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Dec 15, 2012 10:28 AM

Speakeasy-Style Bars (with Great Mixologists) in Boston

I'm looking for a great bar with an upscale speakeasy vibe in Boston (think Milk & Honey in NYC or The Varnish in LA). The kind of place that has a top-notch Old Fashioned. It doesn't have to be secret or hidden, but a dark, vintage style would be ideal. Also ideal: not impossible to go with a decent size group.

Alternately, a great whiskey bar would be great, but again would like to keep away from anything with a sports-bar vibe. Thanks!

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  1. What's a decent-sized group? And what night of the week are you planning on going out?

    1 Reply
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I'd say the group will be around 8-10, give or take, and we'll be going on a Thursday night, on the later side, maybe 10:30 or 11. Would love to find a place where sitting at that hour wouldn't be a pipe dream.

    2. As a longtime fan of Sam Ross (he single-handedly introduced me to the magic of the cocktail at Little Branch) and as a fan of the hushed and relaxed atmosphere of Milk & Honey (or should we say Attaboy now?) I have to say there is no shortage of places that can make a top-notch Old Fashioned. The bigger challenge is the quieter and relaxing atmosphere and being able to go with a decent size group (I'm imagining this as more than 4 people).

      My first recomendation would be Hawthorne. Top notch cocktails, fantastic hospitality, although a swankier atmosphere than M&H (think Rain's law room in NYC). You can also make reservations. Eastern Standard, run by the same people, is next door if you want something a little livelier and is a good place for a larger group. Top notch cocktails as well.

      Probably the closest to the quiet, mellow, Milk and Honey ideal would be Backbar in Somerville despite my disappointment on my last visit with their lack of hospitality. You can make a reservation, it's dimly lit, and they certainly are talented cocktail makers. They seem to have a nice balance between classic and newer style drinks.

      Drink is certainly top-notch for cocktails in the Seaport, but it gets so crowded on the weekends and the lines get long that even though the drinks, atmosphere, and staff are incredible, I still get a bit of that meat-market vibe. I think it works much better at off-peak times.

      The bars at No 9 or Clio are similar in the sense that they both produce wonderful drinks in great atmospheres with great service, but are small and can fill up.

      Places like Brick & Mortar in Central Square and Green Street both make fantastic cocktails (Green Street is also super reasonably priced) and are a little less precious but no less precise in their mixing.

      After that there are a slew of places that are good if somewhat inconsistent depending on the bartender (blame it on the explosion of cocktails and the lack of great training), nevertheless recommended are: Russell House Tavern, JM Curley, Stoddard's, Saloon, Trina's Starlight Lounge. I'm sure other's will recommend more places.

      To summarize though, great cocktails can be found, but the hushed, quiet 25 seat atmosphere of Milk & Honey is tricky in a town where a liquor license can go for $450K.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Klunco

        I agree that Backbar may be ideal, though with more of an industrial loft feel. Though small, since they take reservations, it might be an effective route to guarantee seats.

        I think Hawthorne might work well for that sized group, and I doubt they would have trouble accommodating. However, its even more or a upscale modern sort of vibe than what I remember at Raines. (As an aside, with Katie Emmerson behind the bar, Raines analogy is especially apt.)

        Drink, Brick & Mortar, No. 9, Clio would all be very difficult to find 10 seats in. Although for places like Milk&Honey and the Varnish, a group of 10 would be similarly impossible.

        1. re: rlee21

          I have been in Brick and Mortar enough times where there are large blocks of seats at the bar. Probably not 10, but maybe 4 or 5, so some could sit and some could stand. This is not a guarantee of course, but I have seen a fair amount of room in there on busy nights in the past. I love the mezcal offerings they do at B&M if that is of interest.

          If you are willing to wait around a bit to get some space, this place could work.

          What night of the week are you looking to do this?

          1. re: ebone

            Brick & Mortar has tables that can probably seat 10 mostly in the front with one long one in the back. Plus, there are parts around the bar where large groups can stand with a ledge for resting drinks.

      2. I'd also suggest Saloon in Davis Square. They've got room for 8-10 people (generally, if it's not super crowded that night), have a great whiskey/bourbon selection, have a nice dim vintage look with lots of dark wood and a comfy utterly non-sports atmosphere, and mix up some tasty drinks -- and the food's good too. Get the fried pickled peppers and devils on horseback.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Boston_Otter

          Agree with the Saloon recommendation for the size of the party. Backbar (the other end of Somerville) is great for even four or five, but too cozy for that many people in one group.

        2. I don't do bars so this isn't a "based on experience" recommendation but my younger colleagues seem to like Lucky's Lounge and Eastern Standard as late-night meeting places. Darned if I know if they have a speakeasy vibe though.

          7 Replies
          1. re: teezeetoo

            Lucky's does have a speakeasy dive bar aspect to it. You could easily drive by it and not know it was open. Upscale it is not though, nor will there be top-notch Old Fashioneds. But the Bud Light will be cold and the Jameson poured to the top.

            Eastern Standard has great drinks and is upscale, but French brasserie is a better description.

            Here's an article talking about 3 legal speakeasy-style bars. Of the three, Brick & Mortar and Backbar serve quality drinks. Saloon is hit or miss and I had one of the worst experiences in years there (the people who seem to love it are often the ones who stick with whiskey served neat); no clue who still works there since much of the barstaff has moved on to Clio, Stoddard's, Blueroom, and elsewhere):

            Drink definitely has dark and vintage style down pat, but it's not a speakeasy. Stoddard's in Downtown also has an old time feel; surprisingly not too crowded on a Saturday, but crowded on Friday and other weekdays due to the work crowd; I have had really good luck at Stoddard's although that might not be fully universal.

            Of all the ones mentioned, Backbar would have the toughest ability to seat a large group, but possible if you make reservations. Drink is crowded every day of the week although right at open (4pm-5pm) is the best option for getting the bartender's ear and great seats.


            1. re: yarm

              The story link seems only available to members.

              It's a shame you had a bad experience at Saloon. I've never had a glass of neat whiskey there, only cocktails, and they've done alright by me.

              1. re: Boston_Otter

                Google " brick mortar saloon clio" and it will be the first link, and it will let you click through.

                Glad you had a good experience with the drinks at Saloon. I have heard mostly gripes though, but the place is often packed so they are doing something right.

              2. re: yarm

                lucky's may be in a bit of a hidey-hole, but it is not a craft cocktail destination by any stretch. nor does it offer any kind of laid-back vibe. after 10 on a thursday it's gonna be loud and packed with people tossing back shooters and bud light limes.

                i'll add a +1 for hawthorne.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  Agree. Lucky's was pretty good about a decade ago, but now it's not that different than many of the Faneuil Hall area bars. I wish people would stop recommending it.

                  1. re: DoubleMan

                    I've only been to Lucky's once for a friend's birthday but I'll say this: It was the only bar in the last five years where I felt had to complain about a short pour. Something that almost never happens in either jiggered or free-pour establishments.

                    Their defensive and then accusatory reaction showed me that this place has neither hospitality, well made, or even competently poured drinks and knocked it off my list permanently.

                    1. re: DoubleMan

                      I've had good Martinis there on a couple of occasions and get a kick out of the Sinatra nights (admittedly not the same since Al Vega passed). As long as you know what you're getting going in, I see no reason not to go there or recommend the place.

                      I actually have had worse experiences the last two or three times I've gone to Stoddard's, where I am yet to be convinced they have bartenders that are good at pouring cocktails or delivering good service.

              3. No one has mentioned the Marliave yet. They have a separate downstairs bar that they may even call a speakeasy. You have to ring the bell to get in. It is very small though, and 8-10 people would be close to filling it up. I have had good cocktails there (negronis and manhattans mostly).

                7 Replies
                1. re: ebone

                  twice i have had to stop bartenders at marliave from putting dry vermouth in my negroni. i've given up on the place.

                  1. re: ebone

                    Marliave is a historical speakeasy.

                    They did put effort in to hiring B-side alums to start their bar program, but it faltered when they weren't actually at the bar. When they moved on, the bar program has been consistently inconsistent.

                    I considered my expedition there as a grand waste of $10 and I was pondering if it was worth finishing it. It would take some really good reviews before I trusted them with my business.

                    1. re: yarm

                      We seemed to get the same guy every time we went last winter and he knew what he was doing, but I also don't believe he works there anymore. So caveat emptor I suppose...

                    2. re: ebone

                      Bar staff turnover is the problem at Marliave. I get over there pretty regularly (my boss likes it), and I've seen three dozen faces behind that bar since Scott Herritt bought the place. Some are good, others not so good.

                      The distinction I always make is, "star bartender" vs. "strong cocktail program leadership". One gifted individual is only useful if she's there when you go and is serving your corner of the bar. The really successful, consistent programs in town have a culture that educates and constantly refreshes the bar staff in all aspects of the job: the technical chops, the scholarly side of things (building an encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients, cocktails, history), hospitality.

                      You used to be able to count the latter type on the fingers of one hand, but the situation is slowly improving. I think bars are figuring out that hiring a consultant to design a menu and then fly away, or hire one star bartender away from the really serious places, isn't enough to build and sustain a reputation for craft cocktails. Any place that doesn't invest in training and education tends to wither quickly.


                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                        I would agree with that.

                        My comment was geared more towards the space than the cocktail program.

                        1. re: ebone

                          while i appreciate the history of the place and the overall atmosphere, none of that can overcome such inconsistency in execution. particularly when it's trying to brand itself a certain way and mostly failing.

                          why send out-of-towners (or friends, for that matter) to a venue likely to disappoint?

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            I suppose the same way people can talk about their bad experiences, I believe it is fair for me to say mine have been good. I am aware that they are not up to par with places like Brick and Mortar, Drink or Hawthorne in terms of their cocktail program, but my personal experiences have been positive. Maybe I lucked out and had the right bartender when I went, but I stated that as well. I felt it worth mentioning for the atmosphere and that can be taken into account with all the other mentions. The poster can take all of these into consideration and make their own decision.