date published: June 2, 2008

All kinds of fun can be found in Boston’s trendiest neighborhood
by Josh B. Wardrop

Ethnic melting pot. Yuppie neighborhood. Jazz mecca. Gay neighborhood. Bohemian artists’ enclave. Trendy shopping and dining district. At one time or another, all of these labels have been attached to Boston’s South End, a neighborhood located just south of the glitzy Back Bay and north of the working-class neighborhood of Roxbury. And they’ve all been true—in fact, it could be argued that few Boston neighborhoods have undergone more changes than the South End. Today, however, the neighborhood that’s emerged is one of beautiful brick rowhouses and quiet tree-lined streets, anchored by some of the best thoroughfares in Boston—Tremont, Columbus, Harrison, Washington—for art, culture, shopping and dining. “The South End has absolutely become one of the energetic focal points of the city,” says Darryl Settles, who owned and operated the now-defunct restaurant/jazz club Bob’s Southern Bistro in the South End for 17 years, and has seen the neighborhood develop into a jewel in Boston’s cultural crown. “Every year, we’re seeing more and more options for dining and nightlife…we’ve grown tremendously.”

The Scrumptious South End
One of the first developments that truly put the South End on the map as an up-and-coming neighborhood was the emergence of some top restaurants. The city’s best chefs found their way here, and led city dwellers and visitors to the South End by their stomachs. And today, the scene continues to explode with what seem to be new restaurant openings each month, allowing new blood to go toe-to-toe with established culinary players in a win-win situation for Boston gourmands.

Chef Gordon Hamersley was one of the pioneers of the South End dining scene when he and his wife Fiona opened Hamersley’s Bistro (refer to restaurant listing) almost 20 years ago. The much-acclaimed eatery is notable for providing exquisite gourmet food in a comfortable atmosphere devoid of stuffiness and pretension.

Hamersley is far from the only “celebrity” chef that’s looked to the South End to express his culinary talents. The red-hot Ken Oringer, who has eateries sprinkled around the city, chose the South End for his Spanish tapas bar Toro (refer to restaurant listing), which boasts a diverse menu of hot and cold small plates perfect for sharing with fellow diners. Chef Barbara Lynch has two eateries in the neighborhood: B&G Oysters (refer to restaurant listing), her collaboration with Garrett Harker specializing in fresh seafood delicacies, and The Butcher Shop (552 Tremont St., 617-423-4800), an authentic Parisian-style charcuterie that’s all about exploring the bold flavors of meat. And Boston restaurant giant Christopher Myers (Radius, Great Bay, Via Matta) and his fiancee, pastry goddess Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe, have fired up taste buds with their delicious joint project Myers + Chang (1145 Washington St., 617-542-5200), a trendy spot specializing in modern takes on traditional Asian cuisine.

Dining in the South End isn’t just about the big names in the kitchen, however. The diversity of cuisine is really what sets the neighborhood apart as one of the best dining districts in Boston. Lovers of upscale French cuisine can find themselves in restaurant heaven at spots like Gallic brasserie Gaslight (560 Harrison Ave., 617-422-0224), while those who favor Italian can delight at Chef Anthony Susi’s Sage (1395 Washington St., 617-248-8814), a recent transplant from the North End. The visually impressive Banq (1375 Washington St., 617-451-0077), which opened earlier this year in a former bank building, offers a fusion of French, Indian and Asian flavors with dishes like veal and basmati rice croquettes and tea smoked quail and date cigars.

And when you’re in the mood for something more casual, but every bit as delicious, try neighborhood spots like Pops (560 Tremont St., 617-695-1250), with its wide assortment of sandwiches and upscale take on comfort food; Anchovies (433 Columbus Ave., 617-266-5088), which attracts loyalists with its low-key Italian-American fare, and the affordable and diverse Franklin Café (278 Shawmut Ave., 617-350-0010).

shopping, Arts & Culture
The number of artists living in the South End—once a significant population that helped to revitalize and reinvigorate the neighborhood—is dwindling somewhat as the neighborhood grows more affluent, but the gallery scene in the South End is still one of the strongest in the city. Galleries like the Mills Gallery inside the Boston Center for the Arts and the Boston Sculptors Gallery (refer to galleries listings) are thriving, and the SoWa Artists Guild at 450 Harrison Ave. (home to the Bernard Toale Gallery and Bromfield Gallery) represents one of the largest and most diverse artists’ collectives in the city—with more than 15 galleries and 50 artist studios linked together—and hosts regular events like seasonal art walks and monthly First Friday gatherings (with the next one taking place June 6) and exhibitions.

The South End is also home to a number of small theatres that produce some of Boston’s most challenging and exiting dramatic works, like SpeakEasy Stage Company, which presents Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 7, and the BCA itself, a four-acre, non-profit organization that boasts four resident theater companies and acts as a venue for productions large and small on a regular basis—including, this month, Gurnet Theatre Project’s Essential Self-Defense (beginning June 13) and Imaginary Beasts’ re-imagining of the works of Lewis Carroll, Impossible Things (June 5–14). And on the western edge of the South End, the Factory Theatre (791 Tremont St.) hosts some of Boston’s edgiest theater in its 49-seat venue, including David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross through June 15. Refer to theater listings.

Fashionistas seeking a refuge from the high-end chains of the Back Bay also flock to the South End to explore a wide range of funky, independent boutiques like Leokadia (667 Tremont St., 617-247-7463), with its selection of high-end footwear; artsy housewares purveyor Michelle Willey (8 Union Park St., 617-424-6700); gourmet dog treats and accessories shop Polka Dog Bakery (256 Shawmut Ave., 617-338-5155); and much more.

the south End social scene
If you’re in search of a prime spot for lounging with a cocktail while you listen to music, scoping out the singletons or just chilling with friends, the South End offers plenty of options. Flash’s Cocktails (310 Stuart St., 617-574-8888) serves up both classic libations and cutting-edge creations. The ultra-smooth 28 Degrees (1 Appleton St., 617-728-0728) is a sleek and seductive hangout offering tasty cocktails and a diverse beer selection. Clery’s (113 Dartmouth St., 617-262-9874) has a neighborhood pub feel that draws in big crowds on the weekends for food, drink and revelry. And Wally’s Café (427 Massachusetts Ave., 617-424-1408) is one of the city’s most venerable nightspots, opened back in 1947, and the last survivor of the South End’s once-impressive array of jazz clubs. Wally’s proudly continues to feature live music 365 days a year, all without charging a cover.

With a thriving gay community calling the South End home, it’s no surprise that the neighborhood boasts a few of the city’s most popular gay bars, including Club Café (209 Columbus Ave., 617-536-0966), a usually packed nightclub with a video bar, regular evenings devoted to ’80s music, karaoke and dance nights, and a tasty restaurant (209 Boston) serving up grub, and Fritz Lounge (26 Chandler St., 617-482-4428), which bills itself as “Boston’s Gay Sports Bar,” and boasts six flat screen plasma TVs, dartboards and a convivial and relaxing after-work atmosphere.

The biggest new addition to the South End nightlife scene is The Beehive (541 Tremont St., 617-423-0069), a 300-seat bar/restaurant/live music venue which opened last May. According to co-owner Settles, the Beehive (named for an early 20th century artists’ colony in Paris) is a place where “mature audiences can come and enjoy themselves. Whatever they want to do—whether it’s eat dinner, come and see live music, just hang out and have a drink—they can stay out late doing it.”

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