Do you remember the children’s book The Little Engine That Could? Well, that phrase often applies to businesses as well, and there is a restaurant and bar just west of Boston that fits it to a T, as it has seen many nearby dining spots come and go, a big chain with similar food and drink move in a few blocks away, and an award-winning eatery just west of it go from being a little-known cafe to a nationally recognized spot, and through it all, it quietly remains a popular local favorite after nearly two decades in business. So what keeps Donohue’s Bar and Grill in East Watertown going strong? Well, it’s a combination of things, really, that make this comfortable watering hole a survivor in an area with lots of ups and downs when it comes to the dining and drinking scene.
East Watertown is a bustling area with many interesting shops and restaurants along Mount Auburn Street near its northern edge by the Belmont line and a mix of chains and independent places along Arsenal Street near its southern edge heading toward the Charles River. In between the two are mostly residential neighborhoods with a few businesses scattered about, including Donohue’s. Located near where two side streets meet (Bigelow Avenue and Nichols Avenue), the place is very easy to miss, and it doesn’t have a physically big presence like the nearby Miller’s Ale House chain (which more or less competes with it) or the destination feel of the wildly popular Strip-T’s, instead being a simple Irish pub/sports bar type of place. Donohue’s has one of those setups that you often find with old-school Boston neighborhood joints, with two separate rooms and two separate entrances; the left side is a bit more “active,” with live music, trivia nights, and the like, while the right room—like the left—has a bar as well as tables for dining, but it is generally quieter and has comfy U-shaped booths opposite the bar. A private-feeling patio that can be accessed from the right room is a popular spot on warm summer nights, while a function room out back is used for everything from paint nights to birthday parties.
Donohue’s is not the place to come if you’re looking for spinach and onion compote or tartare de boeuf (don’t even ask them for that last one, or that first one for that matter), but if you’re a fan of simple American dishes and pub grub, the place has good takes on a number of such items. A few favorites include wings that can be ordered with a blistering-hot sauce (the menu says “don’t say we didn’t warn you”); fried pickles that come from the terrific local company Grillo’s; a big pile of nachos that can be ordered with chili, chicken, or beef, and bring to mind the legendary nachos at Allston’s Sunset Grill; a pair of classic Maple Leaf ballpark-style hot dogs served with handcut fries; a seasoned half-pound grilled burger that can be topped with bacon, cheese, peppers, mushrooms, and onions; and an overstuffed beef burrito with three different cheeses, veggies, and rice, and which should come with a free pillow because it can put you into a post-Thanksgiving-type sleep from all the carbs and protein. Drink offerings include a few craft beers as well as your basic American brews, and some of the beers offered are very good ones (such as Dogfish 90 Minute IPA).
Donohue’s Bar and Grill has had a few things going against it over the years, including competition from the chains and a relatively obscure location, but the place is still alive and kicking, thanks in part to its loyal customer base, many of whom live within walking distance of the spot. It may not be a world-class eatery like Strip-T’s or a relatively well-known chain like Miller’s Ale House, but what it is is a laid-back, friendly little dining and drinking spot where many patrons are known on a first-name basis, and that’s exactly the kind of place that it wants to be.
DONOHUE’S BAR AND GRILL. 78 BIGELOW AVE., WATERTOWN. DONOHUESBAR.COM
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.