My mother was a bartender in the 1980s, so I spent a lot of time in bars during that decade. Drinking Fountain in Jamaica Plain has preserved the feel, look, and people — I’m pretty sure the exact same people — from that bygone era of drinking.
Finding the history on this bar is not easy. The bartenders were pretty busy on the Friday night that we were there, so we weren’t able to find out what they knew. An extremely nice employee who picked up the phone two days later said that the current owners took over in 1977 from their father who bought it in 1945. Nothing online says much about its history prior to the 1940s.
Given that the bar was mentioned in David Wondrich’s annual Esquire list of "The Best Bars in America" in 2013 (Cleve and I were both present for David’s first visit to the bar in 2013, which eventually landed it on that list) and in Luke O’Neil’s exhaustive book on Boston dive bars, I thought someone might have mentioned when it all started for this beloved place with the unforgettable name. Nothing. Even Brother Cleve was stumped.
The bar was relatively quiet when I arrived around 9 p.m. It can be a little intimidating entering a place that is so thoroughly a neighborhood joint; everyone gives off an air of knowing each other even if they aren’t talking or seated together. Cleve walked in just after me (the first, and I’m told the only, time I’ll see him without his trademark hat) and we talk a little about the neighborhood and "dive" bars in general.
His litmus test for whether a place is a true dive is whether you can trace back the current drinkers’ ancestors to stools at the same bar. And that if your family didn’t drink there, you are probably not welcome. In O’Neil’s book, he rates Drinking Fountain five bottles, which denotes that it is at the precipice of divey-ness, or, as he puts it: "A wretched outpost of scum and villainy. Welcome home."
Despite feeling a little out of place for the first two minutes, I found the bartenders to be pleasantly surly, and no one really cares all that much if you come in to get down to business, which in this case means drinking. And that is most certainly what we did.
Cleve informs me that Patrick Sullivan’s (of B-Side, Brick & Mortar, and Legal Sea Foods fame) father was a bartender at The Midway Cafe, just down the street, in the 1960s and 1970s. Also close by is Doyle’s Cafe, another temple of drinking that celebrates a time when the bar/pub/saloon was a place for the community to gather. Since it feels so 1980s inside Drinking Fountain, Cleve and I decided to drink his go-to from the dark ages of alcohol — Budweiser and Jim Beam.
The whiskey is pretty darn delicious. With all the craft and small-batch spirits these days, it’s easy to forget about the big guys. Cleve reminds me that there is a reason Beam has been around so long: They know what they’re doing. We admire a shelf of vintage spirits bottles that includes Cointreau, Drambuie, Ron Viejo Bermudez, and a Curly Light — part of the Three Stooges beer series from the 1990s, Cleve says.
So much of drinking culture is lost in the fog of, well, drinking — which is kind of what makes it so fun. Depending on whom you talk to, you can get 50 different sides of the same story or history. Or maybe no history at all, which seems to be true for Drinking Fountain before the 1940s.
"True dive bars are slowly becoming harder and harder to find," Cleve says. This leads us to a long conversation about the state of the hospitality and restaurant industry right now, specifically in Boston. The sheer number of restaurants opening is truly mind boggling. What is really frustrating for someone like Cleve, who has seen all of the trends over the past few decades in our business, is that not many people seem willing to work from the bottom up. Obviously this is not a new or unique frustration, but often it is spoken about in regards to the kitchen. Bartending is facing many of the same challenges.
Whether it be in a speakeasy craft-cocktail bar or a neighborhood joint, if someone hasn’t learned how to work in restaurants, it is usually glaringly obvious. One thing both Cleve and I agree on is that if you really are in pursuit of a career in the drink-making business, you should be willing to put your head down and work hard, and if you desire a career in the more bespoke category of bartending, you should know how to make the classics well.
"David Wondrich, Dale Degroff, we all agree that the whole ‘mixology’ thing has gotten a little out of control," Cleve says. Bartending — where you get people the things they want as quickly as you can and create an environment that facilitates a damn good time — will most certainly never go out of fashion. Hopefully it will not dwindle with the dive bars that often represent the best nights out.
- Neat & Greet on Eater [EBOS]
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