Letters from the Drinking Town 13 – The Bootleggers Prohibition Bar

Dear Worcester

What is there to say about a dull restaurant bar closing its doors and rebranding themselves as something that is different but still dull? What am I to say about this? How shall I be a pleasant host and guide if this is my thesis and the constant theme I will be whistling?

How shall I do this? With a smile on my face and a bounce to my step.

It’s moments like this that make me happy to be a crass, cynical writer. It gets to be a drag writing pleasantly about pleasant places. Bring on the banal, I got my mean spirited adjectives sharpened and holstered at the end of each sentence.

Storytime: Once there was a health food store on Park Avenue and Chandler Street and it was good. Their wheat germ was the finest of the realm. And lo, they decided that they should have a restaurant in the same location and that was good. And it became Evo, which (I think) was in reference to it being the next level of Evolution of cuisine. Those health food folk are nothing if not humble.

Evo had a nice run of several years. The bar in the back was small and inconsequential and despite what others said, I thought the food was pretty mediocre, if not bad. The last time we had food there, it was downright inedible. That is always a good sign that a joint is going to go out of business.

But not in this fairy tale, brother. In this one, the wounded beast retreated into the cocoon that we call “Closed for renovations” They ended Evo and promised to come back with a great new design and wonderful new concept.

This is always the problem with new places, or old places getting the face lift with a little botox for good measure. The problem, the question that should be asked and I don’t think is, is, do we really go to restaurants because of their concept? If we love Johnny Depp pirate flicks, are we more predisposed to love a new bistro called the Buccaneer, with their signature dish, the Walk the Plank Flank Steak? We can have a Sports Bar with a Difference, with a Point Break themed bar, it is surfing and football and Keanu. Everyone wants to go that bar? Who doesn’t love that movie? I mean you can have a 50 Year Wave Shooter.

All of this to say that the owners of Evo came back with the Bootleggers Prohibition Pub. That’s right, its a prohibition themed bar restaurant. You remember that time? When people died from drinking wood alcohol. When people went blind or discovered their limbs shaking uncontrollably because of the bad booze they were pounding. When gangsters tightened their grip on city economies. Let’s have a bar celebrating that.

I was given my 7.50 gin and tonic (Wednesday at 7:30) in a mason jar. Not a real mason jar, but a mass produced replica to give you that mass produced nostalgia. Here is Dave being an annoying effete. I don’t want to drink a highball in a mason jar. I would like to have it in a highball glass. If i must, then a decent pint glass, or even a small snifter. Something that is kind and pleasant to the hand holding it. A mason jar is not fun to hold, it’s kind of silly.

The drink was okay. It didn’t make me blind. I didn’t lose control of my legs. That’s a good cocktail in a prohibition pub, right? Maybe that’s why they called themselves a prohibition pub, to lower the bar on their cocktails. Continue to live = good cocktail. Dying in a fit = sub par cocktail. They should put that on their ad copy. “Come to the Bootleggers Prohibition Saloon – Our Drinks Won’t Kill Ya!”

The bar is now prominent, in the middle of the room. The tables are non-descript. There is sports on but one of the flat screens is showing an old movie playing on TCM. The idiot in me was annoyed that they weren’t playing silent movies. It should be movies from the 20s. Could that be so hard?

The waitress was wearing a flapper dress. It was black and slinky and covered in tassels. I looked at that and I could imagine her leaning over at a table and a platoon of those tassels falling into the soup of the day.

It was quiet there on that Wednesday and it just felt forced.

A while back, I discovered a group of essays written in the New Yorker magazine during the 1920s about illegal bars. The series was Speakeasy Nights by Niven Busch. They were cute and funny at first, but as I continued to read them on the New Yorker online archive, I discovered that the stories were sad. The places described were run down and all the smiles and humor felt like a facade. It wasn’t the writing. It was the places being written about. There was a desperation.

The speakeasy was a sad kind of thing. A placeholder. An illegal room, an apartment, an untidy flat. The liquor was poor and the food over priced.

Is this what we want our new bars to emulate? A run down joint, two steps away from being busted? On the Bootlegger’s facebook account, they sometimes inform you of special events and give the password. Passwords are a fun exclusive thing, but only if you want to go in.

Until Next Time

Dave

Advertisements

Letter from the Drinking Town 12 – Bahn Thai

Dear Worcester

The drink tasted of ashes. I have had many gin and tonics in this seemingly endless tour of every bar in Worcester. I have had fine ones and forgettable ones and of course there were the  poor excuses to the art of pouring booze in a glass. I have had countless gin and tonics, but this is the first one that tasted of arson.  

In this lovely looking Thai restaurant, there is a sign, made on somebody’s home ink jet printer, stating that they now have liquor. But they don’t have a bar. They have what seemed to be a horseshoe seating, but now turned into a bar to accommodate the bottles nestled on a shelf by the wall. In the center of the horse shoe you can sit and act like you have sidled up to the stick. But there is only four chairs for that part and they were taken by a few Clark students. I sat on one of the sides, so the girl working the drinks detail walked to the other side of what was basically a table and got my drink order.

I don’t know how long they had their liquor license, but she informed me that this was her first gin and tonic and that she hoped it was alright.

Let me stop here to state that I had my first gin and tonic when I was fourteen. My grandmother made it for me. Later on that summer, I was told that if I wanted a drink, I had to make my own. She tested the result for balance and potency, like every good grandmother does.  In my career as a high school drinker, which is another way of saying a poor clueless drunk kid, I had experience making many cocktails. You pour the liquor in and then you pour in whatever is supposed to go with it, We never had tonic in our rumpus room bacchanales so we made do mixing our poor gin with Sprite. These drinks were not designed for or by discerning tastes, they were to cut the liquor enough to get it down.  This is just to say that a two ingredient cocktail is something everyone should have mastered enough to not embarrass yourself when you find yourself working at a Thai restaurant on Park Avenue in Worcester.

The girl who concocted the drink was nice, and the place was nice. And everyone there on a Sunday night was nice, eating nice food.

The food was attractive, the spices permeated the whole joint. And I had a eight dollar and fifty cent glass of burnt offerings. In most cases, when a drink is this bad, I would not finish it. I tend to not complain about a bad drink, because let’s be honest, when you are having an alcoholic beverage you are drinking poison.

But I found myself deliberately and slowly taking bites off of this cocktail. Not as a connoisseur of fine high balls, but as a crime scene investigator. “How did something so simple, so elegant, go so wrong?”

I tried to place the ashen flavor. Did I get the right liquor? Was this a new Polar Soda flavor, Campfire Seltzer? Could there be something wrong with the dishwasher? Or is it me? Am I tasting things wrong, am I having a stroke?

The girl who made me the drink spent most of her time talking to two other young women at the “bar.” They were having what looked like tasty food. They spoke about college and how hard it is to pay off tuition. I sat by myself. Lost in the Puzzle of the Ashen Highball (look at me, I turned my excursion into every bar in Worcester into a forgotten Sherlock Holmes mystery.) She came over to me and asked me how the drink was. She was very pleasant. I told her it was great. Just great. Yeah. Great. Let’s call it great.

Some places shouldn’t be bars. They should just serve good food. Isn’t that hard enough? The place was handsome and the food smelled good. Shouldn’t that amazing feat be enough for anyone? Can’t we just look at how we don’t even know how to create a bar area and throw in the towel? Can’t we say, we are just not bar people. We are food people, let us celebrate that.

Bahn Thai is located at 2 Coes Square. Go there for the food and the pleasant service. When having a Pad Thai, do you really need a cocktail? Enjoy the flavor of the food. Let that be your highball.

Until Next Time

Dave

Letter from the Drinking Town #11 – The Boynton and the Booth of Ultimate Vibration

Dear Worcester,

Today my son and I went to the TouchTomorrow program at WPI. It was lovely. We participated in science experiments, learned about the universe and watched robots attack Styrofoam noodles. It was a great time. They even had a van de graaf generator there, ready for the kids to touch and the parents to take photos destined to embarrass the child years later, during dating season no doubt. My son demurred. He didn’t want to see his hair standing on end. I did. But that’s a father for you.

My son wanted to eat and wanted to eat in air conditioning. I did a few calculations in my head and suggested we walk to the Boynton. My son, eight years old, loves places with grilled cheese sandwiches and fries. The Boynton has such a thing on the menu, so the kid loves the place.

Long time readers of these reports from the front might well remember that I don’t care for the Boynton at all. It has never worked for me. I think it thinks too highly of itself.  But it was nearby and the kid loves it. Who doesn’t want to be the world’s greatest dad? Or at least, passably acceptable dad? I’ll take it.

It was pretty busy this afternoon, but I saw booths and tables. I asked for a table for two and the hostess took us to the bar area, to a booth in the front.

I wasn’t going to ask for another booth, but I was already a little weary. If I was with friends and was seated there, great. But I had the kid, and that means I have to be concerned with the bar. The bar, as you know, is a place I love. There is drinking and swearing and lying. Three things I don’t allow my son to do.

I have been at bars at 2pm on a Saturday where it sounds like an amateur hour production of Reservoir Dogs.

Kids in the bar area is never a groovy concept. Am I, the parent, expecting everyone to curb their behavior?  No. A bar should be a bar. An animal preserve for base behavior. I don’t want to be “That Guy” who wants you to be polite because there are children present. On the other hand, I really don’t want people to be going on about the “fucking” Red Sox and their “fucking” manager.   

Part of me was annoyed. Didn’t the hostess see me with a kid? Couldn’t she have put me in one of the non-bar areas. But the hostess has to be fair to the wait staff. If the waitress in the bar area is up for the next party, then she will get the next group, even if you are putting an eight year old in the bar area of a busy restaurant when you don’t have to

I understand that getting as many tables as possible is important for wait staff, but I don’t know. This is a relationship, the wait staff and the customer. Shouldn’t both sides be considered?

We ordered our drinks and then my son looked at me seriously. “Daddy. Is it okay if we switch seats.”

And like that, I am in over protective father mode. “Sure buddy. Why? Is something wrong? Are you seeing something bad?”

He looked confused at the question. “No Daddy. Everything is alright. It’s just that, the seat is vibrating and it’s very distracting.”

Vibrating booth seats? Ooooo-kay. Someone walked around in the sun for a little too long? Someone needs a nap, and why don’t kids his age take naps. Naps would solve so many issues. “Sure, no problem. Let’s switch.”

So I sat down and got comfortable, and. And. There it was. The seat was vibrating. It wasn’t throwing me from the seat like I was at a Gilley’s mechanical bull, but no doubt about it, the damned seat was vibrating.  Hell, maybe I need a nap.

I got the eye of a waiter passing by, not ours, and said, a little embarrassed to do it, “Uhm, it seems that the seat is vibrating.”

The guy nodded, “Yeah. The beer cooler is underneath that seat and so it vibrates. There is nothing we can do about it.” Nothing to do about it? How about not have a seating over the vibrating beer cooler. But I didn’t say that. I asked to get another seat and we did,

I was annoyed enough to ask our new waitress why they would seat people in a sub par location when they don’t have to. She looked glassy at me and apologized and then asked what we would have for lunch.

So perhaps I should not have asked the waitress this question, so I will ask you, here in this forum. You have a table with a seat that vibrates, do you sit people and hope they don’t mention it, or do you not sit people there? Is the important thing shoving in as many people in, or creating a positive experience.

Of course, a vibrating seat might be a positive experience for some people.Do people slip the hostess a fin to get seated at the vibrating booth? Is it the talk of the underground diners of Central Massachusetts? “The food is mediocre, but you will have the most relaxed lower back you ever had. Cpme for the vibrating booths, stay for the chicken wings

I know this is not really about bars, and definitely not about gin and tonics, but its a restaurant with a bar and I am just curious. I am curious about who is the important member in the bar-customer relationship. The customer is not always right. But should the restaurant also treat them like an inconvenience? We have a vibrating booth, well they will just have to suck it up if they want to be here. That’s not what they are thinking, but it’s a little bit how they are presenting themselves.

Let’s make this a thing. I will be tickled if people go to the Boynton and ask for the booth with the vibrating seat, the Good Vibrations Seat. Wouldn’t that be lovely. And let’s see how they respond to the wants and desires of their customers.

Until Next Time

Dave

Letter from the Drinking Town #10 – Scal’s

Dear Worcester,

There is a corner in Worcester, that has an establishment that is always one of two things: a bar or an empty storefront that used to be a bar. In the 18 years I have been in the Worcester area, it has been a variety of bars. The corner is Mill Street and Main. You can find it in Webster Square. It used to Noamesco, Crow Bar, End Zone, and there were others. The names went fast and furious. I just spent a little time searching for those names and could not find them. That seems apt to me, the names of failed bars should not be kept forever on the internet. The names of failed bars should be forgotten like that fourth or was it fifth shot of whisky.  The names of failed bars should only be recalled in a restless sleep and then dissipate once more soon after waking.

A friend told me stories about going to that bar twenty years ago. Due to one of the stories, he and his workmates called the bar the Four Buck Pub. The story was so unsavory, I will not repeat it. Let us just say that you don’t want to know what the four bucks paid for, and let’s be pleased the establishment has changed hands. And changed hands. And changed hands.

It is now called Scal’s. It just opened about a week ago. It had been closed for quite a few months and now once again it was a drinking establishment.

Another friend from Nick’s took me aside the other day and whispered that she saw me coming out of the bar Scal’s. “That place that’s always some bar in Webster Square.” I told her I was doing it for the gin and tonic tour and she felt a little better about the whole thing. She told me that it has been a bar forever, a bar she never felt the need to enter. She said it’s not a great area and the parking is awful around there.

I told her that I read on the bar’s facebook that they arranged late night parking in the Chinese Restaurant across the street on Main. (See, I do my homework.) We talked about the madness, the pure hubris, in expecting a bar to survive.

In town, a bar might run down to nothing and turn into a farm stand (like the Alibi) or be paved over for a highway like 146 (as in the case of the Irish Club). Some bars are just husks. Due to leins and restrictions, they are just skeletons, that remain and wither (Irish Times and others). These will never be bars again. They are just ghosts. Ghosts you walk by not noticing them. Only when you are thirsty and lonely does it appear on the side of your glance.

But this corner. This corner is but cursed to always rise again as another drinking parlor. Doomed for eternity. The zombie apocalypse can sweep through the streets of Worcester, and this place will open up once more, serving the finest brain gin fizzes.

I went on a Sunday, in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend. I think I got there around seven or so. It looks better than it used to.

I had not been into the bar that is now Scal’s for something like a decade. Maybe even longer. The new owners definitely improved it. The bar is in the back. It’s comfortable. There is a focus on sports on the flat screens and there is a pool table and an area for darts. About ten people were in there. The bartender didn’t know what to do for a standard gin and tonic and he went to, what seemed to be the owner, who informed him that he toss in a little Tanquray with tonic and that will do the trick. It did. A fine drink for six bucks. No complaints there.

Actually, there will be no complaints at all. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to judge a bar on the first few days. Yes, the only people there were friends of the bar. They all knew each other. It did feel like a club house with me elbowing in uninvited.

But it is brand new and it needs to build its brand. I hope that it will do well. I hope that it will thrive. But let me frank? Does Worcester need another joint with a dart board and a pool table? Is there too much of a log jam at the other 20 or so “sports bars” that there needs to be another? Do we require another flat screen laden wall showing Red Sox and ESPN 2? Do we need the same thing we have down the road, just in a cleaner, newer model?

I ask these questions not to be a jerk (being a jerk is just an added bonus) but because I really don’t know. Is there an endless need for a good bar? Are our alcohol drenched shoulders large enough to carry all comers across the river to success?

I hope so. I have seen too many bars disappear. I am almost relieved that there is  this corner, this bar phoenix, is here as a sign that the bar scene is not going away. So you want a bar in Webster Square, this one ain’t bad. Give it a try.

Until Next Time

Dave  

Letter from the Drinking Town #9 – Bull Mansion

Dear Worcester,

“So you are a reviewer,” the bar back said to me with a conspiratorial grin pleasantly widening on his face.

Reviewer, I don’t think that’s the proper name for me. I just go to a bar I have never been to and sit myself down and order a gin and tonic. I don’t eat at the places. I don’t stay an evening. I don’t enrobe myself in the atmosphere. I am here and gone. A dilettante. An itinerant drinker. Never to put roots down and call this stool my own.

And then I write it down like an ancient mariner with a martini olive around my neck instead of a dead waterfowl.

“No,” I said to the bar back, “just a guy having a drink.”

“You have to try the food.” This is what you say to a reviewer who’s opinion means something. Not to me. I am a blogger (a terrible person with a terrible monicker), I am a writer of letters that might as well be written to myself.

“Oh I will. But I’m just having a drink.” The bar back smiled larger and stared at me, like he knew a secret,a really cool secret.

Hell with it. I drank my cocktail quickly and walked out. I was caught. And I didn’t realize that one of the best parts about doing this tour of every bar in Worcester is that I can do this without anyone knowing what I am doing. That I am just what I appear to be, only another guy at a bar wanting to have a drink. Wanting to get lost in a glass.

The place I left quickly, was a new bistro on Pearl Street called Bull Mansion. It is actually an old mansion. Let me just say that it was lovely. The bar is small, but people are not there to drink. People were going upstairs to a Cocker Rocks show, I guess someone who played with Joe Cocker has a tribute show. Others were eating outside on the patio.

It was seven o’clock and people were dressed up and scented and ready to enjoy the confluence of pleasant weather and a Saturday evening. What a joy to have both things happen at the same time. Let’s sit in a beautiful environment and eat food, which a bar back assured was very good.

There was art on the walls, but my hasty retreat impeded my ability to tell you about it. Reviewer he called me. Would a reviewer have busted out before getting all the information on the joint? I don’t think so.

The stools at the marble bar are simple and they struck as me as perfect. No back on them, only a circle of wood attached to some metal. The bartenders were busy filling up the table order. I waited five minutes for her to acknowledge me. I must have had my“I am a very important person and I hate being ignored at a half full bar” face because she apologized to me about the wait. I tried to be cool with it. But I am not adept at nonchalance.

I got a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic in a large water glass (a nice water glass, but I am just trying to be accurate here). She asked if I want a lime, of course I do.  This was how a drink should be. A good amount of both gin and tonic. I enjoyed the drink, but that was until I had to swig that bad boy down and get out of there because of the grinning bar back. The drink was eight dollars.

There is a relaxed elegance to the place. People dress up a little bit. They are happy to be out. To be with friends. The bar is not a place to hang out and read the paper. This is the launch area before the table is ready. People came and got their martini glass drinks and talked loud.

If I have one complaint about Bull Mansion is the smell of it. Let me explain. The other day I went into the Ghanaian restaurant in town, Anokye Krom, to have a Guinness and I was greeted not only with friendly people and a cold beer but the wonderful aromas of stews and meats and spices. The place smelled like a good restaurant. It invited you to sit and drink and wait excitedly for the food to come.

At Bull Mansion, I was not enticed with the aroma of the food. I actually got no whiff of a chop or anything else. That was because all I smelled was everyone’s perfume and cologne. Every Time someone walked by, I was assaulted with another smell from laboratories. You got Chanel and Old Spice and I’m sure one of the guys was doused in Canoe (for the seventies throw back feel). It was a lot of impressing everyone with the odor you bathe your body in. And hey? What’s that smell of Patchouli doing there?

I could not taste the botanical notes in my gin and tonic with all these invading scents breaching.

But that was a minor complaint. It is a complaint about going out on a Saturday night. Might as well complain about women wearing ridiculously precarious high heels for all the good it will do.

I think I would have given this a short but enthusiastic little write up if it wasn’t for Maitre D Mal (Mal is short for a Malcom, or Malcontent. I can never remember which one it is)  He spied me as he sets up a table. He smiled and I give him a conspiratorial nod. He knows about this blog.

It was when I had the drink to my lips and was thinking of what I would say of it, what makes this gin and tonic different from any other, when Maitre D Mal came over draping his arm around me. “Are you having a gin and tonic? Are you doing your thing?”

“I’m having a drink,” I said haughtily. “Just minding my business.”

Mal doesn’t get my leave me alone look, or rather, he doesn’t give a shit. I’m writing about the place he’s working. How Nice. He asked about the recent entries to the blog. I answered quickly. He hugged me and went off. And that’s when the bar back, who has been listening asked that question that you all recall so clearly from the top of this letter, “So you are a reviewer?”

What am I anyway, I asked, as I quickly retreat. How was it that the Bull Mansion created such a moment of existential crisis inside me? Am I critic, a blogger, a reviewer, a nuisance, a walrus, a carpenter? So many choices.

The truth is I am a writer. I am a drinker. I am guy who is putting the two together and attempting to live to tell the tale.

Let us hope that next time I will not be seen. I will just be the extra in somebody else’s drama. I am just a witness. The kind that tips and leaves.

Until next time

Dante.