Friday, April 22, 2005

Ashes to Ashes, Fun to Funky

While doing some research the other day, yr humble correspondent stumbled upon this 2002 press release commemorating the 75th anniversary of the infamous Sacco & Vanzetti trial. Apparently, & much to the surprise & amusement of yr humble correspondent, the cremated ashes of Mr Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are kept in the Rare Books Department of the Boston Public Library.

Amazing what one can find in libraries these days, what what?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Happy Birthday, Jacob!

Image: The Bottles of Jacob Wirth

Speaking of fine dining: on this day in 1868, the Jacob Wirth Restaurant opened for business at 60 Eliot Street. Much congratulations & a very happy 137th, Mr. Wirth!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Hidden Beacon Hill

Nestled in the basement of 37 Bowdoin Street, on the north slope of Beacon Hill, is a restaurant named Grotto. Yr humble correspondent has for a while now desired to write up a review of this adorable & obscure establishment, for truly it is one of his favorite places to dine.

Descend into fine dining, if you dare.

Oft-overlooked due to its small size and somewhat out-of-the-way location, Grotto is one of those "local secrets" that make neighborhoods in Boston feel so distinctly Old World. One could be an old hand at the labyrinth of Beacon Hill's hidden gardens & alleyways & still overlook Grotto, which is indeed most unfortunate for the place is decidedly fabulous.

One enters Grotto by descending a set of stone steps into the basement of an otherwise nondescript apartment building. Inside, one is confronted with a warm and comfortable environment, designed in a sort of Bohemian theme, with plenty of mirrors & artwork (all done by local artists, of course) & swaths of silk hanging from the ceiling & over the windows. The whole place is bathed in red, from the exposed piping to the ambient lighting, but is well-balanced so as to not seem too extravagent or over-the-top. Cute accents, such red daisies at each table and dessert menus wrapped up like scrolls, complete the feel of the place & make one forget they are half underground.

The desserts are worth trying if only for presentation.

Grotto is open for both lunch and dinner (closing for a few hours between the two) & is a bit expensive, though well worth the price. A full dinner for two, with drinks, generally costs between $80 and a $100, while lunch can range anywhere from $40 to $60. Again, yr humble correspondent cannot stress enough that the experience is well worth the bill, for, in addition to the lovely atmosphere, the food is delicious, unique, prompt in arrival and served in good portions. The cocktails are reasonably priced, and are all masterfully mixed. In addition, one is almost gauranteed a quiet experience, as Grotto is hardly ever busy & is capable of seating only about a two dozen guests.

The service is more-or-less impeccable. Never once has yr humble correspondet had a negative waitstaff experience at Grotto. Everyone is unfailingly polite, readily at beck & call without seeming overbearing & friendly without seeming superficial or forced.

Again, yr humble correspondent cannot recommend Grotto enough & must insist every one of his dear readers take someone special there this spring or summmer. It is a quick jaunt from the Park Street, Bowdoin or Government Center T Stations, making it ideal for an after-work rendevouz or a Friday night date.

You'd hardly even notice it was there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Boston Starbucks: The Smallest Starbucks

The Smallest Starbucks.

Located at 12 Winter Street, in Downtown Crossing, the Smallest Starbucks is, in the opinion of yr humble correspondent, the smallest Starbucks in Boston. It is roughly rectangular in shape & scarcely large enough to accomodate the counter behind which the baristas work, let alone the cream & sugar stations & the two tables that, somehow, have been crammed into the establishment's tiny bay windows.

The Smallest Starbucks, befitting its location in the heart of a retail zone, caters to all types. Tourists are most common during the spring and summer months & in the morning one can usually anticipate a long line of office workers about to start the usual nine-to-five grind. The occasional law student from Suffolk is not unusual, either.

All in all, the Smallest Starbucks would scarcely warrant notice from yr humble correspondent, or from any of my loyal readers, save for the fact that it is the optimal people-watching spot in Downtown Crossing. If one is able to manage a seat in the aforementioned tiny bay windows — which are often occupied — than one should prepare for a full day's worth of hilarity. The sort of people that linger around Downtown Crossing are, it is widely known, not of the most "typical" sort, after all, & observing their "fashion sense" & activities has most effectively killed many of yr humble correspondent's summer afternoons. For this reason, yr humble correspondent gives the Smallest Starbucks an acceptable A-.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Boston Starbucks: The SMS

We are honored today to have the illustrious Mr D— advance the cause of the Guide to Boston's Starbucks by providing Bostonia with a guest review of one such establishment! A resounding huzzah to Mr D—, what what?

The Strip Mall Starbucks
Image: Mr D—

The Strip Mall Starbucks is located, unsurprisingly, in a small strip mall along Somerville Avenue, a few blocks before the Porter Square T station. It shares the space with a laundromat, a dry cleaners, and a cell phone store; there is a Cumberland Farms with concomitant gas pumps just next door. 711 Somerville Avenue is not a location that invites much walk-in traffic.

Accordingly, customers of the SMS can be classified into two groups. There are, first, the morning commuters, who crowd the registers between the hours of 7 and 9 AM. One would be wise to expect a ten minute wait at the SMS in the morning; while the baristas are cheerful and efficient (of which more later), they are still yet only human.

Second, later at night, those who make use of the laundromat's services sometimes stop by for a latte or such. This is hampered to some degree by the relatively early closing hours — while the laundromat is open past midnight, the SMS closes well before 9 PM. Still, even when the inviting door is locked, the wireless connection continues to beam out into the night and into the laundromat next door.

On the weekends, the usually sufficient seating becomes crowded and even full. It is not a spacious Starbucks but it is a comfortable one, with several tables, a pair of easy chairs, and a counter buried deep inside the store. While I object to the positioning of the counter — a Starbucks counter should allow for easy people watching, and this one does no such thing — I have no complaints about the other aspects of the interior. They have done well with the limited space permitted by the location.

The staff is friendly but not too friendly, and they perform with admirable precision. My impression is that most of the baristas have a lengthy tenure at this location, and that their daily tasks have become second nature. Regular customers will be identified, and if you steadily order the same drink, they'll start getting it ready before you're even in the door.

I would grade the SMS as a strong B+.

Monday, April 11, 2005

God Save the King!

Sincerest apologies, dear readers, for the lack of posting. Yr humble correspondent came down with a bizarre sort of illness last week, and is only just recently recovered (well, mostly recovered).

However, in honor of this past Saturday's marriage between Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall), yr humble correspondent would like to direct his readership to this account of the October 18, 1860 visit to Boston by another Prince of Wales (later crowned Edward VII).

Oh, and on a wholly unrelated note: yr humble correspondent returned to work this morning to discover that the EI,CL Starbucks is undergoing extensive remodeling! One must wonder if this has anything to do with yr humble correspondent's writings on the matter.

Doubtful, yes. But a man can dream, can he not?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Found Near Wood Island

Alas, poor tie.

...and they never saw Mr. Johnson again.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Boston Starbucks: The RWS

The Retail Whore Starbucks

Behold, dear readers! The Retail Whore Starbucks!

Located just off the main lobby of the Westin Copley Place, the RWS is little known outside the stark walls of the hotel & its associated mall. Most shoppers & tourists, generally entering the whole Prudential-Sheraton-Copley-Westin-Hynes Convention Center complex from Bolyston Street, get their coffee fix at the Faux Starbucks (which will be covered in a later article, obviously), and thus never stop in at the RWS. Indeed, few people ever make it to the Westin at all — the majority are content to stop shopping at the northern end of the Copley Place Mall, and do not traverse the sky-bridge to the Westin.

Thus it is that the RWS earns it nickname. Frequented not by the shoppers of the nearby mall, it instead draws upon that same mall's many retail employees for business. Oh, granted, it does swift business with the Westin's "guests" as well, but it is not those guests which give the RWS its character. Not by a long shot.

Yr humble correspondent was a regular customer at the RWS back in his days of retail whoredom, when he sold overpriced knick-knacks to the bourgeoisie, & he was not the only Copley employee who did so. The place is often rife with associates from Banana Republic, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus & others, who stood out among the rare tourists & the wanderers by dint of their well-executed, mostly-name-brand attire.

A sense of apathy & disdain always filled the RWS back then & most likely remains to this day. The staff, knowing their dominant customer base, were quiet & unresponsive, perhaps a little resentful. No matter how often one dropped by & no matter how often one ordered the same thing they hardly ever greeted you with more than the standard "HiwhatcanIgetyou?" They knew that we didn't expect anything more; we hated customers, too.

Though most of its customers, having skipped out of the store for a five minute break, do not stick around the RWS, the place is designed for a bit of lounging. At least four comfortable armchairs fill the window area & there are usually two or three little tables situated around the floor. The tables are not particularly good places to relax, since the RWS is usually quite busy (especially on weekends) & people tend to bump into one another, clustering as they do around the "bar" awaiting their drinks. Yet if one can get an armchair in the window, the RWS can be an enjoyable experience — if nothing else, it's an excellent place for people-watching.

(At the suggestion of Ms. B—, who is not Mr. B—, I will commence giving letter grades to the various Boston Starbucks, beginning with this entry. Excellent suggestion, Ms. B—!)

Grade: B (if you're not a retail whore), or B+ (if you are or were)