Rediscovering Boston's Many Charms

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Andrew Gunners/Getty Images

A magnet for water sports, the Charles River passes Back Bay before emptying into famous Boston Harbor. Here, one of the best views of the city, as seen from the Longfellow Bridge. Close

A magnet for water sports, the Charles River passes Back Bay before emptying into... Read More

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Photographer: Andrew Gunners/Getty Images

A magnet for water sports, the Charles River passes Back Bay before emptying into famous Boston Harbor. Here, one of the best views of the city, as seen from the Longfellow Bridge.

What ever happened to those staid silver spoon Brahmins? From homegrown restaurants and colorful neighborhoods to pubs that would tempt Paul Revere off his horse, Boston is throwing a helluva party these days—and this one's serving up way more than tea.

At the northwest corner of Boston's Public Garden—a twenty-four-acre park better known for its whimsical painted swan boats or the enormous statue of George Washington on horseback—there's a forty-foot granite monument commemorating the world's first public demonstration of the use of ether as an anesthetic. The operation took place at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital (the nation's top-rated teaching hospital), in an amphitheater since dubbed the Ether Dome (and opened to the public as a National Historic Landmark). At the monument's top, a statue depicts the story of the Good Samaritan, while at its base there's a fountain, along with a bas-relief of a wounded soldier being treated in a field hospital and another of an angel of mercy. Among the inscriptions is a verse from Revelations: "Neither shall there be any more pain."

When news broke of April's Boston Marathon bombings, I immediately thought of the Ether Monument, donated in 1866 by a retired merchant "as an expression of gratitude for the relief of human suffering." Given that it was donated so soon after the Civil War (which so affected Boston) and the beauty of its sculpture (by John Quincy Adams Ward), it's pretty powerful on its own. But in the wake of the most recent—massive—suffering, the monument seems the perfect emblem for the countless acts of heroism and kindness, the generosity and civic mindedness, the small-town closeness and calm and New England resilience that marked the city's response.

Since the 1870s, the swan boats in Boston's Public Garden have given rides around the lagoon from spring through early fall. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler Close

Since the 1870s, the swan boats in Boston's Public Garden have given rides around the... Read More

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Since the 1870s, the swan boats in Boston's Public Garden have given rides around the lagoon from spring through early fall. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

I had come to know Boston, particularly the part of Boston writ so large and messy on our TV screens this past spring, just a few months earlier. My husband and I spent several days at the Lenox Hotel, at Boylston and Exeter streets, which, smack in between the two bomb sites, became the round-the-clock weeklong staging area and police command center. We loved the Lenox for its great location and some of the warmest (and most efficient) service we'd ever encountered—after the bombings, the staff extended that same warmth (and food and lodging) to some five hundred officials and donated their tips to The One Fund for victims. During our stay we also made countless detours through Copley Square, site of a lavish twice-weekly farmers' market—and where bomb victims were treated in a makeshift hospital much like the one shown on the base of the Ether Monument.

Captivated by Boston's cheer and charm, its thriving restaurant scene, gorgeous green spaces, and eminent walkability, we found ourselves extending our stay three times before finally tearing ourselves away. Now, like so many others, I feel (happily) duty bound to return frequently—though it took me a while to get there in the first place. I'd made a handful of brief working trips, including one in which I'd interviewed Teresa Heinz Kerry in her eye-poppingly well-appointed Louisburg Square town house on Beacon Hill, when her husband was running for president, and another for a Hillary Clinton rally when it was her turn four years later. But on those visits it hadn't occurred to me to make time for the must-sees that filled up my far more gratifying recent days in the city: Henry Hobson Richardson's game-changing Trinity Church; Charles McKim's perfectly proportioned Public Library; the gorgeous/quirky collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—including the still-hanging empty frames that once contained Vermeer's Concert and Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, two of the thirteen works that were stolen in a still-unsolved heist on the day after St. Patrick's Day in 1990; and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Copley's fabulous Watson and the Shark and my other new favorite masterwork, Sargent's Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (a sight made even more compelling by the fact that it is flanked by the actual vases in the painting).

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Given all of the above—not to mention the gorgeous Harvard crew training on the Charles River, and the little fact that it's one of the founding cities of our nation—I should have been embarrassed not to have made Boston a far earlier priority. But the city's reputation for provincialism, its buttoned-up Brahmins and proper "cold roast" persona promulgated by the novels of John Marquand and Henry James, had put me off. And then, in the course of one long plane ride, Robert Parker changed all that.

It was spring 2008, the airline on which I was booked was forced to ground thousands of flights, and I was stranded in Dallas at the not entirely hospitable airport that is Love Field—with nothing to read. Paperbacks from Parker's Spenser detective series were by far the best thing on offer at the tiny newsstand, so I bought three, out of order, and by the time I'd finally made it to San Diego I'd finished two and fallen, hard, for Spenser, the disarmingly self-aware and always intrepid private eye with a not-so-hidden heart—and great taste in restaurants.

With Spenser as my guide, Boston suddenly seemed like a lot more fun. Surprisingly literate ("Spenser with an S, like the poet," he is forever saying by way of introduction), he's also an ex-boxer who runs—a lot—along the banks of the Charles, up and down the bleachers at Harvard Stadium, across the Longfellow Bridge that connects Beacon Hill to Cambridge. He drinks his favorite Blue Moon Belgian White Ale with the FBI Special Agent in Charge at Cornwall's in Kenmore Square, shares oysters and champagne with Hawk, his ultra-cool partner in crimesolving, at the bar at Mistral, and meets his longtime inamorata Susan at Mooo, "a new steakhouse up near the State House." At lunch with flame-haired criminal lawyer Rita Fiore, Spenser orders a lobster club at the once iconic (and recently sadly shuttered) Locke-Ober; with the helpful gangster Tony Marcus, he goes for a Sam Adams and the Cajun-spiced calamari at Legal Seafood ("Tony likes the one in Park Square").

Seasons change, the Red Sox lose, the bad guys always get their comeuppance. In winter, the swan boats "huddle miserably against their boarding dock"; in summer, they glide festively along the lagoon while Spenser and Susan gaze down from the nineteenth-century drawbridge, accompanied by their German shorthaired pointer, Pearl. At cocktail hour, they listen to the pianist at the Four Seasons' Bristol Lounge or take a window seat at the bar at the Taj.

Over the course of three-plus decades, Spenser provides the perfect high-low Boston itinerary, and one which, in my fantasy, I'd follow with Parker himself. On the day he died in 2010—suddenly, of a heart attack at his desk in Cambridge—I burst into tears. Then I finished all forty-one books in the Spenser canon and, finally, came anyway.

What I discovered is a city that, much like Parker's protagonist, is the embodiment of dozens of conflicting attributes, including tough-guy/intellectual, cosmopolitan/local. Just as the brawny Spenser, avid follower of the Sox and the Celtics, is in love with a Harvard-trained Ph.D., the locals coexist alongside the sizable population of those teaching and studying at some of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world—including Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, of course, but also the Berklee College of Music and thirty-one other colleges and universities. Marquand's Brahmins are still around, but so are Parker's Irish cops and the notorious mobsters of South Boston, embodied most recently on film by Sean Penn in Mystic River and Jack Nicholson in The Departed. Not long before my visit, the notorious mobster Whitey Bulger was arrested (and charged with multiple murders) after a sixteen-year manhunt, and as I write, his trial—during which he threatened to expose far-reaching corruption in government and law enforcement—is about to commence. (Speaking of conflicts, it should be noted that Bulger's brother William is the former president of the Massachusetts Senate and the one-time president of the sprawling University of Massachusetts system.)

It's a rough-and-tumble mix set down on a stunningly beautiful, easily navigable urban peninsula that boasts the only ocean coastline of any mainland capital in the country. For years I'd heard Boston included in the same sentence as San Francisco and pre-Katrina New Orleans, derided for its similarly inward gaze and self-satisfied air. But once I got there, I realized that the self-satisfaction is well-justified pride more akin to enthusiastic small-town boosterism, underscored by a bred-in-the-bone gregariousness that is apparent—and contagious—from the moment you step off the plane.

Our first night began auspiciously—before my husband and I even checked into the Lenox, I spied Spenser's favorite Dunkin' Donuts directly across from us on Boylston Street. Once inside the lovely hotel lobby, I spotted signposts of my own: the paintings of my friend and fellow part-time Louisiana resident Hunt Slonem, who had an upcoming show at the nearby DTR Modern Galleries. It was Sunday and late, so for dinner we chose Grill 23, a steak house in the former Salada Tea Building that Spenser describes as a "bright room, well lit, full of of almost everyone marble and polished brass and mahogany." He likes it because it has the added bonus of being a difficult place in which to eavesdrop; we liked it for the excellent dry martinis, the local Cotuit oysters, and the inspired—and sinful—wedge salad (baby iceberg stuffed with crumbled bacon and Gorgonzola before being lightly dressed with homemade ranch).

Our waiter, the first in a long line of the best waiters and waitresses either of us had ever had—anywhere—steered us deftly away from the wine we ordered to a far superior Argentinian pinot (from Bodega Chacra) at the same price. He also brought us a perfectly cooked rib eye to split and kept us generally entertained—but not too much. (My husband's theory of why Boston waitstaff are so marvelous—whether you're at a neighborhood watering hole or in a classy boîte—is that almost everyone is fairly well educated and doing what they do because they want to. One excellent bartender, with an advanced degree from MIT, spends winters in Tennessee working as a contractor for a coal company, and warm-weather months back home behind a bar—both places where he chooses to be.)

The next few days were a blur of many of Spenser's hot spots, a list augmented by spot-on notes from the well-plugged-in and food-obsessed team of Lenox Hotel concierges: "You have a front room table [at No. 9 Park]—love the duck here"; "the bone marrow, razor clams, grilled corn, and tuna crudo are musts [at Toro]." No such guidance was required at the Taj, where the famous bar's progress from Ritz-Carlton to redone Ritz to Taj had been meticulously tracked over the course of several of Parker's novels. In 1980's Looking for Rachel Wallace, for example, the Ritz is lauded for being "all a bar should be—dark and quiet and leathery, with a huge window that looks out onto Arlington Street and across it to the Public Garden." In 1991's Pastime, Spenser complains that the previously perfect bar "had been refurbished by new owners into something that looked like an English hunting club, or the last twenty-five hotel bars you'd been in." By 2009's The Professional, he'd gotten used to the decor but not the new name: "The Ritz had opened a new location up on the other side of the Common, and the name moved up there. Except for the unfortunate name, the Taj hadn't changed anything. So the bar was still good, and the view from a window table of the Public Garden across Arlington Street was still very good."

By any name, the space is one of the prettiest bar rooms I've been in, and the view is indeed worthy of flutes of the Laurent-Perrier favored by Susan and Spenser. Before decamping for a creative-writing workshop (and going on to write his own string of luminous crime fiction), Dennis Lehane worked for years at "the old Ritz" (the name still preferred by most locals), a tidbit we gleaned from Kenny Young, another longtime employee and former face of Massachusetts tourism ads who now runs his own car service. He had offered to drive us the short distance to Scampo, Lydia Shire's newish restaurant in the Liberty Hotel (the beautifully rehabbed former Charles Street Jail), and on the way, when he mentioned that during his Ritz days he knew and occasionally drove "Bob" Parker, we booked him for a tour the next day.

First, though, on to Scampo, where Shire, the doyenne of the Boston restaurant scene and an acolyte of another Boston icon, Julia Child, serves up delicious lobster pizzas. She told us that she too knew Bob—though I'd already figured as much since, when Parker liked people, he found a way to include them in his books, and Shire and/or her restaurants make appearances in at least three. The space is as stunning as the food (which includes an unbelievably good spaghetti with cracklings and hot pepper). There's a nod to the former tenants in the form of an oversized poster admonishing, Crime Does Not Pay. In Sixkill, when Susan tells Spenser he "must feel at home" in the renovated hoosegow, the romantic P.I. replies, "Anywhere you are is home"—but by now I'd begun to feel pretty at home myself. We'd already spotted two (clearly local) couples we'd seen two nights earlier at the French-inspired Mistral, and our waiter was typically accommodating. So far he had straightened up my messy belongings on the spare chair ("It's my O.C.D, I can't help it"), informed us that the pasta we were eating is Kevin Garnett's favorite (the Celtics star who helped lead the team to its first championship in more than twenty years), and described Lydia as "the nicest woman—she never, ever yells."

Overcome by all the good vibes—as well as our second bottle of Torii Mor pinot—I asked our waiter what the heck was up with the collective love fest, the happy mood of almost everyone we encountered. "It feels good because it's a townie city," he said, underscoring my first impression. "At heart Boston's a small town."

His assessment was born out the next day during our tour with Kenny, who took us up Charles Street, Beacon Hill's main drag, and pointed out the flag-bedecked neighborhood hardware store straight out of Norman Rockwell and Toscano, the Italian bistro where reserved Brahmins are joined by the rather less low-key pols from the nearby State House and City Hall. At 75 Chestnut, an overflowing bar and bistro run by yet another old Boston hotels alum, the atmosphere—in this toniest of Boston hoods—is reminiscent of an especially rambunctious church supper, with friends and neighbors and kids table-hopping and bumping up against one another at the bar. By the time we left, Kenny had introduced us to half the room and I was armed with the e-mail addresses of an architect and his wife whom I'd more or less invited to visit us in New Orleans.

"It's like living in the palm of your hand," said Mike Barnicle, the veteran Boston journalist and MSNBC fixture who, when I asked about the population of the city proper, gave me a figure about 200,000 less than the 625,000 that's the right number. When he called back to correct himself, we both laughed, but when I told him that I was starting to recognize people walking through the Common and the Public Garden, he knew I wasn't joking.

For one thing, Barnicle added, "you can walk the entire city in an hour and a half." Probably not, but it's true that Boston is eminently walkable. Elegant Back Bay (the neighborhood that's home to Spenser, the Taj, Copley Square, and the Lenox Hotel) and its slightly funkier sibling, the South End, weren't laid out until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Commonwealth expanded the increasingly crowded peninsula that was Boston with landfill. Inspired by European streets and boulevards, the new neighborhoods were plotted on a generous scale with long, tree-lined vistas. Lest there be even the slightest hint of an eyesore, household services were routed to the buildings' rear via an ingenious system of alleyways—Spenser is forever making a clean getaway by jumping into his car, illegally parked behind his apartment or office.

In 1878, things got even prettier when Frederick Law Olmsted arrived to create his "Emerald Necklace," an urban park system that includes the Common (the oldest urban park in the country), the Public Garden (the nation's oldest public botanical garden, also referred to as Back Bay's "front yard"), and the Fens, at Back Bay’s western boundary. An especially gorgeous link in the necklace is formed by Arthur Gilman's Commonwealth Avenue Mall, which runs a hundred feet wide and about a mile long and connects the Public Garden with the eclectic mix of formal and community gardens that make up the Fens.

In addition to providing an uninterrupted shady allée (Winston Churchill called it "the grandest boulevard in North America"), the mall features nine sculptures and memorials to everyone from the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison ("The Emancipator") to the nine firefighters killed when the century-old Hotel Vendome, on the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth, collapsed during a fire in 1972. It was during one of my frequent strolls past these (literally) concrete examples of the values the populace holds most dear that I came to understand just how misplaced Boston's provincial label is. Only an enlightened city erects statues of fiery abolitionists (Garrison, Lucy Stone), properly mourns its heroes, and raises a poetic monument to honor a scientific achievement. And even its bluest blood occasionally ran warm. Another Commonwealth Avenue Mall monument, to naval historian and Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison—a scion of one of the city's oldest families and a lifelong resident of Beacon Hill—is inscribed with a lovely line from the man himself: "Dream dreams, then write them. Aye, but live them first."

If the mall provides access to Boston's heart, its increasingly hip soul can be found along the streets of the South End, the largest intact Victorian residential district in the country. Once the home of hopping prewar jazz clubs, it is now the city's most interesting and fastest-growing food mecca, as well as the site of some exceptionally vibrant street life (and what appears to be the overwhelming majority of the canine population). I don't think I've ever seen so many people—or dogs—eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the many outdoor cafés, visiting with neighbors on the high stoops of the brick bowfront town houses, hanging out in one of the nearly thirty public parks. The almost continually packed eateries, concentrated on the "restaurant rows" of Tremont Street and Shawmut Avenue, include the beloved South End Buttery (where we went for breakfast and returned for a cocktail in the clubby back bar) and Aquitaine (a bistro that might have been airlifted straight from the Left Bank).

A pleasant walk from the Lenox Hotel, the South End drew us back every day, often twice a day—for Italian small plates and Aperol spritzes from the red-hot Coppa, for crispy sweetbreads and yummy grilled corn from the nearby Toro, for strolls down the gorgeous gingko-lined West Dedham Street or through James Hayes Park to ogle the roses. On what we thought was our last day, we mourned our imminent departure at Barbara Lynch's B&G Oysters, where I recognized someone I actually know: Mac McAnally, the great singer/songwriter/producer/guitarist who is also a longtime member of Jimmy Buffett's touring band.

At dinner, we returned to the Butcher Shop, another Lynch outpost directly across from B&G Oysters, took seats at the end of the crowded bar, and ran into more folks in the music business. The conversation started via collective swoons about the food, progressed over shared plates and lots of "Oh man, you gotta taste this," until it finally emerged that our new acquaintances were Diana Krall's drummer, guitarist—and hairdresser, who was being taken out for her birthday. By the end of the evening, I'd discovered that guitarist Anthony Wilson's father had been born in the Mississippi Delta not far from my hometown, and we were all old pals—like pretty much everyone else we'd encountered in this city, which, really, should just go on and appropriate Philly's Brotherly Love slogan for itself. The musicians invited us to be their guests at Krall's concert the next night in Cohasset, at the very cool South Shore Music Circus, so naturally we postponed our departure.

The show was a fitting finish to a perfect trip, and listening to Krall (a graduate of the Berklee College of Music) and her marvelous interpretations of "Walk on By" and "Fly Me to the Moon," I thought of how much Spenser—soppy lover of old standards and admirer of sexy, talented women—would have loved the show, as well as the free-flowing beer at the refreshment stand. And then I thought of how much I owe to Robert Parker. Not only did he give me countless hours of reading (and rereading) pleasure, but he gave me an inamorata of my own: his city, Boston, which, happily, remains Boston Strong.

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