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Nod to red-light past gets green light

Descent features glossy surfaces and a long stretch of silver leather banquettes. Top left: mixologist Charlotte Voisey. Descent features glossy surfaces and a long stretch of silver leather banquettes. Top left: mixologist Charlotte Voisey. (photos by taylor dobbs/globe staff)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / October 13, 2011

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Boston’s Combat Zone, the former hotbed of adult entertainment and prostitution, is seldom fondly memorialized, particularly in high-end architecture. But in a small nod to the city’s seedier past, the new subterranean bar at the W Hotel, called Descent, is recalling the Combat Zone through subtle design features.

“It’s not intended as a celebration,’’ says Paul Bentel, part of the team from Bentel & Bentel Architects, which designed the new club. “But there is a memory of this place that is worthy of some kind of memorial. We wanted to add that spirit into the design.’’

The W Hotel, at 100 Stuart St., sits on what was once a parking lot when the Combat Zone served as Boston’s red-light district. On the street level of the new bar, a giant red lantern hangs over the staircase, letting patrons know that Descent is open.

But most of the overt Combat Zone references end there. Bentel says the red in the club’s very limited color palette references both the red-light district and a telephone booth that once stood near the property. The booth was well-known as a place where prostitutes would arrange business transactions.

The club, which opens next week, holds approximately 100 people and feels more intimate than the upstairs lobby bar. The original cave-like slurry walls are painted black and can be seen between gaps in a series of high gloss gray fiberboard panels that are attached to the walls and ceiling. Not only do they look sleek, they also help reflect light.

“Glossy finishes are very important,’’ Bentel said. “There’s a limited amount of light in the space. But when they hit those reflective surfaces, it adds to the ambient light.’’

The club, which is shaped like a piece of pie, includes a long stretch of silver leather banquettes that reach toward the narrow back of the room. The Corian bar features nearly every color used in the space - red, black, gray, and white. The floor, which is poured black epoxy speckled with silver, also reflects light.

Descent not only feels different from upstairs, it will also have DJs (the upstairs bar does not have an entertainment license) and stay open until 2 a.m. The bar will also have an entirely different cocktail menu courtesy of nationally renowned mixologist Charlotte Voisey. The British-born, San Francisco-based Voisey, who has created cocktails for hotels and bars across the globe, came up with several Boston-specific drinks after researching the city’s history.

“I developed this idea in my head that every cocktail has a story behind it,’’ Voisey said. “It wasn’t that I was trying to replicate drinks that would have been popular during that era, but I did want drinks that have a connection to Boston.’’

Her menu includes two cocktails made with a tea-based syrup. “I thought it would be fun, being British and all, to throw tea back at Boston,’’ Voisey joked.

She also added a cocktail called Irish Cobbler to the menu. The drink, poured over crushed ice, is a tribute to Frederic Tudor, a 19th-century Bostonian who made a name for himself harvesting ice and shipping it to faraway locations such as Cuba and India.

“It was called Sherry Cobbler, but I made it with some Irish whiskey because you need a good Irish cocktail in Boston,’’ she said.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.


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