Is This Boston’s Best Dive Bar?
My esteemed colleagues at Esquire have released the most recent edition of the Best Bars in America. It’s a typically solid collection, filled with the type of hand-cracked-ice joints that have come to proliferate in cities great and small around the country. But there’s one that stands out in the form of Croke Park, the venerable South Boston dive bar. It’s a curious inclusion, but not one without merit; it’s one of the last of a dying breed.
As Dave Wondrich writes: “In New York and San Francisco and other places where real estate is expensive, the venerable, homey, and very human old dives are closing.”
The same is true of Boston. It’s a topic I covered recently in the Boston Globe.
In some neighborhoods, like South Boston, where most of the traditional neighborhood bars lingered much longer than one might have expected, real estate prices have surged 75 percent in the past five years. Liquor licenses city-wide have likewise jumped to around $400,000. You have to sell an awful lot of $2 Miller Lite drafts to stay afloat in that environment.
It’s been a few years since I published my book on the dive bars of Boston, and in that time at least 32 of the 90 bars I wrote about have closed. Yet somehow Croke Park has managed to stave off its own impending demise.
I do my best to exercise good — okay, goodish — judgment when I’m touring barrooms, but every once in a while, a gear slips a tooth and dosages get miscalculated. Whitey’s is a slipped tooth, a place I was introduced to by some Boston bartenders. I have dim memories of having an excellent time — doing big shots of Irish whiskey, writing on the walls, rolling dice, joking around with the regulars.
The Croke Park of today has been softened a bit around the edges in the past couple of years, and certainly a significant amount than in earlier decades. You’ll find a younger, more affluent crowd — this is Neo South Boston after all — but still relics of the gritty charm of the old days.
Here’s what I wrote about it back then:
Sometimes called the Green Bar because of its bright green facade, and the fact that there is no signage out front, you probably wouldn’t even realize that there was a place of business here if you didn’t follow the tell tale signs of early morning drinkers queued up on the sidewalk puffing butts with urgency, itching to get back to the cheap $1.50 pints of draft waiting for them inside. And what an inside it is: cold, hard brick for cold, hard drinkers. In fact if it weren’t for the pool tables, popcorn machine, video games and TVs, you might think you were actually drinking outside in a sketchy alley between two decrepit brick walls. You could describe the folks inside as decrepit too, if you were the judgmental sort. In short, it’s a shell of a bar, inhabited by the shells of neighborhood drinkers who treat this long standing spot like a second home. Some are comatose and near flat-lining at the bar, like the argyle sweater wearing 40ish woman mumbling to herself and wobbling off her stool, and others are bursting with energy. Too much energy. Two hyper youngish dudes in retro track suit gear are shooting pool in violent, sudden bursts of movement that shock me with every stroke. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where one of those pool cues ends up against the back of my skull. Lest any of that scare you off, you’ll occasionally still find plenty of enthusiastic post-college kids who are still really excited about the idea of drinking next to old people in bad jeans who swear by this place.
For years this spot was called Whitey’s Place, although probably not the Whitey you’re thinking of. Robert “Whitey” McGrail was a neighborhood bookie, although his reputation was far less fearsome than the area’s most famous criminal Whitey Bulger. In 1985 he was shot to death inside the bar, allegedly over a gambling debt. No connection to Bulger was ever proved, but that’s how things used to roll in Southie. Nobody said nothing. Not if they knew what was good for them. That’s still good advice to take in any of these bars here. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Croke Park, by the way, one of the largest sporting stadiums in Ireland, was the site of the Bloody Sunday incident in 1920 when British troops opened fire on the crowd at a football match killing fourteen. Perhaps the name of the bar here alludes to that history in a defiant gesture. Perhaps they just like sports. You can probably figure that one out on your own.
There are no sports on when we come in, which is practically the raison detre for bars in Boston, so we’re all content to stare blankly at the movie while the clank of pool balls and grunts of exertion play out behind us. Interestingly, only one of the three TVs is of the newer HD variety. The other two are boxy, old models with a fuzzy, off-color picture broken up by static. It occurs to me sitting here, sipping my beer, that this is what we all have to look forward to, both in terms of bars, and our own lives as well: being replaced by the newer model. Some of us will give way easily, others will cling to that which we know, unwilling to go without a fight. As Southie changes this seems like the type of place that isn’t likely to go quietly. It’s the old boxy TV of bars, showing the same thing as the HD set that popped up next to it, but creaking with its evident age. Eventually the picture will fade and everything will go to black, but not tonight.