Craft Cocktails - Today’s bartenders certainly have a few more tools in their tool box.
Around Town with Brian Poe
Around Town with Brian Poe
Boston’s own Southern Comfort
Brian Poe might just be the busiest man in Boston and today I’m riding shotgun. I’ve signed up for a thrill ride around the city with Poe to experience his routine and climb inside the daily shuffle of a man who operates three busy restaurants in three different parts of the city; The Tip Tap Room, Bukowski’s Cambridge and Poe’s Kitchen at The Rattlesnake.
Our mad dash starts at The Tip Tap in Beacon Hill, a bustling restaurant with an exquisite selection of craft beers that is known for delivering comfort food classics with a slightly exotic twist. For example, tonight the special is Grilled Elk Medallion with sweet potato puree, pancetta and cabernet reduction. The “Tip” stands for the traditional Boston “steak tip” that Poe has given new life by introducing us to a few not so standard meats like Swordfish or Lamb and putting wild game such as Boar, Antelope and Alligator on the menu.
I follow Poe downstairs and into his office, aka mission control, where he logs on to Google Drive and enters his daily update to the master list of recipes and menus for all of his venues. As he takes me on a quick tour of the facility it’s easy to see that Tip Tap is Poe’s baby because the bathrooms, storage and prep areas are all newly renovated and he’s smiling like a kid on Christmas Day. It’s also easy to see that the Tip Tap Room is a huge success. Having partnered with long time friend Gordon Wilcox (co-owner of Rattlesnake and Parish Cafe) to create The Tip Tap, Poe has offered post-workers and residents of Beacon Hill a lively upscale bar experience with a down home feel, that was sorely missing from this area of Boston.
Poe’s road to Boston was a windy one and now that he’s here he has no intentions of leaving. He grew up in Alabama and Georiga, started cooking as a kid in Atlanta, made his way to Arizona, then California and eventually found himself elbow to elbow with local culinary legends such as Jasper White and Lydia Shire as the executive chef at Seasons in The Bostonian Hotel. Along the way Poe became good friends with Gordon Wilcox who shared his affinity for a good cigar and while Poe was hatching plans for his own place it just so happened that Gordon was also looking for someone to transform the menu at Rattlesnake. After some thought Poe gladly accepted the challenge to transform the Boylston Street icon. It was a handshake agreement that if Poe could positively affect the menu at Rattlesnake then they would do a couple more places together. Poe explains “the joke between me and Gordon is that everything we do together is kind of like, hey if this doesn’t work out then you’re gonna have to leave town…so no pressure.” Last year’s food sales at Rattlesnake were up 37%.
Back on the road we are on our way to Bukowski’s in Cambridge and Poe is showing me one his toys for keeping an eye on things. On the center console of his jeep his phone is showing 9 different screens playing live camera feeds for all of his locations. The camera feeds allow him to think ahead and anticipate where he’s needed and what he needs to accomplish when he gets there. Today he needs to talk to the head chef at “Buks” about a recent menu addition and get a new employee up to speed.
Bukowski’s is one of the oldest establishments in Inman Square, a super tight knit neighborhood that is well known for supporting their local bars and restaurants. Under Poe’s direction, Bukowski’s went through somewhat of an identity change recently, transforming from a dive bar favorite to a beautifully polished room featuring updates to every corner of the restaurant. Typically this kind of change would be welcome by regulars but Bukowski’s has a very unique group of regulars known affectionately as “The Muggers.”
The Muggers have been here since the beginning and their mugs, which hang above the bar, have been earned through steady patronage so naturally there was trepidation from customers, management and staff throughout the transition. Poe recalls a late night run in with an original Mugger, “ Right after we first reopened I was so nervous to make sure everybody liked the changes. So I’m running around on a busy Saturday and I head back into the bathroom to check the paper towels and such when a guy walks into the bathroom and says ‘hey are you the guy?’ It’s midnight at a bar on a Saturday so I’m not answering that question. The guy kind of looks at me and says ‘yeah, you’re the guy from the pictures’ I’m thinking, what’s this all about. Then he laughs and says ‘I’m Mugger # (some really low number) and I want to thank you.’ I’m like what? He’s says, ‘thank you, I couldn’t bring my wife her before.’ I’m like oh, so you like me. Cool.”
These days Buk’s is running on full cylinders and Poe’s creativity in the kitchen has a lot to do with that. When we get there he takes me into the kitchen and throws a couple Fontina Bites on the grill, which is prosciutto wrapped in fontina cheese and corn sauce. Again, not what you’d expect from a “dive bar” that serves comfort food but that’s Poe’s trademark and judging by taste you’re not going to find anyone complaining. We head downstairs where he shows me a key-code-locked epic storage area and keg room that houses some of the rarest beers you’ll find in Boston. The history of this place is really special and Poe take’s great pride in continuing that tradition, making sure everything is kept secure.
As we exit Buks and chart a course for Rattlesnake, rush hour is in full swing. To get around at this time of day, he relies on his intricate knowledge of the back streets and detours that inhabit a city that is expanding at a record rate. Last year Rattlesnake celebrated it’s 25th Anniversary and on the way Poe tell’s me the story of how his partner Gordon and co founder Jay Gardner left their jobs in 1990 at The Sevens on Charles Street to buy the Rattlesnake for $60k. At that time they were working the door and managing the bar for Jack Kiley founder of Sevens and local industry legend. He then proceeds to rattle off the names of over a dozen establishments that still exist today that were started by former employees at The Sevens and it’s easy to see how Boston retains it’s character and loyalty. Literally everything is connected.
During college I worked at Rattlesnake for a summer and when we enter I see some old friends including Tony “Caz” Castagnozzi who recently doubled down as the GM and became an owner. Rattlesnake is still one of the most unassuming bars in Boston and a lot of that has to do with the atmosphere that Tony creates. Poe serves up one of that night’s specials, a scallop taco with a shellfish crema and orders me a 25th Anniversary margarita, one of Poe’s personal margarita recipes. He explains the painstaking process of making the shellfish crema and it dawns on me just how hard he works. I owned a restaurant for 3 ½ years and it was the hardest three years of life. This business is truly a labor of love and Poe is one of the few that has both the love and work ethic to make it happen.
After Poe checks on the specials and meets with the Rattlesnake staff, we make our final stop back at The Tip Tap Room where I’m definitely planning to eat dinner. The evening is in full swing and by stroke of luck I find a spot at the bar because the room is packed with young professionals, neighborhood folks and tonight Carey Underwood fans, who have stopped by before her concert at the Garden. Poe serves me up an order of Boar Meatballs with spicy ginger cilantro broth follow by that Grilled Elk Special that I was eyeing earlier in the night. Meanwhile Poe throws on an apron and jumps on the line to help guide his kitchen through another busy night.