Where You Should Be Drinking in Cambridge: UpperWest
As we mentioned yesterday, we recently took a swing through our old home of Cambridge on the way to a vacation on Cape Cod. Along the way we thought we’d use our trip as a way to scope out some of the bars that have opened since we left town. Waypoint was a big hit. The few things we knew about our other selection left us wondering if it would be.
One big argument in its favor was that it is a very short walk down a bike path from the soccer field where we were volunteering for the week. Also, we had heard that one of their primary offerings is flights of amaro, which sounded promising.
On the other hand, the name of the bar, UpperWest, caused us concern. You see, West Cambridge is one of Cambridge’s several snooty neighborhoods. North Cambridge, the neighborhood where we worked, is the old factory worker neighborhood; and, while gentrification has certainly left its mark, North Cambridge retains something of an unvarnished feel. UpperWest is in North Cambridge. We thought the name UpperWest might be the expression of expansionary intent from the West into a neighborhood we feel protective of.
One other factor for consideration: the bar is located in the basement of an old veterans’ club. We had a hard time deciding how to process this information. It evoked images of folding chairs, tile floors, cheap beer in plastic cups, and keno. This image was hard to square with flights of amaro. Was this indeed going to be a rundown veterans’ club basement? A hipster’s take on a rundown veterans’ club basement? Or somehow a place where we’d want to be?
Curiosity decided us. We walked down the bike path, around the back of the veteran’s club, and down the basement stairs to discover what this place was all about. What we found was somehow exactly what you’d expect of a VFW basement, entirely different from what you’d expect from a VFW basement, and a total delight, all at the same time. All told, UpperWest pulled off being a neighborhood bar better than we’ve ever seen before.
The decor remains true to its VFW basement roots: wood panel walls; suspended ceiling with white fiberglass tiles; many closets we imagined contained folding chairs and tables for wedding receptions (we later were told that one of them is the gun closet, where all of the veterans’ club’s reenactment rifles are stored) ; a portrait of the club’s founder lit by one of those brass library lights; a plywood dry bar; and a backbar with a few scattered bottles. But they’d polished the paneling, improved the lighting, added a a section of tasteful modern couches and chairs, swapped the folding table for a nice, big, wood block one, and swapped the folding chairs for something more comfortable. Those touches accomplish a truly remarkable transformation. Rather than dingy or rundown, the place felt relaxed and comfortable. Not a rejection, an acceptance, nor an ironic twist, it’s instead a simple update on the VFW aesthetic.
Simplicity and authenticity are the two watchwords of UpperWest. The small team of people who run the place are obviously doing it as a genuine labor of love. And what they love is absolutely clear: wine, Scotch, amaro, pasta, and hospitable local gathering spots. The food menu contains maybe eight items, including a few simple bar snacks, a pasta of the day homemade by the owner, and a few other items solicited from local food entrepreneurs. The oven-warmed olives hit the spot. The boqeurones–anchovy and garlic toast–were unexpected and delicious. The gnocchi melted in our mouths.
On the bar side, they accommodate someone who absolutely must have a Manhattan, a martini, or a beer. You’re straight out of luck if you want anything with tequila, rum, or brandy. But they offer a broad selection of wines, Scotch, and amaro, served by the glass or as a flight. We’re not expert enough on wine to characterize their list; but we do know that the one we ordered tasted great and came in a very generous sized sidecar decanter.
Their selections of Scotch and amaro displayed the same unstuffy, unselfconscious quality as the rest of the place. The Scotches weren’t the rarest, weirdest, or most expensive; the amari didn’t come with stories of how they discovered them in some small Sicilian village–not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Scotch selection was a simple list of relatively well-known Scotch, giving a broad selection of styles and a range of ages. We were introduced to Ledaig 1o–a well-balanced island Scotch we found ourselves describing as buttery–but the rest were familiar to us, making it easy for us to decide what mood we’re in and order a Scotch to match.
Similarly, the amari were a collection of the most commonly available versions of the major amaro styles. We didn’t discover anything new, but we approved of what we found. Next time we drop in, we’d be happy to have a glass of any of them; and we appreciated the opportunity to taste many of them side-by-side–something that was facilitated by the fact that a few of us ordered flights, allowing us to cover the menu and double up on a couple.
We know where to go in Cambridge for a relaxed, simple, casual drink with friends.
Oh, and the name. We discovered it has nothing to do with Cambridge geography at all. Instead, it refers to Manhattan’s Upper West side, where the owner used to live. Okay, then; we’ll allow it.