It’s no good drinking on an empty stomach. With four new establishments serving cocktails, plus a revised bar menu at the renovated Clio, Boston has plenty of new bar bites to try. What will you find on the menus?
In Union Square, Journeyman serves prix fixe meals of unique, handcrafted food. The owners’ adjacent new bar, fittingly called backbar, offers tastes from the kitchen without the commitment of a full meal. The bar has the feeling of a speakeasy or secret clubhouse. To reach it, head down an unglamorous, brightly lighted hallway and enter. The room is dim, filled with patrons perched on chairs and banquettes, little red pillows providing comfort and color. Blocks of wood can serve as stools or tables. Over the bar, bottles are stored on shelves that zig and zag along the walls.
The menu changes from day to day, specifics written in chalk on the walls. Snacks include oysters, olives, and spicy caramel popcorn. Served spilling from a glass jar, the crunchy kernels are all butter and browned sugar, until a sneaky heat creeps onto the back of the tongue. As bar snacks go, this one’s dynamite. Try it with a Model-T, backbar’s lightly clove-scented riff on the Manhattan.
Chef-owners Diana Kudajarova and Tse Wei Lim bake fantastic bread. Slices served with good butter are a simple pleasure. Also available are cheese plates and choose-your-own charcuterie platters, as well as daily “tastes of Journeyman.’’ A recent offering: pork belly with sunchokes, dandelion green puree, and cranberry foam. Dessert is offered at backbar, but it’s not always sweet. A recent smoked mushroom ice cream is the kind of taste that confounds the tongue in a good way, provoking smiles around the table.
Don’t feel like choosing? Let a bartender put together a plate for you, trusting to the gods of good food.
If backbar feels underground, Saloon actually is. It’s down a flight of stairs, hard to find right in the center of Davis Square. The restaurant is inspired by the pre-Prohibition era. On a recent night, we sit across the bar from a girl wearing a cloche. She looks perfectly at home. It’s the backward ball cap set who look a touch out of place. This is how we know craft cocktails have arrived: Jocks have traded in their Bud Lights for Brown Derbys, made with rum, vermouth, maraschino syrup, and mole bitters. The glasses look tiny in their hands.
Saloon is a brown liquor kind of place - it offers more than 100 types of whiskey, and just a few kinds of vodka and gin. There is also punch by the flask and a wide-ranging beer selection. The space is beautiful, all salvaged woodwork, swooping arches, and Oriental rugs. The old-school food matches the tone.
Devils on horseback are a classic. Here, chef Derek Clough stuffs dates with feta before wrapping them in bacon and cooking them to a crisp. A chiffonade of mint makes the dish feel fresh again. A steak and kidney pie is topped in flaky browned crust, with a little ceramic bird to vent it as it bakes. Beneath the pastry is a hearty mix of stewed beef, kidney, and mushrooms. Or try Saloon’s version of pork and beans, maple-braised pork belly with baked beans and brown bread. Pair it with an intense Ward 44 - pork belly whiskey, house grenadine, lemon, and sugar - for double pork belly overload.
Brick & Mortar is located where the Enormous Room once was, above Central Kitchen in Cambridge. Its goal: to be your friendly neighborhood bar. The brick-lined room offers plenty of tables to perch at, but the horseshoe-shaped copper bar is where the action is. With local bartender extraordinaire Misty Kalkofen managing and former B-Side operator Patrick Sullivan a co-owner, the cocktails are bound to be good. A Bullet for Fredo packs a punch for you - aged grappa, vermouth, and Campari, strong and smooth. Quite refreshing is the Temporary Fix, a concoction of gin, cassis, and lemon with crushed ice. But refined cocktails are balanced by offerings with attitude. The description of the Double Wide shot, Jack Daniels and Coke syrup, contains a word we can’t print here.
The food is less of a sure thing. Crisp, delicate lattice-work potato chips with onion dip are a perfect bar snack. Wood-grilled crostini offer crunch and a variety of satisfying toppings - white anchovies with burned tomato and goat cheese, for instance. Fried Brussels sprouts have an addictive texture, crispy and chewy at once, but they are too heavily spiced. The result: You can’t stop eating, but you want to. And steak sandwiches with chimichurri sauce and red onion jam on baguette are surprisingly bland one evening; the flavor of wings in an apricot-habanero-mustard glaze is at odds with the feta-sour cream dipping sauce.
Where Brick & Mortar is loose and relaxed, the Hawthorne is polished and relaxed. On a quiet night, it just might be one of the most pleasant places to drink in town right now. It’s decorated like a swank living room, with couches, art, and communal tables. Its mission statement is fervent and earnest enough to provoke a giggle - except for the fact that what it’s saying gets to the heart of something real, and a bit deeper than our usual mind-set when we go out for a drink: “We believe in the transformative power of conviviality and the idea that art, music, and strong drink can lubricate our consciousness for new possibilities. We endeavor to be part of the continuum of bar, saloon, & tavern as a hot bed of revolution, intellectual discourse and romantic pursuit. We welcome you to the Hawthorne and to the time-honored rituals of communion, revelry, and the strengthening of the bonds of family and friendship.’’ Really, who would want to argue with any of that?
And the bartenders don’t take themselves too seriously. They make pitch-perfect classics but are pleased as punch to mix up a wacky tiki drink. And the snacks are extremely tasty. Reuben toasts give you the flavors of the sandwich in a much tinier package: smoky meat, melted cheese, sharp kraut, and a bit of tangy dressing. Soft pretzels come with bourbon mustard. And deviled eggs have billowing yolks, anchored by little sails of crisp prosciutto. At the end of the night, there is sticky toffee pudding.
Head east on Commonwealth Avenue and you arrive at Clio, shinier and newer after renovations. There’s more room at the bar, with the addition of a few booths. On the new bar menu, skip the nuts, with caramel, salt, and togarashi - they are soggy and tasteless. But pork belly wrapped in soft steamed buns makes a neat snack, sandwiched together with chili aioli, tamarind, and crunchy pickles. Fried chicken comes in cubes, fatty meat enclosed in crisp coating, with spicy mustard for dipping. Tuna ceviche is cloaked in an intoxicating, lightly sweet sauce of coconut, Thai chilies, and lemongrass. You’ll want to drink the pool at the bottom of the bowl when you are done. And night owls take note: There is now a late-night ramen menu on the weekends.
It might be the perfect way to cap a long night of snacking.
BACKBAR 9 Sanborn Court, Somerville. 617-718-0249. www.backbarunion.com. Wed-Mon 4 p.m.-midnight.
BRICK & MORTAR 569 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Sun-Wed 5 p.m.- 1 a.m., Thu-Sat 5 p.m.-2 a.m. (Kitchen closes at 11.) Not wheelchair accessible.
CLIO 370A Commonwealth Ave., Boston. 617-536-7200. www.cliorestaurant.com. Sun-Wed 5:30-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m. (plus late-night ramen from 11 p.m.-2 a.m.).
THE HAWTHORNE 500A Commonwealth Ave., Boston. 617-532-9150. www.thehawthornebar.com. Daily 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
SALOON 255 Elm St., Somerville. 617-628-4444. www.saloondavis.com. Daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.