After reviewing Stephanie Schorow's Drinking Boston book, I decided it was time to tackle another Boston book I had in my pile, namely Luke O'Neil's Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown. The book came out in 2011, but I was a little slow to purchase it for I felt that it did not represent my Boston. However, after flipping through it and seeing Somerville's Fasika in the list, I was sold. Fasika is an Ethiopian restaurant that was in Jamaica Plain and was forced to move; instead of staying in the neighborhood, they bought out the East Somerville dive, Coleman's Cafe, and opened in 2006 as a split Ethiopian restaurant and dive bar. The food on the restaurant side is rather good, and I have always been impressed at how the African clientele on the bar side mixes rather well with the old Coleman crew who laid stake to the spot regardless of who owns it. As I scan the bar index, I count a little over a dozen establishments I have been in during my 19 years here in Boston, a few more places that made the didn't-make-the-cut list, and many that I had walked or driven by. Of course there were probably more than that, but many have closed. Even during Luke's researching and writing of the book, places met their demise; that concept reminds me of how difficult it was to write the description of cocktail bars in my book as bar staff changed jobs during the few months that I wrote it.
That is definitely one recurrent theme in Luke's book -- a story of change and resistance to change. The dive bar with its cheap beer and food (if any) scrapes by, and as gentrification, rising property values, neighborhood antagonism, and other changes of neighborhood character occur, many of these places close or perhaps transform into upscale establishments. With liquor licenses fetching 6 figures these days, the temptation to sell it off is probably great. But as the book describes, many of these places stand as time capsules of eras gone by with their furniture, demeanor, and loyal bar stool squatters.
Parts of Boston's Best Dive Bars reads like a Bukowski book, although Luke is less the drinker-brawler of Hank Chinaski and more the drinking-field researcher trying to fit in and not be at the wrong end of a pool stick beatdown. The book beautifully captures the decor, mood, clientele, and conversations he has with patrons and barstaff. Sometimes there are quotes from his friends and acquaintances that know the places well, and other times, Luke finds it best not to talk and only capture what is being yelled at the television or at others across the bar. Keno, cheap drinks, old men, XXL-sized Patriots jerseys, stale bags of potato chips, and jukebox tunes all make an appearances through out the write-ups.
Luke rates the places on a 1-5 scale in increasing dive-ability and danger. While there are a few 2s in the mix, I do not recall seeing a 1. With the places I knew, I would agree with the assessments although the Rosebud scoring a 5 kind of shocked me; the last time I was in there was when it was an Italian restaurant which was not all that seedy despite having no windows at all. Overall, I was impressed at how much field research and how many lost afternoons were spent compiling this book.
I was also impressed with the author's insight into dive bar truisms. Like how the youthful drinkers at Allston's Silhouette Lounge will drink in harmony with the "wobbly old-timers" that are future versions of themselves. Or how sometimes at places like Shea's Tavern in South Boston "it's a pretty good idea to keep your head down and not look anyone in the eye. Dive bar drunks are like crocodiles or rhinos or whatever. Best not to show any outward signs of aggression..." Moreover, I was amused at his description of a character at Magoun Square's On the Hill Tavern not too far from where I live in Somerville. Luke's friend described him has "the sheriff. He just stands on the corner by the door and smokes cigarettes." However, my name for him is the Fire Marshall from when I used to walk by him years ago on the way to my East Somerville Muay Thai gym; he would hang out with two other locals at the bench outside the Dunkin' Donuts on Broadway and Rt. 28, and I have spotted him more recently standing guard on occasion in front of said Tavern.
Thinking back to Stephanie Schorow's book, she fetched a bit of her Colonial lore from Samuel Adams Drake's Old Boston Taverns and Tavern Clubs. The book was frequently quoted or re-written by others through the years (with or without attribution) as it was the best resource on Boston bars from that lost time period. In a way, what Luke O'Neil accomplished is capturing a snapshot of a parallel collection of Boston drinking establishments in a way that has not really been acquired in such a survey format before.
Luke's book is available on Amazon.com here: Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown as well as at the Boston Shaker store in Somerville, MA (up the square from Sligo's and the Rosebud bar that the book covers -- feel free to stop by before or after).