The city of Boston is comprised of 23 neighborhoods. Many of the downtown neighborhoods span less than a square mile, but they are full of interesting sites and places of interest. To that end, this month I selected four downtown neighborhoods and shared my thoughts about what make them worth visiting.
I started this series with the neighborhood I know best, the South End. I’ve lived here for nearly twenty years now but have been visiting since I moved back to Boston in the late 1990s.
The South End is incredibly charming. Built on landfill in the mid-19th century as a residential district for Boston’s growing upper middle-class, hundreds of Victorian Bow Fronts were built and today it’s the largest enclave of urban Victorian residential architecture in the country. The picturesque neighborhood is full of parks, unique shops and restaurants and cafes. While only a few gay bars remain in the South End, this was once upon a time an enclave for Boston’s LGBTQ+ community and while most of those businesses have closed or moved online, this is still where many in Boston’s gay community come out for dinner or to meet up with friends for drinks. Read my full profile of the South End here.
I moved into the Back Bay in the late 1990s after living in Atlanta for a few years. I thought I’d live in my apartment on Commonwealth Avenue for a year maybe two but ultimately, I stayed in the Back Bay for six years. I still consider it a homebase and love this neighborhood for all that it has to offer.
If you’ve visited Boston, you’ve probably spent time in the Back Bay. It is a centrally located, afluent neighborhood with some of Boston’s most iconic buildings, busiest streets, best restaurants, bars and shops. It is chock-full of office buildings, hotels, retailers, restaurants and of course residents. Tourists will love the parks (my favorite is The Esplanade) that run through this neighborhood, but Back Bay also has amazing architecture ranging from the modern I.M. Pei design of The Hancock Tower built in the 1970s to the beautiful McKim Building of the Boston Public Library and its hidden Italianate Courtyard that dates back to the late 1800s. In addition, this neighborhood has no shortage of restaurants, bars and shopping so there is plenty to see and do when here. Read my full profile of the Back Bay here.
I never lived in Beacon Hill but one of my best friends went to Suffolk University which is located here. I also spent many hours at bars in this neighborhood in my late 20s and early 30s.
Beacon Hill is a popular destination for visitors due to its many historical sites, with some dating back to the 1600s. While this neighborhood is less than a square quarter mile in size it contains a lot to see and enjoy with its pretty as a postcard streets to its many Freedom Trail sites of interest to great restaurants and good pubs. While the neighborhood’s stodgy image is well deserved there is still plenty of fun to be had here and my favorite time of year to visit is in the summer when you can sit outside and enjoy the people watching along Charles Street. For more information about this historic and interesting neighborhood, read my full profile of Beacon Hill here.
The North End is where my maternal grandmother grew up as a kid. My brother briefly lived here and at the moment one of my cousins call the North End home. While I’ve never lived here, it is this familial connection to this tiny neighborhood that makes me feel connected to it.
The North End is charming unless you’re driving then it is a nightmare. The neighborhood is comprised of a maze of narrow, meandering streets that are chock-full of Italian restaurants, bakeries and cafes. The tiny neighborhood is hemmed in between Boston’s inner harbor to the North and East and The Rose Kennedy Greenway (a.k.a. The Greenway) to the West and South. This neighborhood is for those who love American History (esp. American Revolution) and for those who love food. For more information about Boston’s “Little Italy”, read my full profile of the North End here.
Boston is where I live, but the South End is home. If you visit Boston, you’ll understand this city is defined by its neighborhoods. Each have their own history, architecture and personality. The South End was one of America’s earliest large-scale residential developments and much of that pre- and post-Civil War architecture remains. A good example is Boston’s Union Park in the South End, which was built in the late 1850s.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the South End would become the home for many immigrant groups notably Greek, Lebanese, Africans, and Caribbean/West Indies. It also became home for many in the city’s Black population (e.g., 395-397 Massachusetts Ave was home to Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1950s). In the early 1970s many artists and gay men moved here for the cheap rent. By then the neighborhood had a well-deserved seedy reputation and was afflicted by urban blight and crime. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Boston’s population started to rebound and places like the South End started to flourish again. That gentrification would also result in Boston’s gay population moving out to Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Davis Square and elsewhere.
About The South End: The South End is a contradiction. It has some of the most affluent properties and toniest addresses in the city. Yet, it’s home to the city’s largest soup kitchen, Pine Street Inn, large public housing complexes, Boston’s safety net hospital Boston Medical Center and its neighboring Healthcare for the Homeless. Despite its affluence, these institutions (thankfully) aren’t going anywhere. It is this socio-economic mix that has saved the South End from becoming one-dimensional and gives it personality.
The South End is incredibly charming. Built on landfill in the mid-19th century as a residential district for Boston’s growing upper middle-class, hundreds of Victorian Bow Fronts were built and today it’s the largest enclave of urban Victorian residential architecture in the country. However, one of the most beautiful buildings in the South End isn’t Victorian, it’s Gothic Revival architecture. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross (est.1875) made from nearby Roxbury puddingstone and gray limestone stands in stark contrast to the Victorian and newer glass and steel residential buildings in the SoWa district of the South End. If you get a chance, look inside. The Cathedral was recently lovingly cleaned and restored and it is beautiful inside and out.
What to do in the South End: The South End is a picturesque, residential neighborhood with many parks to enjoy. If you spend any time here, you’ll likely find yourself walking through some of these green spaces. Some of our favorite parks are The Underground, Peter’s Park, Blackstone & Franklin Squares, and the Southwest Corridor, which divides the South End and Back Bay.
Aside from strolling through the parks and streets of the South End, I love the local theater companies that (when there isn’t a pandemic) perform at the Black Box Theater and Calderwood Pavilion. I think of the South End as a mini-theater district with The Huntington, SpeakEasy Stage and Company One all providing entertaining shows. Additionally, the First Friday of each month from 5-9PM is SoWa First Fridays where scores of art galleries and artisans open their studios to the public. The theater companies and First Fridays bring many people here for a fun date night or evening out with friends – especially when followed by drinks and dinner (but more about that later).
In addition to window shopping (there are many unique shops, complete listing here), enjoying the parks, or checking out the local arts scene, the South End hosts several markets and events. One of my favorites is the SoWa Open Market, which runs each Sunday (May thru October). It includes an artisan and farmer’s market, food trucks and a vintage market (this runs year round). There are also many interesting exhibits and events hosted at the BCA Cyclorama and at the new events and exhibition venue, The South End Power Station, but if all that sounds exhausting, don’t worry there are many places to relax.
Cafes in the South End: One of the things I love about this neighborhood is its many cafes and restaurants. Visitors may feel lost with very few national chains present (which by the way is a good thing), but it adds personality and allows local chains and sole proprietorships to thrive. In 2015, I wrote about the cafes in the South End. Since then a few have closed and a few have opened but the point is there are many places to meet a friend to enjoy a good cup of coffee and tempting treat or two. A favorite new coffee shop is MOD Espresso on Harrison Ave. If you’re in the n’hood, stop by and let me know what you think.
In 2014, I hosted a blind tasting to find out who made the best chocolate chip cookies in the South End. Should I write a new post about the many cafes or host another blind tasting to find the best chocolate chip cookies in the n’hood? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
Restaurants in the South End: Every restaurant I wrote about in my 2018 post, Best Places to Eat in the South End, have weathered the pandemic and remain open. If we can set the current pandemic aside, dining out in the South End has changed for the better in recent years. There are more affordable and casual dining options, and a greater variety of cuisines to enjoy.
The neighborhood has some of the best Italian and French restaurants Boston has to offer (too many to list). It also has great Asian restaurants (personal favorites include Elephant Walk and Myer’s + Chang), Eastern Mediterranean cuisine (Kava and it’s sister restaurant, Ilona as well as the fast casual, Anoush’ella are superb). Several excellent Spanish restaurants are home to the South End but Toro is my favorite. For sushi, I prefer the unpretentious Seiyo near Mass Ave. or Red Lantern. There are many options for pizza, but my favorites are Union Park Pizza (take out only) and PICCO (which stands for Pizza & Ice Cream Co.). In recent years, several Mexican and Latin restaurants have opened but my favorites are the relatively new Burro Bar and the longstanding Orinoco. I still blush thinking about my first time at Orinoco. In my haste to get inside, I accidentally knocked over Keith Lockhart. We fell into each other’s arms as we crashed into the wall so I suppose I can say I’ve hugged the famous conductor of the Boston Pops.
The list of great places to eat in the South End is long, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’re looking for a suggestion, ask me, and I’ll be happy to make recommendations based on your preferences.
Favorite Bars in the South End: There are many places to enjoy a cocktail or drink, but if you want to enjoy live music go to the tiny and quite famous, Wally’s. It is one of the oldest jazz bars in America (opened in 1947) and has hosted some of America’s greatest jazz musicians. A few blocks over from Wally’s is Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, and in the opposite direction, up Tremont Street is the Beehive. All three locations have excellent live music and are places worth visiting. Darryl’s and the Beehive also have kitchens that crank out consistently good food if you’re hungry.
If you’re a beer drinker, go to JJ Foley’s, an Irish pub that has been operating in the South End since 1909. This place has a lot of character and serves a mean shepard’s pie. On the other end of the neighborhood, is a relative newcomer by comparison, Five Horses Tavern, which opened in 2013. Both places will make any beer drinker feel at home.
If you’re looking for something more kitsch, check out the subterranean, Polynesian bar and restaurant with great tiki drinks Shore Leave or longtime neighborhood favorite, Delux Cafe with its ticky-tacky decor and quirky staff. The bars you’ll mostly likely find Sergio and me at is the gorgeous 20+ seat bar at Boston Chops and the welcoming lounge at Burro Bar South End (if you like spicy drinks order the el Diablo). However, I also love the gorgeous U-shaped bar at Barcelona Wine Bar and the cozy wine bar at Aquitaine (they have an excellent Sancerre rosé by the glass).
Gay Bars in the South End: Only a few gay bars remain in the South End. Cathedral Station is located on Washington Street and is the only downtown gay bar with a patio. They cater to the gay sports leagues and the bear community. You’ll usually find an older crowd here, but all are welcome at this friendly bar. The other gay bar in the South End is Club Cafe. Over the years it has become increasingly mixed but they still market themselves as a gay bar. Club Cafe has the Napoleon Lounge where cabaret music is performed, a dance floor in the back and a dining room and bar at the front of the house. If you’re gay and in Boston, you’ll eventually end up at Club Cafe.
While it’s true that Boston has very few gay bars, Boston’s LGBTQ+ community is redefining what is a gay bar and claiming space to meet, have a drink, gossip, watch a game, etc… whether the establishment is marketed as a “gay bar” or not. Good examples would be Boston Chops South End, Burro Bar South End, Trophy Room, Anchovies, and Elephant Walk. On any given night you will see gay friends meeting for drinks and as a result the local LGBTQ+ community has come to think of these places as ‘unofficial’ gay bars. While they are no longer around, virtually every gay man in Boston thought of Pho Republique, Rocca, Tremont 647, Sister Sorel, and Stella as some of Boston’s best gay bars, yet none were marketed as such.
If you happen to be new to Boston or planning a visit, feel free to reach out with questions. If you’re familiar with Boston’s South End, your recommendations are welcome in the comments section.
SoWa Open Market is each Sunday, 11:00a.m. – 3:00p.m. at 500 Harrison Ave.
After a 6-mos hiatus, the SoWa Open Market returns to 500 Harrison Avenue this Sunday. This year’s market includes the artisan, farmer’s and vintage markets. Spring Brook Farms, The Herb Lyceum, When Pig’s Fly Bakery, and Blackbird Doughnuts are a few of the 20 vendors who will be there every week. Here is a full list of vendors participating in this year’s Farmer’s Market.
In addition to the markets, many of the galleries and studios along Thayer Street will be open to the public. However, due to health and safety regulations, the market will initially open without the beer garden and food trucks but check back for updates later in the season.
The 2021 SoWa Open Market hours are Sunday from 11am – 3pm (Vintage Market 11am – 4pm) Sunday, May 2, 2021 through October 31, 2021.
For more information about the individual markets and safety protocols put in place to ensure everyone’s health and safety, visit their website, sowaboston.com/sowa-open-market.
Earlier this month it was reported on the Boston Restaurant Talk blog that SOWA Hospitality Group (a division of GTI, Inc.) would be opening a new French restaurant in the space formerly known as Gaslight.
The new restaurant called, Brasserie, will likely open the second weekend of May. Today, signage is being added to the 560 Harrison Avenue building and the parking lot is being freshly paved. Friends & Family events are scheduled for next week to get the staff and kitchen ready for a full opening and daily meetings are taking place with staff as the team readies to open.
I’m optimistic Brasserie will be successful because veteran restauranteur, Jeff Gates, has been overseeing the opening. SOWA Hospitality Group made the decision to make no discernable modifications to the space so Brasserie looks like a Gaslight reboot rather than a new restaurant, but perhaps that was the intention all along. Regardless, it will be good to see the lights come back on and the patio once again full of people.
The restaurant industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. By September 2020, WBZ-TV reported that 20% of all restaurants in Massachusetts had closed for good. Spring 2021 has reversed those trends as many restaurants come out of hibernation and news of new restaurant openings replaces the more depressing news of closures that we became accustomed to last year.
With an increased optimism comes new investment to bring life back to spaces that pre-pandemic were popular and profitable. Seizing this opportunity, GTI Properties has hired Jeff Gates to oversee the food and beverage operations at the SOWA Power Station, which is being converted into a special events space and to open and manage three new restaurants in SOWA – one of which will open next month.
Brasserie, located at 560 Harrison Avenue (formerly Gaslight) will open in May, according to a Boston Restaurant Talk blog post. If that timing is correct, a quick walk by suggests that not much will likely change in decor or design but Gaslight was a juggernaut so the key to Brasserie’s success will be staffing and management.
Roma 500 at 500 Harrison Avenue (formerly Cinquecento) will likely open later this year. Unlike Brasserie, significant renovations and remodeling are required. Roma 500 will have an enlarged outdoor dining patio and bar. No other South End restaurant has an outdoor bar, making this a unique (and welcome) addition to the neighborhood.
Finally, Pho on Thayer, at 460 Harrison (building B) will open in new space that was briefly used by Mohr & McPherson but is now vacant. Late last year Jeff Gates petitioned the city on behalf of GTI to transfer the Hungry I liquor license to Pho on Thayer so the restaurant will have a full bar.
Stay tuned for more details as they come available, I’ll be sure to share that information here.
A new pizzeria is about to open in the SoWa district of the South End neighborhood. The popular (and ever expanding) Portland Maine-based pizzeria, OTTO Pizza, will be opening at the 345 Harrison Avenue apartment complex (located across from the Ink Block in the South End).
No opening date has been shared, but I’m looking forward to the addition to the neighborhood. Pizzerias provide a more affordable dining and take out alternative in the South End, and this neighborhood needs more “fast, casual dining options”. As a result, I think OTTO Pizza will find a great deal of success filling this underserved and under-represented dining niche once it opens.
The South End Business Alliance (SEBA) and South End Local have partnered to create a “multi-date” 2020 Holiday Stroll and with so many local and small businesses struggling I’m hoping more people will come out to buy local this year and show the South End businesses some love.
More than 90 local businesses and working artists will be opening their doors (of course there will be strict adherence to state guidelines and everyone must wear a mask and observe social distancing protocols).
Despite the ongoing pandemic, economic downturn, and social unrest, many of my neighbors in the South End are spreading holiday cheer with their creative fall and Halloween decorations.
The fall is always a beautiful time to be in Boston and this year’s efforts by my neighbors to embrace the season is appreciated by me and I’m sure many others. Below are some more photos of the creative expressions shared by neighbors embracing the fall and Halloween season. Take time to walk around the neighborhood and check out their creative decorations.
Bucking a trend of recent restaurant closures, I’m glad to write that this past Thursday Chef Michael Serpa opened his new seafood restaurant, Atlántico, in the South End at 600 Harrison in space formerly occupied by Southern Proper.
The seafood restaurant has a really interesting menu that is mostly comprised of Spanish & Portuguese tapas that is broken down into several sections including an oyster bar (what else would you expect from the chef behind Back Bay’s Select Oyster Bar), a larger selection of cold and hot and grilled tapas, and for those who are very hungry a large paella. Prices range widely, but the dinner and drink menu is currently available online, here.
The restaurant is open for dinner 7 days a week and according to the website weekend brunch on Sunday from 11am to 2pm. Café service will be available Monday to Friday from 7am to 2pm.
I’ve yet to check out the restaurant but do plan to see if the cafe is open this week to try some of their pastries, breakfast sandwiches and coffee.
Atlántico 600 Harrison Avenue 857-233-2898 || email@example.com
Hours of Operation Weekday café service 7AM – 2PM Dinner daily starting at 5PM Sunday brunch 11AM-3PM
At the height of the coronavirus epidemic in Massachusetts The Acquitaine Group Italian restaurant, Cinquecento, which was closed due to a statewide shutdown to flatten the curve with COVID-19 infections was flooded with approximately five feet of water from a water main break on Harrison Avenue.
Since the mid-April flood there has been a lot of activity to make the building (and surrounding buildings) habitable again but earlier this week the successful Italian restaurant with the beautiful patio announced that they will not reopen. Below is a photo of me at their Rosso Container Bar on their beautiful patio.
However, since I first wrote about this European-style coffee bar a lot has happened and I wanted to remind people about this great little cafe which may not be on your radar. Since reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, the cafe has updated its menu adding items like Iggy’s bagels (which yours truly just devoured) avacado toast and for those who like sweets some very tastey cookies.
At the moment MOD Espresso, is giving away their delicious cookies with the purchase of a coffee so for a little more than $2.00 you can get a great cup of coffee and a cookie (I’m partial to their oatmeal raisin).
485 Harrison Avenue
8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (Mon – Sat)
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (Sun)
Welcome to the South End’s newest coffee shop, Mod Espresso, by stopping by and sampling some of their delicious La Colombe coffee. It is a personal favorite.
The chic cafe sits inside the Modern Relik home design showroom located at 485 Harrison Avenue. The European-style coffee bar, was developed by Michela Larson who locals may remember opened the very popular (and still missed) Italian restaurant, Rocca, in the South End. In addition to serving excellent coffee, Mod Espresso has a limited menu that includes sweets like cookies, cakes and pastry as well as some savory bites you can grab for lunch or snacks. The cafe will be expanding their hours in the weeks that follow but is currently open 7-days a week. Check out some photos of this chic new coffee shop on Harrison Avenue, courtesy of the Mod Espresso Cafe.
A new residential development has been proposed for 566 Columbus Avenue. The building which sits at the busy intersection of Mass and Columbus Ave was purchased earlier this year by New Boston Ventures, and the new owners have proposed redeveloping the site into a new six-story mixed use commercial and residential building (rendering shown above).
The proposed project (currently unnamed) would feature a community oriented ground floor with approximately 5,000 sf of commercial space that would include a social enterprise café with outdoor seating, an art gallery, and improved community space for the United South End Settlements, which has been in the existing building since the mid 1970s.
The proposed project would include 66 residential home ownership units, 11 of which would be reserved for artist live/work spaces, as well as 42 below-grade parking spaces. The proposal would seem to make much better use of the space as it exists today (see below).
Photo of La Canular in the South End from Boston Magazine
The former home to Sister Sorel reopened this past Wednesday as Le Canular, the South End’s newest wine bar. According to the article in Boston Magazine the wines will all be priced at $13 and there will be a limited menu that you can check out Wednesday through Saturday from 6 p.m.-midnight.
I’m happy to see the space reopen and wish Maslow and his team much luck. While I’ve enjoyed the food at its neighboring Whaling in Oklahoma, I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m sitting in Tremont 647. I hope the transformation from Sister Sorel to Le Canular is more successful.
Boston Magazine recently featured an article about a new Mexican restaurant that will open inside the Revolution Hotel. Cosmica Mexican Eatery & Bar will focus on “inventive Mexican street food” and include items like chorizo-queso jalapeno poppers and duck carnitas tacos with mole verde – sounds delicious.
The new restaurant will be managed by the successful Wildlife Hospitality team, who also run The Beehive in the South End and Harvard Square’s Beat Brew Hall. Although the article didn’t mention a live entertainment license, I would bet you can expect Cosmica to offer live music. The hotel pays tribute to Boston’s rich music history and it would be only fitting that this new venue help the city’s current generation of musicians thrive.
Cosmica currently says they expect to open in November, but after taking a quick walk by the property this past weekend, it looks like a lot of work still needs to be done so we will see. Stay tuned.