What happens when a pandemic strikes and people are no longer legally allowed to congregate in or around bars? Newtowne Grille owner Michael Toulopoulos says he initially thought Massachusetts’s bar and restaurant shutdown would last a few weeks — maybe a month at most. He didn’t expect Newtowne’s kitchen to be closed for several months, and he definitely didn’t expect its bar to be empty for the better part of a year.
“I said, ‘You know what? This thing is going to last a couple weeks, so let’s get some work done inside that we normally couldn’t do. And let’s hope that we’re back open in a month,’” he says, laughing with the benefit of hindsight. “The next thing you know, we’re in hibernation mode.”
During the shutdown, Toulopoulos hired a new chef to help revamp Newtowne’s menu. Don’t worry, the pizza — which is, roughly speaking, a hybrid of bar pizza and New York-style pizza — is the same. Toulopoulos made sure of that himself, teaching the new chef the secrets of making the dough, and instructing him in how it should be cooked.
“We still couldn’t open the bar, and we couldn’t open the restaurant, so we tweaked the menu, just enough to gain a little bit more interest in takeout and delivery,” he says. “I upgraded my POS system to better suit online ordering and delivery partners. But every time I turned around, I was making an investment, just waiting for that light at the end of the tunnel. But it gets harder and harder when it keeps getting further and further away.”
Newtowne Grille in Porter Square may be known for its pizza (which is outstanding), but at the end of the day, its main draw is the bar, and its bread-and-butter clientele is the locals who have been patronizing it since what seems like time immemorial.
“Newtowne is a dive bar,” says Toulopoulos, whose uncle and grandfather owned the business before him. “Over the years, you’ve seen so many places that were dive bars trying not to be dive bars, and places opening up to be considered a dive bar, almost making an effort to do so. But we’ve never lost sight of what we are.”
It’s a place that Kevin Tyler fell in love with in 2011 while watching the Boston Bruins march to Stanley Cup glory. “I saw all game sevens of that playoffs at Newtowne, sitting at a little table in the corner that doesn’t exist anymore. And I just absolutely fell in love with the place.… It’s the type of bar that every neighborhood should have, and we’re very, very lucky to have it.”
This isn’t the first time Newtowne has had to make a significant pivot to remain viable while also attempting to retain its soul. Toulopoulos likened the COVID-19 pivot (at least in terms of the work that was required to rethink the space) to a time in the early 2000s when Massachusetts banned smoking in bars and restaurants. Back then, Newtowne was like any other dive bar — filled with smoke.
“The walls were up, the dining room was separate. But you’d go down to close the bar at night, and you’d walk into a wall of smoke,” Toulopoulos says.
He knew that smoking indoors was a draw for many bar patrons and figured it would be difficult to remain in business if he lost that customer base to private clubs, where it was still permitted.
“We had to step up our game and focus on the menu, on the heart of the restaurant,” Toulopoulos says. “So we knocked down some walls, we put some lipstick on the pig, and we introduced a revamped menu.”
In addition to the new food, Newtowne hung more televisions in the bar and added a trivia night to its weekly proceedings. It began to attract a new crowd — but crucially, the old crowd stuck around too.
Over the years, that new crowd has become the old crowd. And some of Newtowne’s current regulars even bridge the gap from the old to the new. Take Alex Butler, for example. He’s an operating room nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital who moved to Porter Square from New York City. Before the pandemic, he went to Newtowne virtually every Thursday night for almost a decade to play trivia with his friends. But Newtowne was part of Butler’s story well before he and his friends started their trivia team — indeed, even well before he was born: his parents went on many dates at Newtowne when they first began dating. “Back in like, 1979 or whatever,” Butler says.
Dan Crowley has lived in north Cambridge since he was 4. Now 56, he has been in the area for the majority of Newtowne’s existence.
“It’s been a neighborhood staple for a long, long time,” he says, laughing bashfully at the suggestion that he’s almost as old as the restaurant.
Crowley says that when his mother died, he, his brothers, and his father all gathered at Newtowne for a bite to eat. “When my dad walked in, the bartender said, ‘Oh, hey, Mr. Crowley.’ And my son, who was probably 7 or 8 years old at the time, asked, ‘How does she know who Pop is?’ And I said, ‘Because he’s here too often.’” When his father died some years later, Crowley and his brothers gathered at Newtowne again. They ended up running into the pastor from the church where their father’s funeral was scheduled to be held and had a few drinks together to mark the difficult day.
“It’s just one of those places,” Crowley says. “As soon as you walk in, there’s someone you know.”
Jackie Miller and Greg Plum are best friends who have been living together in Davis Square for more than a decade, during which time they’ve made Newtowne their local bar. Miller likes it because it isn’t trying too hard to be something it’s not, and Plum likes it because he likes hanging out with a variety of different people, and Newtowne attracts “this insane mix.”
“There’s so many choices in that neighborhood, but at our age — not that we’re elderly or can’t hang or whatever — [some of them are] just so pretentious, so bullshit, so salty, and we just found Newtowne to be this place that welcomes everyone,” Miller says. “I could go by myself, and I knew I’d find somebody to have a great conversation with; I knew I’d learn something. All the bartenders knew our names. As soon as I sat down, they had my drink in front of me. It’s just such a welcoming environment.”
Newtowne is back open now. The menu has changed, and state guidelines dictate that the bar is less crowded than before the pandemic broke out. But the pizza is the same, and trivia (socially distanced, of course) has resumed.
Newtowne has changed a lot over the years — sometimes by circumstance, sometimes in the ways that places just change over the years. But it’s still a dive bar. And it still wants to be a dive bar.