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Review: We assess the Bostonian influence and pedigree of new downtown bar Commonwealth

Photo by Todd LussierBuy Photo
Photo by Todd Lussier

When I heard a “Boston bar” was opening downtown, I didn’t know what to expect. A place with dusty Larry Bird, Ray Bourque and Tony Eason jerseys hanging on the wall? Or would it mimic a hallowed haunt where politicos belly up to a fancy mahogany bar and finalize deals over Wild Turkey and a handshake?

In a city like Boston, sports and politics are religion, passionately debated by after-work crowds over a frothy pint. So there was no doubt in my mind when I walked into the city’s newest downtown watering hole, Commonwealth, that it would resemble one or the other. And let’s face it: A niche sports pub would likely only attract me and a handful of other Beantown brats.

Co-owner Justin Weniger says Commonwealth was designed “to emulate an East Coast bar that has been sitting on the same cobblestone street for the past 100 years.” Now, history can’t exactly be replicated. It’s damn near impossible to re-create places like Bell-in-Hand, an old alehouse on the wharf, or The Green Dragon Tavern, a public house that’s been pouring since 1654 and just happened to be a favorite drinking spot of Paul Revere and John Hancock.

So let’s see how they did. From the outside, Commonwealth is spot-on. Right down to the script signage and the vintage street lamps on the roof. The exterior reminds me of Doyle’s Café, a “newer” bar built in 1882 and featured in Mystic River. Inside, Commonwealth is sterile and modern, not lived-in. No surprise. It’s been open just a couple weeks and hasn’t had enough blood, sweat, beers and tears spilled to wear the wooden floorboards. What Commonwealth has is character and the stylings of a throwback saloon.

The drinking spot stretches 6,000 square feet and includes a backroom speakeasy (opening soon) and a rooftop patio with space for live performances. The open-air bar is fronted with pennies (heads-up for good luck) and offers views of downtown Fremont and the El Cortez. It’s sure to be popular among the party crowd and smokers.

The first floor offers a more casual, social setting with a vintage look. One wall, containing a giant photo of a woman who looks like Marlene Dietrich is covered in old newspaper clippings and rock posters, while exposed wooden beams line the ceiling and a wrought-iron staircase leads to the roof. Everything downstairs is repurposed. Old-fashioned home radiators hold up a communal bar. Chairs, placed in nooks and tucked in corners, are yard-sale finds or antique picks that have been refurbished, and the bar’s tap handles are constructed from pool cues, tennis rackets, antlers and table legs.

As I drink a Magic Hat No. 9 (a rare find in these parts) and stare at the giant stark-white peacock in the center of the bar, I tab Commonwealth as a more fashionable, old-meets-new Manhattan bar, while a friend, another Bostonian, chimes in: “This place belongs on Lansdowne Street.” He’s referencing the collection of pubs, dance halls and nightclubs behind Fenway Park’s Green Monster. “It’s for the trust-fund college kids. Either that, or it’s a good ol’ boys’ clubhouse.”

With its ambitious cocktail menu and music geared to take those in their 30s or 40s back to the 1980s, it’s likely the latter and will attract a more professional crowd rather than the indie-rock, PBR-drinking set just down the street. Over the course of a couple hours on a Friday night, the playlist included Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Legs” by ZZ Top and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

The innovative cocktail list was crafted by mixologist Juyoung Kang. In the “Common” section, drinks run $8 and include cocktails called The Son of Man (Hangar One spiced pear vodka, Berentzen apple liqueur, simple syrup, lemon and lime) and The Dude Abides (Zing red velvet vodka, Kahlua, Bailey’s and chocolate bitters). Drinks from the “Wealth” section cost $9 and are more classical. They include a Sidecar, made with Hennessy VS Cognac, and the Hyannis Cape Cod, prepared with Grey Goose cherry noir vodka and cranberry-infused Elderflower liqueur with a champagne float.

For the party crowd, Commonwealth serves Punch Bowls ($65) large enough to ladle out eight full drinks. There is also a rather nice selection of draft beers ($7) and Fancy Beers ($10) — beer cocktails for those who like a little Wild Turkey in their Bass, Captain Morgan with their PBR or Tanteo Jalapeno Tequila mixed with Modelo Negro.

Commonwealth, in all throwback glory, is a bit Boston, but in the words of former Celtic coach Rick Pitino, “Larry Bird is not working through that door.

COMMONWEALTH, 525 E. Fremont St., 798-7000.