A few steps down off Commonwealth Avenue, the Lower Depths Tap Room is a little mirage for beer enthusiasts in Kenmore Square. For everyone else, it's a nice alternative to superb Indian food, $12 martinis, and deafening sports bars - all staple attractions on this stretch of Fenway-friendly blocks.
From the folks who brought you Bukowski's Tavern, the Lower Depths opened in December in a prime location. Sandwiched between two upscale restaurants (Eastern Standard and Petit Robert Bistro), it's one of the few casual, beer-centric spots in its neighborhood. Yes, there's the Cask 'n' Flagon and Game On!, but the Lower Depths seems to attract a different crowd, perhaps people on their way to see Cat Power at Avalon rather than Big Papi at Fenway.
Wait. What's that? You want to eat here? Oh, right. Well, we did and it was perfectly fine, but as with so many fine pubs, it's not really about the dining experience here. After all, you don't need "Mexican-American hop suey" (a south-of-the-border take on chop suey) on the menu when you can grill up a burger.
Still, the Lower Depths had its moments. In a clever nod to its surroundings, the restaurant serves a $1 Fenway Frank, boasting a list of add-ons "you can't do at Fenway": sauerkraut, coleslaw, guacamole, and so on. For an extra buck, you can get a tempura dog. Scratch that - you must get a tempura dog. It's a crunchy corndog you can plunge into a little dish of spicy mustard.
A Caribbean shrimp quesadilla packed just the right zing to offset the sweet mango salsa, and the same went for the Shanghai chicken appetizer coated with a sweet-and-spicy Asian glaze.
Two beers later, the entrees arrived. Worthy of its name, the King of Kenmore sandwich ruled the table. Its simplicity suited it: Southern-fried chicken breast smothered in bacon and cheese nestled in a French baguette with spicy aioli. OK, so it was basically chicken fingers on French bread - that's the kind of food you should order here.
Mackin' cheese (you'll need to get over your fear of bad puns here; otherwise, you'll never try the "entrees at your own risk!") was your standard mac 'n' cheese, and crispy fish 'n' chips was a notch above the usual pub variety.
But back to the brews. Perilously close to Allston (home of beer havens Sunset Grill and Deep Ellum), the Lower Depths holds its own with an impressive lineup of beers organized on two menus: one for domestic and imported bottles, one for the daily draft list. The beer connoisseur in our group gave a thumbs-up to the selection of imported beers, which stretch from A(frica) to S(cotland).
Said connoisseur also remembered this place from his days as a beer-guzzling Northeastern student. Of course, back then it was the Deli Haus, beloved for its punk-rock attitude and decor and maybe just a little bit "gross," too, as he remembered it.
But grit and grime don't live in this Haus anymore. The Lower Depths is refined, with three flat-screen televisions broadcasting the games unfolding 10 minutes away. Still, it tries hard for that good ole dive-bar vibe. (Although recessed lighting doesn't exactly shout dive bar, now does it?) The soundtrack, at least, struck the right note and had us singing along to AC/DC and Teenage Fanclub, and the painted artwork cast gaunt characters that could be plucked from '50s film noirs.
Our waitress, as spunky as she should be in a place like this, was a font of knowledge. Indeed, it was formerly the Deli Haus, she said, but the space was shuttered for four years after it was closed for a liquor-license violation. It couldn't reopen until someone paid off the debt, which the Lower Depths apparently did, she said.
As we were leaving, a Sox game had just gotten out and throngs of baseball-cap-clad fans crowded Comm. Ave. A few of them were descending the steps to the Lower Depths, probably not even realizing that there was no better place for them to be.
The Lower Depths Tap Room, 476 Commonwealth Ave., 617-266-6662. Appetizers: $1-$10. Entrees: $9-$11. Desserts: $3-$5. Beers: $2.99-$6 (draft) and $3.50-$18 (bottles).
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.