It’s easy to get a feeling for why a regular fits into their favorite bar when you see them there, laughing and catching up with other patrons and staff members as though they were seated at their own dining room table. And that relationship with a bar isn’t one sided either—it’s symbiotic. A friendly face across the bar goes a long way in making a bartender’s shift more tolerable. We stopped by a few local watering holes to chat with staffers and the regulars they’ve befriended and learn what makes their relationships so special.
Joe Sent Me
Joe Sent Me sits on Mass. Ave. between Davis and Porter Square. Its inviting interior includes a bar that stretches the length of the building, practically begging for a person to be slid across it as if they were in a Spaghetti Western saloon brawl. (The staff, it should be noted, heavily discourages this kind of behavior.) Here, the bartenders have formed a bond with one of their regulars—Pete—that borders on something closer to family and reaches well outside the boundaries of the bar.
Pete has been coming in a few times a week for more than 20 years. His presence is such a given that, when work prevented him from dropping by on a relatively slow Sunday in June, the bar felt the weight of his absence. “There’s been many times where Pete has saved our night,” bartender Bob Callahan says.
Pete is a pillar at Joe Sent Me and comes as close as possible to achieving the ultimate—especially in this area—goal for a regular: the classic Norm entrance from Cheers. He’s an amiable fixture, and he’s always a part of whatever conversation is carrying on. Even on a busy night, staffers stop to talk with Pete and walk away with a chuckle.
It’s not surprising that a bond would form over two decades of visits, but the relationship between Pete and the Joe Sent Me staff goes beyond a casual familiarity. Pete offers small gestures of appreciation by bringing in cookies and candy for employees—a welcome respite from (or accompaniment to) the bar food they usually eat during shifts. According to bartender Tim Guidry, in addition to invitations to come watch the occasional Celtics game, current and ex-employees have been welcomed to stay at Pete’s Cape house during the summer.
Guidry describes Pete as “the ideal customer,” but thanks to the relationships he’s established here, he’s more than that—he’s the ideal regular.
Deviations from the norm are, well, the norm at Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square. First, there’s the name of the bar, taken from the epic poem Beowulf, in which the titular hero comes to the aid of a king who’s being terrorized by the monstrous Grendel. Grendel has taken a liking to attacking the king’s mead halls, regularly ruining drunken revelry with bouts of bloodshed. Naming a bar after the lair of one of literature’s all-time vindictive teetotalers is an inspired choice.
Even on a beautiful Cambridge day, you’ll find this dimly-lit, subterranean establishment bustling. Upon entering, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between employees and patrons. Bartenders and servers seamlessly intermingle with guests, pleasantly chatting as though they were old friends. The bar itself is an enormous horseshoe that dominates the space. Grendel’s Den keeps the focus on what’s really important: good, old-fashioned drinking.
Drew Nelson, a manager at Boston Beer Works and a regular at Grendel’s, can often be found here blurring the line between customers and staff. On a sunny May afternoon, he’s catching up with with two employees—one who’s seated on the stool next to him, another behind the bar. For the past eight years, Nelson has been stopping by once or twice a week. He’s known some staff for more than a decade and often hangs out with them outside of the den. “I’ve never worked here, but I could if I want,” he says. “I could hop behind the bar and just start working. It’s that type of friendly atmosphere.”
Winning over an industry veteran is an impressive achievement for a bar. So what makes Grendel’s an attractive spot to someone so acutely aware of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to drinking establishments? “It’s the perfect little watering hole,” Nelson explains. “It’s got an eclectic beer mix. It’s got a good food menu. The staff is awesome. It’s homegrown; it’s not a corporate restaurant. It’s been here forever.”
The low-key, slow-paced atmosphere at Grendel’s Den places it in stark contrast to Nelson’s hectic work environment, which makes it an ideal spot for him. And maybe that’s what the eponymous Grendel was really after—a place where he could find some peace and quiet while having a drink after a long day. If only those drunkards in the mead hall could’ve fostered a relaxed, inclusive environment like the one at Grendel’s Den, maybe all that violent unpleasantness could have been avoided.
The best bars are those that take the old adage “you can’t go home again” and throw it right in the trash. God willing, your favorite bar will never change. The same songs will play through the speakers, your beer of choice will eternally be on draught and there will always be a familiar friend or two willing to lend an ear. Of course, in an ever-changing city like Cambridge, it’s hard for this arrangement to go on forever. Things change: new jobs, new cities, new bartenders, new restaurants. We all have to leave home eventually, no matter where that home is.
But Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square is the kind of place built for return visits, no matter how much time has passed since you last dropped in. You’d be hard pressed to find much that’s changed since it opened in 1951—except maybe the solar panels on the roof.
While Charlie’s boasts one of the best beer gardens in Cambridge and its first floor features an authentic retro diner aesthetic, you won’t find too many regulars at either of those oft-crowded spots.
No, the regulars really reside on the second floor, which is accessible only by a flight of stairs with no signs indicating that a dive bar Shangri-La awaits at the top.
Up here, where it feels like the middle of a long night no matter what time of day it is, you might find loyal friends like Logan Hodson, who grew up in Boston and first started going to Charlie’s in the early ‘90s to hear loud bands that couldn’t get booked anywhere else. Over the course of 10 years, he became a regular.
Today, Hodson is a videographer living in New York. But in May, when he found himself back in Cambridge for the first time in more than five years to shoot a show at The Sinclair, his first stop in town was Charlie’s—luggage in tow.
“I didn’t even think about any other spot to go to. I just immediately had to come here,” Hodson laughs, his suitcases and bags nestled at the foot of his stool. “You can’t fabricate this,” he adds, gesturing to the bar’s beer-stained floor and old jukebox. “If you look hard enough, this is not stuff you can buy in a warehouse. The sort of cache that comes with that is appealing by itself.”
It’s also the sort of cache that wins over regulars—even those who have moved hundreds of miles away.