It’s one of the best barsin Massachusetts, but the thing is, from the day it opened in 1933 until just recently, you never knew it was a bar if you were just walking by. The Belmont Club at 34 Franklin St. in Fall River looks like a nice old house, actually used to be somebody’s nice old house, and there was never a sign outside or neon in the window or anything to indicate that you could walk in and get a drink.
The only way you’d have known would be if people had told you. So it stood to reason that you knew people in there, or at least knew people who knew people in there. How else would you know to stop on that quiet side street? It worked the other way, too: Once you were inside, everybody just assumed you belonged. How could you possibly be a stranger? Strangers wouldn’t just walk into some random house.
But as generations passed, longtime Belmont Club regulars disappeared, including the baker in town who made Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s wedding cake, and a downturn in business continued until change had to come. And that’s where this story ends. But we’ll get to that later.
Back in the day, you see, this everybody-must-know-everybody idea created a unique atmosphere, which resulted in peculiar behavior. Taking a seat at the 90-degree-angled nine-seat bar at the Belmont Club, you’d buy everybody a drink, whether you knew everybody or not. Soon, payback drinks started appearing in front of you, one every few minutes until it was your turn again. And by that time, you indeed all were great friends.
One night a cop came in and told the bartender to “give everybody a drink. I’ll take a screwdriver.” He was on duty but taking his break, he explained. Soon, sure enough, two more screwdrivers had been sent his way. Then suddenly we heard a voice crackling over his radio. He took the call and announced he had to leave: “Burglary in progress! No more drinks for me!” Before heading for the door, of course, he downed his three screwdrivers, but still everyone was filled with admiration: He was going back to work without collecting the six he still had coming. “Total pro, that guy,” everyone agreed.
Taking a seat at the nine-seat bar at the Belmont Club, you’d buy everybody a drink, whether you knew everybody or not.
It wasn’t unusual to see a cop drinking at the Belmont, or an airplane pilot, or an art teacher, or a blacksmith. One night the bartender, whose day job was with the fire department, mentioned that an old hook-and-ladder truck was about to be decommissioned, and “what a shame because she’s a real beauty and still runs and is probably gonna go cheap to some junk man who’s gonna chop it up and make Yoo-Hoo cans out of it, and hey, we should all of us chip in a hundred bucks each and put in a bid for it!” When we looked around, we realized our little group included a guy who could get us insurance for it, a judge who could help us get the right driver’s license, an actual fireman, even a reporter who could put a story in the paper to let people know what we’d done so we could rent it out for kids’ birthday parties and get our money back!
What was especially great was that often, these were people you’d never see together anyplace else. The cop would be sitting next to a bookie, the reporter next to a politician. Any baggage was left outside. People just sat, bought rounds, drank and talked, telling stories like the one about the baker in town, another Belmont Club regular, who once made a cake for a young Jack Kennedy.
The other great thing was that you didn’t have to pay for your drinks right away. If everyone knew everyone, then everyone could be trusted to run a tab, right? The bartenders kept an index card file and when the last drink in your round had been served, they’d make a little note on the card with your name. You were expected to settle up at some point, but there was never any hurry or pressure.
Occasionally, though, owner Jack would walk in, browse the card file and peek inside to see how things were going. One day he realized at least a few customers owed him like $5,000 each — at a time when the average drink in the place cost 85 cents. “No more tabs!” he announced. “What?!” “Well, no more tabs of more than 50 bucks.” He meant it, too.
One afternoon I came walking in with my new girlfriend (I’d taken her there on our first date and it must have impressed her because she married me and we’ve been together for 32 years). Though every bar seat was taken, nobody was drinking. “Hey, what’s going on?” “Fifty buck limit on the tabs,” everyone grumbled. “We’re all already way past that.” So we all sat there, our mouths literally hanging open, until somebody realized: My girlfriend didn’t have a tab yet! So we started one for her and within minutes the place was back to normal.
Then there was the day Tommy the bartender opened as usual at 10 and didn’t see Billy standing outside waiting to come in. Billy had been a basketball star in high school but by now the Belmont was about the only thing in his life, so he always was there early to start in on his shots of Canadian Club with CC-and-water chasers. Except this morning he wasn’t there, and when the guys from the electric company came in for their lunch drinks and asked where he was, Tommy said “I dunno, he must be dead or something,” not really meaning it, but down the bar somebody heard “Billy” and “dead,” and don’t you know it, when a bunch of us came in around noon the guy told us, “I heard Billy’s dead.”
By 4 in the afternoon the place was packed and word had spread. Somebody said, “We oughta take up a collection and send flowers to his ma.” So we did. And the next morning, Tommy opened up at 10 and who’s standing there but Billy, waving the flowers and shouting angrily, as if it wasn’t obvious, that, no, he wasn’t dead.
But times were changing. Owner Jack decided to knock down a wall that separated the bar room from a storage room. He picked up five more seats, but it ended the “give everybody a drink” business because it wasn’t as easy anymore to talk to everybody at once. Then Billy really did die, and so did that cop, and the blacksmith (“Lou the Shoe”), and Ray the iron worker, and this one moved away and that one got married. And the time came when other people needed to be told that hey, that nice old house, it’s actually a great bar inside.
So the new owner, Priscilla Brennan, who inherited the place from her father, Jack, put a sign on the building’s wall visible from more heavily traveled Rock Street. All it says is “The Belmont Club, Established 1933, Open to the public.” But the secret is out now, and some of the remaining old timers worry that a magical something may have been lost.
It’s still one of the best bars in Massachusetts, though. And drinks are still cheap (the tabs, however, are ancient history). You still get all kinds inside: young and old, gay and straight, PhDs and high school dropouts, Italians and Irish and Portuguese. I bet it’s still the sort of place where people send flowers and everyone might even decide to buy a fire truck together. You definitely should stop by the next time you’re out that way. It’s easier to find now.
Tony Lioce is a former reporter and editor for the Providence Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Jose Mercury News. He now works as a bartender in San Francisco. E-mail him at Janetcusick