The Littlest Bar sits slightly below ground at 47 Province Street, near the Granary Burying Ground and Old City Hall. Its name is no lie: it’s just 400 square feet, with a maximum legal occupancy of 38 warm bodies (barkeep included). Squeeze yourself into the sweaty scrum there on a Thursday night, and you wonder how it could fit even that few. But while it holds barely three-dozen people, this tiny, musty burrow has seen thousands upon thousands of drinkers sidle up to its worn wooden bar since it opened at the end of World War II. A bar is only as good as its clientele, and this one’s had some corkers.
There was the ruddy Southie hardhat who buttonholed me and my date for hours one night, putting back beer after beer as he marveled about the Indian construction workers (feather, not dot) he used to watch strolling atop the high-flying steel beams with speedy, surefooted ease. Later, when talk turned to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his piercing blue eyes welled with tears.
There was the impish guy from Louth or Meath or Westmeath, who hit on my sister with gusto one afternoon as his wife and my parents laughed. When he learned she was fluent in French, he scribbled his number on a napkin and pressed it into her palm. Call me when I get back to Ireland, he told her, and murmur sweet nothings in the language of love. “If a French woman calls for me in the middle of the night, don’t you hang up ,” he told his old lady.
There’s all sorts of people: an endless stream of lawyers and laborers and students and pols and immigrants and tourists and thinkers and drunks who’ve tromped down those five concrete steps into this dimly lit den over the past 60 years. They lay down cash for a pint of Guinness or shot and a beer. They have a chat and a laugh. Another drink or two. And they leave. Then, a day or a week or a month later, they usually come back.
But when the Littlest Bar pulls that sliding steel curtain over its street-level bay window in a few weeks, it’ll be for the last time. By Saint Patrick’s Day, the parking garage next door on Province Street will have collapsed into rubble, and the Littlest space will thence be integrated into the tower of pricey condominiums put up in its stead. The yuppie cash will flow in torrents. But Boston will be poorer for it, because it will have lost another piece, albeit a small one, of what defines this city.
Beer and history
Tuesday morning, 9 am. The Littlest opened half an hour ago, and already there are four men sitting around the worn, heavily varnished bar, partaking of their daily eye-openers. One guy nurses a Budweiser. Another clinks the ice in his Cape Codder. At the end of the bar, another tilts back the third in a long succession of blackberry brandies.
The Littlest no longer has a men-only “tavern license” like it did until sometime in the ’70s. But stop in before noon and you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Talk here revolves around boxing and politics, football and racing. Lawyers and unions and cops. The décor is in keeping with the virile vibe: dozens of patches donated by police and firemen from across New England and the country are affixed behind the bar. Framed black-and-white photographs hang in front of it. Joe Louis, fists clenched. Brownie, Bossuet, and Wait a Bit finishing in a triple dead heat at the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct in 1944. Muhammad Ali clowning around with a hurling stick at Dublin’s Croke Park. Babe Ruth, finishing his career in a Boston Braves uniform, meeting top-hatted James Michael Curley in 1935. Above the bar, in an incongruous bit of cheek, hang a fashionable line of Littlest Bar thongs.
Things are kept simple here. There are just two beers on draft, Guinness and Newcastle. If you want wine, you can order red or white. Whiskey comes in several varieties, including favorites from the auld sod like Paddy and Tullamore Dew. The jukebox has the staples. The Chieftains and the Dubliners. The Very Best of Joe Dolan . The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash . There’s Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, and U2 and Coldplay for the younger crowd that filters in later.
The floor is concrete. The ceiling, sturdy and simplistic, is made from weathered wooden slats. Tiny square lanterns (like you might expect to find swaying on a pirate ship) hang from it, glowing yellow with 25-watt bulbs.