Old meets new Somerville in Davis Square
Somerville’s commercial center has always been an interesting place, and with the city going through so many changes these days, Davis Square really has turned into a destination spot of sorts and is a fun, walkable area that seems to be thriving even as Cambridge’s nearby Harvard Square continues its descent into the soulless world of mall-dom. But Davis does tend to get mixed reviews when it comes to dining and drinking options, as old-timers in the city often complain that the “real” Somerville spots have been mainly scrubbed from the neighborhood while newcomers, food nerds, and others seem to look more favorably at the red-hot Union Square on the other side of the city (and for good reason) along with nearby restaurant-rich parts of Cambridge such as Porter Square and Inman Square.
While there had indeed been a not-so-great “in-between” period not too long ago when some of the old-school places were closing and the new spots were not always up to snuff, Davis Square has quietly turned into, well, if not a true dining and drinking destination, then at the very least a respectable area to go to for a bite to eat and a beer, wine, or cocktail. Today you’ll find some of the region’s best Asian spots here as well as some top pubs and cocktail lounges; those looking to spend a bit of money have a few upscale restaurants from which to choose while old Somerville also does chug along here and there as well (and fingers crossed that the Sligo and Mike’s never say farewell).
For some reason, new restaurants often open in Davis Square with relatively little fanfare, and such was the case with the Elm Street Taproom, a beer bar that opened in the former Joshua Tree space in 2019. Now, the Joshua Tree was one of the places that garnered a lot of different opinions, but what it did have going for it was that it represented perhaps not the Somerville of old, but the transitional period in which the food was basic but decent enough, the prices weren’t outrageous, and it wasn’t trying to be anything it wasn’t, while also not being so “old Somerville” that it might not feel welcoming to newcomers.
Because of this, more than a few people said “uh-oh” when a sign for Elm Street Brew Pub quietly went up in the window out front in the summer of 2018. Was this going to be more gentrification? A part of “new Somerville” that might only be welcoming to some residents? Fortunately, the new spot—which ultimately became the Elm Street Taproom—showed that it would not be a pretentious or higher-end spot at all, nor a remnant of the Somerville of old, and it indeed appears to be well-liked by residents old and new, which is kind of what you want anyway when you’re focusing on beer, which is often the ultimate unifier.
The Taproom is run by the same folks who operate the nearby Five Horses Tavern on Highland Avenue, and like that place (and their other location in Boston’s South End, along with Worden Hall in South Boston), a lot of thought was put into the atmosphere. Unlike the old Joshua Tree, which was comfy enough but had a vague chain-like feel to it, the space is downright gorgeous, with lots of dark woods, an old tin ceiling, attractive hanging lights and sconces, a long bar to the left, an also-long communal table down the middle, and a somewhat hushed atmosphere overall that makes it more of a place to go to talk with friends and less a place to go to party and get drunk.
This adult brewhouse vibe actually brings to mind a totally (as far as we can tell) unrelated downtown Boston spot called Democracy Brewing, which it so much resembles that it’s at times difficult to remember which spot you’re actually in. In fact, other than the private room in the back of Democracy and its downstairs brewing area, Elm Street Taproom—which is not a brewery, by the way—is so scarily like Democracy in look and feel that the two appear to be like doppelgangers, almost like beer-based versions of, say, Larry David and Bernie Sanders. This is not a bad thing at all, by the way, as an earlier first look here raved about the beauty of the Democracy Brewery space, so however this happened, Elm Street Taproom sure is an attractive and cozy space.
It’s interesting that the Elm Street Taproom/Democracy Brewing comparison loses a little steam once you look at the food offerings, but not in the way one might think. For a brewery, Democracy has a decent and fairly extensive menu, but Elm Street keeps in the spirit of a true beer bar by really focusing more on beer than food, featuring apps and small plates rather than main entrees. The food that is here, however, is pretty much what most beer lovers may be looking for anyways, including such familiar items as popcorn, fried pickles, chili, wings, chicken nuggets, nachos, burgers, brisket sandwiches, crab melts, and a few other items.
One note about the burgers—if you miss Flat Patties in Cambridge (which recently closed) or are a fan of West Coast burgers in general, the “skinny” burgers at Elm Street are really something else, and you can order them as a single, double, or triple. A recent order of the double burger plate indicated that if they were seasoned just slightly better, they might just rival those at the shuttered Harvard Square spot or even In-N-Out, the beloved West Coast burger chain that will never, ever come to Boston, unfortunately.
Because the Elm Street Taproom is not part of a brewery, the beer offerings are nearly endless, including a wide variety of IPAs, APAs, sours, wheat beers, lagers, porters, stouts, and more (along with ciders), and the list is extensive on both the draft side and the bottle/can side. The drafts tend to come from local and regional breweries and include faves such as those from Trillium, Fiddlehead, Aeronaut, Night Shift, Newburyport, Switchback, and 14th Star, while those who like both American and international beers can choose from bottled/canned versions of Hermit Thrush, Notch, Wachusett, Two Roads, Von Trapp, Boulevard, Sierra, Paulaner, Bellhaven, Warsteiner, Stella, and so many more. (Flights can also be ordered on the draft side.) A handful of specialty cocktails are offered at Elm Street, and for those cold nights, an adult hot chocolate with “booze” is (at the time of this writing) offered on its menu, though its exact availability is unknown, especially as the weather starts to warm up.
The Taproom has been around for about a year now, but it’s still a bit of an unknown entity both in and out of Somerville. Why this is would be anyone’s guess, including the fact that people might think the Joshua Tree is still in the space, diners seem to be fawning all over the square’s outstanding Asian eateries (and for good reason), and the other more established drinking spots like the Burren, Foundry on Elm, and yes, Five Horses Tavern seem to be getting much of the press. But Elm Street definitely has some serious potential, especially considering how well-managed and well-liked the restaurant group’s other spots tend to be.
We’ll see just how well the Elm Street Taproom does as it continues to get established in the neighborhood, but for now, it’s an awfully impressive spot for those who crave beer with neither the stumbling drunks nor the patronizing attitudes to deal with and love a bit of old-Boston atmosphere as well, which more and more of the newer places seem to be perfecting these days.
ELM STREET TAPROOM. 256 ELM ST., SOMERVILLE. ELMSTREETTAPROOM.COM