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A newcomers guide to the South End

Posted by Swati Gauri Sharma  September 12, 2011 12:51 PM

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History

Few areas of Boston have undergone a more dramatic transformation in the last half-century. This now-chic neighborhood is a poster child for gentrification and all its attendant benefits—and some of its woes.

By the mid-1990s, the end of rent control and the removal of the Orange Line elevated that once rumbled over Washington Street had transformed the South End.

Built on landfill around the narrow Boston Neck that used to connect peninsular Boston to the mainland, the South End is a planned neighborhood, a comforting rarity in a city whose winding roads are notoriously difficult for outsiders to navigate. Its uniform grid of brick bowfront houses (and brick sidewalks, which may not be long for this Earth, given recent accessibility concerns) is pleasing aesthetically and makes the South End one of the best places in the city to go for a walk.

Getting Around

And walk you will, since the South End is somewhat underserved by public transit. The Orange Line goes straight from Mass. Ave. to Back Bay without stopping, although the Southwest Corridor Park that traces its route above ground is well-kept and worth a walk.

The Silver Line (or, as longtime residents would have it, the “Silver Lie”) is actually a glorified bus that belatedly replaced the Orange Line Elevated and runs down Washington Street.

On the plus side, it’s the only transit in the city that tells when the next train, er, bus, is coming. Approximately, of course. You could also try the 43 bus, which runs down Tremont Street from Ruggles (near Northeastern) to the Boston Common, but with long gaps (we’re talking 20 minutes or more) between trips, most just walk.

Parking is mostly resident-only, so if you’re new to the area, head on down to City Hall with your lease (pausing to marvel/recoil at the Brutalist architecture) and get a resident sticker. If you’re a visitor and you must drive, Pilgrim Parking at Berkeley Street and Warren Ave. is centrally located. Some restaurants (like the high-end Hammersley’s Bistro) also offer valet parking.

Culture

Those who yearn for the jazzier South End of old should try Wally’s (near Mass. Ave. and Columbus Ave.), a small jazz club with a speakeasy vibe that’s been open since 1947. Featuring a mix of Berklee College of Music students and old-school jazz veterans, the conversation outside the entrance is almost as interesting as the music inside.

The South End is also host to the Boston Center for the Arts. Housed in the historic cyclorama (worth a look on Wikipedia), the BCA offers space to hundreds of artists who put on visual art exhibitions, theater shows, and dance and music performances.

Dining Out

In terms of dining out, the South End could a make strong case for having the most diverse and high-quality restaurant stock of any area in or near Boston.

Joanne Chang-Myers runs both Myers + Chang (excellent Asian fusion) and Flour, a popular and highly creative bakery whose sticky buns once outdueled Bobby Flay’s in a TV “Throwdown.”

Coppa is a hidden Ken Oringer gem on Shawmut Avenue with a friendly vibe, serving up fresh cuts of meat, delicious Italian-esque tapas and whimsical drinks—order a “Strongman” and check out the flexing-arm handle on the glass.

Nearby, Picco makes flavorful and creative brick oven pizzas, plus homemade ice cream for dessert. For more traditional tapas, Toro on Washington Street is a solid choice, and you’ll make some new friends at the long communal tables.

If you want a more low-key night (the South End can feel trendy—and expensive), Anchovies, on Columbus Avenue, has a more down-to-earth neighborhood dive feel, but still serves excellent Italian food and good beers (but forget about cell phone service, the walls must be made of lead).

For early risers, truck-stop traditionalists should grab a quick breakfast at Mike’s City Diner (cash only), while the brunch aficionado will love the live jazz at the Beehive.

For a quick lunch, check out the huge menu, delicious smoothies, and fresh Middle Eastern fare at the Corner Café (Mass Ave. and Tremont.) With so many different genres of food, it’s difficult (but not impossible – always check Yelp) to go wrong in the South End.

Shopping

Unlike better-known Newbury Street, where you can find a mix of local one-offs and national chains, there are few, if any, large corporate stores in the South End. Walk up and down Washington or Tremont and duck into any of the basement shops to try on some vintage or unique threads. Laced, on Columbus, has cool sneakers and skate gear. Harrison Ave has artists’ studios and galleries that are often open to the public.

But the premier shopping in the South End isn’t a store so much as an event. The weekly open-air SoWa Open Market has been a neighborhood fixture since its debut in 2003.

Stop by on a summer Sunday morning and browse the dozens of tents for everything from farm fresh produce to snarky T-shirts and art. It’s also an opportunity to check out Boston’s burgeoning food truck movement, with standouts like Clover and Grilled Cheese Nation making regular appearances at the Harrison Ave. site. The market runs Sundays from May 1st through October 30th.

Even if you end up people- and puppy-watching more than buying, the SoWa market is hands down one of the best times you can have in Boston.

Groceries

Getting groceries can be a bit of a challenge. Some like the unique offerings at a smattering of bodegas and medium-sized markets like Foodie’s on Washington Street, but for the basics you’re stuck with the long trek down W. Newton St. to the 24-hour Shaw’s at the Prudential. The Whole Foods near Symphony is a hike, but usually boasts better produce.

Pets

Landlords vary on pets. Some say no way, others want you to ask permission.

If you’re in doubt, check with the landlord and your lease. If dogs are allowed, well, you’ll be right at home in the South End, where many restaurants have water bowls out front for thirsty pups. There’s even the Polka Dog Bakery on Shawmut Ave., where you can buy homemade treats and other accessories for your canine friend. Best of all, when Fido needs some time off the leash, the brand new Peters Park on Washington St. has the best dog run in the city by a mile.

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