Pub life then and now
The names of bars and restaurants alone can help paint a picture of a particular place and time, as well as of the boozehounds who occupied their stools. Take, for example, Boston taverns in the mid-17th century, when every other corner had a rowdy popup, sometimes known as “cooke’s shops,” the intemperate trap houses of their time. Standouts include: Rose and Crown, King’s Head, Red Lion, Bull, Horse Shoe, Cromwell’s Head, and Hat & Helmet.
It’s important to know what people ate and drank before us and where, not to mention how much (or, more likely, how little) they paid for refreshments. Boston arguably has a richer pub past than any other city in the US, in part due to places like the Bell in Hand on Union Street and Charlestown’s Warren Tavern, both among the nation’s longest running wet spots. And so we selected some unique highlights (along with a few fabled staples) from the past 400 years that help illustrate the narrative arc (spoiler alert: it ends the same way that it started, with a shot).
We weren’t actually there for these events, so we had to rely on the best possible witnesses. For sources, we pulled books from our Boston shelf which proved especially helpful, from Taverns and Stagecoaches of New England, a 1954 work commissioned by State Street which compiles land records and other primary sources, to a menu guide from 1984 titled the Official Boston Restaurant Book.
As you’ll see, the more drinks change, the more things sound the same …
From Taverns and Stagecoaches: “Taverns were recognized as an essential part of community life, and 1634 saw the opening of the first one in Boston by Samuel Cole” (at 239 Washington St, the crossroads of School and Washington streets, near the current Chicken & Rice Guys around that location). “One of the outstanding events at Cole’s Inn occurred in October of 1636 when Sir Henry Vane, the governor, entertained Sachem Miantonomo, leader of the Narragansett tribe, who came to Boston to sign a treaty with the colonists, agreeing to assist them in their conflicts with unfriendly Pequots. … The Sachin brought two sons of the powerful Canonicus with him, and while they were entertained at the governor’s home, his retinue of chiefs dined at Cole’s establishment.”
It is said that it was around this time that one Hugh Gunnison, owner of the building that housed the King’s Arms in Dock Square, became the first-ever American to use a sign board, or an A-frame as we might call it today. Historians say that he used it to tell travelers about the overnight accommodations and warm grub he had to offer. Gunnison was also known for asking for help from authorities to deal with people who got wasted elsewhere and then came into his joint to cause a ruckus, leaving one to imagine just how colorful the messages on his sign board must have been.
1910s and ’30s
The founding story of J.J. Foley’s on the dirt road now known as East Berkeley Street in Boston’s South End is a tale many children are taught upon birth around here. As the Foley family explains, “It all goes back to the turn of the century when Jeremiah J. Foley, a native of County Kerry, Ireland, opened his bar at what was then 117 Dover Street.” The landmark 1919 vote of Boston police to strike, a move that summoned the National Guard and made international headlines, took place in the bar, but less known is that, according to author Michael J. Bennett, the saloon, as it was called at the time, “was like the American Legion post bars where ideas that became the GI Bill were first discussed in the twenties and thirties,” with the spot serving as “a social crossroads” for everyone ranging from “printers and reporters,” to “lawyers and police officers, residents from the neighboring South End” and “even the occasional social worker.” As it still does today.
1950s and ’60s
According to jazz historian and Berkeley professor Phil Wilson in a 1997 report by the Boston Landmarks Commission on the status of Connolly’s Bar at 1184 Tremont Street in Roxbury (which they wound up bulldozing anyway), “any jazz player raised in Boston cut his teeth at Connolly’s.” The report further states, “A noted trombonist himself, Wilson finally recalls, ‘With Connolly’s you never knew who would join you on the bandstand.’ In describing this congenial yet professional atmosphere, Wilson borrowed Dizzy Gillespie’s quote about a popular New York City Club, Connolly’s was play not work. Well not as commercially renowned as George Wein’s Storyville, Connolly’s developed a loyal clientele of jazz musicians and enthusiasts. Its headliners, advertised on a painted sidewalk stand, ranged from noted soloists of the big band era to rising talent of the free jazz generation.” Visiting players included: Berklee grad and Chelsea native Chick Correia, pianist Roger Calloway, and Herb Pomeroy.
We are well aware that Cheers was a sitcom, not real life, though there are of course spots that inspired the Emmy-winning ’80s television series as well as countless places inspired by the fictional creation of James Burrows with Les and Glen Charles. But as former Dig Editor-In-Chief Dan McCarthy wrote in a 2018 feature for Boston Magazine titled “The Cheers Conspiracy,” “three years before Sam, Diane, Frasier, Carla, and Norm, there was another group of quirky barflies on the airwaves around Boston.” As he reported, “September 1979 marked the debut of Park St. Under, a show (stop me if you’ve heard this one) about a Boston neighborhood bar, led by a Red Sox player turned bartender; a short, dark-haired employee with attitude; a world-weary civil servant working for the local government; an absent-minded old-timer offering comic relief; and yes, even a local psychiatrist turning the show’s barroom into a regular place of both business and play. Produced in Needham on a modest budget, it has been touted as the first local, independent weekly sitcom ever made, and during its short run it revolutionized ideas of what an independent broadcast TV station could do. Perhaps most important, it was a hit with Boston audiences before it faded into the pop-culture ether.”
Many locals are well aware of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Dorchester’s Eire Pub in 1983, which led to the “Boston’s Original” “Men’s Bar” adding a third leg to its moniker: “Presidential Pub.” It’s also no secret that in 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton stopped by with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, doubling down on the designation. But which, if either, of those pols actually imbibed? According to Ed Forry of the Dorchester Reporter, “Each holding a pint of beer, Reagan and Clinton went behind the bar for photo ops. Urban legend says that Clinton partook of his pint, but Reagan’s lips never touched his beer.”