Curtis Mayfield is playing on the house speakers as I chat with Dylan Black at a table in the back corner of Green Street. A window adjacent to the table looks out onto the eponymous street, though it’s growing dark outside and the interior takes on an amber glow from the lamps above.
Dinner service has not yet begun, but the bar is beginning to fill up with locals in need of a post-work drink. Black and his head bartender Jordan Runion have just changed the cocktail menu for this first time in years, and he’s a little nervous about how people will react.
“I’m still afraid of criticism,” he admits. “It took us a year and a half to develop, but it’s done.”
Black’s nervousness isn’t without warrant. Central Square looks nothing like it did a century ago, but Green Street is still there. Founded as Charlie’s Tap during the Great Depression and holding onto the city’s oldest liquor license, the venue now called Green Street is part of the fabric of the neighborhood, a fact Black understands as well as anyone.
“This place isn’t about me or Jordan or chef,” Black says. “It’s about Green Street, this building. You can’t take this place and put it somewhere else. Not even two blocks from here. It has to happen here.”
I’m quick to ask Black about the burger, which has gained a sort of cult following. It was initially just meant as a one-off for a staff party, he says.
“We had a staff party, and chef was like, ‘I’m going to get some patties,’” says Black. “So we end up ripping off the Burger King burger for the party, and he says, ‘Let’s put this on the menu.’ And it’s never left since.”
Black has lived in Central Square since 1979, when he moved there from Dublin, New Hampshire, with his family. He’s worked in many of Greater Boston’s iconic restaurants and bars — he waited tables at Redbones in the early 1990s, and he tended bar at Chez Henri, the B-Side Lounge, and the Enormous Room, for example — but got his first break in the restaurant industry bussing tables at Upstairs at the Pudding as a teenager.
“I was hired by Mary-Catherine [Diebel] and Deborah [Hughes], and it changed my world,” says Black. “I always hung out in Harvard Square. I chilled in the pit, right there with my punk friends. And then I wind up working above it, and it changed my life.”
Black’s experience working at stalwarts of the Boston drinking and dining scene has certainly helped shaped his vision for Green Street, but it may be earlier experiences as a patron of the quintessential Cambridge spot that influence him the most.
“On Wednesday nights after playing basketball at the Cambridge Community Center, my stepfather would go to Green Street with his teammates to have a pint or a plate of rice and beans,” Black says. He would tag along, becoming a Green Street regular long before he could sit at the bar and order a drink.
Before buying Green Street from longtime owner John Clifford 13 years ago, Black was bartending at Chez Henri, a bistro known for its menu of French-Cuban fusion. Black wanted to bring some of that with him to the bar at Green Street.
“When I came over here, I kept a lot of that feeling on that bar,” he says. “Lots of rum, fresh juices, molasses, honey, cinnamon. Those kinds of flavors.”
In doing so, Black was gesturing to Green Street’s recent history.
“When John Clifford took over, he brought in a Caribbean-American flare,” says Black. “He hired a great chef called Johnny Levins, who cooked flavorful, thoughtful island cuisine.”
Back then, Green Street had a music license. Stylings ranged from blues to jazz to Afro-Caribbean to Elliott Smith to legendary Boston act Morphine, who had a Monday night residency for a time. The stage no longer exists, and the space looks much different now, but Black has ensured Green Street has remained a neighborhood place.
“It always has been,” he says. “I think what’s in the glass changes, what’s on the plate changes, but I don’t think the people have changed. I think the same style of people show up. It’s still a med student from Tufts hanging out here because he feels comfortable because it reminds him of a place he used to go to in Michigan. We get a lot of that, people coming in and saying, ‘Ah, this is exactly what I was looking for.’”
Black is content with what he’s built on top of the Green Street legacy. He knows he won’t be there forever, however, and indeed doesn’t think he should be. Green Street morphs and changes with each iteration, but it always remains in place.