Monday, September 3, 2007

Scoring A Bar

a'drink and I spent some time musing how we rate the places that we visit. We have come up with the following thoughts on judging bars:

Scoring is holistic
The snootiest Beacon Hill bar can be compared against the dingiest South End saloon. There's no scaling or handicap involved, instead we rely on our inferred "intent". If a bar is going for a dive aesthetic, then there had better be $2 PBR's on tap in 24 ounce plastic cups, a bartender who moonlights as an enforcer, and a bathroom with no mirror (or a shattered one). On the other hand, a high-end bar should have a wide and interesting selection of liquor, a bartender who specializes in some obscure set of drinks, and a bathroom with warmed handtowels. A good pub knows its audience and acts accordingly when it comes to decor/ambiance, service, and selection.

We judge a bar based on its lighting, seating, the art, whatever strikes us when we look around the room. Not sure whether clientele is considered part of the decor or not, but we will work that out as we go. The fewer ratings the better, right?

Hosts, bartenders, and wait staff all go under the microscope. The basics of service are a must -- take our order, get things to us in a timely manner, check in on us, blah, blah blah. If a pub can't do the basic service, they're unlikely to excel. Beyond the basics, attitude is important. We're in this to have fun, just like most other people at the bar. A fun bartender can make the crappiest bar into a great place, so we rate accordingly. Lastly, bartenders get extra scrutiny for their drink knowledge. A bartender should know:
  • What they have and what they don't.
  • What garnishes (olives, twists, cherries, etc.) go with which drinks.
  • How to make all the drinks in their competency.
  • What tastes like what. Beer, mixed drinks, whatever.

Lastly, bars can be rated based on what they can serve. Selection comes in the form of wine lists, draft beers, bottled beers, liquor selection, and drinks that can be mixed. We are working out some models of what is the minimal acceptable beer selection, but probably you need something like Sam Adams, Bass, a wheat, a brown, an IPA, a Pilsner, and a cheapo beer on tap to make it as a reasonable bar in Boston. Having specialty beers on tap or in a model is cool. It's also cool to have an interesting bourbon or rye, a high-end tequila that can't be bought in the US, in addition to the basics for mixing drinks or serving something straight up.

In addition to the hard ingredients, does the bartender have good mixers? Can they make fizz drinks that include raw egg? A bar can definitely win points by putting together an interesting drink menu that includes things that I would never think to mix myself.

This is not an exhaustive set of criteria, but it's our starting place for figuring out how we will measure the pubs that we visit. Our thought was that each deserves an overall rating plus a rating on each of these three areas. For simplicity, we will probably go from a low of 1 to a high of 5 on our rating scale, but we're open to suggestions.

drink'm and a'drink

Harvard on the Hill

I stopped by Harvard Gardens for an end-of-week drink after work a few weeks back. I don't know what this place has to do with Harvard: it's across from MGH on Cambridge Street and I don't think any Harvard students venture this far from the Square. In any case, here's the run-down:

Harvard Gardens seems to be going for the Dresden look a la Swingers, but I think it falls a little short of a real lounge. For one thing, after work in the summer, their venetian blinds let in too much light, which spoils the effect, especially since we were sitting at the bar facing the windows.

I had a dirty sapphire martini and my friend had a ciroq on the rocks with a twist. The bartender gets points for asking if my friend wanted a twist, but loses them for no check-in again after we ordered our drinks. The bar selection is decent, but not stellar at Harvard Gardens. On the upside they have a deceptively deep catalog of liquor that is spread across the various shelves behind the bar (e.g., look up to find the good tequilas). They have some interesting stuff: Ciroq for one, Christiania vodka for another, but overall the selection didn't wow us. In addition, we didn't see a drink menu and we certainly were not offered one! That combines with the not-so-attentive service to get a mediocre score in my book.

I didn't have a beer, but I did check their taps, and Harvard Gardens hits all the must-haves: a wheat beer, Sam Adams, Sams seasonal, Bass, Guiness, Stella Artois, etc. Decent selection, but again, nothing too outlandish that caught my eye.

All in all, this is an reasonable, but not great bar. You can get a decent drink here, but for a place with good atmospheric potential, Harvard Gardens falls short as a credible lounge. That said, I hear it has a good Thursday night scene, so it may get another chance to redeem itself.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beacon Hill Birthday Crawl

A friend of mine who lives in Beacon Hill had his birthday on Monday. Good excuse to go out. We set out from his apartment to the 21st Amendment. It wasn't my first time, but it's a great place. This place has character: it's right next to the State House, it has dark wood panelling, but it feels like a pub. Not a lounge, not a frat house, just a solid unpretentious bar. Plus they have good food. Especially their sliders, which have the right balance of cheese, russian dressing, pickles and onions (rings and caramelized). Unfortunately for me, because I didn't eat dinner, they stop serving food sometime around 9. We didn't spend enough time here to really grok their drink selection -- a shot of so-so tequila and we were on our way to the next place.

Luckily, the kitchen at the next place, Emmet's Pub and Restaurant, is open later. Emmet's is bigger, has a little less character than the 21st, but is probably a better bar for a big group. My guess is that they generally cater to State House staff and other office workers in the area. They have tables where you can drink, eat, and make a lot of noise without bothering anyone. I'm pretty sure we did all three, but I'm not sure about the last one. We got appetizers and beers, which seems to have been the right choice. Though I don't think that Emmet's has a signature dish like the sliders at the 21st, it's hard to go wrong with their buffalo wings, potato skins, etc. This place has got its routine down pat: they have a reasonable number of safe beers on tap and they make appetizers that are tasty and good for sharing. Of note, the mini-pancake appetizer was surprisingly tasty, something like latkes served with barbecue sauce.

With some food in my belly, I was ready for a down and dirty bar -- it was a birthday after all and we had a reasonably big group. We wandered down towards Faneuil Hall, went by Bell In Hand, but ended up around the corner at The Point at the Boston Stone Pub. Everywhere around here is quiet on a Monday night, and this place was no exception. Not so many people, but a sufficiently loud jukebox to keep us entertained. This is not a connoisseur's bar, this is a sticky floor, frat house style bar. We went with a couple pitchers of Sam Adams (Boston Lager and Summer Ale). And then a couple more. And then those I-should-know-better 3 Wise Men shots. The bartender didn't blink at any of this. The bouncer didn't look twice at our arm-wrestling tournament. A cute, random girl sat down and challenged the birthday boy to arm wrestle. It's clear to me that The Point is used to rowdy 20-somethings who are out for a good time and aren't so particular about the drinks, ambiance, or service.

The summary -- I had a lot of fun, but it was that guilty kind of fun that you don't associate with "great bars". The 21st I would recommend, especially when they are serving food. Emmet's gets a nod as well. The jury is still out on The Point: the night wouldn't have been the same without it, but I bet it is a lot less fun if it is the first place you stop in an evening. Until next time,


Deep Ellum

Why go to Allston? How about a bar that descended from Bukowski's, has 4 different Manhattans on their drink menu, and makes a mean egg-drink (including the Ramos Gin Fizz)?

477 Cambridge Street
Allston, MA 02135
(617) 787-2337

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Deep Ellum website

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Our Mission

I have been in Boston for a long time. I grew up here, went to college here, and now work here. Now, don't get me wrong, Boston is a great place to grow up. But, this town is an even better place to be a grown up, because Boston has plenty of great bars, clubs, and restaurants to keep you occupied.

I have my favorites, but I love trying out new places too, and that's what this blog is all about. Our mission is to belly up to all the bars in the area and see what's what. I am inclined to cheat a little bit and not necessarily go back to places that I've disliked, but why quibble over a few places here or there. Here's our plan:

Step one - work out the ultimate, master list of all the bars in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.
Step two - figure out which places we have already hit.
Step three - go check out all the places we've never been.
Step four - get myself another drink, it's going to be a long night.


PS We already need help, and we're only on the first step. How would you make up your master list? Pull food and liquor licenses from city hall? Go through the phone book? What's the hook?