Hidden Restaurants, V2: Shhhh
Photos by Ken Rivard
Can you keep a secret? Behind closed doors, hidden down alleys or inside other businesses, supper clubs and speakeasies are popping up in secret locations, all over the Greater Boston and Worcester area.
After my last search for restaurants in schools (see Edible Boston’s Fall 2017 edition), I’ve been on a quest for the truly hidden and the really secret restaurants; the type that produce butterflies or elicit an adrenaline rush when discovered.
As I searched, I discovered that back in the day the Greater Boston and Worcester area had its share of true speakeasies—bars selling alcohol illegally and in secret during Prohibition or in dry towns. I also discovered places that create a speakeasy-style atmosphere, with dim lighting and 1920s–30s décor, yet they market themselves as hidden (so how hidden are they really?): places like Yvonne’s and Wink & Nod in Boston, Saloon in Somerville, Brick & Mortar in Cambridge and Bootleggers Prohibition Pub in Worcester. And then I found what I was looking for: Places with truly secret locations and hidden entrances—even a few that required passwords—all while still sourcing local food and drink. The mystique may be what helps makes them popular. I’ve written about a few here, but there are more to discover.
As always, my definition: Hidden restaurant: An out-of-sight, not readily apparent, or concealed business establishment selling local and seasonal meals or refreshments.
EAST BOSTON OYSTERS
When an email arrived announcing all-you-can-eat oysters and cocktails “somewhere in East Boston,” I signed up. This would be a Meet the Farmer event, according to East Boston Oysters. There would be a DJ, cocktails and other snacks. The cost? $90. The location? A secret.
Alexis Cervasio started East Boston Oysters about three years ago with a goal to source and support local food and drink as much as possible while introducing guests to East Boston and topeople raising oysters from all across Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “There are so many different oyster farmers and so many different personalities,” she says.
She combined her love for oysters with her love for putting on events, but it was her curiosity that added the secret allure. Walking around East Boston neighborhoods, she would wonder, “What the hell is behind that door?” East Boston Oysters events, she says, are about “showing people that East Boston is pretty awesome.”
There are Meet the Farmer events and Chef events; parties on rooftops, in empty buildings, restaurants and on yachts; last summer there was a field trip to an oyster farm in Chatham. All events start in East Boston. All include oysters and community seating. The location, the people, the drinks and the menu change every time.
As promised, 24 hours before the event I received another email, this time with an address for a dock in East Boston. The next morning, my friend and I were shuttled along with 48 others across the water to Long Wharf where we shed our shoes and boarded a 110-foot yacht.
Dressed in nautical attire, we cruised Boston’s harbor, eating salmon roe and bagels from Katz Bagel Bakery and oysters—shucked by Jenny Mattern of Duxbury’s Merry Oysters—chased with lemon and Pebre Hot Sauce made locally by Buenas. A few hardy souls even tried slurping oysters from an ice luge. We drank Frosé scooped from an oyster-shaped punch bowl and Tom Collins made with Bowmore Scotch whiskey. We danced on the upper deck, chatted on the lower deck and basked in the sun before docking back at Long Wharf. If you want to go: Get on their mailing list and when you get that email, be ready to buy a ticket. All events sell out quickly.
BACK ALLEY BACON
I was in an alley in Salem, behind the Peabody Essex Museum near the Old Burying Point Cemetery, and I had no idea where to go. It wasn’t until about 5pm when I noticed a man and woman standing in front of one of the alley doors that I knew that at 5:30 this door would become Back Alley Bacon.
As I waited in line, I chatted with two regulars, Salem natives who have missed only two dinners since they discovered Back Alley Bacon last November. I spoke to two women who had driven an hour from New Hampshire to check it out. There was a family, some couples and even a guy on a skateboard. We all waited, wondering what tonight’s menu would be.
Only on Wednesdays, always pork, always takeout and cash-only, Back Alley Bacon is a porky sort of casual speakeasy. Chef and Maestro “John Hamm” (a pseudonym) told me that Back Alley Bacon is a way for him to cook pork-centric street food with a whimsical spin. While the ever-changing menu includes fresh and sometimes local ingredients, customers won’t know what’s being served until the lantern is hung with the menu at 5:30pm. Past weeks have included Southern Style Pulled Pork, Pork Belly Ramen, Pork Parmesan, Pork Cubano, Pork Tacos and Pork Chops.
Afraid I would forget tonight’s password, I checked Facebook for the third time and repeated it with my new bacon friends. At 5:30pm, the line was about 30 feet deep. The door opened and the red lantern was hung. I was second to ring the buzzer. “Password?” A gruff voice demanded. “Float like a butterfly, oink like a pig,” I answered, my heart pounding. He asked how many orders I wanted and my name, then told me to wait. A few minutes later I exchanged my $11 in cash for a paper bag handed over by a pig-masked attendant. Inside the bag, I found a sausage grinder overflowing with bacon, spicy tomato sauce, sweet peppers and onions, plus chips, a cookie and a root beer. Yum!
If you go: Check Facebook around noon on a Wednesday. You won’t know what’s on the menu, but you’ll discover the password. Be sure to get there early. Back Alley Bacon has been known to sell out in as little as 17 minutes after the lantern is hung.
Down an alley and behind a dumpster, there’s a door to a bar in Somerville’s Union Square. On our first visit, my husband and I walked past it before we found the name “backbar” lit in red. We opened the orange door and walked down a long hallway to yet another door before entering the world of backbar, an eclectic and artsy cocktail bar with comfy couches, black painted walls, an octopus mural, books, a model pirate ship and Star Wars masks.
On this first visit, we ordered a milk punch, which according to Carlo Caroscio, bar manager for backbar, dates back to 1711 and was made by people like Martha Washington and Ben Franklin. “We make a large batch (which must contain citrus), and add milk that has been heated to just under a boil. This causes the milk to curdle, and we then strain out those solids. What we're left with is the milk protein, which gives the cocktail a rich texture, without necessarily any of the [milk] flavor,” Carlo says. The Nutty Apple Milk Punch we tried included apple brandy, rum, Scotch, walnuts, vanilla and cinnamon and was smoky, smooth and surprisingly clear.
A few months later we returned to find the newly opened Field & Vine restaurant next door. Field & Vine sources local ingredients and supplies backbar and its customers with food to munch on while they sip as well as a great pre- or post-backbar stop. On this visit, we sat at the bar where we watched our bartender, Amanda, create cocktails. I chose the Mount Pelée, made with rum, cantaloupe, lime and absinthe, and my husband went with the Cockpit Country, concocted with rum, Averna Amaro, lime and demerara sugar syrup.
According to Carlo, “We try to use fresh and local products whenever it makes sense. The cantaloupes come from the Union Square farmers market that takes place every Saturday.” Backbar also makes its own raspberry, lime and plum syrups with local produce in season and uses local eggs, milk, cream and herbs. Carlo says they try to keep a stock of local liquor and beer brands on hand as well, including Wire Works American Gin, Privateer Rum and beers from Narragansett, Jack’s Abby and Lord Hobo Brewery.
If you go: Expect a line if you arrive later on the weekends. To avoid a wait, head to backbar early or put your name on the list and head next door for dinner.
When I heard there was an arcade hidden behind a grilled cheese place, I had to check it out. Finding Roxy’s Grilled Cheese was easy. Located on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, Roxy’s is near MIT, just down the street from Toscanini’s and a few steps away from Flour Bakery. But finding the entrance to the arcade was a little more tricky.
Around 6pm on a Tuesday I entered Roxy’s. With its menu painted on the wall and counter, the place looks like a quick bite and takeout place. But when my husband and I entered the swinging double doors to the left of the kitchen, we discovered the entrance to A4Cade through a door that looks like a walk-in freezer and were transported back in time to the 1980s.
Inside, lights dazzled and the sounds of pinball and other arcade games bounced off the walls while Snape and Dumbledore appeared on big screens around the room. With drinks in hand (a Chroma amber ale by Portico Brewing Co. for my husband and a Far From the Tree cider for me) and a $5 bag of tokens, we made our way to the arcade.
While guests can play Xbox at one of two bars or table games like Foosball and Skee-Ball, we chose to spend our tokens on Nintendo, Pac-Man, Tetris and even a Batman pinball machine. When our food was ready, our server found us and we headed back to our high top to eat.
According to Jessica Frechette, general manager of A4Cade, the owners of the shared space have an agreement: Roxy’s does the food, while Area Four is in charge of the bar and the arcade. There are 13 grilled cheese varieties, all made on Iggy’s bread and served with Grillo’s Pickles, plus burgers, hot dogs, salads, tots and fries (we sampled the plain and truffle varieties). While my husband enjoyed the Rookie Melt, a simple grilled cheese with Vermont cheddar cheese and tomato, I loved the flavors of the Caprese made with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato, kale pesto and balsamic reduction.
Besides several beer options from local breweries (Big Elm, Lamplighter, Newburyport, Nightshift and Wormtown), A4Cade sources other local products including Privateer Rum and Spindrift Seltzer. The bar prides itself on its creative cocktails, like the Land Shark or Mr. Snuffleupagus, served in kitschy glasses for one or more to share. The owners wanted to do something fun and quirky with their space, Jessica says, and we think they’ve succeeded.
If you go: Bring your ID. Only 21+ are allowed in. The arcade is never closed for private parties, but the mood varies from night to night.
LESS THAN GREATER THAN
As you walk down Main Street in Hudson you’ll see a large window display right out of the 1930s. Shoes and a sewing machine suggest the existence of a cobbler shop, but if you look closely, you’ll realize the window is just a facade—there is no entry from the street to this “cobbler shop,” so visitors must hunt for the entrance through the ice cream parlor next door.
One evening this fall, my friend and I ventured to find the speakeasy rumored to be hidden behind the cobbler shop. The line for ice cream was long inside New City Microcreamery. We crossed the room and found another door with a sign that read: "Switch on the light and wait for delight." A few minutes later, the window shutter opened and a man’s face appeared. “Yes?” He asked. “I heard you can get a drink here,” I said. “This is a cobbler shop,” he said. “Then can I get my shoes repaired?” I asked. Moments later, the door opened, and my friend and I entered Less Than Greater Than.
Dimly lit, intimate and dominated by a 40-foot bar made of marbled soapstone, Less Than Greater Than has a secret—and somewhat illicit—ambience. While a couple leaned close in one of the booths, my friend and I sat at the bar watching the bartender concoct classic and original cocktails. My friend sipped on a sweet and tart Pendennis Club while I indulged in a Girl Scout Cookie, an ice cream cocktail of crème de menthe, chocolate liqueur and vanilla ice cream made in-house with milk from Mapleline Farms.
The bar’s food menu has an Asian flair and includes ramen, a bánh mì sandwich, dan dan noodles and roasted octopus. We shared the pork tacos (roasted pork, sriracha aioli and sticky sauce) and avocado tacos (avocado, pomegranate hoisin, and water kimchi) both served on flour tortillas with fried garlic and cilantro. According to co-owner Michael Kasseris, “We source lots of produce and fruits seasonally and locally, especially during the fall from the many farms and orchards a town or two away.” The fall menu included a pumpkin tart made with pumpkins from nearby Bolton Orchard Farms.
Recently, Less Than Greater Than has added another secret element: a secret monthly cocktail posted on social media and casually whispered over the bar top.
If you go, consider going on a Tuesday night when the menu is transitioned to a full tiki cocktail menu and the bartenders dress in beach bum attire. Check social media before you go (or whisper to the bartender) to find out the monthly secret cocktail. If you like a bit of mystery and a secret piques your interest, walk down alleys, look over your shoulder before you knock—and be sure to remember your passwords—to check out these hidden dining and drinking establishments and the many other speakeasy-type locations popping up all over the Greater Boston and Worcester area.
This story appeared in the Winter 2018 issue.