Chef Brendan Curtis, bartender, Tim Carey, and Jennifer Lockwood of Plough & Stars.
There was a time when every block in Boston boasted at least one good Irish pub, a place where a working man (or woman) could pick up a pint and chase it down with a spot of politics. Sure, there was food, but the real draw was definitely the drink — not the boiled dinner or the fish and chips. But now, from Brookline to Brighton, from Somerville to Southie, Irish pubs are morphing into gastropubs, places where the drink is good and the food is even better. And yes, at most of these places, the bartender will still know your name.
The big influx of young, well-educated Irish who came to Boston in the late 1980s has a lot to do with the gastropub revolution. Ireland was in an economic depression when the young, college-educated immigrants hit Boston looking for opportunity, bringing sophisticated Irish palates with them; chefs like Siobhan Carew, owner of Brookline’s Matt Murphy’s, were among them.
Today, one of the logical places to begin an Irish-gastropub crawl is at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge. Since the outrageous O’Malley brothers founded it in 1968, the Plough has spawned a successful literary journal, Ploughshares, hundreds of business ventures, thousands of dissertation topics, and a hard-to-quantify number of friendships, brawls, political rants, and musical careers. Bob Dylan played here (when his last name was still Zimmerman); so did Bonnie Raitt, the Doors, and Carly Simon. Peter O’Malley describes the pub as a “yeast packet,” a place where things gets started. There’s still music every night, and a spirited saloon energy. But the Plough is now a dining destination as well.
Last year, when O’Malley decided that the place needed some new blood, he made the offer to Jennifer Lockwood and her husband, chef Brendan Curtis, to be managing partners of the Plough. Lockwood grew up in the crook of the Plough’s arm, and her mother was one of Ploughshare’s earliest contributors; she met Curtis at Matt Murphy’s. Lockwood, who designed restaurants including the Washington Square Tavern, Matt Murphy’s, and Pomodoro, brought an updated bordello look to the Plough, while Curtis brought refinement to the food. He’s a charter member of a group of Irish extraction chefs, many of whom cycled through Matt Murphy’s, and have elevated pub food from comfort to classic.
“We come from a background in fine dining, and we approach Irish food informed by that point of view,” Curtis explains. “Ireland is an island. Seafood, curries, French and Mediterranean flavors all come to Irish ports. The time is long gone when Irish chefs cooked potatoes at every meal.” So while there’s still traditional fare on the Plough menu — the classic Irish breakfast, a ploughman’s platter, fish and chips, Guinness beef stew — there are twists. The shepherd’s pie has a mashed-sweet-potato crust and is flavored with Indian spices; the Plough frîtes are served with a chipotle aioli. Sous chef Jim Seery does a minimum of seven lunch specials every day. “We’re proud of our food,” Seery says. “You won’t find chicken fingers, Buffalo wings, or can-of-ready-made anything here.” Irish pub food is going cosmopolitan, tuning up to reflect the tastes of the time and the neighborhoods they serve.