Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Digital Bar Crawl

Illustration by Harry Campbell for The Wall Street Journal

Can your smartphone tell a 'power' scene from a 'hipster' one? A thirsty writer puts several nightlife apps to the test

It used to be there were so many different bars to choose from that we had to turn to technology to help us narrow things down. Now there are so many different apps trying to help us find the best places to drink, we need an app to sort through the nightlife apps. Don't steal that idea.

A bar-finding app, much like a bar, is only as valuable as what it has on tap. Most of them operate under the same premise, using your GPS location to recommend the nearest bars, which you can then narrow down by search parameters such as cost, style of bar or level of sausage-fest-ness. So I went out on a test run of them in Boston, where I write about bars for a living. Man versus machine. Like when a chess master battles a supercomputer, only much more important to the human condition.

Dom: Family of Love

Family of Love

Seems like only yesterday that we were calling Worcester’s Dom the band most likely to succeed in a young Massachusetts rock class. So far so good, as the deliriously delinquent surf-psych pop-rock of their debut EP, “Sun Bronzed Greek Gods,’’ has made its way around the world. On this follow-up EP, the band, led by the mercurial, skewed-pop savant Dom, keeps the party going with five songs that crest the wave between rough-around-the-edges garage rock and twee keyboard pop. The awkwardly romantic “Telephone’’ revolves around a chiming dial tone solo. The fuzzy prismatic rainbow of “Happy Birthday Party’’ is the stylistic bridge here, with its refrain of “time to get gnarly/ happy birthday party’’ serving as the motto for both the record and the band. That song, and the careening, reverb sugar of “Damn,’’ have the deceptive staying power of a self-applied tattoo. They’re perhaps hastily put together but still fraught with a moment’s sincerity that will nonetheless stick with you long after the party is over. (Out now)

Liquid Pop art: House-made sodas are raising the bar


 There's really no delicate way of putting this, so I'll just come out and say it: if your default drink is an "and" drink, meaning a rum and Diet, say, or a Jack and ginger, then you have shitty taste. I'm sorry - I don't make the rules, but that's how it is. (Okay, I do make the rules, and I guess I'm not really that sorry.) 

Not only is it boring, but the sugared-up soda you find on the gun at most bars completely obliterates any nuance the spirit in question may have had in the first place. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon sodas altogether when it comes to cocktailing. There are plenty of local spots, like Erbaluce (69 Church Street, Boston, 617.426.6969), for example, that are making their own house-made sodas and incorporating them creatively into their bar programs. "We don't carry any commercial soda products. Our soda gun has two speeds: sparkling and still," says bar maestro Nick Korn. Instead, Erbaluce offers Italian-style sodas using fresh ingredients. Sounds good, but why should the average imbiber care? 

After 10-year hiatus, Cibo Matto meets expectations with exuberance

CIBO MATTO At: Brighton Music Hall, Wednesday

Ten years is a long time to wait, so it’s no surprise that the sold-out crowd for the first local Cibo Matto show in a decade was anxious to get the party started. At Brighton Music Hall Wednesday night, fans were yelling out the names of songs from the New York Japanese-American duo’s era-defining 1990s albums before they even took the stage.

They didn’t leave disappointed. Yuka Honda, whose reserved demeanor contrasted with the noisy squalls of horn blasts and thick bass and beats she manipulated from behind her keyboards, and Miho Hatori, the brash, stylish exemplar of both hip-hop swagger and romantic crooning, ran through an hour and change of their greatest hits.

The tasty return of Cibo Matto | Back on the menu

cm main

There's been a lot of talk recently about how the '90s are back, much of it by me. One thing I've forgotten to mention in my hasty excitement for a return to the days when my man crush on Jared Leto wasn't creepy was that the '90s were pretty much a complete bum-out. Everyone was stomping around all day in gross boots and giant socks, and we all had our hair tied up in tight scrunchies that constricted blood flow to the brain. No wonder the music was so grim.

Somewhere around the middle of the decade, bands in New York City remembered that music was supposed to be fun. Chief among them were Cibo Matto, the Japanese-American duo who popularized the polyglot fusion concept that was also, coincidentally, sweeping the restaurant scene. In fact, they actually were singing about food most of the time, on songs like "Birthday Cake" and "Know Your Chicken." (Cibo Matto means "crazy food" in Italian, I'm obliged to point out). They were brash, ballsy, fun, cooler than hell, and surprisingly funny.

Thursty: Pleased as a Pig


If you’re eating at a restaurant called the Salty Pig, you’d better figure you’re going to work up a thirst pretty quickly. True to its billing, the menu at this chalkboard-walled and industrial aesthetic space (more funky Somerville than Back Bay in appearance) is broken up into “salty pig parts,” “stinky cheeses” and other Italian-style items like the outstanding pork and garlic meatballs. Fortunately, unlike many other Italian restaurants, beer and cocktails aren’t just an afterthought. The beer offerings run the gamut from thematically appropriate —with cans of Butternut’s Porkslap Pale Ale and Cisco Sankaty Light — to on-trend session ales, West Coast IPAs and local brews. 

An oasis of cocktails

'American Seasons’ Grapefruit Basil.

You know how when cartoon characters are lost in the desert and little oases of water and palm trees start popping up in thought bubbles over their heads? It’s about 100 degrees while I’m writing this and that’s basically me right now, except I’m imagining these drinks instead while crawling across the vast expanse of the workday waiting for cocktail o’clock. I asked a few bars to torture me with visions of refreshment.

Forum: A promising thing happened at this restaurant


Considering Vox Populi was the name of the restaurant that once occupied this space on Boylston Street, it’s logical to consider Forum, which just opened last  night, as another nod to the bustling plaza and political center of ancient Rome. No politics at the bar these days of course, and no gladiatorial contests, although this Forum is meant to attract a broad citizenry. There’s a large 45-seat bar downstairs, a small cafe area leading to the street-side patio and additional lounge seating. Upstairs is a more elegant experience, with a 10-seat bar better suited for intimate conversation. 

Legally drunk: A look at the curious laws that govern how we guzzle


It's funny: nationally, Massachusetts has a reputation of being the bluest of "blue states," thanks to our progressive politics. But not a single local has grown up here without encountering "blue laws," antiquated regulations (often related to alcohol) that are anything but liberal - more like straight out of our buttoned-up, buckle-shoed Puritan past. The origin of the colorful term is subject to speculation: it's a reference to either an old definition of "blue" (which meant "rigidly moral" during Colonial times), the color of the paper that legal documents were once printed on, or the color of everyone's balls at the time, since these folks were definitely as repressed in the bedroom as they were at the bar. 

Such laws are hardly ancient history, as anyone who has tried to buy booze before noon on Sunday (you know, the day when God pays attention), attempted to restock during a Memorial Day barbecue, or run out of wine during Thanksgiving dinner can attest. But there are even less obvious and more egregious prohibitions on the books that are a pain in our collective alcohol-loving ass. So I asked a few sin purveyors for their thoughts on Massachusetts's most annoying, curious, or downright weird laws regarding the sale of alcohol - laws that can impact exactly what, how, and when we drink in unexpected ways.  

Return to blender

Whether we're talking music, fashion, or cocktails, accurately predicting trend cycles is really quite simple. Here's the formula: 1) remember an old trend you haven't seen in a few years, and 2) wait until it seems ironic enough to be hip again. The end. Consider, for example, the saxophone, which has been popping back up everywhere in music of late. Same thing with the blender, which is pretty much the saxophone of the bar world: oft-maligned, generally misunderstood, and apt to appear whenever someone's dad is grooving in the general proximity of a boat. 

Rave On Buddy Holly

Various Artists
Rave On Buddy Holly

Tribute compilations come with an inherent high degree of difficulty. There’s a tricky balance to land between paying homage and reinvention. Too often these things end up sounding like a lazily plotted Pandora station with a tenuous through-line. In the case of Buddy Holly, the proto-rocker without whom none of the acts on “Rave On’’ would exist, it’s further compounded. It’s a testament to the consistency and strength of his voice that Holly manages to assert himself throughout in a rock ’n’ roll seance that utilizes the musical medium talents of disciples like Paul McCartney (who Paul-McCartneys his way through “It’s So Easy’’), other veterans like Lou Reed (whose “Peggy Sue’’ is a typical bum out), and Patti Smith (who gets spooky on “Words of Love’’). Perhaps it’s a generational bias speaking, but indie rockers like Modest Mouse on “That’ll Be the Day’’ and My Morning Jacket on “True Love Ways’’ come closer to capturing the lovelorn essence of Holly’s originals. Not all of them, though. The Black Keys are uncharacteristically boring in the barely there “Dearest,’’ while Julian Casablancas tosses off a muddy “Rave On.’’ No surprise that Cee Lo Green and Florence and the Machine pick up the pace and sing the lights out, or that Kid Rock seems like he showed up for an Aerosmith tribute. Forget about considering the album as a whole and figure out which of the 19 translators here appeal to you. The originals will always be there waiting. (Out now)

How to be a bad customer

via Tips Comics

With all the attention paid to chefs and bartenders in the media lately, and the explosion of quality restaurants using lovingly prepared, high-end ingredients, it comes as no surprise that the level of culinary knowledge among the average diner is at an all-time high. And yet for some reason, that sophistication doesn't apply to dining manners, particularly when it comes to our interactions with the help. (If you've ever called them "the help," then you're way ahead of the game and probably don't even need to read this list).

The Yelp-ification of America has turned us all into entitled, whiny babies, and the level of self-awareness among customers is worse than ever. As a restaurant and bar writer, and someone who's spent over a decade in the industry trenches off and on, I've got experience from both sides of the battle lines. Here's some expert advice in case you want to jump on this hot new trend of being an insufferable prick at a restaurant.