February 1st, 2010

Locke-Ober – Best Boston bars


Established: 1875
Specialty: Wine, Martinis, Manhattans
Prices: High
Atmosphere: “Locke’s has no peer and few rivals. And the top-hatted ghosts at its bar are those great of the legendary past: Eben Jordan and Theodore Roosevelt, John Drew and Dr. Lowell. They are all drinking Ward Eights with Nick (Stuhl) and Mr. Camus and the founding fathers, Locke and Ober.” — Lucius Beebe. See Best Boston bars for address and contact info.

Oh, Locke-Ober. You’re like a politician who has been in office forever. Your stunning longevity, and all the historic moments in which you’ve played a part, give you an aura of grandeur. In your presence, people speak in hushed tones. You are an institution. But oh, how you rest on your laurels. How you favor the cronies who have propped you up and who expect things to be done a certain way. How you sometimes just seem like a decrepit, old man.

Because of the latter traits, the bar at Locke-Ober is probably the worst Best Boston bar. I am conflicted about the place. I love going there, often on my own, ordering a Martini and a bowl of JFK Lobster Stew, and feeling like a part of Boston history. But whenever I go, I think about how much better it could be.

I am far from being a regular — I don’t have that kind of money, and it’s not the kind of place where I run into people I know — but from what I’ve observed, the bar experience doesn’t come near the quality of the dining room experience. Locke-Ober is famous for its waiters who have worked there for decades. I notice that when they come to fetch a drink order at the bar, their poise and professionalism usually stand out in contrast to that of the bartenders. The bar seems to lack such elder statesmen.

Not that tending bar at Locke-Ober should require only elders, or men. In 2001, Lydia Shire took over the kitchen at this male-dominated institution (it took until 1970 for women to be admitted to the dining room!). She updated the food to meet contemporary fine-dining standards while ensuring the quality of classic Locke-Ober dishes like Dover Sole and the abovementioned stew. My dream is for someone to swoop in and similarly improve the bar. I mean, doesn’t it violate some city statute that the place that invented the Ward Eight makes perhaps the worst example of that cocktail in Boston? Crown Royal, sour mix and cheap grenadine — on the rocks. Yikes. Recently, someone ordered a Martini with a twist and got a dried-out, pithy peel that had been cut hours before. And the service at the bar is decent but lacks that special flourish you expect to find at the city’s oldest and most famous fine restaurant. It seems obvious that Locke-Ober’s dedication to excellence should apply to bartending, but the management has yet to subscribe to that idea.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep going back to toast the top-hatted ghosts, and urging history-minded visitors to do the same, as long as the place is around. I am hopeful that progress can happen, even at Locke-Ober.

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26 Responses to “Locke-Ober – Best Boston bars”

  1. the modern serf

    so when will we see the best of the worst bars in boston? I’d love to hear your take on the Model (including the pronunciation.)

  2. ljclark

    Ha! That’s an excellent question, modern serf. Right, I’ve heard there’s confusion over the pronunciation of the Model. I’ve usually heard it pronounced like fashion-model, and whomever answered the phone over there just now pronounced it that way, too.

  3. Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap

    I hope the powers that be hear your legit criticism of the LO bar- nothing is more disheartening when you’re in a place you know could and should be better, especially this bastion of old school history.

    Martinis and lobster stew – I’m heading there next time I’m home for sure ( too bad I can’t expense it to Retro Roadmap yet!)

  4. MC Slim JB

    I’ve always found the below-average cocktails at Locke-Ober puzzling and a crying shame, given its history and the beauty of the space. Shire is clearly capable of putting together a good if not extraordinary bar program, as she has done at Biba, Pignoli, and Scampo, so my best theory is that she simply doesn’t want that business at Locke-Ober. I figure it must have been a deliberate decision to keep the focus on the dining room trade.

  5. Br. Cleve

    Recently watched a “lost” film noir from ’52 titled “Walk East On Beacon”, one of the 2 noirs filmed in Boston, and it has a scene filmed at Locke-Ober. The drinks look better then than they do now! I used to DJ at LO when it had a club scene going there in the late 90’s; I remember ordering a Ward 8 and it being the worst drink I’d ever had (similar to the experience of having a Singapore Sling at Raffles Bar, where that drink was invented, in Singapore : maybe the second worst drink I’d ever had!). I wish they could get it right there, at least with the classics. Maybe the bulk of the patrons just don’t care. Slim is undoubtedly right that its a deliberate decision.

    btw, when I lived in Allston in the mid-70’s, neighborhood folks pronounced it the Moe-del'(emphasis on second sylable), for what it’s worth. Similar to how locals pronounce Treh’-mont, not Tree-mont. I go with the local everytime/everywhere.

  6. ljclark

    Mod Betty, let me know when you’re in town – we’ll go together.

    Slim and Cleve, you’re probably right about the sub-par drink-making at L-O being deliberate, which makes it even sadder. ‘Let’s keep serving these crappy Ward Eights. Our clientele doesn’t give a crap anyway.’ Why bother serving them at all, then?

    Wow, Cleve, I gotta get my hands on that film. And thanks for enlightening us about the Model/Moe-del.

  7. MC Slim JB

    What’s the other Boston noir: Mystery Street, perhaps?

    I remember attending some of those Yvonne’s parties back in the day (my then-girlfriend and I were invited as punk-rock color, I guess), but I sure don’t remember the drinks.

    I’ve only lived in Boston for 30 years, but the only TREEmont Street I’ve ever heard is on the Silver Line recorded announcements.

    My guess is that L-O isn’t pro bad drinks, but doesn’t want to build a bar scene there at all with good ones. They see the bar as some hotels see their restaurants: best left half-empty so that regular guests aren’t ever inconvenienced by crowds.

  8. ljclark

    Punk-rock color, Slim? That I would like to have seen. You’re probably right about the philosophy behind the L-O bar. It’s ironic, though, given that founding father Frank Locke ran a famed, gaudy saloon on the premises called Frank Locke’s Wine Rooms. I’m going to keep beating this dead horse: I don’t see how using good rye whiskey, fresh lemon juice and real grenadine in a Ward Eight, or cutting citrus peel to order, would suddenly summon stampedes that would offend L-O’s gentry. Some of the regulars might actually be impressed with that extra touch of quality to which they’re so accustomed in the dining room.

  9. Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap

    LJC, sounds like a plan- LO is definitely Retro Roadmap-worthy and I’m back up at home nowadays more often than not. Would love to see LO through your expert eyes! Can’t believe they’d really make a conscious decision to make bad drinks, it boggles the mind.

  10. Br. Cleve

    Yes Slim – “Mystery Street” is the other Boston shot noir (starring Ricardo “rich Corinthian leather” Montalban); it’s a better film but “Walk East On Beacon”, a “Red scare” flick, has better Boston location shots, including Scollay Square (a great scene where you can see Jack’s Lighthouse Bar and The Tasty, with The Half Dollar Bar about a block away) Sadly, “Walk East..” has never been on VHS or DVD, but bootlegs are available, as the film has been shown on TCM.

    Slim: As a bartender, I had customers ask for TREE-mont Ale about 60% of the time! Why does your news of the MBTA not surprise me?!?

    And yes Lauren, no matter what L-O’s bar concept is, the least they could do is get the Ward 8 right. Last one I had there had sour mix in it (2 years ago)

  11. stephen

    when i worked there maybe four years ago (as a waiter but avid home bartender), i had made them their first real grenadine in countless years. there wasn’t much interest so it didn’t last long and they were back to the awful roses stuff. there kind of was the attitude that people should just be happy to be in the historic rooms.

    strangely at the same time, lydia was doing a kurobuta pork dish that featured her handmade maraschino cherries which were pretty good. the kitchen made tons of these gorgeous cherries but none made it to the bar which used industrial ones.

    well, i tried.

  12. ljclark

    Thank you for trying, Stephen.

  13. Randy

    That’s like the irony of virtually every mai tai-serving bar on Oahu. They all claim to make the world’s best mai tai, when actually t’s pineapple juice and an ungodly float of shitty dark rum.

  14. p. gin

    lauren – you know my sad story but i’ll publish it here for posterity.

    my birthday. locke-ober. negroni. orange juice.

    haven’t been back since, and that was several years ago. it was so bad that k. secured the badnegroni.com website for which we had grand plans of unmasking the worst best bars as the frauds they are. well, we never did anything with it — but i’m very glad to see your post. sometimes a little toughlove is needed. locke-ober would need only the tiniest buzz about a real bar program to change its image and get us all to flock there in support.

  15. Adam

    A slight tangent, but has anyone on this thread actually had a good (let alone great) Ward Eight? I mean good in that transcendent sense common of the best of the classic cocktails (when well-crafted), where a sip transports you. I’ve had this sensation with an Old Fashioned, a Mai Tai, a Negroni, and many other classics–but never the Ward Eight, which seems to be always a bit too sour, a bit too sweet, a bit too fruity, or a bit too something else.

    I’ve ordered the drink a few times out and messed with it at home and have come to the conclusion that–at least by my taste–it’s simply not a very good drink, even with the best ingredients. Now I’m wondering if I’m missing something, or if the real interest in this drink is merely historical. If someone has a truly great and optimized ratio, please share.

  16. Br. Cleve

    Go light on the lemon juice…1/4 oz. Add the 1/2 oz orange juice that is sometimes called for in the variation recipe. Use rye instead of bourbon (Old Overholt is fine), and use 2 oz of it. Use crushed ice, and the best pommegranite grenadine you can make. Basically, it’s a glorified Whiskey Sour.

  17. Mattfish

    I agree with Cleve; I like the orange juice Ward Eight because it differentiates itself from other sours and the Jack Rose. It may not be transcendent but it’s distinct enough.

  18. ljclark

    Gotta be the contrarian here. I prefer it without the OJ. I favor this recipe: http://drinkboston.com/2009/05/08/ward-eight/

    This drink, like a whiskey sour, is a beautiful thing when made properly — to the drinker’s liking!

  19. Mark

    the David Wondrich recipe in Imbibe! is pretty good too. It has the the OJ and adds fresh mint.

  20. hubert

    Last time I was in L-O, I asked them whether they had any Punt y Mes and they didn’t know what it was…

  21. MC Slim JB

    I get a lot of blank looks in Boston bars when I mention Punt e Mes. My favorite dumb response to an order of a Negroni is, “We don’t have that”, like they think it’s a brand of beer or something.

  22. Joe G

    Man! I thought I was the only one who ran into a bartender who thought Negroni was an Italian beer. The funny thing is that it happened at the same bar where an hour earlier, a different bartender made me a great one (Intermission Tavern).

  23. How To Drive Blog Traffic: Write Great Headlines

    […] post that might be worth reading, but it took me a second to find it. DrinkBoston’s “Locke-Ober – Best Boston Bars” at least teases me that I’m going to find out which bars in Boston are good. It turns […]

  24. mimi taylor

    I remember LO when you could dine in the private upstairs for birthday or other celebrations or to meet your lover(I felt so French)
    Woman were only asllowed before the 70s, twice a year, afterthe Harvard/Yale Game and New Years Eve,

  25. mimi taylor

    P.S. You forgot to mention in your best Bar section, The Rendezvous in Cambridge.
    Also who makes the best Basil Gimlet. So far I vote the Casablanca
    and Le Bouchee. The bar tender at The rendezvious never heard of it but after two tries, I was happy.

  26. george moore

    i lived in worcester for many years. L-O was my destination in Boston. No other place like it any where. Such great ambiance. Now live in Panama (Central America not Florida.
    george moore

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