Despite a recent renovation and menu overhaul at Inman Square's Bukowski Tavern, beverage director and bar manager Justin Lipata wants you to know that it's still your "means of transportation."
"It was great for a while," Lipata says, comparing the tavern to a hypothetical 1980s Honda Civic. "You loved it. You had your first kiss, your first date in that car. As time went on, new things came out, [and] you were like, 'This is not working anymore. This is not doing a great job.'
All we did was revamp the car. We are still your means of transportation — your means of feeding you and getting you drunk — but we’re a little more polished now, and we work better."
Cambridge's Bukowski Tavern opened in 2003, following the success of its big sibling in Back Bay. Landing on nearly every "best beer bars in Boston" listicle, both taverns are worthy of a stop by brew tourists and beer-loving locals alike. And for a while, both bars kept pretentiousness away with divey digs and cash-only service. (The downtown bar remains that way, at least for now.)
When it reopened early this year, Cambridge Bukowski, suffice it to say, no longer had that atmosphere. The 85-seat restaurant completely rearranged its open dining room, and it now features dark wood and metallic decor. It has a warm yet industrial vibe, offset by a few graphic, literary murals on the walls, and it encourages cheeky chalk art. It accepts plastic payment methods now.
But the most jarring of changes might be its new, burger-centric menu by chef Brian Poe, a longtime stakeholder in Bukowski's parent company, the Wilcox Hospitality Group. He's known for his game game at Boston restaurants including The Tip Tap Room and Rattlesnake.
"Now we have people coming in because they want to try yak, or elk, or antelope."
"With the renovations, we wanted to make sure the food is equally as delicious and unique and a draw for people as the beer," Lipata said. "We have the Mug Club and people coming in to try the challenge, but now we have people coming in because they want to try yak, or elk, or antelope. It’s a great draw for us, and it's a great opportunity to pair great craft beer with a great sandwich or burger."
Lipata, who has worked at Bukowski in Cambridge for five and a half years, said its dive vibe worked in Inman Square in 2003. But the bar's in-house management has changed over the years, and the neighborhood's demographic has certainly evolved. "[The tavern] was starting to lose a little character and flavor," Lipata said. "There are great dive bars out there that manage to stay relevant and visually appealing," but he felt his beloved bar wasn't.
"Which is why I fully embraced the renovation. A lot of people are now seeing service is getting better, food is getting better, and the draft beer, obviously, is great," he said, laughing.
Broken down into Beer Snacks, Salads, Burgers, Dogs, and Poe's Comfort Food, the menu at Bukowski Cambridge now offers somewhat lighter fare than its previous incarnation, including two salads with beer-inspired vinaigrettes. Instead of the Bukowski's classic "white trash poutine" tots (don't worry! The American-cheese-and-beef-gravy delicacy is still available downtown), they now serve Poe Tots, which top pork belly tater tots with black lava salt, bacon, horseradish cream, and Brussels sprouts.
Okay, that's not actually lighter. "The Brussels sprouts throw it off," Lipata said, laughing.
Lipata currently offers 120 bottled beers, plus 36 rotating draft lines. He aims to have a specific type of beer present on every line, as the famed Mug Club challenges guests to try all styles to earn a personalized, 25.5-ounce mug and discounted pours at Bukowski for life.
Lipata's pairing style is to complement foods with like-flavors in beers, he said. Inspired by the Brussels sprouts and salty-sweet bacon on the brisket burger, "I’m thinking about a light, floral IPA," he said. Despite its categorization as an India pale lager, Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union would be a great choice for that sandwich. "It has that crispness, that floralness."
Bukowski now offers an antelope burger, too. "Antelope is gamey, but on the sweeter end," he said. The burger is covered in beer cheese sauce; together with a Slumbrew's orange hefeweizen Hoppy Sol, the complex flavors would cut the aggressive gaminess of the meat, Lipata said.
With the duck burger, Lipata would reach for a brown ale. Currently, the tavern has an exclusive offering on tap from Rising Tide Brewing called Barfly Brown. The hoppy ale fermented with maple syrup is the latest installment of the restaurant group's R.I.P. Series. Cultivated by Lipata and Rattlesnake's beverage director Chris Sheridan, R.I.P. joins Wilcox Group employees with New England breweries to make a limited-edition brew, available only at the two restaurants. The duck burger is barbecue and cranberry-spiced. "Duck is already a sweet meat ... [It and a Barfly Brown] would pair excellent together."
Still feeling a bit intimidated by 36 different beer styles, and burgers made from yak, boar, or black quinoa? "The clientele should know that we can offer them tastings. We try to show that there is stuff on draft that works with all the plates we offer."