WOBURN — If I were the sort who easily succumbed to hype and hyperbole, then this story would begin with a line such as “Watch your back Somerville! Woburn, the new capital of cool, is coming for you.”
No, wait, I’ve got a better one. The story would open with “It’s time to get chic and feel the burn. The Woburn, that is.”
Fortunately for you, I would never put a possum in a prom gown and try to pass it off as America’s next top model. Therefore I’m not going to declare that Woburn is the next Brooklyn simply because it has a taproom and some good restaurants.
But here’s the rub: There are some interesting things happening in Woburn right now. I’m reticent to use the word “cool” because it’s a lazy excuse for an adjective. Instead I’ll take a more logical approach and explain that a shift is occurring in Woburn. It’s a slow tilt, really. Perceived or real — you can use your own gourd to decide. I suggest you get in your car some Friday night and see for yourself.
I got into my car on a very cold Tuesday night and met up with a friend for drinks at the Baldwin Bar. At least that was our plan. I thought “It’s a Tuesday night. How busy could an establishment be in Woburn at 9 p.m.?”
Anyone who has ever stepped foot in the neo-tiki Baldwin Bar, or its swank upstairs sibling called library bar, knows that my assumption was shortsighted. I’m talking shortsighted on a Mr. Magoo magnitude. We were told that the wait was an hour or more.
We were still able to order from the bar because it’s located inside the family-run Chinese restaurant Sichuan Garden. But we missed out on the bar experience. I was told it was smart to make a reservation two weeks in advance. Little did I know that the bar has a cult following and has received national recognition for its craft cocktails.
If there is a change, or a tilt, or whatever you care to call it happening in Woburn, it can all be traced back to when Ran Duan opened the Baldwin Bar inside his family’s Chinese restaurant in 2010.
“I would definitely say we were the first spot that was doing something different in Woburn,” he said. “I’ve seen Woburn evolve in the past ten years, so I would like to think we were a big part of this.”
Baldwin Bar was a start. But others followed. New restaurants, such as the tapas restaurant Pintxo Pincho opened on Main Street. In 2015, the wildly successful Cambridge-based craft beer bar Lord Hobo opened a distillery and taproom in what was once a marble and stone-cutting factory.
“When our CEO Daniel Lanigan came across the space in Woburn he knew immediately that this was the place for our New England-style brewery to grow,” Lord Hobo brand marketing manager Andrea Hudson said in an e-mail. “Woburn is an evolving location with an increase in up-and-coming restaurants, bars, growing families, and more.”
As Lord Hobo toasted Woburn with beer and a brewery, some hotel visionaries were eyeing Woburn as a destination in need of a chic hotel. A $16 million makeover of the Hilton Boston/Woburn may sound more corporate than chic, but this wasn’t a standard hotel refresh. Robin Brown, who helped transform a bland Howard Johnson hotel in Kenmore Square into the rock-themed Verb Hotel, was responsible for the Hilton’s new look, which takes its cues from Woburn’s shoe-making days.
A description of the design inspiration for the hotel reads: “The identity is like a modern leather shoe — bound by heritage and carefully crafted to be timeless and relevant.”
The shoe theme is clear in the design, but it’s a look that’s quite modern and striking. Think of the Verb Hotel, but replace Boston rock history with Woburn’s artisanal shoe history and you have the idea.
“The hotel design was an idea that came to us the first day,” Brown said. “I wanted to tell the story of the history of Woburn and pay tribute to American shoes and what that meant to the craftsmen locally and to families with the heritage. But frankly I wanted to turn that into an Instagram moment as well. There is a sense today that the same-old same-old just doesn’t work anymore. Consumers have to be teased and entertained.”
Brown, the former general manager of the Four Seasons and the mastermind behind Boston’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental knows about entertaining. In addition to the Verb, he is currently working on turning a neglected Days Inn in Allston into an art-driven boutique hotel called Studio Allston. He partnered with Jon Davis, CEO and owner of the Davis Companies on the Hilton. Brown is working with Davis’s son Stephen on $21 million Studio Allston.
The Hilton is also home to Matadora, a tapas restaurant created in partnership with the team behind Boston dining spots Yvonne’s, Ruka, and Lolita.
“The evolving restaurant and bar scene is a draw for locals and travelers,” Jon Davis said. After more than 40 years in local real estate and hotel projects, this is Davis’ first Woburn hotel.
“People tend to focus on Boston or Seaport or Fenway,” Brown added. “But what’s interesting is there’s a lot of factors going on here. There’s a lot of good things happening outside of that beltway.”
He’s keen on Woburn and thinks that travelers will appreciate that the Hilton Boston/Woburn has a history, much like the Liberty Hotel and the Verb Hotel. He’s also hoping that Matadora and the bar Rivet Room will draw patrons from Boston to Woburn.
A few weeks later I’m back at the Baldwin Bar. I managed to score a coveted seat, and struck up a conversation with bartender Derek McCusker as he mixed a classic mai tai. I couldn’t resist asking if he thinks Woburn has become hip.
“I think it’s up-and-coming,” he said. “I know a lot of people my age who are moving here because they can’t necessarily afford to live in Boston. I don’t know if that makes it hip, but I like it.”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.