South Boston may be in the throes of gentrification, but some things never change. It’s an annual rite of spring, more reliable than the first robin at the bird feeder: When Sullivan’s at Castle Island starts serving its “trifecta’’ of hot dog, fries, and an ice cream cone, it’s time for all South Boston to return to Southie’s shore. Opening day last month proved too blustery for the otherwise obligatory stroll around Pleasure Bay, but neighborhood residents descended on the food bar like seagulls on a french fry. Two hardy souls in the parking lot were donning wet suits, presumably for a scuba dive, but it was otherwise too chilly for anyone but an L Street Brownie to risk wading into the water.
Southie is surrounded on three sides by Boston Harbor, and the beaches circle the rim of City Point like salt on a margarita glass. South Boston’s residential portion all lies south of First Street in two grids set at a 45-degree angle to each other. “No other area has so much open space,’’ says Kevin McCarthy, proprietor of Vintage Southie on West Broadway. “The beach - it’s an unusual gift to have something like that.’’
McCarthy’s collectibles shop is not near the beaches at City Point, but sits instead on West Broadway in the part of Southie that old-timers call the Lower End. Real estate agents have repackaged the district as the “West Side,’’ or less frequently, the “City Side.’’ From the shop’s door you can look down Broadway straight to the South End, where McCarthy hails from originally. He married a girl from South Boston, he explains. “I was married a month and I was over the bridge.’’
That was 27 years ago, but his wife still thinks of him as an outsider not really qualified to offer opinions on the neighborhood. Yet it would be hard to find someone more appreciative of South Boston than McCarthy, who sells framed reproductions of vintage South Boston postcard scenes in his shop. As a veteran of the South End, he is resigned to change, even as he laments that gentrification often displaces the elderly and low-income residents.
“You can’t stop change. You have to change along with it,’’ he muses. “It’s getting a lot funkier and fun than it used to be.’’
Certainly nothing can replace neighborhood stalwarts like Woody’s L Street Tavern (now complete with “Good Will Hunting’’ memorabilia and stories of visits by Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain and former celeb couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) or Amrheins Restaurant (since 1890), with its shamrock-filled windows, hand-carved bar, and popular Sunday brunch. But in the last few years, the corned-beef-and-cabbage beer bar known as the Farragut House has been replaced by gastropub Local 149, which has Belgium’s McChouffe on tap and Quebec’s Le Fin du Monde in oversize bottles. The bartenders offer classes in mixology; the chef teaches pickling; and the menu features chorizo cassoulet and Arctic char with black pepper and dill dumplings.
Food, it seems, is one of the surest indicators of change and has certainly kicked the “fun’’ level up a notch or two in South Boston.
At the opposite end of the neighborhood, Sam Jackson opened KO Catering and Pies to introduce Australian-style savory pies to Boston about 18 months ago. His folding sign out front greets potential customers with a perky “G’day.’’ Lovely short-crust-lined pie plates filled with various stews (beef, braised lamb shank and vegetables, even curried vegetables) and topped with puff pastry find a ready audience. “I have a lot of South Boston born and bred customers who love the food,’’ Jackson says. “A lot of Irish customers love the food.’’ But they have to be taught to douse the pies in ketchup. “That’s very Australian,’’ he says with a shrug.
Jackson has lived in South Boston for five years. “This end of Broadway has changed,’’ he says. “There’s more going on - you just have to look around. Finding a parking spot is still the same challenge.’’
Jackson may be a proponent of Aussie pies, but he’s also a fan of the roast beef sandwiches at Liberty Bell, which come with a special mouth-warming barbecue sauce. The shop opened in 1976 and has been run by the same family since 1979. Employees of other area businesses also stop by Liberty for a bite. Not only does it serve great roast beef, it has a parking lot.
Few places so spell out South Boston’s changing lifestyle as American Provisions, the gourmet shop that opened in late 2010 just a crumpet’s throw from Southie’s mainstay grocer, Stop & Shop. True to its name, the preponderance of the provender is American and much is even closer to home. Linni Krall, who does a lot of the buying for the shop, makes a point of featuring products as local as Somerville’s Taza chocolate or Narragansett Creamery’s yogurt. The cheese case features an array of predominantly New England artisan cheeses, including Doug Erb’s Caerphilly style from Landaff, N.H., the tomme from Robie Farm in Piermont, N.H., or Bailey Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt.
Combine those scrumptious cheeses with the sausages, prosciutto, and pâtés in the adjoining cold case and you have the makings of a dinner party. For dessert? That’s a few blocks west at Blue Tierra Chocolate Cafe, opened by Jen Turner in March 2010. She makes some astonishingly good chocolates, like her signature crème fraîche milk chocolate ganache enrobed in dark chocolate, or the very popular BLT, which consists of dark chocolate ganache with crispy bacon and maple syrup, also enrobed in dark chocolate. Turner also makes pastries and serves fancy coffees and teas, which perfectly complement another of her signature sweets: French macarons.
She has lived in South Boston for seven years, and notes that the neighborhood is changing fast, citing a new wine shop and a new grocer that are poised to open soon. “And a new sushi restaurant just opened days ago,’’ Turner says with obvious enthusiasm.
The little jewel box called Moko Japanese Cuisine seems to be the talk of the neighborhood. A polished bar lines one side of the restaurant, with tables set with white linens on the other. Chefs work at the sushi bar in back. The atmosphere is downright serene. Chef-owner Joy Lee also operates Samurai Boston in Back Bay, but she has chosen to live in South Boston.
“I love this neighborhood,’’ Lee says. “Compared to Back Bay, the customers are more relaxed and more calm.’’
If you go...
373 West Broadway
Wed-Fri 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sat-Sun till 4.
Sandwiches and plates $1.60-$17.95. Daily 8:30 a.m.-sunset, full menu from 10:30 a.m. Closed St. Patrick’s Day Parade day (March 18).
Woody’s L Street Tavern
658 East 8th St., # A
Daily noon-1 a.m.
80 West Broadway
Entrees $16-$25, brunch $19.95. Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat till 11, Sun. 10-9.
149 P St.
Entrees $10-$19. Bar open 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; kitchen open Mon-Fri 11:30-midnight, Sat-Sun 11-midnight.
KO Catering and Pies
87 A St.
Pies $5.25-$5.75, other Aussie sandwiches and plates $5.50-$11.50. Tue-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
170 West Broadway
Sandwiches and plates $4.35-$14.95. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.
613 East Broadway
Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat-Sun 9-6.
Blue Tierra Chocolate Cafe
258 West Broadway
Tue-Sat 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun 11-4.
Moko Japanese Cuisine
674 East Broadway
Entrees $13.95-$19.95. Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri till midnight, Sat 10-midnight, Sun 10-11; closed daily 3-4 p.m.