Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Irish Pubs Part 5

Conveniently located between Harvard and Porter Square, Temple Bar offers a warm and welcoming charm. Accented by exposed brick, oversized mirrors, lights and booths and an oak enamored paneling, guests enjoy the buzz and excitement of Temple Bar.

While waiting for a table, guests are drawn Temple Bar's unique copper bar. Alive with people it offers conversation and a chance to unwind.

The late night lounge scene brings a trendy and intimate atmosphere completed with Temple Bar's signature Drink List.
-from the website of Temple Bar, pictured above

Cambridge, which borders both Boston and Somerville, has always had a reputation for marching to the beat of a different drummer. This is why it's not surprising that, in the shadow of Harvard University, Irish immigrants were busy hatching pub schemes that deviated a bit from the model previously discussed.

I went to work at the Harvard Square House of Blues around Thanksgiving of 1996. One of my fellow junior managers was a likeable young Galway native named Ultan and nicknamed "The Horse". Ultan had a second job bartending at Harvard Square's first immigrant pub, called Grafton Street, on Tuesday evenings.

Grafton Street was on Massachusetts Avenue in the former location of a goofy 1970s concept restaurant called One Potato Two Potato. I went there the afternoon that I got my first HOB paycheck on Ultan's recommendation. Expecting the uniformity I had come to know from these pubs in three short years I was surprised, though not pleasantly, when I arrived there.

Grafton Street had emphasized interior decoration and ambient lighting to the point of poor taste. It was expensive and full of people putting on heirs. The most charitable description I could come up with for the food was "interesting".

Rather than go the bland pub food route the cooking team at this tavern overcompensated by taking a kitchen sink approach to the use of spices and sauces. The cuisine called to mind the creations of overzealous, pubescent home economics students. People still "ate it up", to turn a phrase. After all Grafton Street was a place to "be seen".

A couple of years later the proprietors of Grafton Street would open an even more grandiose pub further up Massachusetts Avenue towards Harvard Law School. Nearly everyone I knew was mortified as our beloved Nick's Beef and Beer morphed into Temple Bar, a venture that reached new heights in off the boat opulence.

While Grafton Street retained some Irish trappings Temple Bar would have been more at home on Boylston or Newbury Streets in Boston's Back Bay than in Cambridge. It was more of a trendy, post modern restaurant than a pub. The young and international crowd reflected this.

The blending of Crimson and Green would continue into this decade in and around Harvard Square. Grafton Street closed only to reopen an equally gaudy bar of the same name a block up the road. Daedelus opened on Mount Auburn, and when I scouted it as a place to take a date once the mincing maitre'd glared at my Slapshot t-shirt.

And there was the third salvo fired by the Grafton Street/Temple Bar owners on the everyday drinkers of Cambridge.

Though I was no longer at The House of Blues when it opened earlier in this decade Redline, a trendy basement Bistro, had replaced an old after work haunt of mine from those days called The Crimson Sports Grill. Redline was another fruit-flavored, overpriced travesty.

Things came full circle when a chain called Tommy Doyle's opened in the former House of Blues, which they of course painted deep green. Figuring that the market was saturated with swank lounges they returned to deep fried form and got back to brass railing basics. When I visited last year it looked almost exactly like the Irish Embassy I remembered from more than a decade prior.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Irish Pubs Part 4

The remainder of the 90s would prove to be a tumultuous time for me, primarily because of a young, troubled divorcee named Heather who I lived with in the Back Bay. When The Causeway closed I settled into my last two club jobs, at TT the Bears and The House of Blues, both across the river in Cambridge, and continued to freelance for my friend Mike Higgins’ sound company.

This was when the Irish pub thing was really starting to snowball. “Invasion of The Bar Snatchers” we called it.

It was already starting to become a cliché when I moved into a “breakup insurance” apartment in Somerville in 1995. As if some sinister corporation in Dublin was secretly pulling the strings venerable old taverns were being turned into spiffy McBars on what seemed to be a daily basis. Though independently owned these new, immigrant establishments were remarkably similar to one another in beer selection, menu and décor.

Those first few months I was in Somerville the closest bar to my house was called O’Malley’s. Nondescript on the outside the interior was frozen in the 1960s. Naugahyde barstools skirted the bar and there were filthy mirrors everywhere. Yellowed posters for “Midnight Cowboy” and “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” that had probably been hung when those films were current remained as did a vinyl jukebox that I remember featuring “Society’s Child” and “The Peppermint Twist”.

On my first visit to O’Malley’s, at about three in the afternoon on a weekday, the only people in the place were the fat, gruff, forty-ish bartender and two old drunks face down on the bar like bookends. I was a little put off at first, especially since one of the drunks was drooling on the bar, but I was sold when I paid for a Budweiser and a shot of Beam with a fiver and received a dollar in change!

I maybe went in there five more times and then one winter day I found this curious relic shuttered. A few days later my “break up insurance” roommate Aldo and I heard the news. They were opening an Irish immigrant pub where O’Malley’s had been.

Already tired of the trend Aldo and I had a lot of laughs speculating on the name and style of the new Irish pub.

“They should call it ‘The Troubles”.

“How about ‘The Bobby Sands’? "

“Do you think they’ll have Guinness and boneless tenders? That would be a first!”

When the bar finally opened it would be called “The Thirsty Scholar” but in mocking the accents of the owners and staff Aldo and I would from then on refer to it as “The TIRSTY”. They did indeed have Guinness and boneless tenders and the bar was well groomed and boring as hell.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Irish Pubs Part 3

Pictured above is The Harp, The Causeway's immediate neighbor and the bane of our existence from 1993-1996 when we were open for business.

It's hard to imagine a more noxious mix of clientele than that of the Harp, either today or back in that era.

To start with there were the usual suburban idiots who had issues with holding their liquor. Add in college kids with the same problem, genuine tough guys from Charlestown, and shady immigrants who reeked of housepaint and cheap whiskey and you had constant trouble that often spilled over into our little club.

We had hard, physical bouncers for a reason but in spite of their skill and dedication Martin and I had to get in on the action more than a few times, and even the girls had run ins with The Harp's jetsam once or twice.

You'd never guess that it was such a bloodbath from a visit during the day. Like Paddy's and The Embassy it was all "nice" inside, a pattern that was leading me to believe that these new Irish felt guilt about drinking, or being in the booze business, and that dressing things up assuaged that guilt. Or it could have provided an excuse to charge fifty cents more for everything than American owned bars did.

A couple of The Harp's bartenders drank at The Causeway and one of them, after drink number six, would inevitably start talking about how he was an IRA operative. I guess it's the Irish version of telling tall tales about high school sports glory because a lot of immigrants claim to be in secret brigades when they get liquored up.

Sadly The Harp is still thriving even as The Embassy and Paddy's have closed and the drum is beating slowly for McGann's.

Irish Pubs Part 2

After eating a very bland meal and talking shop with Phil for a bit I left The Irish Embassy and took the B train home to Allston.

I didn't think about the Irish Embassy for awhile. I was fully invested in the new rock club and often distracted by the business of being a single 26 year old guy. I could drink for free at The Causeway and when I wanted to eat I'd go to The Bull and Finch, a divey BBQ joint on the same street as the Embassy which had really good food.

A few months later, steps from the Embassy, I found myself at another Irish immigrant bar called Paddy Burke's. Paddy's was actually four tiny bars stacked on top of one another and connected by an elevator. They only opened all four floors for Garden events.

The Causeway bartender and I found ourselves on the ground level one day. After taking in an afternoon of tough guy hardcore we decided to repair to Paddy's for some drinks and grub before the evening's indie rock show.

As I worked on my flavorless, stringy chicken sandwich one of the pub's immigrant regulars approached us. He was stereotypically shitfaced.

"How do you like the pub?"

"Well, to be honest the food could be a lot better," I replied. The bartender glared at me.

The regular proceded to tell me that he, like the owners of Paddy's, the Embassy and our awful neighbor The Harp, was part of a vanguard that would forever change the face of drinking in Boston.

"Just you wait and see," he offered. "Every time a bar closes in your city an Irish pub will open in its place."

That prediction proved to be remarkably accurate for the remainder of the young decade.

Irish Pubs Part 1

In July 1993 Martin Doyle and I had a mid afternoon meeting with his business partner and Phil Davidson. Phil owned Taft Sound, the company that was installing the PA at the soon to be opened Causeway club. It was a routine, uneventful discussion of money and microphones that I mention for only one reason. It was the first time I had ever been to an Irish immigrant bar.

Due to construction at the Causeway club itself and the general Sinatra and Sambuca chaos at The Penalty Box Lounge downstairs Martin decided to hold the meeting at the newly opened Irish Embassy Pub up the road.

“The Embassy”, as it was already being called, was just off of Causeway Street on a run down block of old brick buildings and makeshift parking lots for Boston Garden events. It’s exterior was that of a pub one would find (or more accurately imagine finding) in Ireland. The entrance’s facade was painted green with it’s name in gold letters with a Gaelic font. Hanging over the entrance were Guinness and Bass signs.

Inside was a square room with exposed brick walls and ordinary bar trappings like dining tables, a juke box, pool tables and bric a brac. What stood out was the bar itself. Long and made of fine wood it sported finished wooden stools and brass railings. A large mirror behind the bar had the establishment's name elegantly painted in gold leaf. There were smaller mirrors throughout the room in honor of the parent bar in Ireland, called McGann’s, and various European beers. I was not used to seeing this kind of opulence in a bar. Restaurants and hotel lounges, sure, but the first thing I wondered was how much money this cost them and why they would spend it on a place designed primarily for heavy drinking.

Unlike the down and dirty places I was used to drinking at The Embassy served food, and it was as I read the menu that the talk turned away from our new venture and towards theirs.
I learned from Martin, who had been having lunch and other meetings there all week, that aside from the pub in Ireland that bared his name John McGann had been running a bar in Falmouth on Cape Cod since the 1970s. Though opened with doing a brisk business from The Garden’s winter games in mind The Embassy, in late June and early July, was already making a lot of money. Nearly all of it was being made from young Irish immigrants and college students from “The Old Sod” visiting on J1 visas to explore America while working for shady painting contractors. There was, in fact, a hostel upstairs.

On Mamalukes

In the strange and fading realm of small time rock and roll there is a type of sycophant known as a mamaluke.

A mamaluke is someone who latches on to a band, usually an upwardly mobile one, and attempts to enjoy all of the priviledges of a roadie without doing any of the work. A 'luke will almost never pay a cover at shows and be a frequent backstage presence.

It's important to emphasize the difference between a scenester and a mamaluke. While a scenester often attaches more importance to his fanzine or radio show than it is due the very fact he is doing something useful precludes him from being a mamaluke. Mamalukes don't do anything at all, which is why they are sometimes called "stage potatoes".

While less common than band mamalukes nightclub mamalukes also exist. I worked at the Middle East when it was the hottest club in town and quite a few people 'luked us.

Martin Doyle was an expert at making them useful, and therfore no longer mamalukes. For about a month I had my own chauffeur. Martin had taken a useless, Middle East obsessed 'luke and given him his dignity back by transforming into an avuncular manservant who drove his soundguy around.

This piece was inspired in part by an online discussion with Mark Lind, Tom Walsh and Mark Vieira.