In describing the changes that have shaped the South End since Jeremiah J. Foley poured his first glass of whiskey there one century ago this month, one need not look far for metaphors. The space above J.J. Foley's bar — formerly known as Faye Hall, an old union hangout where Boston police famously voted to go on strike in 1919 — is now a yoga studio.
Aside from urine-stained sidewalks near the Pine Street Inn, the neighborhood outside today's Foley's hardly resembles the toxic boondocks that it was as recently as 30 years ago. For one, until the mid 1970s, East Berkeley Street was called Dover Street, and — get ready to be jealous, South End expats — there was an Orange Line T stop on the corner of Washington Street.
Third-and-fourth-generation owner-barkeeps Jerry Foley and his son, Mike, are faithfully nostalgic. Among their favorite family memories: esteemed visitors like Ted Williams and bare-knuckle boxing champ John L. Sullivan; frequent patronage of such legendary pols as James Michael Curley and Ray Flynn; Prohibition years when the bar fronted as a shoe store; obscenely drunken behavior of Herald employees and nearly every thirsty reporter in town.
Rich history aside, though, the Foleys are amazingly enthusiastic about embracing change. (If that sounds like an Obama-ism, chances are Barack got it from them; in 2004, the then–Democratic Senate nominee crashed a DNC party at Foley's.) In 2007, they opened an abutting pub café — before then, the only food available was cold clandestine ham and corned-beef sandwiches, made upon request for regulars. "It's a sign of the times," says Jerry. "The day of the bar just for drinking is over."
While Foley's cuisine no longer requires mustard packets — and its surrounding South End pocket has evolved from no-man's land to bourgeois wonderland — little has changed inside the bar. Like those before them, the Foleys and their employees (all of whom are unionized) keep a strict uniform — starched white dress shirts, neckties tucked near the belly, not a hair overgrown or out of place. They've kept that code since the bar's Dover Street door opened onto skid row. You might even say they fit in better now than ever before.
"We always used to joke that it was a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood," says Mike. "Now it's a neighborhood bar with a neighborhood. Some of the old customers probably wouldn't believe it — there are people who come in here to eat with their children twice a week."