Back Bay is where Boston drops the act of being some sort of prim Olde Worlde historic theme park of breeches, tricorn hats and huzzah-ing patriots. A little newer than the neighbouring Downtown and Beacon Hill areas, it’s also a little feistier and satisfyingly contradictory. The city’s big convention centre-serving hotels cluster here, alongside steakhouses. But there’s dreamy architecture too — churches bulging with ornate features dot the corners. Back Bay is an area that rewards the nosy. The BUKOWSKI TAVERN is a classic dive bar, where locals line up on stools and demolish burgers. The peanut butter and bacon one is, erm, a bold choice.
Then there’s LOLITA COCINA & TEQUILA BAR, which offers a slightly out-of-the-ordinary Mexican menu featuring the likes of blackened halibut tacos with radish and scallions, plus a bewildering list of variations on the classic margarita. But head downstairs and it’s considerably more out oft he ordinary. There’s a red-lit bordello vibe with heavily tattooed cartoon women painted on the walls, OTT gothic chandeliers and enormous black leather couches.
Back Bay is also home to what is surely Boston’s most likeable street. Newbury Street is regarded as Boston’s prime shopping strip, but it feels like this is a happy accident rather than a deliberate ploy. The street is lined with handsome brownstone buildings with bulging bays. Many have carefully tended tiny gardens at the front, and most have steps leading down to a lower level. But it’s the fact that everything is shoehorned in that makes Newbury Street so lovable.
Those lower-level stores include world-renowned shoemaker John Fluevog, smoothie bars and hip secondhand fashion boutiques. There’s a similar variance up top, with the likes of the TRIDENT BOOKSELLERS AND CAFE, serving up seemingly a zillion different egg dishes and juice combos among the groaning shelves. But there are also outdoor gear stores, local designers and NEWBURY COMICS — geek heaven, with racks of vinyl, pop culture knick-knackery and action figures from every fantasy and sci-fi show imaginable.
The tip of John Harvard’s foot is much shinier than the rest of him. The tradition of kissing or rubbing it has seen to that. “But,” says undergraduate student Mike, who leads The Hahvahd Tour, “it’s the statue of three lies.” HARVARD UNIVERSITY (motto: ‘truth’) wasn’t founded by John Harvard (he merely bequeathed the funds that allowed it to expand); it wasn’t founded in 1638, as the plaque states (it was, in tact, set up two years earlier, as New College); and the sculpture isn’t an accurate representation of John Harvard — it cant possibly be, as there’s no record of what he looked like.
The Harvard Yard — surrounded by handsome, red-brick Georgian buildings and full of the pick of America’s young academics milling about — is what Cambridge is ostensibly all about. Technically a separate city — just across the Charles River from Boston — it’s essentially a suburb, and one that’s quite happy to pile on the mythology. Every shop, restaurant and bar around Harvard Square seems keen to play up its own heritage and piece of the legend.
The HARVARD BOOKSTORE boasts of being locally owned and independently run since 1932. The neighbouring GROLIER POETRY BOOKSHOP was founded in 1927 and is the ‘oldest all-poetry bookshop in America’. And next door, there’s MR BARTLEY’S GOURMET BURGERS,‘a Harvard landmark since I960’ wit ha near-permanent queue outside.
But Harvard is just one end of Cambridge. At the other is another of the world’s top universities —the MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. The MIT campus is studded with arresting public art from big names such as Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. English-inspired gentility in the architecture is replaced by a willingness to let all ideas burst free — as typified by Frank Gehry’s dazzlingly chaotic STATACENTER. Even nearby restaurants, such as the AREA FOUR pizza and craft beer joint, play up the science in their dishes and plump for industrial-looking decor.
Huge brewing tanks reach up for the roof, a projection of Super Mario Bros blazes against the back wall, one table turns out to be a vintage Ms Pacman arcade game, and art is displayed above a fridge stocked with four-packs of beer. AERONAUT BREWING COMPANY is a microbrewery, a bar and a whole lot more. Located inside a hangar-sized former envelope factory, the brewing operation has expanded to be what the barman calls “an incubator for lots of food-based businesses”. So also thrown in are chocolate-makers, a coffee-roaster and a tiny restaurant with just 20 stools surrounding a central bar area. That TASTING COUNTER — a ticket-only tasting-menu dining experience — happens to be the hottest meal in town right now speaks volumes for how Somerville has come on.
Once dubbed ’Slummerville’, the area (also, technically, an independent city) has one of t he youngest populations in the States and seems to be hogging all the big new restaurant openings in the Boston area. The renaissance started when the Red Line of ‘The T’ subway system extended to Davis Square in 1984. Now the square has thoroughly gentrified, but with an impish twist. The DAVIS SQUARE THEATRE advertises ‘shit-faced Shakespeare’ and ‘dirty Disney’, while the speakeasy-style SALOON bar next to it is drowning in sumptuous wood-panelling, old-style gentlemanly class and inventive cocktails.
Slightly further down Elm Street, amid a sea of globe-spanning eateries, there’s ROSEBUD AMERICAN KITCHEN&BAR. It has a vintage rail car out front that’s been converted into a tongue-in-cheek upscale diner where jambalaya (Cajun rice and meat dish) happily shares a menu with Korean barbecue sliders and Thai sticky ribs. But Davis Square is no longer an island. Clusters of top eating and drinking spots are now found all over Somerville, with UNION SQUARE the uppity young challenger for the crown.
Here, on a Saturday afternoon, a farmers’ market sets up out front and restaurant-bar BRONWYN serves up hefty doses of pork, to be washed down with an extensive list of Central European beers. In the beer garden, there doesn’t appear to be a single person over the age of 35. But no one’s here because they want to be part of a scene — it’s just an enjoyable place to hang out. And that’s Somerville through and through.