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Somerville Scene: Union Square bar celebrates 10 year anniversary

Posted by Your Town  July 8, 2011 08:38 AM

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Union Square used to be so sleepy. In 2001 it had a dive bar, a taqueria and an Irish pub that hosted folk-rock bands. There was no farmers market, no coffee shops, no store selling contemporary home décor, no excited superlatives, no Thai tapas.

Enter a hangout that found a niche, or created a niche, or had its niche form around it. On June 28, The Independent restaurant and bar turned 10.

Ten years is a long time if you're a gentrifying square or a semi-cool kid gradually becoming square. Could it have been that long? denizens at the party asked, meaning, Could I really be that old?

The "Indo" isn't a destination. It's just where you always end up if you are in a particular geographic radius and demographic.

(Though a cheapskate homebody, this writer fits in that demo: She is currently missing a birthday get-together at the Independent in order to write a column about the Independent.)

Davis Square is still Tufts, new grads, visitors, 20-somethings. Union is grad students, neighbors—since it's still not on the T— and 30-somethings and plus. Many are newcomers of long standing, not born in Somerville and thus not considered a "real" local but obsessed with the promised extension of the Green Line.

You'll see all that at the Independent, dubbed by one guy "the oh-hey-I-just-turned-30 bar." The people in slightly better-pressed clothes in the glossy dining room order proper entrées. The aging hipsters eat burgers on the bar side and complain about the recent cessation of the spicy aioli while a DJ spins obscure soul.

Owner Ken Kelly looks far-sighted now, when Union Square squirms with artisanal this and that. "Back then it was a crazy project," he said two days after the party. "I did the wrong thing at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"He took a big gamble," said Damon Leibert of Somerville, 32, a fiddler who played at the opening night.

(To avoid needless repetition, please note now that every patron quoted in the remainder of this story lives in Somerville. Many added helpful qualifiers like "right up the street" or "a football throw away.")

Kelly and his then business partner literally sunk money into the place, digging out a basement under what had formerly been a bar called Avenue X. Leibert remembered it had an unwelcoming brick façade with two small windows. The renovation added big windows, attractive window boxes upstairs planted with flowers.

It took about 18 months, Kelly said, who declined to reveal the cost. He had previously co-owned PJ Ryan's in Teele Square

But when he built it, they didn't immediately come.

"For a while the locals didn't know what to make of it," Leibert said.

First Kelly tried to create a destination restaurant, and some people did visit from as far as Wayland and Natick. Then there was the music era, when roots-rocker Dennis Brennan held court in the dining room corner. Throwing money after money, he bought the place next door and opened Toast Lounge in 2003.

"I knew it was going to be a long slog at the Independent," Kelly said. "[I] didn't expect it to take as long as it did." In fact, he said business only really came together about three years ago.

At that time he turned Toast into Precinct and started to feature bands. It was a better neighbor for the Indo, he thought.

And—a key development, several patrons agreed—the swanky-yet-humble B-Side Lounge closed. Its patrons needed a new bar. The Indo was less than a mile north.

Kelly's original renovation itself fueled some of the changes in the square, Leibert thought. That aligns with the broken-window theory of urban development, where sprucing up one building pushes others to improve.

In 2011 the place has settled into its role, between dive and ritz. Exposed brick, dark wood, long bars, extensive beer list, the usual. Duggan (just Duggan), 29, struggled to explain the appeal. "This atmosphere is—not hard to find but unique. It's got a small-pub feel… if you're coming to a bar you want it to be this."

It's "a grown-up bar," said Jeannette Lamberti, 40, hanging out with her friends Chris Murphy, 37, and Murphy's wife Deirdre Rys, 36. They don't frequent Kelly's new place in Davis, the Foundry. "I never go to Davis. It's too young," Lamberti said.

"Everyone knows Union Square is better than Davis Square," Murphy said. The bartender with the spruce small moustache leaned over, uncapping a High Life with as much flair as a bottle of rye.

You can certainly find things to criticize. The food quality has varied depending on who's in the kitchen. "Sometimes it's a little loud," said Mark Santoro, and he wasn't crazy about the sort of haute comfort food on offer—either its style or its cost. The new-for-2011 menu drew loud grumbles for cutting down on the cheaper and vegetarian options.

Ten years from now, light could shine on the Indo from a Green Line stop. If the city's plans materialize, the streets will be different, the auto body shops will be gone and a new City Hall will be one block away. (We can probably count on the all-night Dunks staying put, though.) My friend whose party I have pretty much definitively missed now will be 10 years older, as will all the other patrons.

Will the Indo be the right bar for that time? The "how-on-earth-am-I-already-40" bar?

"I always thought that Union Square had a lot of promise based on its proximity to Boston and Harvard Square," Kelly said. "I still think there's a lot more potential."

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