Anyone who knows me personally (or even follows me on Twitter or foursquare) is likely aware I’m not someone with a particular local bar. I’m out and about in the city quite a bit between different gigs and I enjoy visiting a wide range of places.
If one place stands out as home base over the last few years, it’s Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Kenmore Square.
For years before ES opened I did most of my drinking at Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square. I didn’t live far away, the jukebox was fantastic, and the first time I tasted a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon shortly after turning 21 we knew we were made for each other.
But as I got a bit older I branched out. I had a real cocktail for the first time at the lost and lamented B-Side Lounge in scenic East Cambridge. I started playing my first regular DJ gig Monday nights at River Gods in Central Square. I earned my first gift certificates in trade helping straighten out a pack of blue iMacs in the basement of Tremont 647. And for the first time, I started occasionally eating meals full of complex flavor and technique in restaurants with cloth napkins.
Skip ahead to May 2005:
A new place was opening in Kenmore Square. I didn’t know much about it, except it was in the space formerly held by Strawberries Records & Tapes and the legendary Rathskellar, where I’d snuck into a surprise Mighty Mighty Bosstones show through the fire escape out back at 16.
The new spot was called Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, and two of my old drinking buddies from Charlie’s and B-Side were part of the opening staff.
Jamie Bissonnette (now of Toro and Coppa) was the opening chef. I’d gotten to know him when I was working the door at the B-Side. After the first time he’d waited in line the usual 20-30 minutes to get in my boss (Dave Cagle, now at Deep Ellum & Lone Star Taco Bar) gave me the green light to skip him past the line in the future, but most often he would stop and wait like everyone else and chat to pass the time until the overcrowded bar had room. One of those first cloth napkin dishes I’d ever enjoyed came during the brief stint Jamie shared with Jason Santos at Tremont 647: a small plate of raw tuna & wasabi alongside similarly cut steak tartare and finely sliced jalapeno pepper.
I met Andy McNees (now bar manager at Toro) about fifteen minutes after that first PBR at Charlie’s, though realistically it was probably a few weeks later. We both liked the Smiths and whiskey, ended up working together at the B-Side, and just a few months before I’d been sitting (and standing and screaming) at his bar at Bukowski’s in Inman Square watching the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. In the ninth inning, just minutes before a champagne-sprayed highfive that nearly took our arms off, we had the most-coded and qualified conversation two baseball fans could have in that moment and I slipped him a CD across the bar. The first track was The Standells, “Dirty Water”; just in case.
That spring, when Eastern Standard opened, I was trying out for my dream job.
I got a call inviting me to Fenway Park in late April, and two weeks later I had my audition to be the backup DJ for the Boston Red Sox. I had no idea what to expect that day. Much to my surprise, the tryout was the job. I found myself playing music for two innings live in front of 40,000 people. That experience alone is worth its own story, but in short it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my entire life.
The game ended, and I walked on clouds into Kenmore Square for my first visit to my friends’ new bar. My starry-eyed surprise on walking in the door is probably best expressed for musical film nerds by the bit in the movie version of Annie when, upon seeing the Warbucks mansion for the first time Annie exclaims “Are we taking a train to get there?”
I found my friend behind the marble bar, and no doubt babbled a string of incoherent delight expressing that my dream job audition involved actually playing music at Fenway Park. Amidst more highfives and wide-eyed excitement, Andy poured me a glass of champagne, we toasted, and he pronounced aloud the moniker I’m mostly happy to find inescapable years later, “TJ the DJ”.
When I got the backup DJ job for real and worked my first solo game six weeks later, the first thing I did postgame was walk directly to ES for another glass of champagne.
From there, the stories are too many to tell.
From massive events like Anti-Valentines and the Whiskey Smash Bash to quick stops for last call or the city’s best late-night dining, Eastern Standard has become a home that defines the word hospitality.
I’ve been honored to provide the music for rooms full of dancers at annual staff parties and collapsed with laughter when, after NESN’s cameras had captured my ignominious failure to catch a foul ball, I walked in the front door postgame and was greeted by Kevin Martin and Nicole Lebedevitch leading the entire bar staff in a screaming pantomime of my less-than-excellent baseball technique.
The experiences I’ve shared with friends on both sides of the massive marble bar over the last eight years have been some of my favorite moments. There have been victories and failures, weddings, birthdays, and funerals, but the celebrations most often find their way to Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Kenmore Square.