Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a cocktail bar near Boston that would rather be silly than big-city stoic.
LOCATION: Union Square, Somerville, Massachusetts
ON THE JUKEBOX: Mos Def, The Pixies, Kermit Ruffins
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Union Mule: gin, apple brandy, St. Germain, lemon juice and housemade ginger beer
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Model T: Jim Beam Black bourbon, sweet vermouth, yellow Chartreuse, Angostura bitters and a spritz of clove-infused rum
WHY WE LOVE IT: Finding Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a bit of a going-through-the-closet-and-getting-to-Narnia experience. Boston’s T doesn’t reach this part of town, and the bar’s doorway is not well marked. Ask for directions on the street and you’ll be pointed down an alleyway in search of a tiny orange door. “I appreciate the fact that we’re in a little bit harder to get to neighborhood,” says co-owner and bar manager Sam Treadway. “Once you get through the door, you have to walk down a long hallway and then you magically end up at a really cool cocktail bar.”
Inside, the bar still has the industrial feel of the 1921 Ford dealership that used to occupy this space. The floors are the original concrete—and even have some of the original oil stains—and the walls are brick, newly smeared with graffiti art and chalkboard paint. And the backbar (get it?) is a zig-zaggy pattern of wooden shelves that jut out at random angles.
Backbar’s cocktails are known for being particularly strange or show-stopping, like its Caipirinha served over arugula ice cubes and its Singapore Sling for two that comes in a large, copper pineapple. Then there are plenty of rotating specials, including an old-school milk punch that changes every week. The bar just featured a chicken and waffles version. “It’s a fun challenge to come up with flavors that people can recognize as unique and crazy, but also make them taste good so they want to keep sipping on it,” Treadway says.
From 4 P.M. to 6 P.M., Backbar offers “Genius Hour,” a cheeky response to the state’s no-happy-hour law. It is illegal to discount alcohol during certain times of the day in Massachusetts, so during Genius Hour, Backbar turns on the Wi-Fi and sells specialty snacks like made-from-scratch ramen that aren’t available the rest of the night.
Despite the crowds, Treadway says the bar still has the feel of a neighborhood hangout. He recalls one night when a regular was chatting up a man who had never been to Backbar before and then offered to let him try her drink. The guy was a little put off by this. “And then my regular said, ‘well mi casa es su casa!’" Treadways says. “I just loved that she was taking ownership of this space and it felt like an extension of her home.” The bar has become more to Treadway as well. “When we first opened I thought my passion was cocktails. And yes, cocktails are a nerdy hobby of mine, but I’ve learned that my real passion is trying to make someone’s day a little bit better.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep