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Boston Insider
WALK THIS WAY | DOWNTOWN CROSSING

Where it all comes together

Publicist Diane Mantouvalos tours the history, shopping, and dining of Downtown Crossing.

Email|Print| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004

Diane Mantouvalos is Boston-born and bred, and she remembers when the Combat Zone cast its gritty shadow on Downtown Crossing. "My father used to cover my eyes when we walked around here," she says. But the peep shows and sex shops are mostly gone, leaving a mix of historic and hip spots.

These days, Mantouvalos has her own public relations agency, and is credited with reviving the term "Ladder District" to designate an area that runs between Washington and Tremont streets. "In the early part of the century, street planners referred to this area as the 'ladder district' because of the short, narrow streets -- the rungs -- held together by the two long streets, the rails," says Mantouvalos.

While she lives in Back Bay, not downtown, she often finds herself in the Ladder District, either to eat, shop, or visit a client.

The Ritz-Carlton Boston Common opened a few days before 9/11, and is starkly different from its stuffier sibling across the Boston Common. Here, it's a minimalist look. In the same complex is the upscale Sports Club/LA, where Clint Eastwood bench-pressed 250 pounds while in town to film "Mystic River." And after, you can treat yourself to a memorable meal at blu, just across the lobby.

Turn onto West Street and stop at The Brattle Book Shop. Founded in 1825, it's the country's oldest continuously operating bookstore, specializing in used, rare, and antiquarian offerings. It looks the part, with its dapple-lit interior crammed with 250,000 books, maps, and ephemera. Mantouvalos declares it "very old Boston."

If all that browsing makes you hungry, step next door into another historic building -- the West Street Grille. Built in the 1840s by Elizabeth Peabody, the first woman publisher in Boston, it became a meeting place for transcendentalists Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today it's a bustling restaurant with velvet couches, exposed brick walls, and turn-of-the-century windows. "It has a very rich literary and historic component," says Mantouvalos.

On the next ladder rung, Temple Place, stop at No. 52, where all the Brahmins banked in the 19th century. Now it's home to Mantra, which Conde Nast Traveler recently named one of the best 75 restaurants in the world for its French/Indian cuisine and sleek design. Incidentally, the long marble bar is the original tellers' counter, where the Adamses and Cabots made their transactions.

Exit right and take the alley passageway to Locke-Ober on Winter Place. Built in 1875, the restaurant was men-only until 1970 but -- ironically -- is now owned by a woman chef, the renowned Lydia Shire. Check out the original wooden floors, ornate ceilings, moldings, leaded glass, and mosaic tiles. "This is the power lunch in Boston," says Mantouvalos. Be sure to look for "Yvonne," a large painting of a largely nude woman.

Filene's Basement needs no introduction. Stroll down Winter Street, a pedestrian way in the middle of Downtown Crossing. On a nice day, it's chock-a-block with vendors selling "Yankees Suck" T-shirts, hot dogs, jewelry, sunglasses, and everything else. Score a bargain at the Basement -- it's a Boston tradition. "What can I say about Filene's Basement? It's legendary. There are designer clothes piled on top of each other. If you can deal with the elbows, you can get a great bargain."

Just down the street is the Old South Meeting House, built in 1729 as a Puritan place of worship. This is where the revolution was fomented -- and the Tea Party planned -- by the likes of Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, James Otis, and John Hancock. It's now a museum hosting historic and political talks, still "a platform for free and unfettered speech." Says Mantouvalos: "Benjamin Franklin was baptized here." Need we say more?

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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