There’s nothing like celebrating the beginning of the weekend with your co-workers, jetting to the local pub on a Friday night to throw back a cold one, and shooting the breeze. In fact, you might call this act of catharsis a universal pastime. There is a plethora of watering holes in the Bay area – each with their own unique culture, different cocktail and beer lists, and decorative themes.
However, one similarity connects these establishments. In a state that values its smallness, its tight-knit communities, and its traditions, the bars in the East Bay are more than just beer and spirit purveyors – they are historical spaces where a sense of community is created.
When you walk into The Square Peg in Warren, you are immediately hit with a sense of closeness, of coziness. There aren’t many beers on tap, but the ones that are available to patrons are mostly local and artfully chosen to complement the fare. The interior is a hybrid between industrial farmhouse and an olde English pub. Wood-paneled walls are adorned with sepia-toned images of the building dating back to its infancy. In the late 18th century, it was a house, and later the structure was physically lifted to create a commercial space. When owners Joel and Amy Cary bought the property, it had been The Square Peg, a thrift store. Now, the seven year-old bar and kitchen welcomes regulars from the East Bay every night that sidle up to the counter for a laugh, a burger, and a beer.
There’s something about the people – old and young, men and women, families and singles – seated at the bar munching on a sandwich or gathered at a dimly-lit table in a corner with friends. Each one carries an air of familiarity and nonchalantness about them as if they’ve been there before, possibly dozens of times. And most likely, they have. When Joel describes his customers, there’s a sense of nostalgia that appears to wash over him, even though he’s probably seen the regulars at least once that week. When asked about his most memorable experiences with The Square Peg restaurant-goers, he sits back, crosses his arms, and smirks a bit before continuing on with the conversation.
Some come in once a month – like a gentleman named Mark who stops in for a drink and buys the entire bar a round of shots. Others come in every week – sometimes two or three times – for their usual order.
“We have customers like Steve and Wendy – this couple that’s been coming in every single Friday night. He gets the same thing, he gets a fish sandwich. Every Christmas they give a bunch of money to us to split amongst the staff – a Christmas bonus, which is unbelievable.”
Even more unbelievable is the relationship that has developed over the years between The Square Peg staff, its owners, and its customers. Both Joel and his bar manager, Kelsey Hughes, spoke at length about the dedication of the staff to this little bar that could. Even for Kelsey, who lives in Providence, going to work and making the trek every day is worth it because of the people.
Most of the Carys’ employees have worked at The Square Peg since its opening or shortly after that. This is what makes the bond between customer and employee invaluable – longevity. What are the fruits of this bond? According to Amy, The Square Peg customers are some of the most loyal people they have ever met. She recounts that once, a sign she loved was stolen out of the restaurant bathroom and, following the petty theft incident, three different customers caught wind and brought her three different new signs. Another time, an employee left to go into the military and customers attended his going away party and sent care packages overseas where he was stationed.
Family means everything at Jack’s Bar, just down the street from The Square Peg. A Warren mainstay since 1941, Jack’s is the ultimate dive bar. From the outside, Jack’s is nothing more than an unassuming white building with an entrance that looks a lot like a weathered cottage door. You won’t find any specialty cocktails or craft beers here, except for maybe one to two local IPAs. The rest of the “menu” – written on a yellow piece of legal paper and taped to the bar wall – are old standbys like Coors, Miller, and Bud.
If the town of Warren was wiped out and found 1,000 years from now, archaeologists on a dig would hit the bar culture jackpot. Colorful college pennants hang from the ceiling as do toy airplanes made out of Bud Light cans.
The floor is scuffed and scarred from hundreds of footsteps traipsing in and out for the last 78 years of business. Photos – some black and white, some seemingly acid-washed, some freshly printed – are taped and stapled behind the bar to commemorate the haunt’s regular family. Some customers even bring their sports tickets back to Jack’s so that the bartender can put them up for commemoration.
The current owner, Stanley Fafara, has owned Jack’s since the late ‘90s. Before Stanley, it was a “men’s bar” – there was no phone, and women were not allowed in. But however originally exclusive (and, dare we say it, discriminatory) Jack’s was in the beginning, the bar is now open to all.
What’s most interesting about Jack’s is that the bar has maintained a dynasty of regulars. Stanley’s sister-in-law and longtime bartender, Joan Frederick, remarks on the ways she’s watched generations of pub-goers come and go.
“When I first started here, of course we had a lot – we call them the old-timers. They were regular customers for a long time… But the people who have been coming here since they’re [young]… And now they are bringing their [grown] kids in here,” she muses.
These seasoned patrons have created what Joan likes to refer to as a “family,” who take care of their own. In fact, the community at Jack’s is so tight-knit that when Stanley was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a group from Jack’s Bar decided to come together to fix up his old Mustang. While Stanley underwent treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Center, they made the repairs and surprised him with the gift when he was well enough.
“So that’s the family in here,” says a chokedup Joan. “And you’re not going to get any better people than that.”
Just before the water, at the end of the thoroughfare on Bristol’s State Street, Judge Roy Bean Saloon looms over its surroundings at three stories high. “The Bean” (as the regulars fondly refer to it) was named after the legendary Texan saloon keeper and Justice of the Peace Roy Bean, a decision that was made by the bar’s original owner. A poster of Paul Newman in the adapted 1972 film still hangs by the bar as a homage to the “hanging judge.”
Today, the bar is owned by Zach and Laura Rivers. The young couple bought the bar in 2014 after being patrons for years. According to Zach, the decision was a no-brainer. The location and the memories of “The Bean” were immediate draws to purchase the property.
“Honestly, it was this place... I guess it has sentimental [value] to me as well. I used to come here back before and it just was a spot I could see doing what we envisioned – having that regular crowd, doing good food, having everything come together....” For most patrons of the Judge Roy Bean Saloon, the building is much more than just a place to grab a quick bite or watch a game with your friends. The bar serves as a metaphorical repository for fond memories, a symbol for many of Bristol community members’ major events in their life. This is what keeps regulars coming back to the bar: the sense of connection to The Bean’s four walls. Zach says that even before the establishment became what it is today, the people of the town forged a connection with the building. This is a fact he says that his customers never let him forget.
“It’s been a whole slough of places, but I think that every single person who is from town that comes in here and talks to me always has a story about this place... whatever the name was at that time, but everyone seems to be able to relate here with a major event in their life, a big celebration, a bachelor party they had up on the third floor… that’s a lot of the connection,” he says.
The couple is dedicated to every aspect of their business – from oiling the wood paneling to training their servers to be inviting and collegial and picking out the right local beers on tap. One time, the two found themselves stunned by how their hard work had paid off. Laura recalls that on an open mic night, three musicians found each other at The Bean and decided to perform together during a slot. The trio hit it off right away, creating a wonderful scene of camaraderie and joyful entertainment. When the owners saw how well they were performing and jiving together, they couldn’t believe that kind of musical synergy was possible at their bar.
Says Zach, “We’ve walked in on nights and we’re like ‘Is this really going on here?’” Capturing those moments are what keeps the Rivers and Judge Roy Bean Saloon going.
The Kinsmen Tavern is one of Bristol’s most stayed haunts. Thirty-two years ago, Bob Drew decided to quit his job as a welder after a friend of his asked him to go in on The Kinsmen with him. Bob thought he would take a chance and see if the business took off. After the bar’s inaugural year, Bob bought out his partner and began a three decades-long career as its successful owner. Since then, he’s always kept The Kinsmen Tavern, or “The Kinny” as it’s referred to by locals, a neighborhood establishment.
What makes this spot a neighborhood fixture? According to Bob, it’s the mutual dedication and support that he shares with the customers. The Kinny has hosted an array of patrons from the time of its inception, many of whom have remained faithful customers throughout the years. This is what Bob considers support and loyalty. “My customers are the best. They support my place, they’re the best,” he says.
And, when his customers are in need of help, Bob returns the favor. “If anybody has a sickness or is going through a bad time, we do a fundraiser to try and help them out a little bit. They support me, and if someone needs something, we try to help them out.”
The tavern is bespeckled with billiards league trophies and serves “easy drinking” beers like Coors and Bud with some heavier IPAs, seasonal Sam Adams, and Guinness. The food is just as simple and straightforward as the beer. Bob boasts a great homemade amply stuffed clam, burgers, and sandwiches. When asked what makes sharing a drink at his bar worthwhile he responds, “If you have a drink at home, it just seems to not taste the same as if you’re out at an establishment.”