The first memory Jeremiah “Jerry” Foley has of the establishment that’s been his life work comes from when the place was his father’s and grandfather’s life work.
His Family Keeps One of Boston's Oldest Bars New
By Michael Gee
“We came here on Sunday after Mass at the Cathedral,” Foley recalled, “I was about 8 years old.”
“Here” is J.J. Foley’s Café on East Berkeley Street in the South End. The time would have been the 1950s, and Foley’s was already very old for a neighborhood bar in, what was then, a less than a vibrant neighborhood.
“It was founded in 1909,” Foley said, “My grandfather started it after he came over from County Kerry in Ireland.”
“It was a lot of hard work,” Foley said. “Back then, this was an oasis in the desert. This was Dover Street back then, and it had its rough side.”
Early on a Friday night in December 2014, Foley’s is an oasis for young adults starting their weekends. The Café dining room is full. The tables in the bar area, the older part of Foley’s, are full of groups of men and women for whom middle age is far away, generating a pleasant buzz of chatter.
“I’m the third generation,” Foley said. Three members of the fourth generation of Foleys — his sons Brendan, Michael and Jeremiah – are working the bar in the white shirt and tie that is the Foley working uniform. Judging from the occupancy rate, their family business seems to be more than a going concern. Foley’s is thriving as both a bar and as a restaurant, two businesses with failure rates so high they have their own reality television programs based on the difficulty of success.
“We’re old fashioned guys trying to keep it an old fashioned place,” Foley said when asked about his business methods. “Just a lot of hard work and prayers.”
Somewhere in those modest sentences are the methods of a skilled businessman. It’s one thing to run a neighborhood “local.” It’s quite another to keep it the local for more than a century in a neighborhood that has changed perhaps more than any other in Boston during that time. The customers are as different as can be from the customers of 1909, or 1989 for that matter, yet they find Foley’s as welcoming a place to quench their thirst as did earlier generations.
Dave Wedge, a former Boston Herald reporter now working for Northwind Strategies, has been a Foley’s regular since 1999, when he started at the paper. He’s experienced both the 20th and 21st century Foley’s.
“The beauty of it is, it’s still the same place,” said Wedge. “But you run into folks from both the old and new Boston.”
Foley’s is old fashioned. From the dark brown wood walls and comfortable booths, to its memorabilia, to the TV above the bar turned to a hockey game, it looks the part of a longstanding neighborhood working person’s bar, which it is and always has been.
The working people it has served, however, haven’t always been the same. Until quite recently, they worked in the neighborhood.
“Business really took off when the Herald was located here [a few blocks away by Albany Street] in 1957,” Foley said. “The pressmen would come over late at night.”
The Herald was close by. So was Boston Police Headquarters. Foley’s became a cop bar and a newspaper bar.
“Thursday night was Foley’s night (at the Herald),” Wedge said. “The pressmen would be there, reporters, police, politicians, MBTA workers.”
In those days, a Foley’s crowd was almost all men, and not men interested in Zagat guide-type amenities when quenching their after work thirst.
“You could get potato chips,” Foley recalled. “Maybe a ham sandwich.”
“Actually,” Wedge said. “Jerry would make a hot corned beef sandwich by heating it up in the microwave, and sometimes somebody would have a pizza delivered.”
If there was little food, there were many stories. Police officers and newspaper people are notorious gossips.
“I remember the police reporters like Eddie Corsetti (of the old Herald and Herald American),” Foley said. “They’d be hanging out with the detectives trying to get stories.”
“There have been a lot of stories here,” Foley said. “A lot of secrets.”
He seemed to imply that they’ll stay secrets, no matter how long ago they’re from. That was the way of the Foley method.
“You don’t give up your friends,” Foley said with a smile.
He personifies the traits of the successful longtime barkeep. He’d much rather listen than talk, would rather talk about anything but himself, and could give lessons in discretion to the butlers at Buckingham Palace. Foley was horrified at Boston.com’s request that he wear a microphone behind the bar for a few minutes for a video. He feared it would pick up remarks by customers.
A bar known for newspaper people and cops will also draw its fair share of another gossipy breed, politicians.
“Had a lot of politicians here,” Foley said. “Bill Weld was here running for governor, Ray Flynn when he was mayor, [current Mayor] Marty Walsh, they were all great guys.”
Flynn is more than a Foley’s visitor. He’s family, as he’s Michael Foley’s father-in-law.
Foley’s had survived as a family business by finding a comfortable niche market. There are cop bars and newspaper bars in every big city and always will be. But police departments and newspapers are no more immune to change than running a neighborhood saloon.
“I began to notice,” Foley recalled, “that when Herald people came in, it would be a retirement party. There were farewell parties,”
“There were so many of them it got depressing,” Wedge said.
The Herald’s workforce shrank, especially the blue collar craftsmen computers rendered obsolete. The paper moved to the Seaport district. There is now a Whole Foods in the building that housed the flamboyant — sometimes dysfunctional — urban tabloid.
Police headquarters moved to Roxbury as well. And although Wedge believes “Foley’s will always be the Herald headquarters,” the difference between regular customers, and former regulars who become occasional visitors, has been the death of many a bar and restaurant.
Foley’s didn’t die, quite the contrary. It just changed, not by enough to stop being old fashioned, but enough to reflect changes in the neighborhood it serves as a local hangout.
“It used to be a drinking bar for people getting off work,” Wedge said. “Now it’s more of a pub.”
Established businesses often resist change. Foley, directing a business that was almost a century old, embraced it. From being a bar for guys getting off work, it deliberately evolved into a bar for people who worked elsewhere but lived nearby.
“You can’t stop change, as long as it’s for the good,” Foley said. This was from a man so old-school Bostonian that he identifies where folks live in the city by the Catholic parish in which they’re located.
Family and business are the pillars of Foley’s life, but his affection for the South End is nearly as deep. As the wave of renewed prosperity spread down past Tremont Street, Foley the local small businessman saw and approved it.
“The new development here has been fantastic,” Foley said. “The South End has all kinds of people, rich people, poorer people like at the Pine Street Inn, and they all get along. And we get new people who’ve moved into the South End here.”
Amy Deveau is a newer resident of Foley’s South End. She is relatively young, married, and with a white collar job in the new Boston economy.
“We moved here in 2011,” Deveau said. “I had come here a few times before that, but now we come once or twice a week. I love it. On the dining side, you sit in the restaurant with families and people from the neighborhood, and the food is great. Then over on the bar side, you feel like you’re in the middle of Boston history.”
Foley made the major changes to his bar as the neighborhood change was in its earlier stages, not its full swing.
“We had to renovate, because the place was falling in,” Foley said. “So we decided to put in the kitchen in 2007. There was a little stress, but it was a change for the better.”
What had been a large storeroom became the Café. It has the same dark wood, but also tables for four, a big front window which the older, smaller Foley’s notably did not, and a menu of the hearty bar food that has become the dominant style of American cooking in our time.
“We still try to keep it basic,” Foley said.
Both Wedge and Deveau are fans of the food basics.
“I love the wings,” said Wedge.
“Nachos are my favorite,” Deveau said.
The new South End people Foley welcomed brought their own changes to the place.
“My wife and I bring our 2-year-old there,” Wedge said. “Imagine. There are families in there on Saturday afternoons.”
New people also brought new tastes in alcohol.
“It used to be a shot and a beer,” Foley said of his customers’ drinks of choice. “A VO and a beer. Now it’s more flavored vodkas.”
It is unlikely any of the folks who were in Foley’s that December night had ever consumed a shot of VO, and more it’s likely that they’ve never seen one. They seemed to be comfortably making it their meeting place just the same as the clannish Heraldites and police had done decades earlier. The experience of a good bar resembles being in your living room except there are interesting people in it. It’s not home, but it’s an extension of home.
“We’ve been thinking about moving,” said Deveau, “but then we start to feel sad we wouldn’t have Foley’s around the corner from us anymore.”
There are countless bars that look like Foley’s in Boston and everywhere else. The feel that keeps the place busy is all its own, and it comes from the family for which it is a home, a place at the center of their lives forever.
“They’re all just so professional,” said Wedge. “They made it a safe place to meet.”
Running a bar and restaurant is indeed hard work. The hours are long, the economics challenging, and keeping groups of human beings who’re consuming alcohol from random incidents of conflict is a tricky business indeed.
“They’ve never taken any garbage,” Wedge said of the Foleys. It was as heartfelt a compliment as his praise for the wings.
The same bar on the same corner for 105 years is a supreme defiance of the odds. So is a small business moving smoothly and profitably from its third to fourth generation of one family. There has to be something about that business the Foleys find so rewarding.
“I never wanted to do anything else,” Foley said. “When my (seven) children were young, I worked nights, so I got to be with them in the daytime and left when it was time for dinner and homework and bed. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. Life is good.”
And as far as Foley is concerned, life and the South End are getting better, too.
“We’re planning to put in a second-floor dining room for private functions,” Foley said, “and an outdoor patio up there, too. There are new people in the South End, and we need a place to put them.”
Formal interview over, Foley went back to business, the only work he’s ever cared to know. He exchanged Christmas wishes with tables of new South Enders who addressed him as “Mr. Foley,” tending to what customers old and new have always cherished in his place, the sense of being welcome.
A few minutes later, Foley walked by the author carrying two oversized martini glasses (which the place didn’t even have in the 1980s), each of which contained two limes and ingredients in some cocktail that to Foley seemed to be from another planet.
“You asked how we’ve changed,” he said. “This is how we’ve changed.”
Jerry Foley’s smile couldn’t have expressed more delight. At that moment, he was the happiest person in his own bar, the happiest man in the South End.
Correction: This story originally identified the top photo as Jerry Foley’s grandfather, founder of J.J. Foley’s. The individual pictured is Jerry Foley’s great uncle.
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