The cocktail landscape is full of gimmicks — bars with secret passwords; cocktails that exude smoke and fire; and odd-ball drinking vessels. At Farmacia, Phillip Rolfe’s super- petite, nine-seat cocktail bar that just opened in the historic North Square, the bar vet is writing a prescription for a return to classic cocktails, personal service, and big hospitality.
“You don’t need the gimmicks. There are not enough classic cocktails served in a friendly and intimate environment, especially in the North End,” Rolfe, who has worked at 30-seat North End bar Parla, now shuttered Wink and Nod, and upscale steakhouse Abe and Louie’s, tells Eater Boston.
Farmacia, a 512-foot jewel box offering a ticketed experience and cocktails tailored to the visitors’ preferences, opened its doors Friday, April 23, 2022 as Boston’s tiniest full service cocktail bar (5 North Square, Boston).
“I was always so intrigued by the European style street bars, where the owner is the one that chats to you about the offerings and serves them to you. There is just such an unsurpassed feeling of being taken care of.” If there is a gimmick, that’s it.
There’s no need to bring a wallet (other than an ID). Patrons book and pay for a ticket through Tock in parties of one to four for $55 per person. Upon arriving, Rolfe briefly chats with visitors about their cocktail preferences to customize the tipples to their tastes. The entire experience takes about 75 minutes and includes the equivalent of three cocktails, house-made bar snacks, and possibly a surprise or two. Tax and gratuity are included.
Rolfe teamed up with All Day Hospitality owner Nick Frattaroli and director of operations Mike Wyatt (Ward 8, Ciao Bella, Bodega Canal, Tony and Elaines) to actualize his idea.
Rolfe’s idea is that the only employee a visitor interacts with is the one who is doing the buying and manipulating the ingredients. He’s the one who knows how he put the drinks together and why he’s serving each one. “I feel like that kind of continuity is something that is drowned out, especially when you get to bigger spaces,” he says.
A sleek, white, 1930s-era marble bar accented with emerald green and gold runs through through the space. The floor gleams with tiny black and white tiles that are reminiscent of an old-school apothecary. Rolfe airbrushed the ceiling in gold leaf. Outside of the “hard hat stuff,” Rolfe did most of the renovations himself.
“It is 512-square feet, so I didn’t build the Coliseum or anything,” he laughs. “But the details matter when you’re in such an intimate environment, and it’s hard to get the details how you want them unless you do them yourself.”
A concise, well-organized menu revolves around regional and cultural themes, cold-pressed juices and quality ingredients. Visitors choose three cocktails from the list. With every seat located along the bar, patrons can interact with Rolfe, who hopes this will lead to deeper and more meaningful relationships.
The cocktail menu is laid out in terms of body — from lightest to heaviest. Rolfe hopes people go in order, but he’s open to whatever makes them happy. Rolfe considers what he calls his “customized cocktail progressions” to be similar to a coursed food menu. “The flavors and the weight of the cocktails around each other really allow you to get an experience unparalleled by traditional bar service.”
His first menu, which is Italian, starts the Explosione di Zenzero, a citrus cocktail with Hendrix gin, raw Caldonia honey from a Vermont farm, cold-pressed ginger juice, lime juice, and cucumber. It’s the lightest cocktail on the menu. From there, the menu progresses to a mid-bodied section bright with fresh-pressed fruit juices. Final sips include coffee-based cocktails, like a frothy espresso martini topped with coffee beans.
Rolfe considers a visit to Farmacia to be a before or after-dinner option, where you may go as a substitute for an appetizer or dessert course. “You come in and drink for an hour and take off,” he says.
If someone can’t find something they like on the menu, Rolfe is there to make something else from the hundreds of options he can whip up off-menu. It’s part of developing a deeper relationship with a patron.
“I want it to be the antithesis of the experience where you walk into a bar, you sit down, they give you a menu, you ask about the menu, they don’t know, you order something, you don’t like it, you don’t talk about it because you feel bad.” He definitely doesn’t want anyone to feel bad if they don’t like something. After all, while there’s an idea of a perfectly balanced cocktail, what Rolfe knows from his wine experience is that what is “perfectly balanced to one guest is not perfectly balanced to another guest.” He can adjust cocktails so that they are perfectly balanced for any given person.
Farmacia will also offer a rotating menu of housemade bar snacks to accompany the cocktail program as palate cleansers.
The Italian menu includes fancy, nine-spice roasted mixed nuts; a white bean puree with raw garlic, olive oil, rosemary, and basil; pistachio gelato; and some other treats as well.
“I thought it was important to start with Italian. That’s the expectation anyways — and it’s familiar for the neighborhood.”
The menu will rotate about every 12 weeks — and he’ll pull inspiration from places, themes, ingredients that are intriguing him at the moment.
Conceptually, the food and drink offerings will change together, but Rolfe says that he isn’t trying to pair the food and cocktails. “But there’s a linear cohesive connection between the two. They are Italian-inspired and draw from the same flavors.”
“I just want people to realize that it is possible to get exceptional service and bespoke cocktails in an intimate environment without knowing a password or going in some unmarked door. My only gimmick is starting with the best product, and really listening to what you want.”
Opening hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. through midnight. It is located at 5 North Square, Boston.