The Seaport might be Boston’s trendiest neighborhood, blocks of glitzy new buildings boasting restaurants and bars welcoming the hordes for a night on the town.
But much of this ultra modern nightlife rests on ghosts from the city’s past, specifically neighborhood dives and watering holes whose liquor licenses were purchased as they went out of business.
It’s a Boston phenomenon, where a hard cap on liquor licenses often means the way for a new place to open is to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars buying one from an existing establishment.
And in the Seaport, they’ve done so en masse in recent years. But the growth has also prompted questions about the city’s changing character and inequities in the nightlife industry. Some worry about the corporatization, with chain establishments taking over and bars and restaurants that once helped define Boston dying off. Others see the explosion of the Seaport’s development, with its scores of liquor licenses, as an equity issue.
Twenty-five years ago, the area was best known for its vast space of empty parking lots. Now the Seaport, where the median household income is north of $170,000 and more than three-quarters of residents are white, has roughly 80 liquor licenses, more than 60 of which are from bygone bars. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods — particularly those that are considerably more diverse and poorer — have not enjoyed such a restaurant and bar boom.
“Businesses are losing out here in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury,” said Biplaw Rai, managing partner of Comfort Kitchen in Uphams Corner. “It reflects the inequalities in the city, for sure.”
Cities change and the restaurant and bar industry can be a notoriously rocky road for entrepreneurs, as turnover and failure are a sobering reality. But Rai points to the sheer number of liquor licenses concentrated in the Seaport as a sign of a city losing some of its character.
“We are losing dive bars, we are losing small businesses who have been doing it for a while,” he said. “Corporations and restaurant chains are buying everything.”
Boston has long been frustrated by state law that dictates the number of liquor licenses in the city, and by opposition from some of the power players in the nightlife sector to changing those laws.
Some industry insiders contend that flooding the market with new licenses would devalue existing ones. But critics of the status quo point out how previous additions of licenses did not dilute existing licenses.
Moreover, they maintain cost of a transferable license on the open market can be a barrier to entry for many prospective restaurateurs, particularly Black and Latino people.
Simply put, the liquor license system in Boston is not regulated appropriately, said Royal Smith, owner of District 7 Tavern in Roxbury, and that has resulted in stark contrasts.
Too often in Black Boston, Smith said, “it’s nothing but chicken joints, pizza joints, and sub joints.”
“You can’t create a neighborhood around a pizza joint.”
The arc of one establishment closing and its license winding up with a Seaport business is hardly unique. The legendary Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, for example, which dated back to the 1880s and for years was a place where the political class tippled, is no more. Its license was sold to Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, reportedly for $455,000. The liquor license for Bella Luna & the Milky Way, which closed in Jamaica Plain after 27 years amid the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, was purchased by the Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites Boston for $210,000, according to city records. Years ago, The Castlebar was a neighborhood dive in Brighton. Its license was first transferred to the Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, and is now held by Serafina Seaport.
The license for the old Globe Bar and Cafe on Boylston Street in Back Bay is now attached to Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, which paid $225,000. Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale was once a downtown staple, but its old liquor license is now owned by ReelHouse Oyster Bar, which paid $400,000.
Once an industrial expanse known for rotting wharves, failed real estate deals, and mob hits, the Seaport has undergone explosive development this century. But it is also considered an example of how structural racism works. Here, Black residents and businesses missed out on the considerable opportunity created by a highly concentrated building boom.
Mattapan, which is nearly 70 percent Black and has a median household income of less than $60,000, has only three liquor licenses. Blue Hill Avenue, a 4-mile-long major thoroughfare that cuts through many of Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods, has six.
“What I see here is an undeniable trend of licenses moving from neighborhoods towards the Seaport,” said Nick Korn, a partner with Offsite, which focuses on training and development for the bar and restaurant industry.
Korn has analyzed the city’s liquor license system, of about 1,100 on-premise licenses, and said there is a “clear correlation between whiteness and liquor license location.”
Messages left with several chains that hold liquor licenses in the Seaport, including Davio’s, Shake Shack, and multiple hotels, were not returned this week.
A big part of the problem is that the process of expanding the number of liquor licenses is controlled nearly exclusively on Beacon Hill. The system is a vestige of an era when Protestant state legislators feared that, if left to their own devices, Irish Catholic leaders in Boston would flood the city with whiskey.
There have been moves to rectify the imbalance. A few times in recent decades, the Legislature passed home rule petitions that allowed more licenses in Boston. Many of those licenses were restricted, meaning restaurants could not sell them if they closed shop. Transferable, nonrestricted licenses can be bought and sold by restaurant owners on the open market.
Recently, a home rule petition passed that allowed four licenses to be made available for the Bolling Building in Roxbury and one for the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.
Boston City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who pushed for those additional licenses, called the Seaport statistics sobering.
“It confirms what we all know,” she said.
And there is one proposal currently on Beacon Hill that would allow the city to grant a handful of restricted licenses to 10 ZIP codes annually for five years. Those locales include Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.
Senator Liz Miranda hopes the bill represents a “first step to challenge this archaic system and provides hope for Black and brown small business owners.”
“The lack of intentional equity in liquor license distribution is another example of the Commonwealth’s stained history of disinvestment of resources within communities of color,” she said in a statement.
Stephen Clark, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said that if that bill becomes a reality, it would create 250 additional licenses.
“The outstanding question is if Boston can support that many new restaurant seats or is it displacement of existing customers,” he said in an e-mail. “There probably should be some sort of analysis built in after two or three years to measure progress and impacts.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said the license for the old Globe Bar and Cafe sold for $210,000. It was sold for $225,000.