The long-haired, ice-blue wig on the left of the neon window display is sometimes called Vivian. Further along the lineup of hairstyles sits Donna, an attention-seeker with a curly, bright pink ’do. Visitors to the Wig Shop, at 27 Temple Place in Downtown Crossing, might be on the verge of selecting a whole new look before they remember they’re not here to buy a wig; they’re here for a cocktail.
Dark double doors at the entry stick a bit. For a second, customers might wonder if they’re in the wrong place. But with a tough tug, the doors open up into a dimly lit cocktail bar inspired by the building’s former tenant, Wig World, and its heyday in the 1970s. Inside the bar, blue velvet couches face each other in semiprivate seating spaces partitioned off by sheer yellow curtains. A retro playlist that the staff curates based on the customers each night pulses from the speaker: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings for a girl’s night, Guru’s Jazzmatazz album for a date crowd.
The Wig Shop is one of several relatively new and elaborately designed cocktail bars flourishing in Boston. Restaurateurs are investing money and time into these heavily themed spaces, from subterranean Back Bay den Hecate to the new speakeasy-ish spot in the Seaport, Borrachito. The bars seem to be a hit with Bostonians who were cooped up and mixing their own cocktails during the depths of the pandemic and are now ready for something far more embellished when they go out, owners say. Tucking the bars within larger restaurant setups gives owners more leeway to focus on atmosphere and aesthetics over turning tables.
Behind the Wig Shop’s bar, manager Oscar Simoza, an alum of Downtown Crossing mainstay Silvertone Bar & Grill, oversees a small, skilled team. As Simoza churns out updated classics inspired by Prohibition-era drinks like Remember the Maine, featuring rye, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, and absinthe, the bar expeditor tops them with glitter foam and cotton candy. The expeditor is a position more commonly seen in the kitchen, but the cocktails at the Wig Shop are elaborate enough to warrant the role at the bar. Kevin Mabry, managing partner of the Wig Shop and its adjacent siblings JM Curley and Bogie’s Place, says they sacrificed four revenue-generating bar seats to accommodate this setup.
“We’re gonna be the entertainment value here, you know?” says Mabry. “When the door opens at five o’clock, the lights are on the stage. We’re performing. We’re having fun with it.”
Bargoers will find a similar attention to detail at Hecate, a moody underground bar in Back Bay influenced by the Greek goddess of witchcraft. In this 24-seat cave, there is only one set of electric lights above the bartender, drawing attention to them like a stage performer. The only other light comes from flickering candles placed around the rest of the bar. Function follows form on the menu, too. Beverage director Lou Charbonneau selects glassware first when he’s dreaming up a new cocktail, sends a picture of it to an illustration artist who sketches it for the bar menu, and then builds the drink from there.
Prior to serving up absinthe rituals and caviar service, the Wig Shop was home to an actual wig store. Wig World lived in this space for 50 years before moving down the street, and the cocktail bar pays homage to its legacy. From the moment guests cross the threshold they’re transported into a gin-soaked time warp. Behind the bar, some of the liquor bottles are topped with cheeky mini wigs, and brass lamps illuminate the low gold-and-glass coffee tables.
Borrachito Taqueria & Spirits, a newly opened taco shop and bar in the Seaport, pulls on a similar nostalgia when transporting diners for a night out. The space channels a 1950s road trip along Route 66 with vintage Mexican movie posters for films like El Gallo Colorado, blue-and-white diner-style tiled walls, and a lounge space decked out like an Airstream. The entrance is a roadside-style taqueria, but there’s a hidden cocktail bar with off-the-menu tacos behind a freezer door.
“When we’re creating these bar environments, we want there always to be something to look at and find interesting and unique,” says Garret Group co-founder Adam Fulton. The speakeasy-style setup with a storefront and a back bar is duplicated from several of the group’s NYC-based restaurants, like the Garret, which is tucked above a Five Guys.
The explosive popularity of these highly designed spaces may be a reaction to pandemic-era restrictions. Formerly cooped-up customers are looking for a party when they dine out, says Mabry. Hecate’s owner Demetri Tsolakis guesses that pandemic-era at-home cocktails have something to do with it, too. People learned how to mix their own drinks at home, and now they “want a little more than just going to a bar,” Tsolakis says. “I think they want a story.” Similar bars existed before the onset of the pandemic — including Drink, an early Boston pioneer of intricate cocktails founded by restaurateur Barbara Lynch, who recently faced accusations of workplace misconduct — but the current boom prioritizes detailed decor as well as creative drinks.
Smarter drinkers aren’t the only shift here, though. These new cocktail bars are flourishing because they exist in tandem with restaurants or larger groups.
Between the high cost of rent and liquor licenses in Boston, a solo cocktail bar is a good time, but not always good business. Cocktail bars are often small in size — Wig Shop has just 36 seats, and operates on limited hours — and generating enough volume to justify opening investments can be tricky in that equation. Existing under a larger group with multiple profitable restaurants, and sometimes sharing space or a liquor license like Wig Shop does with JM Curley and Bogie’s Place, gives cocktail bars the room to prioritize creativity and design as much as the bottom line.
That’s why visitors to the Wig Shop can order cocktails from a vintage wig advertisement and watch Simoza get acrobatic behind the bar. And it’s still working out well financially, too: Mabry says Wig Shop generates 25 to 30 percent of the total revenue of the restaurant group. Diners don’t leave with a new hairstyle, but the experience can still be described as fabulous.