Looking for Locals at Cheers Boston
Does America's most famous local bar retain any local flavor?
Sitting at the long, well-worn bar in Cheers Boston, I wonder how many times the bartenders have watched giggling groups of customers, tongues in cheek; raise their drinks and toast, "Cheers!"? Probably countless.
But how many times is it the same group of customers? There's probably no bar in the country with a higher turnover of clientele than Boston's most internationally known tourist attraction.
Established in 1969, The Bull & Finch Pub was just a local watering hole long before it shot to fame in the mid-'80s. But have any locals managed to hang on to their bar stools? According to general manager, Bill DeCain, "Yes," and you can find them there on weekdays between 5 and 7 p.m.
If you haven't gone down those iconic steps at 84 Beacon St. in awhile, you forget how small Cheers is. It certainly makes you wonder how such a little bar could inspire such a big show. But something charmed screenwriters Mary Ann and Glenn Charles that day they popped in to the Bull & Finch in the summer of '81.
Some claim it was the grinning face of bartending icon Eddie Doyle, who really did seem to know everybody's name. Charging just a single dollar to take photos of the interior and exterior, owner Tom Kershaw probably never expect to hear from them again.
Nearly thirty years later, there is a cheese-cake thick layer of Hollywood and Beantown paraphernalia (all replicas) covering nearly every square inch of wall space and a gift shop in back offering pretty much every permutation of the Cheers brand you could think of (character bobble heads) and plenty you couldn't ("Norm's Nuts").
They even have their own brand of water and root beer at the bar. Still, it's good Boston makes such fine beers and I happily quaffed a mug (not a glass, a mug) of Sam Adam's deliciously spicy Winter Lager ($6) and malty Boston Brick Red ($6).
Feeling socially lubricated, I began my search for locals. They weren't to my left (New York), or to my right (San Diego), but on the corner stool was "Chatty Cathy," as the staff calls her, who is effusive in her love of the bar.
"This place is wonderful. The bartenders are wonderful. Isn't this where everyone is supposed to know my name?" she asked.
A British couple just behind her added theirs, saying, "It's really nice to come to a place that a., is so friendly and b., there are locals here that know what they're talking about."
I ask manager Jon Wales about "Chatty Cathy" and other locals like her, and he admits it's hard to keep a local flavor with all the fame. "We are a seasonally local pub," he explains. "From June to September, it's 100 percent tourists, but when the winter rolls around, they come back." The new replica set bar on the floor above the original Bull & Finch opened in May 2009 and also helps siphon off some of tourist crowds.
Cheers offers more than just beer on tap and has a pretty sizable menu that also makes full use of the TV fame with items like Sam's Starters, Woody's Garden Greens, Frasier's Chicken Panini, Normous Burgers (get it?), Diane's Desserts, Rebecca's Fish and Chips and Ma Clavin's Bahston Clam Chowda.
I decided to see how the chowder ($6.95), a definitively local dish, stacks up at the seasonally local Cheers. While I may not be a native to this city, I do hold its "chowda" up to the highest of standards and if any bar is to claim a quintessential Boston status, it had better be good. Cheers passed this test easily with its very creamy, almost buttery version that isn't too overly salted.
Taking both the manager's and waitress's recommendation, we next tackled the Buffalo Chicken Nachos Grande ($13.45), all but hiding under a down comforter of melted cheddar. Underneath, you'll find a heaping mound of tri-color corn chips and good portions of meat and peppers steeped in a well-balanced buffalo sauce that still kicks but doesn't knock you out.
Unfortunately, the quality of the entrees dips a bit. I never could stomach Rebecca on the show and her Fish and Chips ($12.95) aren't much better. Served in nugget form, the fish was not very flaky, almost rubbery and not helped by the virtually tasteless batter. The accompanying fries and coleslaw were fresh and crispy but not enough to take up the slack.
The Cheese Burger ($10.95) is a solid burger, but slightly dry and ultimately unmemorable. The Mac and Cheese with Ham ($14.95) was the most debated, with one voice calling it bland and not much better than the packaged stuff and the other singing its praises as "enjoyable and flavorful." I stand firmly in the middle. Although disappointed by the deli-sliced ham and the non-smoky cheese, it was, by far, still the best of the bunch and, in fact, the only dish we completely finished.
Nobody comes to Cheers, or any bar, for gourmet meals. The food is meant to give our fingers something to do while we focus on the smiles and conversations of our friends. And the truth is, there was still plenty of that in Cheers, both from the staff and my neighbors at the bar, even if it's no longer a true neighborhood bar.