

I began perusing the cocktail list, which is divided into three sections – one with some Forum originals, one with house-infused liquors, and a handful of timeless classics. As usual, I was immediately drawn to the latter, and got things under way with a drink I’ve always yearned to try – a Blood & Sand. Named for a 1920s-era bullfighting movie, this mix of Dewar’s scotch, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and blood orange made for an exceptional blend of dry, sweet, and tart flavors.

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Sipping my Blood & Sand, I looked over Forum’s menu, which is composed primarily of new and traditional American cuisine – plenty of steak and seafood options, with a few mouthwatering standouts like lobster ricotta gnocchi. But it was the bevy of interesting “starters” that really caught my eye, with options that are considerably more fun and inventive than what you might expect in an area known for its fairly conservative dinner menus. I debated offerings as varied as short rib dumplings, hog wings, and duck confit puff pastry before settling on prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Now, I’m something of a connoisseur of bacon-wrapped scallops (if I were ever offered a last meal, they’d be the first course). But I’d never had them wrapped in prosciutto, and this was a simple yet inspired twist. These babies were delicious and surprisingly filling.

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I could have stayed at the downstairs bar all night. The friendly bartenders, the steady soundtrack of classic rock, and the general energy of the bar area combined to create a lively atmosphere. Plus, I was intrigued by the beer setup. I saw that Forum wisely uses generic black tap handles instead of colorful brand taps, which would stand out amid the mostly black-and-white color scheme. More interesting, though, were the towers that housed the taps. They looked like they were made of a white ceramic, which again would fit the décor. But upon closer inspection, I discovered they were actually coated in ice.

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I knew a beer coming through those lines had to be mighty cold. As if that isn’t awesome enough, one of the bartenders told me that when they take pint glasses out of the dishwasher, they stand them by the icy towers so that they can properly cool before being put back into circulation.

For this, Forum gets my undying respect; one of my biggest bar-related pet peeves is when a cold beer is poured into a glass still radiating with the heat of the dishwasher. Bravo, Forum.

But I digress. As much as I was enjoying the downstairs vibe, I could no longer resist the allure of the cool, illuminated staircase that led to the second floor. Those frosted taps would have to wait.

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The same atmosphere of casual elegance that characterizes the first floor continues at the top of the stairs, where you’ll pass by a glass display that holds a portion of Forum’s 1,300 wines. Upstairs is where you’ll find Forum’s beautifully appointed dining room, along with an eight-seat martini bar.

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It was only about 8 p.m. or so, and while the dining area was gradually filling up, the upstairs bar was empty. I shifted to the “Forum Fusions” side of the cocktail list and ordered a drink called Larceny. This wintry cocktail was made with Larceny bourbon infused with apples, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, blended with vanilla cinnamon syrup and apple juice, and garnished with an apple slice. The spiced apple and vanilla flavors were bold and prominent, making this a good seasonal choice for a cold night.

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I got talking with the bartender, Matt, who, in addition to being a nice guy with a very cool name, clearly had an expansive knowledge of cocktail composition an obvious pride in making quality drinks. He asked me if I had a preferred liquor or cocktail, and I described my fondness for whiskey and Manhattans. He then proceeded to whip up one of the most inventive variations of a Manhattan I’ve ever encountered. It was made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Campari, sweet vermouth, and most intriguingly, a liqueur called Root – a pre-Prohibition-era spirit that ultimately evolved into root beer. It would have been lost to the ravages of time and the temperance movement were it not for an enterprising artists’ group in Pennsylvania that re-created it.

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Now distilled in California, it’s a liqueur made with allspice, anise, and a host of other herbs and spices; and yes, it has a natural root beer taste, too. It made for a remarkable addition to my cocktail. Oh, and on top of all that? Chocolate mole bitters. Matt explained that this wasn’t his recipe but that of a mentor of his, but I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was just enjoying this incredibly complex drink.

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Emerging from my reverie, I mentioned that I was also into gin, and after discussing the merits of various brands, Matt mixed me a a Corpse Reviver #2, made with gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, and Lillet, in an absinthe-coated glass. The anise flavor of absinthe, which I’m ordinarily not a huge fan of, was subtle, and it contributed nicely to the drink’s tartness. We both lamented the fact that while some classic drinks become trendy again, others, like the Corpse Reviver #2, exist only in the pages of a dusty recipe book beneath a bar. Stoddard’sis one of the few places in Boston where I’ve seen it available; it isn’t even on Forum’s menu.

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Although I was still full from the scallops I’d had downstairs, I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t try one more appetizer – the stuffed meatball. I figured the only way a ball of meat could be exceeded in its inherent awesomeness is by stuffing it with cheese. This mammoth meatball was made of pork, beef, and veal, and was stuffed with ricotta. I could try to describe it further, but either you’re already drooling or you’re a vegetarian.

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I returned very briefly a few days later, because there was no way I could skip a beer from those icy taps. Forum’s dozen draft beers consist mostly of standards like Guinness and Sam Adams, along with some regional microbrews like Clown Shoes and Wormtown.

The bartender who served me was named Dave, and in the course of about two minutes, he excitedly told me about the variety of Forum’s beer list, their efforts to maintain the tap lines, how regularly they swap out the kegs, the frosted towers, and how they keep their beers at the proper temperatures. And he graciously noted that despite Forum’s efforts to serve quality beer in the best way possible, I could get a High Life for $3. If Matt upstairs was the craft cocktail guy, Dave seemed like the beer guy.

Quickly perusing the beer list, I saw that they had something from Harpoon’s Leviathan series, which I’d previously tried at the Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall . So I asked, “What Harpoon Lev-“

I didn’t even finish saying “-iathan” before he had a sample of the Imperial IPA in front of me. Sure enough, the beer was ice cold. The fact that Forum keeps their glasses chilled in a freezer beneath the bar didn’t hurt, either.

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It was about 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, and there were only a few customers at that point. So as I sipped my beer, I listened while Dave talked about all things Forum – the food, the drinks, the beers, the music, the prices, the clientele, the management, the atmosphere, you name it. The funny thing? I hadn’t even told him I was writing about Forum for BBH. He just seemed genuinely excited about the place.

That sort of enthusiasm can be infectious, and you don’t find it just anywhere. Yet in an area with so many attractive destinations, it’s just one more way that Forum distinguishes itself.

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Last Call

The owners of Forum also run The Tap, which is a beer bar near Faneuil Hall, and Griddler’s, a burger and hot dog joint on Cambridge Street. Both are pretty casual, to say the least. And maybe that would help explain why such an upscale-looking place in the Back Bay has such a down-to-earth soul.

Regardless, Forum is equal parts comfortable and elegant. And in an area of town where cocktail lists rarely get more daring than martinis and cosmos, Forum’s drinks are innovative, authentic, and fun.

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The prices are pretty decent. Entrées cost a little less than what you’ll find nearby, and the appetizers are not only fairly priced – $8 to $16 – but come in surprisingly large portions. Cocktails are fairly typical at $10 to $12, and draft beers are eminently reasonable at $5 and $6.

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The beer offerings rotate pretty frequently, and the cocktail list has already changed since I was there; so take all my reviews with a grain of salt. But if Forum maintains the same fresh, inventive approach to their cocktails, you can count on their drinks being among the best on Boylston Street. And as long as the ice doesn’t thaw on those taps, they’ll have the coldest beer in town.

Address: 755 Boylston Street, Boston

Website:http://www.forumboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Flash's Cocktails

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UPDATE: I'm sorry to report that Flash's Cocktails closed a few weeks back. No reason was given. Those of us who loved it will miss it terribly. If you never went, I hope you'll read this post anyway; I think you'll agree that the city lost a true gem.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to start this week’s post on a personal note. Today is the 1-year anniversary of Boston BarHopper’s first official post. The ensuing year has been a journey marked by exploration, experimentation, and meeting new people, and I’d like to thank everyone who’s been part of it. Maybe you told me about a bar I should check out, waited patiently while I photographed your food and drink, edited a post or a picture, helped me resolve a technical issue, asked me where you should take your friend from out of town, made me a fantastic cocktail, subjected yourself to an interview, shared one of my posts on Facebook or Twitter, gave me a push when I was lacking in motivation, or simply visited my site and read a few posts. Your contribution may have been great or small, obvious or unheralded; but it was not unnoticed. I’m afraid I lack the skill to adequately convey my heartfelt appreciation. Instead, I’ll just promise you another year’s worth of drinks, discoveries, and shenanigans, and I would be honored if you would join me.

With that in mind, the circumstances surrounding the subject of this week’s post seem rather fortuitous. Because after a year of visiting all manner of fun bars, from humble dives to glitzy trendsetters, there is still no greater pleasure for me than wandering into a bar I know nothing about, having no expectations, and finding myself utterly surprised and completely charmed.

I stopped by Flash’s Cocktails on a whim – in part to find out whether it even existed. I’d never been there and didn’t know anyone who had. When I’d mention it to people, I’d invariably get a quizzical look and the same comment: “Never heard of it.” The only reason I’d ever “heard” of the place is because it would periodically show up when I was looking for something on Google Maps and clicked on “Search nearby.” That’s actually how I ended up there on a recent Tuesday evening after work: I was headed to another bar that wasn’t far from this semi-mythical Flash’s Cocktails, and I figured I’d at least do a walk-by.

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Not that I had terribly high hopes for the place. I’d looked it up online, and while there was a respectable drink list, the red and blue colors of the website seemed kind of kitschy – more 1950s diner than modern cocktail bar. But I was in the area and had a little time to kill before my next stop, so I poked my head in to see whether it would make for a good post someday.

I never made it to the other bar.

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Upon walking in, I was warmly hailed by the bartender, and I’m pretty sure she called me dude; I should have known right then that I was there for the night. And my surroundings were not at all what I’d expected. My all-too-hasty glance at the website, coupled with the retro font of the neon sign outside, made me think I’d encounter black and white tiled floors, a bar that looked like a lunch counter, and loud colors throughout. Like a Johnny Rockets with a liquor license. Instead I found the interior to be entirely contemporary – fairly basic in its layout and décor, but comfortable and attractive nonetheless.

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There’s a horseshoe bar with about 20 seats, along with 10 or so tables in a room that feels small but is in fact fairly spacious. Large windows look out onto the streets of the Back Bay. Lights above the bar and strung along the walls create a cool glow, and funky artwork on the walls gives the place a very modern vibe.

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It was about 6 p.m., and things were quiet; only 10 people or so. As I found a seat and gathered myself, I overheard the bartender singing along to a Third Eye Blind song that was playing. A small detail, I know; but when the next song started and was abruptly skipped in favor of another, I realized the evening’s soundtrack was coming from the bartender’s iPhone. It made for a very casual, comfortable atmosphere, almost like having drinks at a friend’s house (a friend who makes really great drinks, that is; and then makes you pay for them).

I quickly began sizing up the cocktail menu, which was both extensive and conveniently organized into categories such as Classic Cocktails, Straight Up, Frozen, On the Rocks, Bubbles, and Smashing. This being no more than a scouting mission, I aimed to keep things simple, and opted for a Sazerac. The bartender seemed delighted to make it, professing a fondness for the New Orleans classic, and proceeded to whip up a strictly traditional version with Old Overholt Rye, Peychaud’s bitters, and sugar in an absinthe-rinsed glass, capped off with a perfect lemon twist.

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Impressed as I was with the drink, I still wasn’t planning on staying at Flash’s. Not that I was in a hurry; it was a snowy, rainy night, and I figured there’d be no harm in downing a beer before venturing out into the elements. The draft beer selection was small but impressive, populated solely by well-chosen microbrews – local favorites like Slumbrew, Jack’s Abby, and Portico, along with some excellent choices from California, like Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout and Backlash. The highlight was the hard-to-find Founders Breakfast Stout, which I’d previously sampled at Stoddard’s. That’s what I chose, and again the bartender again endorsed my selection. A robust beer with a coffee flavor that was subtle and not overpowering, it would serve to fortify me against the cold outside.

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But as the Sazerac and the beer worked their not-so-subtle charms on me, and the bar’s eclectic playlist shifted among 90s hits, alternative, and classic rock (with liberal song skipping), my other plans gradually began diminishing in importance.

Then a funny thing happened. I’m sure you can relate to the experience of having a really obscure song stuck in your head, something you haven’t heard in years. Well, all day, my internal iPod had Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Mannish Boy,” from the posthumous “Blues” album, playing on repeat. The 1994 album is a hodgepodge of previously unreleased live tracks and studio outtakes, and unless you’re more than a casual Hendrix fan, it’s probably not in your collection. Even if it is, you could be forgiven for overlooking track 6. But there was “Mannish Boy,” on a loop in my mind. And guess what the next song at Flash’s was…

Needless to say, I wasn’t going anywhere else.

I got chatting with the bartender, Laura, who seemed as interested in my notebook-scribbling and picture-taking as I was in the cocktail list, particularly some of the traditional entries. I noticed that their Manhattan was made with Jim Beam, of all things. Now, I appreciate an adherence to classic ingredients, but Jim Beam seemed a little…austere. That led to a conversation about whiskeys and bourbons and what works best in a Manhattan; and whenever I find myself in a discussion like that, it’s fair to say I’m having an engaging evening (though she scoffed at my preference for Maker’s). So I asked Laura to make me one according to her preferred specifications, and I was rewarded with a fantastic Manhattan with Bulleit bourbon and both sweet and dry vermouth. She even wrote down the ingredient measurements in my notebook.

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Since I was staying, that meant I was eating. The dinner menu isn’t terribly extensive, mostly a small collection of some sturdy comfort foods – burgers, mac and cheese, and a few other standards. Laura insisted I try Flash’s signature item, the fried chicken sandwich, with chipotle aioli and a side of garlic fries. The sandwich was delicious; crispy on the outside, topped with Swiss and cheddar cheese and bacon, with a nice kick provided by the chipotle aioli. It was a little dry on the inside, but I didn’t care. And the garlic fries stole the show.

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Along with that I got the Slumbrew Attic & Eaves, a toasted brown ale, which Laura called her favorite (I think she has a lot of favorites; I can relate). It was a dark, nutty beer that paired well with the spicy sandwich and made for a satisfying conclusion to the evening.

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I returned the following Saturday, on yet another raw, rainy night. I was pleased to again find Laura steering the ship and ordered up one of the oldest and most classic cocktails there is – an Old Fashioned. It’s a drink that’s been unnecessarily and unfortunately embellished over the years, but Flash’s version is refreshingly simple. I’d never had one served with crushed ice, which made for a nice variation.

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Next up was a Singapore Sling – a mix of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine, lime, orange, and pineapple juice. For the first time, Laura’s response to my order seemed more diplomatic than enthusiastic. She graciously pronounced the drink “very fruity and delightful,” but I know a polite smile when I see one. Just the same, I was pleased with my choice. The Singapore Sling was like a Mai Tai made with gin instead of rum, so it had an unexpected dryness amid the pineapple and citrus flavors.

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Having mowed down most of the “Classic” drink list, I asked Laura to recommend something from one of the other categories. She suggested the Cucumber Smash, which I’d been eyeing anyway. Cucumber vodka, lavender syrup, muddled cucumber, and lime juice made for a crisp, fresh, summery drink that belied the dreary conditions outside.

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flash 094

Inside, the atmosphere was warm and laid-back. I was there early that night, and there weren’t yet many people at the bar. The music was again kicking ass until some dunce insisted on playing songs from the jukebox, which nobody enjoyed.

As my evening started winding down, I figured I could use something light for the road. So I asked for “the champagne of beers,” the absurd and ironic slogan of Miller High Life. “The champagne of beers, eh?” Laura responded, smirking. Yes, that’s what I wanted. “The champagne of beers,” she repeated. I could see the gears turning; which, you know, seemed unnecessary in the context of retrieving a bottled beer. She disappeared and quickly returned with a champagne flute and a large plastic cup filled with ice. “Since you ordered it that way,” she said before pouring the High Life into the flute, with great ceremony, and resting the bottle in the makeshift ice bucket.

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flash 098

You know, over the past year of barhopping, I’ve had some pretty hysterical experiences. This may have topped them all.

Last Call

My visit to Flash’s Cocktails left me grappling with the obvious question – why the hell had I never heard of this place? I mean, if it had just opened, that would be one thing; but it’s apparently been around for more than a decade, so I have to assume it’s fairly popular. Regardless, my ignorance serves as a reminder of how much I still have to learn and discover.

Speaking of learning, if I’d taken maybe 10 seconds to read the website instead of just looking at the colors, I’d have known there was a poignant story behind the throwback theme. The space that houses Flash’s Cocktails was previously a neighborhood diner – run by a Greek guy named Flash – that served breakfast and lunch for 20 years before closing its doors. The new owners kept the name when they renovated the space a couple of years later, maintaining a sense of continuity with what was a long-running and apparently much-loved local business. They also managed to re-create the easygoing vibe that no doubt characterized the diner, giving Flash’s Cocktails the personality of a casual neighborhood bar (even if many of their Back Bay “neighbors” are ritzy hotels).

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flash 083

The prices are pretty typical. My cocktails were all $9 or $10. The beers were $7.25, which is maybe a little above average, but this was also a pretty unique offering of microbrews. My majestically presented High Life was only $4, so you’ve got options if you’re feeling thrifty. The chicken sandwich was $13, which seems to be standard for the area.

From the drinks to music to the friendly service, Flash’s made for an evening of pleasant surprises. I don’t know how I missed the boat on this place, but I won’t pass up an opportunity to return.

Address: 310 Stuart Street, Boston

Website:http://www.flashscocktails.com/

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

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Parish Café

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A beer and a sandwich. It is a combination as inherently simple as it is deeply satisfying.

And the possibilities are endless! A complex, gourmet-grade sandwich with a masterful combination of meats, cheeses, veggies, and other accoutrements, accompanied by a robust porter. Something more basic, like a pastrami sandwich with a crisp pilsner. Or maybe…in a pinch…a PB&J and a PBR (don’t look at me like that, you’ve been there too).

A sandwich and a beer is about as straightforward as you can get. Bread, meat, cheese, veggies, hops, and barley. Have someone pass you the remote, and you’re on your way to a pretty decent afternoon.

You can easily whip this up at home, but let’s face it – a sandwich always tastes better when someone else makes it, and a beer always looks more enticing when it’s streaming out of a tap. That said, you can find a good sandwich anywhere in Boston. But as far as I know, there’s only one place where you can get good sandwiches from everywhere in Boston.

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DSC00747

The Parish Café is a Back Bay institution with a simple, unique concept – a menu of sandwiches designed by renowned chefs at some of the top restaurants in Boston. Each sandwich bears the name of its respective restaurant or chef and reflects the style of that eatery’s cuisine. Not that Parish relies solely on the culinary kindness of strangers; their own chefs contribute sandwiches and entrées as well. And since that results in a pretty broad array of flavors and styles, there’s a killer beer list to match your selection.

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It’s a basic formula, but one that has garnered Parish Café widespread critical acclaim, occasional celebrity guests, and countless fans. Its walls are adorned with Best of Boston awards, glowing published reviews, and a host of other accolades. You’ll have plenty of time to peruse them while you’re standing in line, which is nearly inevitable if you want a table.

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I recently visited the Parish Café with one of my oldest and most difficult friends, Christine. I arrived at 5:30 on a Thursday and found about 25 people at the bar, although most of the tables in the dining area were still free (it wasn’t until later that I realized what a novelty this was). The interior is fairly small, with a modern, casual feel. It has something of an autumnal glow, with warm orange lights, a black ceiling, cream-colored walls, and worn, brown hardwood floors.

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DSC00543

There’s a long, curvy bar with a handsome, dark wood top and about 17 stools. Ten or so tables are squeezed into the bar area, and another 10 to 12 fill up the dining area. The mirrored wall behind the bar is an attractive touch and makes the space look a little bigger than it is. There’s also an outdoor patio in front for the warmer months; if people watching is your thing, you can’t pick a much better spot than Boylston Street.

Since Christine was heading into town from distant lands and I had time to kill, I grabbed one of the few remaining seats at the bar and took a look at the cocktail list. Like the sandwich menu, about half of the drinks are designed by area mixologists, while the rest are Parish Café originals. Although it was November, Parish was still peddling “Summer Cocktails.” Nothing says autumn like a watermelon mojito, right? I wasn’t going to let an outdated label deter me, but it would have been cool to see what they could devise for fall or winter cocktail offerings.

I began with the drink with the coolest name on the menu – the Wandering Poet, concocted by Jen Jasmin of Via Matta, a Back Bay Italian restaurant. A combo of Absolute Vanilla vodka, triple sec, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and sour mix, it reminded me somewhat of a SweeTart candy. It was a light, refreshing drink that, on a raw November evening, gave me bittersweet visions of warmer weather.

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The Peach Smash, on the other hand, I’d drink all year round. A Parish Café original, this was a smooth mix of Maker’s Mark bourbon, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, white peach puree, simple syrup, fresh mint, sweet vermouth, and ginger ale. I found it to be a fresh combination of flavors, with the peach puree giving it a pleasantly creamy texture.

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DSC00564

After an hour or so, I figured Christine must be walking to Boston, and I needed something to tide me over. The appetizer menu offered a few unusual items, like vegetarian corn cakes, and an oversize meatball. Drawn as I was to the novelty of ordering an oversize meatball, I settled on the roasted “reggae” wings, marinated in Jamaican jerk spices, fresh citrus, and soy, and served with a banana mango chutney. Juicy and tender, they were the perfect pre-sandwich snack. The meat not only fell right off the bone – it would barely stay on the bone. The sweet heat of the chutney was a welcome accompaniment, though the banana flavor really stood out (I could have done without it).

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Many hours or perhaps days later, Christine arrived; all of the tables were taken, and we were lucky to have a couple seats at the bar. As this was Christine’s first time accompanying me on a blogging mission, I explained how helpful it is when people order a variety of cocktails. You know, it gives me more to discuss, more pictures to take. She then proceeded to order the same drink I’d had, the Wandering Poet. Sigh…

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Myself, I was long done with cocktails at that point and eyeing Parish’s top-notch beer selection. They’ve got about 20 beers on draft and at least another 50 or so in bottles, helpfully organized on the menu by type (lagers, Belgians, brown ales, etc.). The Fisherman’s Imperial Pumpkin Stout immediately caught my eye, but the bartender cautioned me that it was $18 a bottle; I respectfully declined. I went instead with the Ipswich Oatmeal Stout, shifting into a winter mode after my summery libations.

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Now if you’re a serious beer drinker and plan to spend a tremendous amount of your time at the Parish Café, you can join their Mug Club. All you have to do is drink all 125 of their beer offerings within six months, and you’re rewarded with your very own 25-ounce glass beer stein to use whenever you visit. You can even have it personalized. Whether the economics are in your favor, only you can decide. But the club’s mugs hang above the bar, challenging you to join their ranks.

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mug-edit

Impressive as the beer list is, the sandwiches are the true draw here. Ranging from simple to fancy, with a bevy of meaty, vegetarian, and seafood options to choose from, there’s something for every palate. And if you enjoy all of the above, good luck deciding what to get. I’d been scrutinizing the menu the entire time I waited for Christine, and when it came time to order, I was still no closer to making my mind up. The pork belly sandwich from the chef at Coppa and Toro? The crabmeat sandwich from fancy schmancy L’Espalier? The Blue Ginger, a sandwich of tuna steak, grilled rare, fashioned by the Wellesley restaurant of the same name?

I narrowed my options to three: the Mexican meatball sub, by Brian Poe, and two Parish Café originals – a chipotle meatloaf sandwich and a steak sandwich.

Tempting as it was, I eliminated the meatball sub; since I was already familiar with Brian Poe’s handiwork as the executive chef of the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill and the newer Tip Tap Room, I figured I should branch out a bit. Still torn, I asked the bartender to settle my meatloaf v. steak dilemma, and he advocated for the latter.

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The Vieira, named after Parish sous chef Ederson Vieira, consisted of pounded, sliced flank steak in a soy, chili, and garlic marinade, sautéed, on an Italian sub roll with roasted red peppers, watercress, onions, and a homemade basil aioli. The steak was juicy; the sandwich, full of flavor. I wondered why I’d had so much trouble deciding on it.

I explained to Christine that, since I’d be writing about a Boston bar that’s famous for its sandwiches, it would be helpful if she got one so that I’d have more variety in my post. She then proceeded to order an entrée. Sigh…

She opted for Sean’s Simple Chicken, presumably devised by Parish’s executive chef, Sean Simmons – pounded, breaded chicken cutlets served with chopped tomatoes and capers, and served over garlic-mashed potatoes and baby spinach. Conveniently, like all of Parish’s entrées, it comes in both a full order and half order. Christine opted for the half order and regretted it; she deemed the chicken delicious and wished she’d gone with the full serving.

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Parish was crowded the entire time we were there, the line for tables growing longer as the hours passed. The tables in the dining area looked pretty crammed, but our spot at the bar was surprisingly comfortable and roomy. Despite the volume of customers, we didn’t have people constantly reaching over our food to retrieve a drink.

I closed out with one more beer, a Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen (which was just OK).

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DSC00605

I explained to Christine how helpful it is, from a blogging standpoint, if we both order a few different beers from a place like Parish, which has such a broad selection. She got a glass of wine.

Sigh…

Last Call

The restaurant business is notoriously cutthroat, but Parish Café turns the concept of competition on its head – competing chefs contributing original recipes; Parish advertising the wares of competing chefs. It’s an unexpected approach, but it seems like everyone wins. Customers perusing the menu get a sense of other good eateries in Boston, and maybe they’ll go check them out. Yet they’ll probably come back to Parish, too, because of the variety.

And boy do they come back. I walked by on a gorgeous fall Saturday afternoon to find the outdoor seating area full, a line for tables inside, and a packed bar area. I even returned on a Sunday at noon, and there was a line at the door before the place even opened.

But don’t let the crowds deter you. Most of them will tell you that Parish’s sandwiches are worth the wait. There’s also a pretty quick turnover at the bar; you usually don’t have to wait much more than 5 or 10 minutes for a seat.

Prices are fairly reasonable, for the most part. The sandwiches range from about $12 to $19, but there are only a couple at the upper end of that range. They’re also good-sized and, from my experience, very well made. The entrées were all under $15, and you can get a half order if you’re feeling thrifty (or counting calories). The cocktails ranged from $8.50 to $12, which isn’t bad. The selection of microbrews is highly respectable, and the beers I had ranged from $6.50 to $7.50; a little on the high side, but not the worst I’ve seen.

Parish’s enduring popularity led to the opening of a second location, in the South End, in 2010. It’s the same idea, the same eclectic sandwich menu, and the same result – a true taste of Boston.

Website:http://parishcafe.com/

Address: 361 Boylston Street, Boston

Corner Tavern

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“You need to blog about this place and I want to come with you when you do.” That was Text #1, from my friend Mario.

“You will love it here!”

Text #2, also from Mario, moments later.

“‘Back in the High Life’ is playing at the bar!!!!”

Text #3 came from my sister Kelly, who was with Mario and considers it pure serendipity when she hears “Back in the High Life” by Steve Winwood while drinking Miller High Life.

Now in the ideal world, when I was so clearly needed at a bar, I’d be able to drop whatever I was doing, grab my camera and notebook, and head over posthaste. Sadly, the ideal world has not yet revealed itself to me. Until it does, let me tell you about the Corner Tavern, the establishment from which Mario and Kelly were so enthusiastically texting.

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Needless to say, I had to see what all the fuss was about. I’d never even heard of the Corner Tavern, but by the way they were carrying on, I figured it must be a gleaming, two-story palace with the bartenders greeting you like an old friend as you walked in, giving you a free round of drinks, and handing you a gourmet menu where everything’s always half off.

So I was surprised when, just a week after all the frantic texts, Mario led me to a small, unassuming, downstairs bar in the Back Bay. With a nondescript concrete exterior, in the basement level of what I think is an apartment building, the place practically blends right into its surroundings.

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I took one look and figured “standard dive bar, probably three beers on draft (two of which will be Bud Light and Stella), a typical menu of burgers and wings, indifferent staff. And since the Sox were in town and the Celtics were in a Game 7 showdown against the Philadelphia 76ers, I assumed the bar would be jam-packed and we’d be standing all night. I wasn’t apprehensive, but I wondered why Mario and Kelly were so adamant that I come here. Maybe they were just hammered at the time.

I was wrong about pretty much all of that.

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For starters, the bar was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night; maybe 8 to 10 people. Mario and I got there around 7, which is a little early, but such high-stakes sports nights in the city usually result in the masses all trying to cram into their favorite tavern. Not that either of us were complaining about not having to jockey for space.

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And even if it had been packed, this cozy place is actually fairly spacious. The surrounding exposed brick and stonework on the walls give it something of a cave-like feel, but it’s far from gloomy; large windows in the front of the bar offer a view of the classic Boston brownstones, and before night falls, they let in plenty of sunlight. A cherry and white color scheme rounds out the warm feel, and the mirrors behind the bar and on the walls maximize the depth.

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There are about 10 to 12 seats at the bar, a few tables in the vicinity, and a rounded seating area looking out onto Marlborough street. There’s a long shelf on the wall opposite the bar with a few stools and plenty of standing room, and a small dining area in the back, illuminated by cool hanging red lights.

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Settling in for a leisurely evening, Mario and I began with a couple of cocktails – a gin and tonic for me and a mojito for him, before shifting to Captain and Coke. (It’s an old standby, but the Captain never really lets you down.)

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The Corner Tavern has five beers on draft, a couple of which rotate, and the selections were a pleasant surprise – Harpoon IPA, Guinness, Allagash White, Lost Abbey, and Penn Pilsner. They also have a decent bottled beer menu, along with PBR tallboys if that’s more your speed.

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One look at the food menu, and any preconceived notions I still had about a tucked-away downstairs bar went out the window. The appetizer list really dresses up the typical pub fare, with choices such as slow-roasted chicken wings, pulled pork sliders, and a couple varieties of hummus. Mario and I went with the homemade queso dip with chorizo and lots of Sriracha sauce, and we devoured it handily.

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While watching the Sox and waiting for the Celtics game to start, I headed over to the jukebox to inject a little life into the otherwise quiet environment. As I scrolled through my options, the bartender politely let me know that, once the Celtics got going, he’d have to turn on the audio, so I should be careful about how many songs I picked. You know, it’s one thing to be waited on by a friendly bartender; it’s another to feel like the bartender’s looking out for you, in some small way.

When the Celtics game got under way around 8 p.m., there were about 12 to 15 people in the bar and the dining area was full. Before things got into full swing, the bartender came by and, believe it or not, asked me if I’d heard all my jukebox selections before he put the sound on. That’s a first.

As my awesome musical selections faded out and the Celtics got rolling, we moved on to the dinner menu. Again, the Corner Tavern goes above and beyond with their dinner options. They offer a creative variety of flatbread pizzas, and Mario went with that evening’s pizza special, which was topped with braised pork and shaved jacima.

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The sandwiches are just as impressive. Mixed in with pub standards like a buffalo chicken wrap and a pastrami reuben are intriguing options such as a shortrib sandwich with goat cheese and a crab cake BLT with a spicy remoulade sauce and bacon. I got the meatloaf burger, which was essentially a meatloaf sandwich in the shape of a burger, topped with chipotle ketchup, cheddar cheese, and applewood bacon.

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By 10 p.m., as the Celtics were closing in on their victory, there were about 20 people, nicely spread out and not making the bar feel too crowded. There were a couple of diehard fans there, cheering along and shouting dutifully at the TV, but for the most part, it struck me as a good spot to watch a game when you’re looking for a quieter atmosphere.

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redlights

I stopped in again around 6 p.m. this past Thursday to see what the after-work crowd was like. Things were fairly lively but not terribly crowded – about 15 customers when I got there. The Sox were playing at home, but still, the bar didn’t draw a lot of pre-game revelers.

There were a couple of new draft beer options – a delicious Summer Solstice Cream Ale, which was creamy (imagine that) and had hints of vanilla, and 21st Amendment Bitter American. And if this place hadn’t already won me over, I saw that they had Abita, one of my favorites, in bottles.

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When I was there, I noticed a couple of well-worn newspapers on the bar, and it made me think, this is a neighborhood bar if ever there was one. It would be the perfect place to stop in on an afternoon, read the paper, and drink a few pints of craft beer.

And maybe even text a friend to join you.

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Last Call

Located on the corner of Mass Ave and Marlborough Street (hence the name), the Corner Tavern is one of those places you might not even see unless you’re looking for it. But if I lived in the area, I’d totally be a regular.

The beer selection and the food menu are enough to satisfy most tastes. The prices are pretty fair – mixed drinks are about $7 or $8, craft beers $5.50 or so; and if you’re on a budget, a $3.50 PBR is reasonable. Pair those PBRs with the $2 tacos that are offered on Thursdays, and you’re in business. Most flatbreads are $8 or $9, and my excellent meatloaf burger was $10.

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I’m especially fond of the location. If you’re looking for a laid-back place to grab a quality bite before a Red Sox game, this place is a hidden gem. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Kenmore, which puts it outside the radius of bars that draw huge pre-game crowds, but not far enough to warrant a ride on the T. It doesn’t have enormous flat-screen TVs, but the seven or eight small TVs they do have are more than ample if you’re looking to watch a game. As an added bonus, there are outlets beneath the bar if you need to charge your phone or plug in your iPad.

I think Mario summed it up best: “I could come here, order a bottle of wine, and just write.”

Not a bad idea.

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Address: 421 Marlborough Street, Boston

Website:http://thecornerboston.com/