Our favorite Boston area bar for the total food/drink combination is the remarkable Baldwin Bar in thoroughly unremarkable Woburn MA. It’s housed in the Baldwin Mansion (from freaking 1661, making it older than our COUNTRY) and is part of the Sichuan Garden Chinese restaurant.
The Baldwin is consistently ranked among the best bars in the country (see Liquor.com and Esquire for just two of their countless accolades) and the more Lorri and I scour the world for the best bars, the more we appreciate what this band of cocktail wizards is capable of – if you know what you’re doing, the Baldwin Bar is even better than all of the hype. Combine it with the stellar spicy Sichuan Chinese food (which even my parents approved of) from the other side of the mansion (the full menu is available at the bar) and you’ve got an experience that Lorri and I still crave, even after about 40+ visits.
Note: OK, 40+ visits sounds excessive but we basically had a residency here every Sunday at 5 PM with the Fabulous Jenn for her final months here in Boston. It was the closest we’ve ever come to being Norm from Cheers, to the point where Nika (our favorite bartender/hostess) was just ordering our food for us as we walked into the bar).
The history behind the bar has been told on numerous websites but is definitely cool enough for my recounting here: Ran Duan, son of the owner of two established Chinese restaurants gets into cocktails and opens a little bar in the suburban restaurant. Despite having little to no professional experience, Ran is immensely creative and starts winning competitions for originals like the Father’s Advice (Rum, Sherry, Punt e Mes and Banane Bresil — whaaattt ???). Accolades, magazine covers, more awards, a notorious feud with a Harvard professor and a cult following give him the juice to open a luxe upstairs bar (which brings world wide recognition) and last year, a bar to replace the original family restaurant.
I love this story because I too am a son of Asian immigrants (Taiwanese, in my case) who also opened a Chinese restaurant and I too aspire to open a bar someday with no prior professional experience. The only different is that my “Father’s Advice” would probably be “Don’t open a stupid bar” instead of an award winning cocktail.
Anyway, here’s our protips to getting the full Baldwin experience:
- Get a reservation!
It’s definitely possible to get in without a reservation but after seeing so many super-pissy wanna-be customers get told that there’s a wait (they obviously have no clue that this place is a DAMN COCKTAIL MECCA, not YOUR AVERAGE LOCAL DIVE), I’m gonna tell you to get a reservation. Just fill out a form on the website if you’re a day or more in advance or give them a call at 3 PM or later if it’s for same day.
- Upstairs, Downstairs, or BOTH ????
This is the toughest decision you’ll have to make all night.UPSTAIRS is the swanky leather and wood laden lounge, the Baldwin and Sons Trading Company. This is the flashier and more famous bar, replete with showstopping large format cocktails (dry ice, special effects), exquisite glassware, insane garnishes and easily the most luxe menu in the Boston area (almost in the class of the menus/books of Dead Rabbit and Blacktail – I don’t know who does the photography for the Baldwin but they’re terrific).Baldwin and Sons has both tables and couches (I nearly shattered my shin on a coffee table that I didn’t account for – luckily it was on the way out so the buzz was just enough to keep me from screaming like a James Caan getting the worst from Kathy Bates in Misery) – while the couches make you look all speak-easyish it makes for a tricky Dan-Dan noodles experience so I don’t recommend them if you’re getting your eats on.
What the upstairs DOESN’T have is bar stools – and if you know anything about us, being able to converse with/interrogate/torture the bartenders is a vital part of the experience. I will say that the servers are among the most cocktail knowledgeable we’ve ever come across, but it’s still no replacement for the face to face. It’s a curious omission for a meticulously planned out space, so I can only guess it was an intentional move to establish a specific vibe for the place.
The menu itself shows off the intense creativity of the Baldwin team and definitely worth ordering a few drinks from – however, they’re definitely on the complex & challenging side and aren’t easily reproducible in your average home bar, so be prepared if your nefarious scheme is to add to your arsenal of DIY cocktails.
Upstairs is where we take visitors or anyone who we want to have an impressive & unique cocktail experience.
DOWNSTAIRS is where the O.G. bar is and where we spend most of our time, usually cruising in at the opening 5 PM Sunday opening time like alcoholic blue-hairs getting first dibs on a boozy Blue Plate special. That gives us semi-exclusive access to the wonderful Nika and Candy and their never ending array of Bartender’s Choices. This is key because the downstairs menu is very much a throwback to the Polynesian tiki bars of the 70s (well that’s at least how I remember it, growing up in the oddly placed tiki mecca of suburban Pittsburgh – Chin’s Polynesian Tiki-Outi, baby!!) and only gives a hint of what the downstairs bar is capable of.
Note: If you like coffee cocktails (and I DON’T), definitely try the Good Morning Vietnam – yes, I JUST SAID I don’t like coffee cocktails but that one made a liar out of me.
At any rate, the downstairs seems to be where the hardcore regulars go (I guess we qualify now) and I don’t think we’d notice if they never gave us the menu again. That’s because just about every bartender we’ve ever had there has an outrageously large vocabulary of cocktails . I know that’s Drink’s claim to fame but I’d love to see the Baldwin family (we’ve had Nika, Candy, Patrick, Derek, Cody and the departed Mick, Vann, Will and Moe) go toe to toe with Drink’s mixology aces (except that I would surely die of pickled liver before a winner was declared).
It’s at the point where we rarely order a specific drink anymore – it’s more like “Mezcal and Citrus”, “Ridiculous Tiki”, “Make something from that weird bottle over there”, “Daiquiri for People Who are Bored Of Daiquiris”, “Negroni For People Who Hate Negronis” or “I dunno, just read my mind” (which I know bartenders hate but Nika can do it). I think we’ve never gotten the same bartender’s choice twice.
So, UPSTAIRS or DOWNSTAIRS? Maybe do BOTH!!?!?
Nika will probably kill me for suggesting this, but we’ve had a great time getting a drink or two downstairs with an appetizer for an hour, then getting entrees and some over the top insanity cocktail upstairs.
3. ORDER OFF MENU – OK, OK, I already said this. I kinda forgot I was making a list and just went on a rant above and buried the lede. Whatever…..
4. GET THE FOOD – The Chong Qing Dry Hot Chicken is the best we’ve had since we were in Beijing (the city). Dan Dan Noodles, Pork Dumplings, Ox Meat & Tripe. For pescatarian/vegetarians, the Baby Bok Choy, Double Cooked Fish, Salt & Pepper Shrimp & Scallop, Baby Eggplant and Pea Pod Stems.
Jesus, I think I just gave myself low blood sugar just writing that.
5. RAJAH’S GARDEN (from Nika) & MIDORI FLIP (from Candy)
Candy will certainly kill me for promoting the trashiest cocktail she probably ever made (it was kind of a joke … but the joke was on her because I actually dug it), the notorious Midori Sour redeemed with egg white and some gorgeous bitters art.
Nika came up with Rajah’s Garden, an original that I keep craving (named after the tiger from Disney’s Aladdin), featuring a combo I’ve never seen before, with Gin, Luxardo, Lemon, Campari, Simple and probably some other secret elixirs rustled up from the vaults of monks from India. It’s an elegant drink that develops as you get deeper into it … and always ends before I want it to (just like every night we spend in this place!).
Whew, so that’s the scoop on the Baldwin. It may not be the perfect bar for everyone … but it’s damn close to being the perfect bar for us!