There’s always a line in front of the Model Cafe after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. It could be 90 degrees in the middle of August or minus 10 degrees in the middle of January, and yet there’s always a line. There’s a reason for that: The Model Cafe is one of the best bars in Allston. It’s also among the oldest.
Harry Anthony, a Greek immigrant, opened the Model in 1932. Back then, the bar served a blue-collar crowd of factory workers from U.S. Steel, Ryerson Steel, Dorothy Muriel’s Bakery, and various other businesses in the area. Because those factories operated on three separate shifts, the Model Cafe was a three-shift bar: It opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 2 a.m. The bar also catered to truck drivers coming and going in and out of Boston.
“When I was growing up, this was the miracle mile of trucks — North Beacon Street,” said Harry Anthony, the grandson of the elder Anthony, who now owns the bar with his brothers, Bill and George, who are twins. “This was also before the Mass Pike; it was the main route that went all the way to New York, so all the trucks came through here. So when I was growing up, these [houses on North Beacon Street] were all guest houses for truck drivers.”
In its early existence, the Model Cafe wasn’t just a place to get a cheap drink: It also served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Diners could get a filet for 15 cents. The younger Anthony told Eater his grandfather had a garden out in the back (Allston was a different place then) where he grew all of the produce used in the Model Cafe’s kitchen during the New England growing season.
“He grew beautiful vegetables,” Anthony told Eater. “I was spoiled as a kid as to what tomatoes or corn or anything else should taste like. The land was good land because it was farmland at one point.”
It’s hard to picture it now — especially if you’ve ever spent a hazy night at the Model Cafe killing cheap Miller High Lifes while dancing to some George Michael remix or playing the World Cup ’94 pinball machine — but the Model Cafe used to be a full-service restaurant.
“They butchered all of their own food — everything came whole,” said Anthony. “When I was a kid, the fish came in on ice, caught that day. They’d butcher it and make their specials.”
Anthony holds his grandfather in high esteem.
“He was a good dude,” said Anthony. “Not a racist, none of that bullshit. He respected everyone. He was a very good influence on me.”
The elder Anthony died in the mid-1960s, and his son, George — who’d been working at the Model Cafe for years — took over ownership and operations. His first move was to change the menu. Instead of filets and fresh caught fish, the Model Cafe began serving more modest food like burgers.
“For five bucks, you could eat and drink in here all night,” said Anthony.
Like his father before him, the younger Harry Anthony began working with his father at the Model Cafe. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“I got fired from here in 1972,” Anthony said with a laugh. “He [his father] couldn’t stand me. We used to butt heads constantly. Back then I had hair this long. All those blue-collar guys were busting me. It was always in jest, never malicious.”
Even though they might have been at odds about certain things, Anthony has a deep reverence for his late father.
“The guy worked his ass off,” said Anthony. “He put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, ‘til the day he died. I don’t know how he did it.”
Anthony spent nearly 40 years away from the Model Cafe plying his trade as a restaurateur and nightclub owner in Boston. But he eventually made his way back, and he has been at the helm of the Model for the past eight years.
As the neighborhood began to change, so too did the clientele. Anthony says the Model Cafe has always been “adopted by whoever lived here.” The Model Cafe everyone knows and loves today — the one patronized by hipsters and artists and musicians and all of the other lovable weirdos in Allston willing to wait outside for half an hour before gaining entry — began taking shape in the 1990s.
In its nearly 90 years in operation — a time that’s spanned three generations of Anthonys — the Model Cafe has changed as much as the neighborhood itself. The factory workers looking for a good post-work meal would hardly recognize the bar that’s now best known for catering to hipsters looking to chug cheap beer while dancing to the nostalgic music of their 1980s and 1990s youths. But there’s something to be said for adapting to the times and to your neighbors.
“I love all these kids; they keep me young,” said Anthony.