By the time I moved to the Boston area in the 1990s, the South End had already become a desirable neighborhood, beyond the means that my entry-level publishing job provided me. It was a mecca of galleries, gay bars, trendy restaurants and former tenement houses turned groovy lofts. I would occasionally make a pilgrimage to the South End from my drafty apartment in outlying Somerville in search of some up-to-the-minute nightspot. Back then, I was utterly unaware that the neighborhood was home to one of Boston’s most legendary bars: J.J. Foley’s Cafe.
Foley’s is not to be confused with Boston’s newer generation of Irish bars—ones that are often run by recent immigrants from Ireland, who decorate the walls with Gaelic imagery and show soccer games on TV. Jeremiah J. Foley opened his namesake tavern in 1909, when “Irish immigrant” was still an insult. Jerry Foley—grandson of the original “J.J.”—and his four grown sons now run the place, which is unmistakably Irish American. They play Sox games on the TV that hangs next to a plastic diorama of the Budweiser Clydesdales. The long oak bar is standing-only. The walls are covered with Boston Irish memorabilia, like posters for mayors James Michael Curley, Ray Flynn and Marty Walsh, the city’s current leader. “I’ve known his family for years,” says Jerry, a trim, tactful man whose pressed white shirt and necktie announce, “I run a tight ship.”
It’s remarkable that Foley’s has survived for more than 100 years in a neighborhood that not only hasn’t been Irish since World War II but that also has been scarred by cycles of industry, blight and urban renewal. Gay residents helped reshape the area into a creative community, and the neighborhood is now so gentrified that there are high-end boutiques for babies and dogs. Amid these changes, Foley’s is a living time capsule—but far from being sealed off, it’s welcomed the ever-shifting demographic of the South End, and Boston as a whole.
Today the clientele is roughly half female—which doesn’t sound noteworthy until you consider that women weren’t allowed in the bar area of this or any Boston establishment until the early 1970s. When Jerry greets a female patron with “Hello, dahlin’,” I smile to myself. I first started going to Foley’s around 2008, when a friend invited me to an Oscars viewing party she hosted there. Young professionals of various stripes flock to the restaurant side (it opened in 2007) for Tuesday Trivia. They eat burgers, stuffed quahogs, yellowfin tuna steak. Jerry looks wistful as he reminisces about the days when his bar was a no-frills hangout for reporters and cops. He realized the neighborhood had changed for good when the nearby Boston Herald building became a Whole Foods.
But he’s not complaining—not by a long shot. Business is good. That’s in large part because of the easygoing professionalism with which Jerry and his sons run the place. They’re well-dressed and polite. They stand up straight when pouring a beer. They never appear rushed. And, as a result, patrons are behaved and relaxed.
One night, on the old tavern side, there was a gathering of Boston Medical Center co-workers ordering Cosmos, a table of 30-something guys racking up empties of Corona and Amstel Light, a young woman with platinum hair and chunky glasses, a grey-haired man in cargo shorts and flip flops drinking white wine, and middle-aged WASP-y me in a tailored dress, fresh from a job interview and enjoying a Guinness and a whiskey. Jerry and his son, Patrick, made each of us feel like we were in exactly the right place. What a neat trick. Foley’s may not be my neighborhood bar—I still live on the outskirts of Boston—but whenever I’m there, I feel like a local.
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