BOSTON UNCOMMON: Combining Hipness with History
Taking a water taxi for a dreamy ride from a waterfront hotel to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is like a screenshot of what Boston is about these days. The historic 17thcentury waterfront is marked with Massachusetts’ seafaring history. There’s the picturesque harbour where yachts anchor, sailboats dot the water, and shabby neighbourhoods are reborn in what the Boston Globe calls “the newest, cooolest, and most vibrating part of the city”. (Check out the arts and music festivals and other activities at summeronthewaterfront.org.)
The ten-minute water taxi drops visitors off at The Institute of Contemporary Art, the first new museum building to be built in Boston in a century. In its old location downtown, the 75 year-old museum was the first to introduce US audiences to Georges Braque, Edvard Munch and Roy Lichtenstein. The striking new building, which seems to hover above the water, has become a career booster for contemporary artists as well as a venue for exhibits and concerts. Outside is a great place for lingering and boat watching.
Near the ICA, in what was a rundown area called Fort Point, low-rise, wide-windowed industrial buildings, some with ungentrified artists’ lofts, are sprouting one new restaurant after another Menton, an upscale French eatery, was a pioneer, and it opened only in 2010. Leases are being signed for a 5,5000 square foot restaurant by Mario Batali.
Bees Knees Supply Company (beeskneessupply.com)gave the neighbourhood a much needed market, which includes a cheese shop, charcuterie, chocolate maker, and two cafes. Currently, the buzz goes,
Next door, on 12 Farnsworth Street, is Flour Bakery, which draws lunchtime crowds as much for their sandwiches and salads as for the pastries. You order at the desk, your name is called and you sit at one of the long tables.
Of course, the quickest lunch would be at one of Boston’s food trucks, which keep growing in number. There are now over 50, serving everything from vegan Asian (Momgoose), Middle Eastern (Chubby Chick pea), seafood (Lobsta Love) to cookies (Cookie Monstah). (to find the food trucks, go to www.cityofboston.gov)
Near Flour is Fort Point Channel. It’s part of the regeneration of Fort Point. And in typical Boston fashion, hipness is combined with history. In front of Children’s Museum, a delightful place of interactive play, is an artful coil of thick rope, to be used as a seat. It’s one of the 17 winners of a city design contest called Street Seats – Re-imagining the Public Bench. The thick cord used for the seat is naturally in synch with the maritime setting. Sitting on the rope seat, with the water below, what you see ahead is the Tea Party Ships and Museum (bostonteapartyship.com), which is on the Congreess Street Bridge. It has live actors, interactive exhibits, and offers tours that end on a vintage ship docked at the Museum. Here you can throw over bales of tea as the Bostonians did in 1773 to protest British taxation. (The bales are attached to ropes so they don’t sink).
The Boston Tea Party Museum is just one historical site among many, in this American Revolution epicentre that nevertheless remains the most British city in the US -just look at the buildings, the names, and a certain sense of decorum, delightfully leavened with Irish wit..
The Freedom Trail, (thefreedometrail.org) covers 250 years of history in 2.5 miles and is marked by red lines on the sidewalk It takes you to Paul Revere’s house, the 1798 golden domed Statehouse, the stone marking the grave of John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. You can join a group with a costumed guide at the Boston Common Visitor’s Center, a great place for maps and information.
There are plenty of other tours, many, like the Irish Heritage Trail, are self-guided. Others include the Kennedy Tour, The Historic Pub Crawl and numerous culinary tours. If you’d like to see the sights sitting down, you can get an overview of Boston by taking the Upper Deck Trolley Tours (www.BostonUpperDeckTrolleyTours.com). It’s a hop off and on tour, good for three consecutive days, that covers most of Boston’s must-see places.
One stop is the Museum of Fine Arts (www.mfa.org), which has opened its Art of the Americas wing, covering four floors and ranging from pre-Columbian and Mayan art through 1920’s artists like Edward Hopper and ending in the l970’s, with paintings by Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell. The museum also has the largest collection of Monet paintings outside of Paris.
Beacon Hill is on the tour, but why not just wander the brick streets at leisure. This forever-chic district, designated an historical landmark in l962, has one of the best “collections” of intact Victorian buildings in America. It also has small shops, cafes and restaurants. One classic is the Beacon Hill Bistro, which serves creative farm to table cuisine. I had a roasted beet terrine with farmer’s cheese and mesculin leaves, local halibut in kombu broth with leeks, accompanied by a Gruner Veltliner wine from the Wachau region of Austria.
It’s just a walk from here to Back Bay, and Copley Square, marked by the Fairmont Copley Plaza, a century-old grand hotel where the Kennedys and other noted families had their celebrations. Today the hotel draws people to its Oak Long Bar and Kitchen, which is opulent yet casual and features hand-crafted cocktails and an extensive seafood menu.
For me, Boylston Street was the site of a find. Walking to my hotel, the large, cool moderne Revere, I was lured by a surprise: Nordstrom’s off-price,The Rack. It had just opened, taking the place of the much mourned Boston classic, Filene’s basement. So little time, so much to buy – yet it was well-organized and there were plenty of fitting rooms. Ca-ching. I bought a long, casual summer dress that was perfect for that night’s restaurant, Toro, not expensive, super casual, and extraordinary. It’s in the newly hip South End, about a 25 minutes walk from my hotel.
Along the way, there was much to see. The Boston Common, the first public park in the US, dates from 1634. Today it’s green and planted with brilliant flowers, with fountains here and swan pedal-boats there, a real centre to this ultra-walkable city.. And if that weren’t enough, there are the Public Gardens bordering the other side of Charles Street. As we approached the South End, the neighborhood became more residential. There was a schoolyard, with people dancing salsa, a perfect prelude to the Tapas Restaurant.
Toro served up the best food I had in Boston. From the marinated oysters with grains of lovage and citrus, the tomato salad with fiddleheads, to the cauliflower with pine nuts and the catalan stew of lobster, crab, cockles and romesco….I could see why the chef has been nominated for a James Beard award. And why Boston, with its hipness and history, is uncommon.