SOMEWHERE IN EAST BOSTON — With one hand on the bar at Next Door Speakeasy, Patricia Douglas announced, gleefully and admittedly tipsy: “This is the place to be tonight.”
She had journeyed to the new East Boston haunt — in orange heels, no less — with a friend to celebrate turning 23. Together, they Ubered from downtown to the residential neighborhood across the harbor and entered through a multi-step process: Customers must find Next Door’s cloaked doorway, lift the knocker, and share the password they get with their reservation (tonight’s was “Bing,” as in Chandler Bing, from “Friends”). Only then was Douglas allowed to sip rum and eat ceviche in the chic lounge.
Her clubbing adventure in a town with a distinctly buttoned-down reputation could be “a sign that Boston night life is changing,” Douglas said, becoming swankier, sexier, more diverse.
A legion of city officials and entrepreneurs certainly hope so.
Long viewed as “boring,” Boston after dark is incomparable to New York or Miami, let alone the rowdy staples of Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin, and Barcelona.
Of course, there have always been pockets of a scene: The clubs that once populated alleys off Boylston Street near the Common; shuttered queer spots like Machine and Ramrod; college bars in Allston; and favorites felled by COVID, including Eastern Standard, The Fours, and the original Great Scott. But Boston bars and nightclubs have historically been cloistered downtown, a hike from many corners of the city. Happy hour is banned. And nearly nothing — save South Street Diner — stays open past 2 a.m.
To top it off, “the fact that our public transit closes two hours before last call is wild,” added Chris Jamison, CEO of COJE, the hospitality management group behind Yvonne’s, Lolita, and the Mariel Underground.
Now, as the city emerges from the pandemic, there’s a push underway to change that old story.
A wave of low-lit cocktail bars and lounges have opened recently — not just downtown but in outer enclaves such as Eastie, Brighton, and Hyde Park. Established evening hubs are busy with pandemic-weary partygoers, too, “eagerly and endlessly looking for things to do,” said Sheena Collier, the self-proclaimed “super-connector” and founder of Boston While Black.
Segun Idowu, the city chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, is thinking broadly about what the future of late-night Boston could be. In May, he announced the creation of a cabinet position dubbed the director of strategic initiatives — or “late-night czar” — who will help expand night life with equity in mind.
Chief among his objectives: Make the scene inviting for everyone, everywhere. Longtime denizens of Roxbury and Roslindale should have the same breadth of options as college kids in Allston and newcomers to the Seaport. It’s an economic issue, too. More vibrant night life could also help Boston attract talent and keep it here, Idowu added.
“Downtown is the lifeblood of our city,” he said. “But while that may be how other folks look at our city, we care about all of it. Our neighborhoods should be destinations.”
That’s an ambitious goal for a city that has never gotten far down that track.
In 2014, the T expanded late-night service for a limited pilot program, but did not extend the experiment, citing low ridership and budgetary reasons. Over half a dozen bar and lounge owners who spoke to the Globe criticized how difficult it remains to open inventive spaces in Boston, particularly for first-time entrepreneurs and people and color. City processes are opaque and expensive, they said. Victor Hwang, CEO of the business advocacy group Right to Start, wrote in Inc. that it takes 92 steps, 22 forms, and $5,554 in fees to launch a Boston restaurant.
“The city just pays lip service to this idea that they’re going to do more to support night life,” Jamison said. “Nothing has ever happened.”
Then there’s the lifeblood of late night: Liquor licenses, which are costly and clustered in whiter neighborhoods, according to a report released last week. (Over 170 establishments with liquor licenses operate downtown. In Mattapan, there are seven.)
It’s a disparity with roots in archaic city policies that failed to adapt to business’ needs, said Boston attorney Kristen Scanlon. Another huge impediment is the price tag of around $400,000 per license on the secondary market.
“If you have a small place, it’s going to take a long time doing the equation on seats and turnover to make you whole again after you dole out half a million dollars for a license,” Scanlon added.
Reform, Idowu promises, is on the way, though expanding the number of licenses requires the blessing of Beacon Hill.
Despite the obstacles, night life proprietors have found success, even amidst a painful pandemic that kept customers home for months.
Among them are restaurant owners who used the comparatively quiet season of COVID to modify liquor licenses they already owned to add a bigger, hipper bar.
That’s what Raffaele Scalzi did in East Boston, tucking Next Door speakeasy inside Pazza on Porter, his Italian-American establishment with red leather seats and a portrait of the Mona Lisa eating spaghetti. The fashionable lounge serves cocktails that arrive in a lockbox (Lock & Key) or with bubbles on top (Citrus & Smoke). Since opening in March, business has been brisk, Scalzi said, and largely local.
“Instead of trying to open the next big restaurant downtown, we’ve found a place where a bunch of people live in Eastie,” Scalzi said.
There’s also fresh glitz downtown. At the behest of his bar manager, Chris Campbell transformed the private dining room in Troquet on South in the Leather District into Offsuit, a “small bar with big dreams” where patrons have to phone a number typed on a scrap of paper on the door to enter. The Flamingo took over the former Four Winds space in the North End to sell Bacardi in pink floaties. East Boston’s Tall Ship serves mai tais on an actual boat docked at Pier One. And Hecate, a moody, black-and-gold bar named after the Greek goddess of crossroads, opened in April inside Krasi in Back Bay. Its imaginative drink menu is a rarity in Boston, said owner Demetri Tsolakis.
“Other cities get national attention for their cocktail bars,” he said. “Boston needs to realize there’s more to a drink than a vodka soda.”
Then there’s what’s going on beyond downtown. With thousands working remotely during COVID, many are looking to go out closer to home, said Alyssa DiPasquale, who recently opened The Koji Club at the Speedway, a popular dining and drinking cluster in Brighton.
Much of her clientele is from the neighborhood, or from concertgoers from Roadrunner, a nearby music venue that opened in March, who stop in to drink before the opening act.
Historically, in Boston, “you choose your evening by going to a different place and exploring, whereas now I feel like people are anchored to their neighborhoods,” DiPasquale added.
The question, though, is where those “neighborhood” spaces are. The parts of East Boston and Brighton where bars like Koji and Next Door have landed have changed dramatically in recent years, with high-end apartment buildings housing more affluent arrivals, who may be able to afford $17 cocktails.
A Next Door hostess, Bel Carillo, commended the lounge but noted the clientele doesn’t much resemble the people she grew up around in the traditionally working-class neighborhood.
“Yes, this is for the people who live in Eastie,” she said. “But who is living here now?”
RC Smith, the cofounder of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, added that every neighborhood deserves attention — not just those seeing rapid (and expensive) expansion. He’s hoping that changes in city policy can spread the growth of neighborhood-friendly night life to places like Mattapan and Roxbury, where he runs a tavern called District 7.
“In a perfect world, I want Nubian Square to look like Lower Mills,” with a smattering of watering holes and nighttime restaurants, Smith said. “Because if more people came to Roxbury, Roxbury people will thrive. Once you get money in the door, you grow.”
Still, a sobering reality persists. The public perception is dismal, with 88 percent of respondents to a Boston.com survey faulting the city for closing too early and having too few late-night restaurants, food trucks, and clubs. One person called Boston “a liberal city whose night life is imprisoned in a chastity belt.”
But a resurgence is coming, if it’s not already here, DiPasquale added.
“The pandemic should be the beginning of the opportunity, not the end. The city of Boston excels at having fun and certainly deserves it.”