date published: April 15, 2002

The past and present converge in the name of great food, entertainment and commerce to connect the rungs of Boston’s resurrected Ladder District
by Andrew King

Everything old is new again—The Downtown Crossing/Ladder District then (top left) and as it looks now (above).

The candied redolence of honey-roasted peanuts floats into the urban breeze at Downtown Crossing near the famous Filene’s Basement department store. Pushcart vendors lure hungry pedestrians with Italian sausages, burritos and steaming fried dough. A street musician plays a percussive empty-bucket sonata in front of Macy’s. The flurry of humanity here is as diverse and spirited as anywhere else in the city. A couple of blocks away on shadowed West Street, writers, readers and curious passersby thumb through used books on discount racks outside the Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest bookstores in the country. High above within a slate-tinted glass tower, someone is enjoying the royal treatment at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel—the proverbial top of the ladder.
Actually, such a proverb is still in-the-making, as Boston’s newest Old Neighborhood, The Ladder District, is enjoying a swift revitalizing boom that has shifted affections in this city.

We say old and new because the sobriquet “The Ladder District” was actually part of the local lexicon almost 75 years ago, after which it was reduced simply to “Downtown Crossing,” the focal point for shopping at Summer and Washington streets. But it was those narrow, perpendicular side streets, which appear from above as rungs of a ladder, that gave the neighborhood its original name. They are held together by parallel Tremont and Washington streets, extending from Chinatown to Downtown Crossing.

Now, seemingly overnight, the old name is back and new businesses are in. There is night life where before there were dark alleys. There is commerce where buildings had been boarded up for decades. The Ladder District is alive in a distinctly urban way—a throwback to a time when Downtown was the center of cultural life. Take, for example, the new 19-screen Loews Cinema on Tremont Street with its ’50s-era marquee lighting, or the highbrow, lounge-style billiards club Felt, which opened only weeks ago on Washington Street.

Shop ’til you drop—European retail giant H&M looks to be a big contributor the the potential success of the Ladder District.

Then there’s the dining. Two of the hottest new restaurants in the city, Mantra and Limbo, have settled on Temple Place, which was named after the famed Masonic Temple where Ralph Waldo Emerson used to give Transcendentalist lectures during the mid-1800s. Mantra, the swanky Franco-Indian eatery which opened last year, has drawn the city’s glitterati to the neighborhood and earned national praise, while the new jazz club Limbo cooks up Italian cuisine and presents cool live jazz in a plush atmosphere. Most notably, the old Brahmin mainstay Locke-Ober, in a telling change of theme from it patriarchal history, re-opened under the guidance of local celebrity chef Lydia Shire, who reinvigorated Boston’s dining scene at the heralded Biba.

Crossroads—The view down Washington Street reveals the mix of old (Filene’s on the left) and the new (the Ritz-Carlton towers in the background).

If there is a theme to the Ladder District—and a distinct charm—it is contrast. The neo-modern Ritz hotel and townhouses on Avery Street, which house the upscale Jer-ne restaurant and the trendy Sports Club/LA next door, stand on part of what used to be known as “The Combat Zone”—a formerly seedy section of town that still has a gritty character to it.

So how was the old moniker “The Ladder District” resurrected, anyway? The idea came unwittingly, says local PR executive Rosanne Mercer, “from a gentleman at City Hall who had obviously been working there for a long time.” She and the owners of Limbo were applying for a business license when they mentioned their Downtown Crossing address. The clerk replied, with grandfatherly obstinance, “No, that’s The Ladder District.” They realized they had just discovered the concept that would return the promise of this forgotten neighborhood and unite their business with all the others: What’s old is new.

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Brattle Bookshop • 9 West St., 617-542-0210 One of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookstores in the country contains an impressive collection of over 250,000 books, maps, prints and postcards.

Buy the book—The Brattle Book Shop is the oldest continuously operating book store in America.

Bromfield Pen Shop • 5 Bromfield St., 617-482-9053 This second-generation shop—opened in 1948—specializes in repairing and restoring vintage and modern pens, overseen by longtime repairman George Salustro.

Orpheum Theatre • 1 Hamilton Place, 617-679-0810 The 2,800-seat theater was once the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now it hosts pop music acts.

LOCKE-OBER • 3 Winter Pl., 617-542-1340 Boston superchef Lydia Shire’s talent sparkles in the newly restored Brahmin eatery. The New England cuisine is executed with perfected grace and sophistication.

Filene’s and Filene’s Basement • 426 Washington St., 617-357-2100 and 617-542-2011 These landmark local department stores have been Boston bastions for over 100 years. Filene’s Basement’s automatic markdown system is a bargain hunter’s dream come true.

The Littlest Bar • 47 Province St., 617-523-9766 This friendly hole-in-the-wall pub—with a capacity of 38—serves up frothy pints of Guinness and convivial conversation to boot.

BLU • 4 Avery St., 617-375-8550 Something old, something new…then of course there is blu. Check the spandex at the door and don’t let the fact that this hotspot is located in the middle of a health club deter you from Chef de Magistris’ creative French cuisine.

COCOON • 170 Tremont St., 617-728-9898 The nesting instinct is alive and well at this unique home furnishings store, where you’ll find earthy, rustic pieces—from Qing dynasty wedding cabinets to Brazilian leather chairs. Martha Stewart can go lay an egg.

Ladder of Success—Two popular newcomers to the scene are the Loews Boston Common cinema (top) and the restaurant/jazz lounge Limbo (above).

FELT • 533 Washington St., 617-350-5555 Replacing “smoky pool hall” with “smokin’ pool hall,” Felt is where the ultra-trendy crowd sinks it in the corner pocket. Ask the magic-eight ball if this place rocks the racks: all signs point to yes.

H & M • 350 Washington St., 617-482-7081 With uber-cool actors like Tim Roth plugging its stylish, inexpensive duds, this Swedish discount retailer has perfected the art of disposable clothing for the fashion-conscious.

JER-NE • The Ritz-Carlton Boston Common, 12 Avery St., 617-574-7176 Travel an uncharted course in contemporary American cuisine, lush flavors and daring presentation via the hands of chef Jorg Behrend.

LIMBO • 49 Temple Place, 617-338-0280 The atmosphere: a seductively sleek urbane experience. The goal: to nourish the senses with cool cocktails, contemporary cuisine and silky smooth live jazz.

LOEWS BOSTON COMMON • 175 Tremont St., 617-423-3499 The largest downtown movie theater in New England encompasses 100,000 sq. feet of Hollywood magic and offers stadium seating for 4,500 movie addicts.

MANTRA • 52 Temple Place, 617-542-8111 In all of its multi-million dollar glory, Mantra has become the defining gem of the LD, complete with a hookah den and one-way mirrors on the bathroom stalls. French-Indian cuisine by rising star chef Thomas John attracts loyalists from power brokers decked in Armani to club girls barely covered in Bebe.

RITZ-CARLTON, BOSTON COMMON • 10 Avery St., 617-574-7100 The new Ritz exudes cosmopolitan luxury with sleek guest suites, high-tech meeting rooms, a million-dollar art collection and the trendy Sports Club/LA fitness complex.