The Union Square, Somerville, watering hole Backbar literally fits its name. It’s tucked behind its hip sister restaurant Journeyman, down an adjacent hallway and through a large steel door. Journeyman itself is off the beaten path, a hard right onto Sanborn Court — more of an alleyway — from the square’s central parking lot. Once you find Backbar, you’ll discover a dimly lit cocktail lounge, serving a rotating menu of specially crafted drinks that have quickly garnered a reputation as some of the area’s best. As it prepares to celebrate its one-year anniversary next month, owner Tse Wei Lim, who also runs Journeyman with his wife, Diana Kudajarova, talked about Backbar’s becoming a crowded hot spot.
Q. Where did you get the idea for Backbar?
A. Backbar grew out of our landlord offering us some space in the building where Journeyman is, which was behind the restaurant and had been used as an office by a previous tenant. We had a liquor license and we were faced with a problem where parties were showing up at Journeyman and we don’t really have any sort of bar or reception area at the restaurant. There’s not really anywhere for people to wait to get a table. So we decided that the most practical thing to do with the space was to turn it into a bar.
Q. What feel were you going for in designing the space?
A. The sort of building that we’re in is an old garage. It’s very high-ceilinged, brick walls, old concrete floors. I think the concrete is the same as when it got built in the 1910 to 1920 decade. So we basically wanted to roll with that and create something that felt very stripped down and industrial, rather than trying to fight the space to make something lush or very rich feeling.
Q. This year, bar manager Sam Treadway was named best bartender in Boston Magazine’s Best of Boston issue and won a similar award from Eater.com. What does he bring to the place?
A. We had never really thought about running a bar before, so one of the most important things we did was to find a good bar manager and we were very fortunate to meet Sam. [Backbar] was sort of a long time in the making and things sort of picked up a bit after Sam came on board because he thinks about bars very differently than we do. We are, I guess, restaurant people at heart and his perspective as someone who is first and foremost a bartender was completely invaluable. Backbar is for all intents and purposes his bar. He has pretty much complete control over what you experience as a guest at Backbar.
Q. How does he curate the drink menu?
A. One thing that motivates him is constant change and innovation in the drinks. He has a drink of the week, a drink of the day, and a bartender’s choice option all on the menu, so these are all in rotation. He and his crew are constantly coming up with new ideas and trying them out. Then there’s the milk punch of the season. So there’s definitely some items on the drink menu that are constantly changing and I know that coming up with drinks of the day and the drinks of the week especially is a very collaborative process between Sam and all the bar staff. At some point, every one of the bartenders has been responsible for the drink of the day. The drive to be constantly changing things is a big part of what Sam is about.
Q. How do you decide what food to serve on the bar’s snack menu?
A. The food menu at Backbar has been through a few iterations. The overriding concern is none of us see Backbar as a place where you come and have dinner. It’s a place that you come before dinner, it’s a place where you go for a drink after dinner, it’s a place where you go for a drink instead of dinner. We are not trying to provide the amount of food you can get by walking into a pub, say, and getting the burger and fries. It’s basically things that we would like to eat while sipping on a good cocktail, so it centers on charcuterie and cheese, and we have a number of small bar snacks around. We recently added the option of ordering pork belly buns because it’s sort of a small, easy, grab-and-go food, and we wanted to offer something other than a burger.