SOMERVILLE, Mass. — It takes a little effort to find backbar, hidden at the end of a dark hallway off a small alley just outside Boston. But once you take a seat in the cozy space and someone sets down a ramekin of spicy caramel popcorn and a craft cocktail, you may never want to leave.
Over the past several years, Somerville's once-gritty Union Square neighborhood has become a drinking and dining destination. What's happening there is well-known in the Boston area, but it's still off the beaten path for many out-of-towners. That may change in a few years, when a planned extension of the rail system will include a stop at Union Square. Until then, it's a short cab ride from Harvard Square (under 2 miles or 3.2 kilometers), and well worth the trip.
The restaurant opened two years ago after someone offered the oddly configured space to the owners of Journeyman, a high-end restaurant in the same building. Journeyman has no menu — diners pay $75 for whatever the chef feels like serving them. They recruited Sam Treadway — who had worked at Boston mainstay Drink but was living in Hawaii at the time — to return and manage backbar.
The layout made a speakeasy feel the only option, but they wanted the space to be comfortable, not pretentious or precious. They achieved that by placing cushioned benches of various heights around the perimeter, creating an interesting but still accessible drink menu, and making the atmosphere welcoming for both cocktail buffs and people who'd rather just have a beer. The crowd is mostly youngish professionals and grad students and the small space can get very crowded, so you may want to go early or make a reservation.
"We really wanted to make something worth the adventure of getting here," Treadway said.
There is a rotating menu of 12 drinks, priced from $7 to $11. They include classics that change seasonally every three months, a modern section with choices for more adventurous drinkers (the current list includes a mushroom daiquiri with the notation "yes we're crazy and yes it's delicious"), and a tradesman section of drinks other bartenders want to drink. There's also a drink of the day, a drink of the week, and an option to just name a few things you like and have them create something for you.
All of the food comes from Journeyman, and the focus is on a limited menu of affordable small plates that people can share while they're drinking.
"We have some of the best chefs in the city making our food, so even the small things taste amazing," Treadway said.
Options include Japanese-style steamed pork or eggplant buns ($8) along with the spicy caramel popcorn (the first ramekin is free, after that it's $8 with bacon and $3 without). From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — known as genius hour, with free Wi-Fi — and all day on Mondays and Tuesdays, you can get a big bowl of ramen by Journeyman chef and co-owner Tse Wei Lim ($12). There's also a cheese plate ($18) and homemade ice cream sandwiches ($6) in combinations like goat cheese ice cream on walnut shortbread and white chocolate ice cream on lavender shortbread.
If the bar snacks don't fill you up, there are plenty of places to grab dinner nearby. Casa B offers Caribbean-inspired tapas in a pretty space. The recently opened Bronwyn has such German and Eastern European fare as sausages, hot pretzels and schnitzel. Across the street, check out Ebi Sushi for Japanese fare and Buk Kyung for well-regarded Korean food, though be aware neither offers much in the way of atmosphere. If you've had enough mushroom daiquiris at backbar, you probably won't care.