The vibe has changed and so have many of the old hangouts. But to many, Kenmore still rules.
By the time I lived in Kenmore Square, from 2000 to 2002, the Rat was already two years gone, and the old, grungy IHOP that’s now the site of the Hotel Commonwealth sprawl was a month from its demise. Homeless icon Mr. Butch, rest his soul, had already been exiled to Allston, and nostalgia for seedier times hung in the air with every rambling old punk, every Deli Haus Mo’burger and every pint at Cornwall’s, the last bastion of the old guard.
So, no, I wasn’t there for Kenmore’s ``heyday,'' but even now, I don’t really recognize the place. Telling a new Boston University freshman about even the fanatically devotional Deli Haus – for a year-and-a-half, my late night grub go-to, before its brief life as an ill-conceived sports bar and consequent shuttering – would elicit a blank stare en route to a fluorescent-colored martini at Eastern Standard (where IHOP used to be).
Kenmore proper is about its bustling restaurant scene, its chi-chi lounges, its shiny, antiseptic surfaces. It’s about the last vestiges of the old, grimy square being chased out by gentrification, and round after round of diatribes and think pieces galore in the local press about the death of Kenmore’s old soul – pieces that continue, though with less frequency, into the present. Welcome to another.
I ventured into Kenmore a bunch in the past year, hoping to get a deeper sense of what it was like in the now, and the obvious answer is that Kenmore has become a Disney-like cornucopia devoted entirely to its most famous residents: the Red Sox.
I knew Sox culture was the centerpiece of Kenmore now, and for a lifetime Sox fan, that’s just fine with me. But I’m not sure I realized how much they’d become synonymous with it, or anything worth doing there. Without the Sox, would Kenmore be a nightlife dead zone, given only to a restaurant pass-through crowd and hazy memories of Sonic Youth, Talking Heads and the Neighborhoods at the Rat? Would it be worth it to traipse all the way in on those interminable rides from Red Line outposts in Quincy Adams and Braintree, or brave I-93 or the Pike? For this?
Hard to say.
The Old Reliable
Whenever in Kenmore, if there’s time, my first – and last – stop is Cornwall’s, and that’s been true of the place as a Kenmore institution for a lot longer than I’ve been tying them on there. It’s the only haunt in Kenmore Square that effectively bridges its two eras, and I barely remember its former self – it moved across the street from its original location after the Hotel Commonwealth plans were set, avoiding demolition.
"We are very lucky we are still here,'' said Pamela Beale, who along with her husband, John, has owned Cornwall’s for more than 30 years. ``There are so many opportunities here now, but yes, we do straddle the old neighborhood and the new one.''
Beale is president of the Kenmore Association and serves as chairwoman of Kenmore’s Citizens Advisory Committee, a group appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to assist with the Kenmore-area development projects that regularly dot the business pages of local newspapers. There is nothing in Kenmore that escapes her notice, least of all in her own bar.
North Quincy natives Spiro Kouvlis and Nick Kesaris own the Kenmore eatery Uburger.
"It’s always been a busy area, and we are right in the campus of B.U., all the Green Line trains stop here, and we also get the Red Sox rushes,'' said Kouvlis. ``Obviously, (the nightlife) has changed a lot. I don’t know really about it specifically, but it’s more upscale and definitely more attractive. It’s kind of the perfect place for a drink before or a drink after the game.''
"Music is what comes up most often when observers try to identify what’s been lost in Kenmore’s dramatic transformation.
"I don’t see Kenmore as a destination. In terms of nightlife, there are better things happening elsewhere,'' said Evan Goodrow, lead singer and guitarist of the soulful area funk-rock crew the Evan Goodrow Band."
During conversations a year ago, Goodrow was leading a soul band on Thursdays at Kenmore’s 3-year-old Foundation Lounge, which he described at the time as an "oasis, and for people who come in and say ‘this is one of the best things I’ve found lately and I live across the street.’''
Reconnecting with Goodrow recently, his outlook wasn’t as rosy. The Goodrow Band is taking off – but its namesake’s interest in Kenmore, like his Foundation gig, dried up in 2007, and the live music scene that seemed to be sparking at the Foundation has since lost favor to DJs.
And when people think dance clubs and DJs in Kenmore, they think Lansdowne Street.
"Lansdowne is like Bourbon Street – they turned it into Mickey Mouse land. The same thing is happening with places like Beale Street in Memphis,'' Goodrow said. ``You get that or, otherwise, it’s 7-Eleven and McDonald’s. It could be Oklahoma. It’s either that, or Fenway, or the places you pay $10 for a Corona.''
The Cask’n Flagon at Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue is still a necessary stop, no matter what you think of its splashy renovations that in 2006 turned a lot of its battered, well-worn interior into a sports viewing palace. In its transformation, the Cask also gained a 400-square-foot club space called Oliver’s, a throwback to the bar’s original name when it opened in 1969 and hosted seven-nights-a-week music, including Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix.
Some nights Oliver’s hosts earnest tribute bands and encouraging slates of local and national talents. On others, it’s DJs spinning hip-hop and Top 40, commensurate with other twentysomething-catering locales on Lansdowne like Tequila Rain.
The experience between Beer Works, Cask’n Flagon, and the other scene heavyweight, Game On!, doesn’t change all that much from bar to bar.
Each has its considerable charms, and each is trying in earnest to grab a piece of Red Sox mania.
Got the blues?
The biggest change in Kenmore-area nightlife over the past year involved the Lyons Group: specifically, the end of dance palace (and live music mainstay) Avalon and sister club Axis. Local impresario Patrick Lyons had announced plans to gut the complex, which closed on Oct. 1, and revamp it as a new, $14 million venue, to be called the Lansdowne Street Music Hall.
Then, in January, Lyons sold the clubs to House of Blues Entertainment Inc. (a hardly unnoticed closing of the circle, seeing as it was Lyons who co-founded the original Harvard Square House of Blues way back when), and announced plans to focus full time on the restaurant arm of the Lyons Group, though he stays on to oversee design and construction of the House of Blues venue.
"It’s going to be a big draw for national acts,'' Beale said. "But yeah, until it’s ready, I think we’re going to see a bit of a standstill this year. We’ll see.''
It’ll certainly restore Lansdowne to a destination for the types of national touring acts that played Avalon – and are now crammed into the Paradise or stretched at the Orpheum because there isn’t another appropriate venue in Boston to absorb shows that best fit Avalon’s size and scope. But most of the promoters who work the Lansdowne Clubs don’t have any pretensions about their part of town, either.
"There’s a certain ‘hipper than thou’ or ‘indier than thou’ type of music fan who would never be caught dead anywhere near Kenmore or Lansdowne,'' said talent buyer Dan Millen of Rock On! Concerts, which books shows at Oliver’s, nearby Copperfield’s and Bill’s Bar, and also the Hard Rock Café and other locales in Boston and New England.
"Personally I feel like that whole area is definitely going to see a major uptick in nightlife,'' Millen said. "It won’t be seedy, and of course having 40,000 crazy Red Sox fans descending upon Kenmore every other night during baseball season doesn’t hurt a thing.
"But honestly, it’s very situational. I think that dumpier, seedier bars in the Kenmore area are going to have to clean themselves up a bit to compete. If you ask the guy who books punk bands with 100 tattoos on his arms, he’s going to tell you Kenmore hasn’t been the same since the Rat closed. But if you ask the guy who promotes fun and cheesy rock shows like ‘Monsters of Mock’ and ‘Friday Night Smackdown,’ he’s going to tell you Kenmore rules. Neither of us are really right here.''