March 31st, 2009

Marliave – Best Boston bars

Restaurant Marliave

Established: 1885
Specialty: Cocktails, wine
Prices: Moderate
Atmosphere: A historic bar in downtown Boston that isn’t a tourist trap and mixes classic cocktails? We’re there. See Best Boston bars for address and contact info.

Drinkboston is wholeheartedly rooting for the new-and-improved Restaurant Marliave (10 Bosworth St. near Downtown Crossing), even though it still has some stuff to work out, vibe-wise. Chef Scott Herritt of the Grotto bought the 125-year-old establishment last year and reopened it as a three-level enterprise featuring an itty-bitty oyster bar on the first floor, a cafe-bar on the second floor and a fine-dining restaurant (with a small bar) on the third floor (3 floors + 3 bars = woohoo!).

The place is a historical, architectural treasure that I pray, given our economic predicament, can stick it out for the next few years to become a bulwark against the usual type of downtown Boston watering hole: corporate, expensive, dumbed-down. When people ask me, “I’m staying near Faneuil Hall, where can I get a good drink nearby?” and I have to tell them to get on the Red Line and go to Cambridge — well, that makes me mad. Now I tell them to go to the Marliave.

Herritt wanted his bar program to reflect the quality and thoughtfulness of his cooking (classic French, Italian, New England fare), so fresh-squeezed citrus and Kold-Draft ice became basics for a menu of classic and classic-influenced cocktails. (In fact, the Marliave was the first place in Boston to use Kold-Draft ice.)

Some of my faves are the Jennie Churchill (a good Manhattan, named after Winston’s American mom, with Rittenhouse rye, Noilly Prat sweet vermouth and bitters, garnished with a Luxardo cherry), the FDR (a tall pitcher of gin martinis — this is where the Kold-Draft ice, which melts slowly, is crucial — with Vya vermouth that you can share with friends), and the Molasses Flood 1919 (Sailor Jerry rum, molasses, fresh lime, bitters). Bar manager Jackie Ross, who worked at the Grotto and, before that, the B-Side, brings solid experience and a no-nonsense style to the job. Two other B-Side alums, Christopher Duggan and Al Harding, pull a few shifts here, too.

On some nights, the Marliave feels like it’s struggling to find energy. And sometimes — at least in the main bar, which is where I usually am — there’s a palpable lack of personality, which is only exacerbated by a too-large TV behind the bar. But I’m calling these quibbles for now. I wish the Marliave all the luck in the world, because downtown Boston needs it.

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21 Responses to “Marliave – Best Boston bars”

  1. Patrick

    I really wanted to love this place, but didn’t, on three visits. The giddy reviews I read made we wonder whether or not I was in the right place. My expectations were really high after reading about the “old-world charm,” and the mysterious “speakeasy” feel and atmosphere. I was hoping for a Locke Ober/Toro hybrid where old-world meets cool, not even close. If you look carefully around the room, second floor especially, they cut a lot of corners on the rehab, and the architecture just isn’t that special. I completely “get it” in terms of budget constraints, but I just wasn’t wowed by the original character and bones of the place, or what they did with it. One of the nights I was there the lights were much too bright, they were playing bad classic rock, and the bartender did nothing to mitigate the awkward vibe in the room. It all felt forced. The TV is just plain obnoxious for that little bar. I don’t think that’s a quibble at all. One of the servers agreed that they needed to lower the lights and light a few candles to hide the imperfections and create some ambiance. What I remember about the food and drinks is that they were just ok. I’m definitely going to try all 3 floors again with an open mind.

  2. ljclark

    Ouch, but I hear you, Patrick. Maybe someone will hear our plaintive cries.

  3. Arnold

    I really want to like this place, but after several visits (~5-6) it still strikes me as painfully pedestrian for drinks. Unfortunately, not only would I still send people to Silvertone in the case of your “I’m staying near Faneuil Hall…” scenario, but have actually left Marliave and went to Silvertone and received a better drink.

    On one occasion the bartender picked up the bottle of rye for my Churchill, realized it was basically empty, and then proceeded to use a bottle of bourbon sitting next to it without even asking me. When I called him on it he sheepishly asked if I wanted something else without apologizing. Additionally, twice I’ve noticed that my FDR was made with a non-Vya gin, again without notification.

    I guess I just believe that if you have a drink list with specific ingredients listed, those ingredients should be used in the particular drink. If unavailable, say so. No big deal. It is a different situation if I just asked for a “rye Manhattan” or even picking a brand–“Hendrick’s martini”–without specifying any other ingredient.

  4. Frederic

    I might return when someone can tell me when the allegedly good bartenders are working and/or they work out their consistency problems through training any one who steps behind the bar to be a competent bartender.

    I had a similar experience as Arnold’s where I didn’t get Vya as advertised (not sure if the menu has since changed) and he did not even put bitters into the Jenny Churchhill until I asked (at which point he put a literal drop instead of a dash as if he severely feared and did not understand cocktail bitters). At which point, I gave up and did my best to stifle my anger and finish my $10 Old Overholt Noilly Prat weakly bittered Manhattan (in my mind a $6 cocktail and one I can make at my house better for under $1.50) before bailing to go over to No. 9 Park for quality drinks for a few bucks more.

    A bar is only as solid as their weakest links. And the people I know who rave about the Marliave know which nights the solid links are at the stick and avoid the rest.

  5. k.

    i can’t say that i’m overly enthused about the drinks at marliave (thought the molasses flood is really quite nice). what i can say is that the cocktail menus (not the content but the paper) are disgusting. i so do not want to be handed a sticky, stained piece of paper listing $10 drinks, or — indeed — listing anything, ever. ick. i understand they’re going to get drinks slopped onto them; when they do they should be replaced. this lack of concern has kept me from trying the food — i can’t but help wonder if the kitchen is any cleaner.

    that said, it’s not a terrible place for oysters and cheap bottles of cava (which i can order without having to touch a menu). i actually like the room the large bar’s in (but, as has been said, it’d be better minus the television).

    i hope they pull together a bit. i don’t really care much for silvertone (there, i said it) so having a decent place in the marliave location would be fabulous. with any luck they’ll clean up their act.

  6. MC Slim JB

    I’m a fan of the food at Marliave, especially the cafe menu (though the After Five menu has gotten much more affordable and can now be ordered anywhere in the restaurant, not just the comparatively stiff upstairs dining room). If you sit at the right end of the cafe’s bar, you can look directly into that spanking-clean kitchen. That said, while I think the specialty cocktails are well-designed, I too have met up with some consistency problems at the bar.

    When the ex-B-Side crew is on duty, all is well: great hospitality, well-executed cocktails. On other nights, I’ve gotten a bartender who can’t seem to make anything, including the not-terribly-long specialty cocktail list and some well-worn classics, without resorting to a recipe book. As a result, I usually take a peek at the upstairs bar (a bit sleeker and cozier than the cafe one) to see who’s working there.

    All the elements are there for Marliave to become a Tier One (or at least One-A) cocktail bar. I think all it will take is a bit more leadership and training up and down the length of the bar staff.

  7. Randy H.

    I am frequent client of Marliave as it is close to my work. I go here instead of Silvertone because it’s usually slow and quiet. Admittedly I am not a super creative cocktail drinker and it’s somewhat easy to make standard martini so that seems well. However I would concur that the drinks are inconsistent. That said I am very interested in the atmosphere of bars and cocktail lounges. I do like the decor of the joint and honestly when you can get a seat at the tiny bar on the third floor it quite lovely. The TV is distracting but the worst is the music. If you have been here more then a few times the music never changes and is of the super generic doo-wop or whatever it is on a loop. I think a revamp of the music would help bring character to the bar that it lacks now and would help showcase the talents of the B-Side crew. Selfishly I would love for it to bring a little bit more to the character of the crowd as well which is usually of the after work boring variety. On a positive note, the folks there are super nice and all in all I am rooting for it.

  8. ljclark

    Amen, y’all. Regarding Silvertone … ever since they opened, my experience has been that it’s always mobbed. The bar area’s so tiny. This is a testament to the place, but it’s good to have other, more spacious, options.

  9. Patrick

    “…super generic doo-wop or whatever it is on a loop.”

    That sums it up perfectly, Randy. I’ve had the TV/music/ambiance discussion hundreds of times with customers and industry workers. In my opinion, a lot of restaurants don’t invest the time, effort or energy into their “music program,” and things get redundant and stale fast. I run into the same problem of hearing the same thing over and over at places I frequent. Too many places rely on the XM Satellite or one of the server’s playlists or CD’s. Lots of restaurants constantly agonize over the music issue. There’s got to be some entrepreneurial DJs and/or students who offer music programs for restaurants for short money. If not, it would be a nice niche for someone to fill. Sorry to stray so far away from cocktail talk. Good music, ambiance and energy make enjoying cocktails more fun. They also make you stay and drink more. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked out of a place, before or after one drink, because it was dead and no one seemed to care.

  10. ljclark

    Patrick, DO NOT apologize for “straying from cocktail talk.” It’s true that this blog has a big focus on cocktails, because the mixology renaissance is big news, but it is at its core a blog about “bars, bartenders and imbibing in Beantown.” I wholeheartedly agree that cocktails are just one part of what makes a great bar.

  11. intheq

    boy, am i relieved to see some folks out there feel the same way i do about marliave.

    over the course of four visits notable moments include:

    -being completely ignored even when on two occasions my group was the only party at the 2nd floor bar
    – one in our group was unfamiliar with aperol and asked what it was – the bartender said he didn’t know and walked away
    – i asked for a gin martini made with lillet instead of vermouth. bartender made it with vermouth then went over and discussed his mistake with another employee. he apparently thought not only would i not notice the difference but also that i could not hear him. making a mistake is one thing, but poor service and being inconsiderate is another.

    folks are being careful where they spend their restaurant dollars in this economy. it is foolish to have a great local, interesting history, and built-in clientele, and lose it to carelessness and ineptitude.

  12. Arnold

    “Regarding Silvertone … ever since they opened, my experience has been that it’s always mobbed.”

    Actually, if you go later in the night on a non-weekend night, not so mobbed. I’ve always been able to grab a seat at the bar at such times.

    Though what you describe as a problem for Silvertone seems to be the same for Drink at particular times. And I would argue its worse for a place like Drink where the emphasis is placed on interaction with the bartender just to figure what you want to order. My argument remains that they should institute a reservation policy like the Gibson or PX in the DC-area. But that would most likely clash with the the overall plan for the building’s other restaurants (i.e. Drink is not a stand alone establishment but one designed to fit into a larger–and more expensive than this present economy can probably support–plan).

  13. Br. Cleve

    I spent my childhood in the 60’s going to The Marliave, a special place for birthdays or Saturday supper after a movie at the Orpheum or Paramount. I rediscovered it in the 90’s, appreciating its old school red sauce, 50’s/60’s Italian music on the ancient lo-fi sound system, and, dare I say, retro charm. I was eagerly awaiting its re-opening, but was disappointed; my major gripe was that, by getting rid of all the booths, the noise level, due to the tin ceiling and tile floor, was completely unacceptable. No more charm or romance when all you can hear is the reverberation of everyones conversations and the sound of the TV. Some people think this adds “excitment” to a room. Why does it need a TV at all? Restaurant owners get so hung up on trying to be all things to everybody that the places become nothing to nobody. If I want generic I can drive to any joint on Rte 1, where I will pay less for an equally mediocre experience and have ample free parking, too.

    Thanks to Patrick for bringing up the music issue. Nobody gets it. Actually, a few do – Green St, Eastern Standard, & Drink all do pretty well. But once again, most owners are so afraid that if people hear music they don’t know, they will leave, so they get as generic as possible, believing that keeps the crowds coming in. When the Tiki Bar opened on Landsdowne St, I was hired to program the music. I soon learned that every 3rd song had to be a hit that everyone knew, in order to keep the customers “grounded”. I’ve had similar experiences with other music consulting jobs I’ve done. Music, lighting and decor create the ambiance that compliment the food and drinks, but many restaurant managers just haven’t figured that out. I guess they don’t teach that in kollidge! If I want “blazing hip hop and todays r&b” and top 40, I will go to the aforementioned Rte 1. At least it matches the ambience created by the hot Saugus chicks at Hooters.

  14. RJ

    Question (or moreso, comment)

    What is w/ the mindset that must equate “corporate” with dumbed-down? While I usually enjoy this blog, that comment is more-than-a-bit pretentious… open your minds a little bit!

  15. ljclark

    Well … didn’t exactly equate “corporate” with “dumbed-down,” I simply listed them as types of bars I don’t appreciate. And what exactly is pretentious about dissing bars that are corporate, dumbed-down or expensive?

  16. Patrick

    Hey RJ- I’m not sure where you are coming from with your comment. My perception of the original post is that Marliave had the potential to be a stand out amongst all of the other same old/same old ‘corporate’ options that suck. In my opinion, ‘corporate’ is dumbed down, and connotes nothing I want to be a part of. If hanging out at Smith and Wollensky with Fidelity and Putnam ‘Jr. Executives’ types, in their blue button-down shirts, screaming/bragging into their cell phones and at each other is your thing, then go for it. To me those places, and those people, are the antithesis of the cool that Marliave could be. I hope they get their act together.

  17. Arnold


    Have you been to Marliave right after 5? Or for that matter Silvertone or anywhere else in the general area?

    I don’t think it matters whether it is such places or something more “corporate,” you get a similar crowd.

    In fact, I’ve had some of the worst experiences at Marliave with older representatives of such tribes taking up many seats at the bar with their expensive bags hoping friends will show up while I just want a Manhattan-type drink (hopefully with the ingredients promised on the menu…) and not have to stand to enjoy it.

    It is later in the evening that the true character of the bar begins to reveal itself.

  18. Patrick

    Yes, I have been to the Marliave and Silvertone and several other places in the area right after work. I agree that most of them can attract a significant number of entitled “corporate-types” with an attitude. I guess the hope is that unique, non-chain, non-corporate places would minimize the loud, blue blazer, preppy/asshole crowd. The same crowd that you’d expect to see at typical chain hotel bar. I also agree that the true character of a bar is revealed well after “happy hour.” I usually wait until after the commuters go home to go out, and often avoid the weekend B&T crowds altogether.

  19. ljclark

    OK, guys, back up. When I say “corporate,” I’m talking more about the feel of a place — generally, a place that feels like it was built by a committee who spent more time designing the logo than the character and quality of the establishment — than its clientele. Sure, the clientele can contribute a lot to the feel of a place, and to whether or not I would want to spend time there. But it’s facile to hurl insults toward a sizable demographic in downtown Boston, many of whom appreciate as much as anyone a cool place that makes a good drink. I’m wagering that there are just as many young bike messengers as “older” blazer-wearing executives in bars who behave like assholes and bark into their cell phones. Hey, I work in an office every day, wear a trenchcoat and often go to bars at 5:30. Does that make me an asshole? It would suck if I felt like I had to change into jeans and wait until 9:00 p.m. to go to the bars that I like.

  20. Patrick

    I’m guilty of bringing this thread down an unintended road. When I first heard about The Marliave re-opening, I was hoping for something that had more neighborhood charm than I found on my first few visits there. I envisioned a Franklin Cafe’ or Green Street, but even more steeped in history. All of the talk about the speakeasy days created a vision and an expectation for me that wasn’t realized when I visited. The stark, second floor bar with the TV left a bad taste in my mouth, and I didn’t get the sense that The Marliave would be a refreshing alternative to a lot of other places with the same old vibe, and the same old crowd (Tia’s/Abe & Louie’s happy hour, ‘herd’, corporate-frat mentality). Generic, corporate places attract generic corporate crowds. I feel like The Marliave leans too much in that direction, and they didn’t have to, given the storied history they had working for them. I thought the vibe would have more of an underground edge, and wouldn’t attract the post-convention, tourist, suburban crowd. Who knows, maybe with some changes to the aesthetics and personnel, things will improve. I’ll probably still limit my visits to off-nights and off-hours to avoid the crowds, corporate or otherwise.

  21. Arnold

    I’ve gone from disagreeing with Patrick to agreeing with him. I feel pretty much the same way in terms of Marliave as he describes in his last post.

    And I’ll even put a sacred cow in play and say on purely aesthetic terms I would say Eastern Standard is pretty corporate. By that I mean if the bartending wasn’t so good (I think the food is overrated/overpriced) it would be pretty much a cookie-cutter type place. High ceilings are nice, but the overall design of the room is similar to other French-bistro type places I’ve experienced in other cities. Not quite the Irish pub design, but not so different from other “bistros.”

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