Arriving at the Rowes Wharf Bar in the Boston Harbor Hotel is a bit like slipping into a burgundy velvet smoking jacket and a pair of worn leathery slippers. Familiar, comfortable, and decidedly oldfangled.
The walls are completely clad in deep, rich mahogany. The carpet is burnt red and the coffered ceiling is adorned with light fixtures that look as if they were pilfered from a 1910 riverboat.
It’s what I imagine hotel bars in Boston looked like before every property began labeling itself “boutique.” Remarkably, however, the Rowes Wharf Bar doesn’t look like a fussy, dated throwback. It looks like a classy place where your dad might have taken you to sip your first scotch on the rocks. It’s also not a place where Instagram influencers are clamoring to take pictures of themselves. And for that we should all be grateful.
But is the charm-ridden Rowes Wharf Bar one of the finest hotel bars in the world? Last month Forbes named it one of the top 44 hotel bars in the world. I felt it my duty as a travel writer, hotel connoisseur, and professional gadabout to investigate.
I asked some friends if they wanted to meet up at the Rowes Wharf Bar for a bite and, of course, a few adult beverages. No one asked why I suggested the hotel bar, they just dutifully arrived at 8 p.m., most likely because the invitation included the word “bar.”
But once tucked into a corner banquette lit by an artificial candle, they wanted to know why they were here.
“Well, it’s like this,” I began. “Forbes included the Boston Harbor Hotel bar in its list of the top 44 hotel bars in the world. I thought we should see if . . .”
Before I finished, phones were freed from pockets and my friends were scrolling through the Forbes site to determine the legitimacy of the survey. I was dealing with a table of true bon vivants, folks who know a good hotel bar when they see it. One of these boozy scoundrels has a collection of 12 glass cocktail stirrers that he pocketed from the Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris. I believe that is the official definition of a hotel barfly.
His beloved Bar Hemingway was not on the list, so he immediately became suspect.
Subjective lists, such as the Forbes top 44, tend to prompt suspicion and raised eyebrows. When a favorite hotel is missing, it smells bogus, kind of like bad Gorgonzola. Sometimes these lists are pulled together by one writer, sometimes it’s a reader-driven survey. In the case of the Forbes list, the determination was made from information culled by the publication’s inspectors who anonymously evaluated nearly 1,100 hotels. That sounds fairly legit. The hotel bars on the list were not numerically ranked.
“Being named one of Forbes Travel Guide’s Best Hotel Bars isn’t just a matter of serving top-notch drinks or having a certain atmosphere,” reads the preface to the list. “The venues had to demonstrate an exceptional beverage program, presentation, and service. Winners made the data-driven list by scoring top marks on bar standards related to elements of luxury.”
(Also on the Forbes list was the Garden Room at the Weekapaug Inn in Westerly, R.I. Investigation forthcoming.)
On the evenings I dropped in to evaluate the hotel bar, the crowd varied from post-work Financial District bros to boomers lingering over glasses of wine and beer. Strangely, across all age groups, people were not glued to their phones. Did the throwback decor make people forget they needed to check Instagram, Facebook, and then Instagram again? If so, kudos to you, Boston Harbor Hotel bar.
One of the ways I try to suss out a good bartender is to put myself fully in his hands. When the bartender at the Rowes Wharf Bar took my order during one of my solo visits, I told him I was a rum man and asked him to recommend something. His first suggestion was the rum punch. I begged it off, claiming that I don’t like grapefruit juice, its key ingredient. I told him I like sweeter drinks. He suggested a rum old fashioned. As Nancy Sinatra says, you only live twice, so I gave it a try.
It was not the sweet drink I had hoped for. This was more like a well-aged paint thinner. As my grandfather used to tell me, “It will put hair on your chest.” Paint thinner is a strong description, but it was strong hooch. I was floored by the drink, and then floored by the price: $20. How on earth was I going to explain that on an expense report?
After my solo rum old fashioned expedition, I was back the next night with my barfly buddies. I decided to stick to the cocktail menu. I had a fizzy cocktail called the Jetsetter. My husband ordered a French 75. The friend who has a propensity to steal stirrers also had a French 75. The fourth member of my party — another fellow named Christopher — had a Bulleit rye Manhattan. All the drinks were flawless, as was our service. Our waiter was polite, but also personable. The atmosphere of the bar was comfortable, with just enough ambient chatting. We could easily converse without yelling.
Food came next: A charcuterie board; a warm, plump pretzel with sides of gooey melted cheese and mustard; a plate of lamb chops that were pink without being undercooked; and two burgers. Our server was attentive without hovering and more drinks arrived at the table. All rated highly by our semi-discerning palates.
The question of the bar’s Forbes ranking initially dominated the night’s conversation, and then gradually fell away, forgotten under piles of French fries. Maybe a top bar is one where you forget that you came to review it. It’s effortless and natural, and therefore you’re just allowed to have a good time.
I looked over at the other Christopher at one point during the evening and noticed that the handsome copper stirrer in his martini glass was missing. When I asked him about it, he lifted his napkin slightly, showing me that he was planning to take the stirrer with him. Hypothesis number two: The sign of a top hotel bar is one where you steal the cocktail stirrers, both because they bring fond memories and you’re a total kleptomaniac.
After weighing the matter with great thought, I finally came to a conclusion about the Rowes Wharf Bar. Is it one of the top 44 bars in the world? Was Forbes right? The answer is . . . I have absolutely no idea. Comparing the Rowes Wharf Bar to the others on the list is like comparing apple brandy and orange liqueur. Also, I’ve yet to try the other 43 bars on the list (give me time). Here’s what I do know: I enjoyed the experience and my friends had a fantastic time. In the end, that’s really what makes a top hotel bar.