I worry about the Pleasant Cafe.
I worry about Santarpio’s. And J.J. Foley’s. And Jeveli’s. And No. 9 Park, Marliave, Regina’s, the restaurants and bars in the Parker House, and yes, even such touristy places as the Barking Crab, the Chart House, Giacomo’s, and the Union Oyster House.
I worry about them all, now that it appears like what was always seen as an untouchable, and perhaps the most “Boston” restaurant of them all—Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain—may be closing. Sure, there have been hints that nothing lasts forever in the dining world (recall the closings of such stalwarts as Locke-Ober, L’Espalier, Durgin-Park, and, apparently, Jacob Wirth), but Doyle’s Cafe? An institution that has been around since the 1800s and has seen countless politicians and celebrities pass through its doors? A restaurant and bar that has been shown in such movies as Mystic River and The Brink’s Job? Sadly, the answer appears to be yes—barring a last-minute save—and for so many people, this one hurts to the core, so much so that it has become one of the biggest local news stories of the year.
So why are iconic places such as Doyle’s closing down, and why are so many affected to such an extent by this news? The answer to the first question is relatively simple, while the second question needs a bit more looking into. First, as to why such well-known restaurants and bars are closing, the combination of exorbitant prices for Boston liquor licenses and exorbitant prices for real estate make for a deadly combination in regards to independent spots remaining in operation, while it also offers a golden opportunity for restaurant/bar owners and landlords of buildings in which they reside.
Doyle’s represents the perfect storm here, as the owner of the business itself and the person who owns the building come from the same family, which means that the person behind Doyle’s can get hundreds of thousands of dollars for the liquor license (which, as of this writing, appears to be going to a new location of Davio’s on the Boston waterfront), while the owner of the building could easily be able to get a huge sum of money for the property, or possibly tear it down and put up a new development that would be worth even more. In the recent past, the owners of a number of dive bars have been offered eye-opening amounts of cash for their liquor licenses, and many have said yes and closed down.
Is it because they are greedy? No. If you work countless hours in a business for years and you suddenly see a ticket to retirement or a second home or simply more time spent with family and friends with few financial worries, take a moment to think about what you might do; the decision may not be as difficult as you think.
The closing of a beloved place like Doyle’s obviously saddens everyone involved with the spot, from the owner to the staff to the vendors who deal with them on a regular basis, and it is certainly a punch in the gut to so many patrons. I’ve heard an interesting question over the years, that basically centers around “Why go out to a restaurant or bar when you can make the same food and drink the same beer at home?” In many cases, a restaurant (or a bar) is more than just a place to go to simply satisfy your hunger or thirst; with a place such as Doyle’s, it’s like being at home in some ways, with its comfortable seating, low noise level, incredible history, and wonderful atmosphere (including the murals, classic waffle ceiling, hardwood floor, memorabilia, antique clocks, etc.) making it a warm and inviting spot to come out of the cold, the heat, the rain or snow, or whatever.
All of this helps make it the antithesis of the generic national chains and trendy hot spots alike, instead being a place where you create memories even if you don’t know it at the time. This last point is a big one, especially when you hear people say, “You haven’t been to that place in 20 years, so why are you mourning its loss?” The truth is, you mourn the loss of such a place precisely for its memories, including times spent with loved ones, family members and friends, co-workers, strangers who you end up talking with at the bar, and those who have passed over the years.
There are so many other issues that crop up from the pending closing of Doyle’s Cafe, including keeping liquor licenses within specific neighborhoods (and believe me, more than a few residents of Jamaica Plain are livid about this), adding more licenses so their values aren’t so high, protecting and preserving historic structures from redevelopment, and, yes, keeping Boston from becoming just another soulless place that looks like any other city in the country. These are topics for another day, though; for now, it’s more about the loss of a spot held deeply in the hearts of so many, and sure, there are new restaurants and bars in the area right now that may become the icons of future generations, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to those who feel like they are losing a friend. Twenty years from now, Doyle’s could indeed be just a distant memory and the space where Washington Street meets Williams Street will be just another street corner.
One final thought on the closing of Doyle’s, and the shuttering of landmark restaurants and bars in general—there really aren’t any “good” and “bad” people causing this. If a national restaurant chain or a local restaurant group sees a chance to do well in the Seaport District, the Fenway, the North Station area, or another red-hot part of Boston, more power to them, and if the owner of a beloved neighborhood joint is offered a ton of money for its liquor license and/or the property, that person has every right to cash out and enjoy life without any financial worries.
The only constant is change, as they say, and the restaurant scene in Boston and other cities and towns proves this point quite well. So don’t be surprised if you wake up some morning in the near future and hear about your longtime fave for dining and drinking saying farewell.
Just don’t let it be the Pleasant Cafe.
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.