The roof sits so low you expect Bilbo Baggins to be inside, surrounded by a band of drunken dwarves. A fading Budweiser sign rises above the roof. In this snug brick building fifteen minutes from campus, a bearded bartender shook, stirred, then poured. He slid a glowing-red glass towards me, filled to the brim with one of the best cocktails I’ve tasted.
Green Street, just off Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square, is the joint’s location and name. It is neither rambunctious nor solemn, and, unfortunately, I saw no hobbits when I dropped in on a Wednesday night. A diverse crowd filled up the place. Three 30-year-olds talked business. Two 20-somethings flirted.
Green Street has the feel of an old neighborhood tavern because there has been a bar here, in one form or another, for a very long time. This building was the first place in the city to start serving alcohol after Prohibition ended. And the building is even older. When Dylan Black bought the place in 2006, he found records dating back to 1812.
I ordered a cocktail made of molasses, rum, and lime juice. It’s called the Kill Divil, and it is delicious. The lime thins out the molasses to make a sweet, but not saccharine syrup that goes down smooth. Dylan found the recipe in a book from 1850, and put it on the menu with only one change: adding ice. Some of the drinks are named for horses that won money for a gambling friend. The Ft. Washington Flip is named for a spot down the road, where George Washington fought the British.
Dylan Black was wearing a grey hoodie and a Sox cap when I met him, a White Sox cap. He grew up in Cambridge, but his family is from Chicago, where his great grandfather Frank Black ran a bar. A squat man, Frank once wore a white shirt and suspenders and stood next to a barrel of beer for a photograph. Dylan keeps that black and white picture in his office. He brought it out to show me and tapped his finger at what looked like Frank’s hat. “See that?” Dylan smiled. His great grandfather wore a wig.
Dylan learned to make cocktails in the late ‘90s at a now-closed bar called the B-Side Lounge. In 1998 he invented a drink called the Daisy Black, a nod to his great grandfather. It contains honey, lemon, and Frank Black’s favorite rye, with a mint leaf. Like most of the drinks I had at Green Street, the Daisy Black has a delicate balance of flavors. It wasn’t overwhelming or eye-popping, just satisfying with every sip.
These days Dylan leaves the cocktail creation to his bartenders; he may own a bar known for its cocktails, but he’s a beer and wine guy. Green Street serves eight wines in glasses, nine beers on tap, and about 20 bottles of each. As the sign out front indicates, one of those bottles is Budweiser.
By this point, I had to order food. There are a range of small plates and entrees, and I spied one patron digging into a bowl of chocolate mousse. The style is simple, excellent American cuisine drawn from local sources. You can see every ingredient on your plate. On mine there was orzo, a green tzatziki sauce, tiny jalapenos, and grilled octopus. Quality does not entail snobbery here. The small plates range from $4-$11, cocktails are $7-$9, entrees run up to $25. You can order classics like French onion soup, mac and cheese, or a burger.
A bar, Dylan told me, is one of the few places in the world where you can get the best of something for under $10. The first time I came to Green Street was an accident. I wandered in, a little lost, on a frigid Friday this February. The bar was warm with conversation, too crowded to order a drink at first, but cozy enough to warrant patience. I had spent the summer developing a terribly elitist taste in New York City cocktails. I clung to that memory through the fall, insisting to my friends with not enough self-deprecation that I had been to the best cocktail bar in New York and would drink only beer in Boston. I read the menu, still holding on to my pretension, prepared for disappointment. The server guided me through the possible tastes with the friendly competence everyone at Green Street emanates. She suggested the Parisian Orchid. A few minutes later I sipped. I smiled. I’ve been back twice, and soon I’ll be going again.