A great bar, like any that make the “Best Boston bar” list, should have at least three out of these four things:
Great drinks – If a bar pays attention to the quality of the drinks, chances are that all else will fall into place.
- Cocktails – Complex, vintage or vintage-inspired cocktails (Sazeracs, Jack Roses, Pegu Clubs, etc.) for grownups, not overly sweet, dumbed-down, flavored-vodka ‘tinis. Fresh-squeezed citrus juices, no sour mix. Proper chilling and appropriate-sized glassware (nothing’s worse than a 12-dollar, 12-ounce glass of warm gin).
- Beer – A selection of brews that departs from the usual “package deal” — e.g. Bass/Harp/Guinness, Bud/Coors Light/Killian’s Red, Mich Ultra/Blue Moon/Stella Artois — that distributors sell to bars functioning on autopilot. Interesting American craft beers, lesser known imports, and retro chuggers (Black Label, Schafer) show that the bar manager has put some thought into the beer list.
- Wine – A selection that includes a decent number of solidly good wines at a fair price. More bars and restaurants should stop treating wine as a precious commodity; it’s meant to be drunk, not worshipped.
A great bartender doesn’t just make perfect cocktails (see above), pour a beer in the correct glass with a proper head, and stay on top of his customers’ needs. He (and she — that’s a given from here on in) is also able to suggest the appropriate cocktail after talking to you for 15 seconds. He’ll offer you a taste of a wine or a beer to make sure you like what you’re buying. If you’re a woman sitting at the bar alone, he’ll check on you in a friendly but not-obvious way. If there’s an obnoxious clod poisoning the atmosphere, he’ll see that that person is ejected from the bar with a minimum of fuss. In general, great bartenders have that rare ability to make their customers feel not only like they’re at a groovy party but that they’re the special guests.
A genuine vibe
What we mean is homegrown atmosphere that comes naturally from a mixture of the staff, the drinks, the clientele, and the music. Not one that shouts, “Cashing in on a trend,” “Liquor ‘em up and they won’t notice we have no identity,” “Irish pub from a kit,” or “This is what we think bars in New York are like.”
In Boston, history matters, and what’s better than visiting a Boston landmark that happens to serve drinks? A place like Locke-Ober might be the last one we’d recommend — Brahmin snobbery hangs heavy in the air, and the drinks are expensive as hell — if it weren’t one of the oldest, nicest-looking bars in America. It’s worth it, at least once, to stop by for a Martini and a plate of oysters. The same goes for other historic Boston bars that might be tourist-ridden (the Black Rose, the Union Oyster House and anything else near Faneuil Hall), slightly off the beaten path (Doyle’s, the Warren Tavern), or snooty (the bar at the Ritz, the Oak Bar).