For a place with such a hard-drinking and sports-drunken reputation—it’s usually both things at once—there’s a lot that’s counterintuitive about Boston’s bar culture. For one thing, there aren’t all that many great sports bars to speak of. Cavernous, panopticon-like sports theme parks notwithstanding, technically speaking, almost every bar within punching distance of 495 counts as a sports bar as long as the TV is running. And it’s always running.
Secondly, most of the best bars in Boston aren’t even in Boston. As in many cities, skyrocketing real estate prices, and—due to our own unique blend of Puritanical tradition and institutional graft—the artificial scarcity of liquor licenses available, have conspired to affect a sort of homogenization of bar culture. It’s just not possible to run a business around here selling $2 Coors Lights at a place with, let’s call it, “character,” or for a new owner to take much of a chance on a unique concept that doesn’t have broad appeal. Instead you’ll find most of Boston’s best bars in the adjacent cities of Cambridge, or Somerville, or in even further flung suburbs.
None of which is to say there isn’t an overabundance of world-class bars here, or to dismiss Boston’s role as one of the most prominent cities in the cocktail renaissance of the past decade. You could spend a year drinking your way through our best bars and never have to repeat yourself. Which is why, when thinking about what qualities to take into consideration when compiling this list—never an easy task—the simplest solution seemed to me the wisest one. Forget the ones that I think are the consensus Quality and Notable Bar nominees, or the ones that might seem controversial, but instead I asked myself: Which bars do I find myself repeatedly returning to?
Here they are below. Your mileage may vary of course, but that should give us something to argue about. Maybe over a cocktail at one of these bars.
10. THE TAM
While I’ll readily admit to a cocktail-centric bias, The Tam is a relic of a time when you wouldn’t be caught dead ordering a drink with more than two ingredients in it, and even that was pushing it. Although you might have been caught literally dead in the vicinity of The Tam, back when it anchored the formerly sketchy Combat Zone; home to prostitutes, pimps, and thieves, many of whom were regulars here. Today it’s a much more anodyne experience, populated mostly by students from the nearby Emerson and Suffolk, but its resilience, particularly as everything else nearby the Boston Common gets transformed into a playground for the rich, makes it a notable diamond in the rough. Yes, there are grittier, and scarier dive bars around (although not many these days), but here’s one you’ll actually want to go back to. I liked it so much I put it on the cover of my book.
9. THE SINCLAIR
Over the course of one recent week, The Sinclair—the restaurant, and music venue headed up by Bowery Boston—played host to The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Slayer, Passion Pit, and Action Bronson to name just a few. Not a bad run. And while it’s arguably Boston’s best venue at the moment, it earns its place here because it’s also a great bar. Out front in the restaurant bar, or upstairs on the roof deck, you can get actually thought-out cocktails, like Smoking the Hive, made with bourbon, mezcal, scotch, and smoke honey sea salt. It’s the rare rock club that recognizes you don’t always want to drink swill out of a plastic cup all night.
8. LONESTAR TACO BAR
You’ll find partisans split evenly on which side of this two-room space is actually the better one. But for my money, and my penchant for agave, Lonestar’s dimly lit and loudly rocking mezcal and tacos aesthetic gets the slight nod over the adjacent beer-nerd and comfort food of Deep Ellum. The fact that they’re about to open another one over in Cambridge is a pretty good indication of how the simple model works so brilliantly.
7. STATE PARK
State Park is an example of the model of bar that Boston does very well. Call it the craft dive. It’s playful enough with all of the bar games—shuffle board, pool, the jukebox etc—to come off as low brow, but with enough attention to detail in the drinks and food to appeal to a crowd with a more mature palate. That dichotomy shows up on the shot & a beer list, where you can get a Toronto and a High Life, or a Manhattan and a Rolling Rock. And, since it’s located in the booming Kendall Square area, there’s ample bar-hopping potential. See West Bridge upstairs, or Belly Wine Bar across the plaza.
6. THE CANTAB LOUNGE
As I mentioned, dive bars are in short supply around here of late, but fortunately this icon of Central Square is still hopping along. And it is hopping, depending on what time of day go, that is. You might find a shit-kicking country band, a wailing soul band, or a cracking jazz trio on the upstairs stage by night. They might also happen to be terrible. You may further find a squadron of locals slouched at the long bar by day. The fact that you can even go here in the day, it opens at 8 a.m., is itself a miracle, and a testament to dirty old Central that you don’t see much of anymore thanks to all of the bars that people like me go to cropping up.
This offshoot of the culinary artistry outpost of the adjacent Journeyman restaurant is another Boston bar notable for seeming out of place. In this case because it feels teleported directly from Bushwick or Shoreditch. Then again, Somerville is Boston’s Brooklyn as the lifestyle think pieces are constantly telling us, so maybe it makes sense. It sounds like a set up to a corny “hipster” joke, but Backbar is located down a hard to find hallway in hard to find alleyway, completely set apart form the bustling Somerville neighborhood it’s located in. The small bar inside is a delight in its toeing the line between precious and crafty, but you won’t find a more adventurous, but still hospitable bar staff gradually pushing the boundaries of how we drink. To whit: room temperature cocktails like the Derby Scaffa, made with bourbon, amaro, St. Germain and lavender bitters.
There’s a reason Drink, the anchor of the burgeoning Fort Point neighborhood, was named “Best Cocktail Bar in the World” at Tales of the Cocktail a couple years back. It’s not just a bar, it’s an experience. One of the handful of bars that has set the pace for the entire industry in Boston, the subterranean space—sort of a mix between a warehouse and a high school chemistry lab as I often explain it—eschews menus, and instead encourages interaction between the guest and the bartenders, each of whom is a walking encyclopedia of tippling lore and technique. That last part is important, because Drink is essentially the masters program of the drinking arts, sending most of its employees off into the city to infect other establishments with their high standards.
3. THE HAWTHORNE
While Eastern Standard—one of the holy trinity of Boston cocktail culture alongside No. 9 Park and Silvertone—upstairs in the Hotel Commonwealth rightly gets most of the ink, The Hawthorne is a place removed, both physically and psychologically. Other bars in the area are mobbed on Red Sox game days from Fenway Park, right around the corner, but here, there’s a more refined, damn near elegant feel. That comes through in the service, and the comfortable art gallery-lounge aesthetic/ design show room feel.
2. BRICK AND MORTAR
If you’re looking for the best bar in any city, you want to find out where the people in the industry drink. This upstairs loft-style bar, with its dim lighting and booming soundtrack, is a magnet for all of Central Square, Cambridge’s staffers looking for a post-shift drink. You’ll find them there late at night rubbing tattooed elbows in the always-crowded room. I’ve spent more nights here than any other bar on this list, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. And since there are so many other great cocktail bars nearby—Green St., Craigie on Main, and Viale to name a few, not to mention the plethora of nightlife options in Central, this is the best starting, and ending point, for any night out.
Boston’s Chinatown is home to dozens of authentic, and “authentic” Asian restaurants, from dim sum joints, to hole-in-the-wall noodle dives that seem like they haven’t updated (or cleaned) in decades. Shōjō changed all of that when it opened a couple years ago, serving modern Japanese cuisine in a space reminiscent of the stylish industrial design you’d usually find in Cambridge. It instantly and effortlessly became the coolest place in the neighborhood, from the hip hop soundtrack, to the martial arts films showing on the TVs, the young crowd, and, most importantly for our purposes here, the inventive, and distinctive cocktail list incorporating a wide array of Japanese spirits, as in the Nikka Please, made with Nikka Coffey Grain whisky, Barolo Chianti, and Fernet Branca.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Green St., The Independent, jm Curley’s, Trina’s Starlite Lounge, The Middle East
Luke O’Neil has written about the Boston bar scene in the Boston Globe, Boston Metro, Boston Phoenix (RIP), and Boston Magazine, and is the author of Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.