Letter from the Drinking Town #5 – The Usual

Dear Worcester

Last Sunday, I celebrated a little time off with a trip to Shrewsbury Street. I have a few new places on that ever mutable street to try. I am not going into the British Beer Company for a gin and tonic because it’s a chain and the world is too big and my liver is too small for me to include chain joints on the tour of places to drink. Case in point, I went into the Usual for a highball cocktail. It is located at 166 Shrewsbury Street. Before the Usual, this was the spot for the Fix. Before that it was Mezcal Cafe. Before that it was Goodfellas. And before that it was a ground level entrance to the Underworld (little known fact).

The Usual is a high end, gourmet sandwich place. It’s fine dining between two hunks of bread. Ah the humble Sandwich. According to a reliable source, namely Jack Palance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the Sandwich was created in order to continue gambling. It was a convenience to throwing your money away, like the Instant Scratch Ticket.

The story that Jack Palance said in him ominous voice was that the Earl of Sandwich loved gambling with cards. Loved it. He was just lousy at it. One night he was losing hard and someone asked to stop playing so they could repair to the dining room and have supper. But Earl was having none of it. He was feeling a lucky streak coming on and he didn’t want to stop, not when the luck was returning. It wasn’t, of course. Earl was an easy mark. He said, “Nuts, I ain’t leaving with this hand burning my fingers. No way. Just cut up some roast and put it in between two hunks of bread and bring it to me here.”

And that, my friends, is how genius works.

And like most stories that stick with you for decades, it has nothing to do with what I am writing about. I just wanted to prove that I know the real skinny about the Sandwich. And now, so do you. Believe it, or not.

The Usual. I walked in at 1:45 on this Sunday afternoon. Four or five of the tables were occupied. At the bar were three groups of people drinking and eating. The bar is in the same place as it was in the last two restaurants that squatted at this address. There was still a tiered dining space, with the top section empty except for an employee of the joint texting on her phone.

It is a clean, simple design. Perhaps we can say boring, but we don’t have to go there. Let’s call it minimal and leave it at that. Two guys were on my left drinking Heinekens talking passionately about people and business. On my right were two other guys hardly speaking to each other. They drank their waters and waited for their sandwiches, occasionally looking up from their phones to tell about a show they streamed or a video that is pretty funny. They might have come from a run or a work out. Or they might have just stumbled out of bed from a long heroic night of Saturday evening carousing.  It was impossible to figure out which was true.

The bartender was bubbly, full of smiles and interest. I got my 8 dollar and forty cent gin and tonic and drank it like it was any gin and tonic. That’s the nice thing about a cocktail. It doesn’t care how much money it is sold for. It is a happy worker and could care less if it goes for three bucks or nine. It supplies the taste and the bubble and the hint of lime no matter what the sticker price states. A gin and tonic is a proud thing and doesn’t care about worth.

The Usual was a lazy, sleepy sunday bar. The food looked fine. Everything was sedate. But it is Sunday after a long Saturday, does anyone want loud laughter and music. I actually was not sure if there was any music playing there. For the most part it was silent like a liquor license monastery. On rare moments with the wind, I could swear I was hearing eighties pop lightly going on somewhere else in the room. This place was made to nurse hangovers.

I left after about twenty minutes feeling that the place was alright, a nice upclass joint for common man food. But I was vaguely dissatisfied. Was this what a Sunday afternoon bar was? Sedate to the edge of coma?

I was walking to my car, parked further down on Shrewsbury Street, and on one of those whims that I wished I trusted more, I walked past my car and looked for another place on the Street that possibly could be more lively. Or maybe I would find every place dead.

I heard voices and aimed for it. I went into the Wormtown Brewery Tap Room. The place was pretty full. About 40 or 50 folk were in there drinking the beer, showing off their flannel shirts and knit caps. If Shrewsbury Street was charted by antiquarian cartographers for a navigational map to sail successfully through this restaurant row, they would have labeled Wormtown Brewery with the admonition, “Here there be hipsters.”  

People were in groups laughing and telling tales and explaining why this beer is superior to other beers and giving long winded evidence for their opinions. I got their Belgian White and it was good, perhaps too hoppy for a white in my tasting, but I was still charmed by the people and the talk and cheer found on a rainy Sunday.

There was a kid, about nine or ten, with his family. The kid was not drinking (officer) but was focusing on his earbuds and his music. He didn’t seem put out, he was happy enough being ignored by the grownups. On seeing him, it put me in mind to all the times I have seen kids in bars. I was lost in thought, leaning against a small tract of wall.

I finished my beer and finally got back to my car. So I saw two types of Sunday afternoons. Silent, sedate, quiet and empty. A place to regroup from a long weekend. Decent food in a decent place. And then there was the place to have the new beer and talk loudly to be heard. A reminder that Sunday afternoon does not mean that the fun and the socialization has to be over.

Neither of them are bad. I can see myself picking either of them on different days, with different moods.  It depends on the place my head is at.

That’s it for now, till next time.



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