If you still haven't been to the Assembly Row shopping district, you're in for a weird trip. While the collection of shops and restaurants is certainly a boon to the previously underserved side of Somerville, there's something strange about it. If the Waterfront is a suburban take on the idea of urban nightlife, then this is the opposite, a small town square dropped in the middle of the city.
All of that aside, the dining and drinking options you'll find here are a big step up from the typical suburban offerings. Among them is the recently opened River Bar, from the owner of Somerville favorites the Independent, Foundry on Elm, Saloon and Brass Union. While the dining room and bar space adjacent to the open kitchen is small, that's nothing compared to chef Patrick Gilmartin's previous digs in the Staff Meal Food Truck. He's putting out a steady stream of bar food (served til 1 a.m.), like corned beef and cabbage dumplings with rye dipping sauce, and grilled corn with Mexican cheese, which are predictably fun, and a good match for the forward-looking but tradition-based cocktails. Choosing from either of those menus is only part of the experience, however. Aside from the main bar and dining room, there's a second, larger, square bar in a room that will be open air come the warmer months, and two patios decked out with couches and fire pits. In fact, the majority of the seating here is outside.
“In the summertime, it becomes a completely different type of space, I think,” director of operations Jess Willis explained. That hasn't deterred guests from taking advantage of the views of the river yet this winter however. “We're really blown away and impressed with how tough the crowd has been down there in terms of willingness to sit outside and endure sub zero temperature,” she said. Part of that appeal is just how rare a fire pit is in the Boston metro area.
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Due to the size of the space, there isn't much room for draft beer, with only 4 options, plus a small but well selected group of bottles. Instead, the cocktails, from Thea Engst and Sean Farrell, take the primary focus. Among the best I tried were the Autumn Still, made with bourbon, Kummel, Averna and Angostura bitters. Kummel is a caraway-based liqueur. Here it takes on the form of a spicy glass of boozy, liquid bread (trust me — it's a lot better than that sounds.) This is one of the most interesting and continuously rewarding cocktails I've had in a while. Elsewhere ingredients such as sherry, Cynarand Chartreuse abound. The Age of Discovery, with Lustau East India sherry, the aromatized wine Barolo Chinato, Cynar, and orange bitters is deep and rich, but brightened up with citrus notes. The Hollow Men, made with rye, Cynar, Cocchi Rosa and Yellow Chartreuse is rich and bitter, with the ginger-cinnamon digestif Becherovka leading the way.
It's strange, Willis agrees, that up until recently, there was almost no reason for anyone to come over to the area where drinking options like this now abound.
“When you sit at the bar and you look out onto the river, and boats and trains are going by, it's really pretty hard to believe for so long it was nothing. It's sort of like the city meets nature. You've got the pretty water and trees, then the Orange Line goes rumbling by, and it reminds you where you are.”
If you go
661 Assembly Row, Somerville