Commonwealth Fish and Beer Co.
An early brewpub gets a face lift
by Robert Nadeau
The Commonwealth Brewery was Boston's first modern brewpub,
and when it opened I was pleasantly surprised by the
food as well. It had an English theme, although the "real ale" movement was
just beginning in Britain. The first ales were bitter like English ales, not
sweet like Boston ales (which were mostly a memory of Haffenreffer and such).
That it has reframed itself as a fish house, set up live entertainment
downstairs, put a children's menu in the window, and set up a giant sports TV
upstairs testifies to something. The end of the brewpub wave? The return of
fish houses? The disastrous impact of the Big Dig? The decline of the Celtics
and Bruins? The latter were certainly no draw on a recent Friday night, with
both teams on the road. The Commonwealth was almost empty, while the bar across
the street was full. As far as I could see, the bar across the street had only
two advantages: you can smoke in bars, and they served draft Irish stout.
Commonwealth Fish and Beer Co. |
138 Portland Street (North Station), Boston
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat,
11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sun, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Transmedia, Visa
Smoking in downstairs area
Access by ramp
Commonwealth still serves its own ales, and the current special Scotch ale
($2.75 half pint, $3.75 pint) is a winner. It's dark and creamy with a clean,
bitter finish. The stout drinkers across the street would enjoy it a lot. The
Best Burton Ale ($2.75/$3.75), Commonwealth's signature, was not showing so
well. It's a malty ale, with about the body and appearance of a Samuel Adams
beer, but the pint I tasted had one of those yucky stale-beer aftertastes. I
used to call this taste "bacterial spoilage," but I've recently discovered the
jargon "aromatic ketones." It's still bad news, in my view, although some
people find that after the first few swallows, they don't notice it.
New England clam chowder ($2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl) is still slightly smoky after
all these years, full of clams and potatoes, and quite creamy. There is an
undertone of spice, and there could be a little more seafood flavor, but this
is very, very good chowder. The soup of the day ($2.95/$3.95) was tomato rice,
with a flavor of canned tomato sauce and too much pepper. The breadbasket is
full of a sourdough white that goes rather well with this food.
"Herb rubbed fish & chips" ($10.95) isn't at all English. There isn't a lot
of batter, just a very Ipswich (Massachusetts) crunch of cornmeal. I didn't
find the fish especially herbal, either, but a fresh chunk of white fish
(pollack, maybe?) has a sweetness all its own. In England, the French fries
would be even soggier, and there would be malt vinegar instead of this creamy
tartar sauce, and no coleslaw. I like ours.
"Simply grilled" swordfish ($15.95) is not so simple, as lemon-caper butter
adds some flavor and richness, but the main point is that the steak wasn't
overcooked, leaving some juice and tenderness in a meaty fish that overcooks
like meat if you don't watch it. The side dish of baked "herb rice" (didn't he
used to pitch for Cleveland?) is very good, and the vegetables are cauliflower,
carrots, and such in a canned tomato sauce not unlike the soup.
Ask for a dessert menu, and they hand you a View-Master! Yes, the dessert menu
has been rendered on 3-D transparencies arranged on a disk. The usual brewpub
low-tech aesthetic is of the copper-vat era, so this '50s toy comes out of left
field, but it does present the desserts rather well. Of the considerable cube
of bread pudding ($4.95), Louise, my dining companion, insists upon the
description "comforting, risqué, sublime." I suspect that all three
descriptors derive from our being on diets, but the bread pudding is good,
studded with nuts and topped with a caramel sauce and whipped cream.
Chocolate mousse cake ($4.95) is somewhat in the style of a German chocolate
cake, with a light chocolate mousse between cake layers on top of a
chocolate-cookie shell, whipped cream on the side. The decaf ($1.50), alas, was
The Commonwealth was always an interesting space -- an enormous duplex room
full of copper brewing vats. I can't remember whether the tabletops were always
copper, or whether the copper ventilation ducts were part of the original room,
but I do recall the uncomfortable folding chairs and cafeteria-like hubbub
noise at all times. What are clearly new are whimsical metal sculptures of
striped bass and tuna hanging from the rafters, along with giant fishing
Between business lunches and winter sports, there is probably a niche for any
large general restaurant between City Hall and North Station, but Commonwealth
Fish and Beer does enough things well that it deserves a theme to tie it
together. It still feels more like a brewpub than a restaurant, so why not make
something of the fish and chips? I'm not recommending thick batter and malt
vinegar, but a little shtick about serving on newspapers or a homemade spiced
ketchup like at Matt Murphy's could build some momentum. They could, with one
extra-high-temperature fry machine, greatly improve the chips. Then they could
recommend a particular ale, put on a decent salad, and there would be a sort of
a signature that customers could rally around. They could spin off a diet
version with grilled fish and grilled potatoes. They could offer sizes. They
could increase the number of species grilled so as to include some cheaper
ones. They could bake scrod -- that used to be popular downtown, and it's nice
with ale. The brewpub thing may be getting old, but the idea of seafood in
Boston never will.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.
The Dining Out archive