The word "pub" evokes a specific set of images: black beers with creamy heads, dim lights illuminating ring-stained tables; a low murmur of voices that’s punctuated by the pluck of a fiddle and the clatter of porcelain as steaming plates of potatoes and gravy are served on ring-stained tables.
Add Boston to the mix and brown liquor starts to flow alongside the black beer, that murmur grows to a steady roar, and the fiddle is eclipsed by the searing bagpipes and brogues of the Dropkick Murphys. Given that some Boston neighborhoods are up to 40 percent Irish, it is easy to assume that all pubs exist within these clichés. In fact, in contemporary Boston, the opposite is often true.
While the pub (or “public house”) can still fulfill its traditional role as a place where music is played, literature is enjoyed (and even written), politics and news are discussed, and an all-around communal time is had, today’s hostelries often bring more to the mix. Pay a visit to all of these Boston establishments and you’ll discover the full range—cutting-edge and traditional—of what today’s public houses can offer.
Where Minds Meet
Down the road from Harvard Yard, The Plough and Stars has been a meeting ground for influential minds since its founding in the late Sixties. Bonnie Raitt would always stop in for a beer when she was in town, as did novelist Philip Roth and politician John Hume. These days, live music fills the pub nightly. The 21st Amendment has existed in several iterations since its opening in 1899. Its location on a side street across from the Statehouse (in fact, it was once called the Golden Dome Pub) made its dim corners a favorite place for negotiation; JFK was known to write his speeches by the fireplace in back. Founded as early as 1654, The Green Dragon Tavern has played its part in the story of America with the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere as regulars. It was in this tavern that the Boston Tea Party was planned and from where Revere left on his fabled ride to Lexington, earning The Green Dragon the nickname, “the headquarters of the Revolution.”
The Burren perfectly checks all the boxes of the Irish Pub clichés. The barroom is paneled in dark wood and Guinness signs, and you’ll find an Irish string band nestled nightly into a dim booth. In the back room the Boston tropes take hold, as local bands entertain rowdy and thirsty crowds on weekend nights. A true neighborhood meeting ground, Doyle’s Cafe has gone largely unchanged since its opening in 1885. You’ll find all the beers and hearty pub fare you can fit. Its location down the road from Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) makes it a favorite stop for post-brewery tour revelers. The primary pastime at Brendan Behan Pub—named after the boozy Irish Republican and writer—is poetry and literary readings, not to mention talks and discussions with authors. The craft beer list is extensive, and there are no televisions to distract from the people around you.
It’s possible that the term “dive bar” was coined to describe Sligo Pub. No more than ten feet in width, Sligo presents an unassuming façade in Davis Square, while inside the scene is something out of a dive bar fanatic’s dream. Every wooden surface sports the carved names of patrons. The Sevens Ale House has long been a meeting ground for Boston’s saints and scoundrels alike. The beer is dark and cold, the baked beans come straight from the Heinz can, and the pastrami is salty and steaming. Smile at the bartender and you’ll be treated like a regular; cause a scene and you’ll quickly meet the sidewalk.
Matt Murphy’s Pub takes the idea of the Irish pub and drops it firmly into the 21st century. The decor of steel and copper table tops and creamy grey woodwork on the walls effortlessly blends the feel of a classic public house with that of a hip Brooklyn gastropub. The menu, both food and cocktail alike, is an equally seamless blend of traditional and contemporary. At Local 149 in South Boston you’ll be treated to a truly contemporary pub experience: the wood planked floors are worn but brightly lit from above, and its ceiling is covered in press metal patterns but the copper is shined to a glow. The decor and menu are faithful to time-honored pub traditions, yet there is a twist of the modern in every bite and turn of the head.