The Redbones Conundrum, Or Why I Need A New Local…

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I’ve lived in the Davis Square / North Cambridge area for about eight years now and chose to move there in part because I had long enjoyed visiting Redbones Barbecue. It’s only the second true local that I’ve ever had, the other being my beloved Sweeney’s Saloon in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For a long time, Redbones had all the great qualities of a local: friendly bartenders and staff who recognized you, a comfortable space, good food, solid beer selection, occasional beer events (including the popular Northwest Fest), and all at a reasonable price. It was a remarkable place for a variety of reasons, none the least of which involved the unexpectedly low turnover of staff and the presence of many regulars every time you visited, both true testaments to the place. Then things started to slowly change.

In my book, The Good Beer Guide to New England, I wrote of Redbones:

As a long-standing force on the better beer scene in the Boston-area, Redbones mixes savory barbeque with a laid back atmosphere to provide a breather from your cookie-cutter Irish-themed bars. Opened in 1987, Redbones is perhaps the granddaddy of New England’s beer bars. The 24 rotating taps offer few mainstays, which include familiar draft lines full of Newcastle, Bass, Guinness, and of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Beyond these four staples, anything is fair game. The beer menu changes daily, if not every few hours, as new, interesting beers replace kicked kegs. Redbones specializes in local New England beers, but also offers a smattering of hard-to-find American craft and imported beers.

With three distinct rooms, Redbones offers a place for everyone from families to lone drinkers. The narrow upstairs bar is usually packed with people waiting for seating in the main room or watching the Red Sox play on the bar’s two televisions. You can spend a lot of time in this bar looking up at the hanging beer menu, perusing a beer menu, or trying to figure out what that big wooden spinning arrow is on the wall. A spin of the bar’s “Dial A Draft” wheel allows uncertain pubgoers to leave the decision of which beer they will have up to fate. The highlight of the main dining room is the small counter seating area that gives diners a front row seat on the action heating up in the kitchen, where the pit masters toil in a fight against flames in the name of smoky, tender, and tangy barbeque goodness. Downstairs lurks Underbones, a lair of additional seating and bar space festooned with the funky, cartoonish works of a local artist.

Many members of the bar and wait staff have been working here for a long time, a testament to the welcoming, hip environs. With all of its subtle charms, the attitude at Redbones remains relaxed and unpretentious. It is one of the undisputed kings of good beer in the Boston-area, but it couldn’t seem to care less. Good beer, as well as good barbeque, is just a way of life. The menu offers a tantalizing mix of barbeque offerings from a wide variety of schools, ranging from Memphis pork ribs to Texas beef ribs.

Redbones does come out of its shell a few times a year to outwardly acknowledge its role as a Boston-area beer leader. For more than 10 years now, Redbones has dedicated the month of November to celebrating the splendors of American beers from the Pacific Northwest. In a testament to the good beer reputation of Redbones, brewers small and large not only send a keg or two of their beers, most of which are not even otherwise available in Massachusetts or even on the East Coast, but many of the brewers themselves fly across country to meet, greet, imbibe, and speak at the beer dinners that cap off the celebratory month.

There are a dozen rumors as to why change came to Redbones, none of which I’ve really ever been able to confirm. It started with the firing/termination/departure of the bar’s beer guy, which led to a quick and unfortunate dumbing down of the beer list. Out with the local crafts and in with more big name, big brewery offerings (such as Bass, Harp, etc). Then, seemingly overnight, beer prices shot up. Now, prices at Redbones had always been pretty low compared to other places. I chalked that up to the owners having purchased the building and thus being able to control the otherwise painful reality of rent increases. Eventually the owners figured out that their prices were low and they boosted them a bit over most similar beer bars, much to the chagrin of the regulars. Where the beers once had been priced the same, you now had to carefully check the beer list before buying or else risk being stuck with an incredibly expensive short pour of beer. Rumors that the owners were raising prices in order to finance another Redbones outpost near Fenway also pissed off the regulars.

Then, slowly but deliberately, the long-time employees started disappearing from behind the bar and in the restaurant. Where the bar and floor were once populated by the same cast of characters, within a few months, only a handful remained. Within a year, only a single familiar bartender remained, with the others having scattered to other bars throughout the city, from Green Street to Deep Ellum and the square’s own Flatbread.

By the end of 2008, I wrote of a New Year’s wish for my local, Redbones:

For Redbones to rebalance the price of its portfolio of beers. While the staff exodus and purported growing pains that sent trembles of fear into longtime regulars has generally subsided and the selection has vastly improved over early this year, prices remain substantially out of whack. While consumers understand that some contributing factors certainly have led to increased prices, Bones’ prices have grown out of whack with other similar beer bars. We regulars would like to stop by twice a week not every other month and we definitely don’t want to have to check the menu before ordering, only to find out we selected a $6 or $7 pint.

Fast forward to the present and the facts are plain. The regulars have all but disappeared from the bar, with many visiting their favorite bartenders at their new establishments. The last vestiges of the staff decamped to other bars when the owners installed a series of ominously placed security cameras in the bar, with the staff saying it was a visible sign of the owners’ new perspective.

Once a great event filled with interesting beers, dinners, and brewers from the other coast, the Northwest Fest is a shell of itself, with some free apps and stale Pac NW beer. The beer list sometimes has gems but you still have to be careful of the pricing. While I celebrate beer bars that offer shorter pours (half-pints and the like) at reduced prices (great kudos to the excellent Citizen Public House in Fenway for its excellent display of this principle), Redbones takes this idea in a twisted direction. Akin to the movie theater experience, you can get a small pour of a local beer (the dreaded 10.5 ounce Redbones glass) for $5, but for just another fifty cents you can upgrade to a medium pour (12 ounce), but but wait, for just another fifty cents on top of that you can get a large pour (16 ounce). So, as with your local rip-off theater, the small popcorn or soda doesn’t seem like such a good deal and there is no encouragement to get the smaller pour at Redbones.

In Germany, you can get what is called a ‘schnitt’ pour of beer, which basically means if you find yourself at the end of your beer before your friends have finished theirs, you can get a half-pour of beer or so at a reduced price, like a top-off. I have always loved that concept and it’s something you sadly don’t find elsewhere.

At Redbones, they prefer to punish your desire for a smaller pour and that just sucks.

So this morning, I opened my email to find a Groupon for half-off of drinks and food at Redbones and it took me back a year or two, when things were starting to get bad at Redbones. Around that time was the first I had ever heard of Groupon, when a friend forwarded me the same offer for Redbones that I received this morning. Even with the trouble at Bones, I snapped up a few Groupons and then headed over one night to find the place packed with Groupon packing tourists and Redbones newbies. The staff were driven mad by the little white slips of paper, caught shitty tips for months, and the few regulars remaining started heading elsewhere, myself included. Over the course of the last year, I headed back to Redbones to finish off my three Groupons, essentially because I had already paid for them. But the visits were frequently disappointing for a variety of reasons, mainly because the place served as a reminder of a happier time and place, when I actually had a local as opposed to just another bar.
With friends running the nearby Cambridge Common at the time (and now off running the excellent Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont), we often just headed over there for a better all-around experience. And we always ran into former Redbones regulars at the Common.

Now things aren’t all dire at Redbones. Some of the new staffers, several of whom have now been there for a few months, show promise. Others treat it as just another job, and that shows. My tips have gone from an average of 35% per visit, down to the common 20%. The beer list remains fine, not particularly interesting on many visits (compared to the past especially), and the pricing is on par with other places now (minus that half-pour nonsense). But the magic has left the place and it is just another bar in Davis Square.

After visiting last night, my brother, who has accompanied me almost weekly to the place in some recent years, sadly remarked, “It’s time to find a new local.” So the search begins anew…

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