I'll freely admit to a decidedly Cambridge and Somerville-leaning bias in my bar preferences. That's true of both this column and my personal life, which, come to think of it, essentially amounts to going out to bars to write about in this column. While there are fine drinking options in Back Bay and the Fenway area, my cocktail antipathy is especially strong when it comes to downtown Boston.
My instinctual avoidance of the area is mostly based upon bad experiences with weekend and after-work crowds, but that may be unfair, akin to dismissing a band just because you don't like its insufferable fans. Unlike a concert, however, where it's kind of sad to see a band without a crowd to lose yourself in, a bar on an off night is one of the best ways to experience what it actually is — or could be — without all those other oppressive humans around to spoil it.
And I do love it down in the Financial District and off-Faneuil Hall areas on a week night, when the neighborhood has voided its bowels of the hard-charging business and hard-partying bridge-and-tunnel crowds. Then, you can catch a glimpse of the magical atmosphere of the modern brushing up against the historic on the wind-swept, deserted streets.
Speaking of a clash of the historic and the modern, the Harborside Inn on State Street dates back to 1846, when it was a warehouse for merchant shippers working the nearby harbor. Today, it's a contemporary hotel with a would-be up-to-date hotel bar that opened a few months back.
Referring to something as a hotel bar doesn't necessarily tell you too much at this point; it could be the older, regal and refined grand hotel bar style, or a cramped and depressing corporate afterthought. More likely, of late, it means a European-boutique, hotel-chic approach, which most accurately describes the cocktail lounge here, albeit in a larger format.
The long room, parallel to the hotel lobby, has four distinct climates, from the high top banquettes, to long communal tables, a bright stone bar bathed in blue light and a pillow-strewn lounge area toward the back, where a second bar awaits to field bigger crowds on weekend nights. That area is the difference-maker here, somewhere between stylish and comfortable, with oversized mirrors that seem like portholes to another dimension, a sensation furthered by trippy shapes projected on rows of flatscreens throughout the room. It's a little slice of '60s-psychedelia.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the cocktail menu is rife with drinks with names like the Cran'tini, The Drunken Pear, Smore'tini and Banana Nut Bread. The Godiva Raspberry Martini takes Stoli Razberi, Godiva Chocolate liquor and Baileys, and it would be hard to come up with a grosser sounding recipe unless you considered their version of the Dubliner, which is made with Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry syrup and, for some insane reason, cranberry juice. That said, a Manhattan and a Negroni, two cocktails no one has any businesses screwing up, were perfectly well made by a perfectly attentive barman.
This is a fine option for a drink if you're nearby and want something more interesting than the steak-and-cheese pubs in the area. One just hopes that, with all the decades alluded to in the history and the design of the place, they'll soon choose a better one to take their cocktail inspiration from than the cocktailocaust era of the turn of the millennium.