While the Coronavirus has shuttered restaurants and left many others relying on take-out as life support, there is perhaps one dining experience that is getting a boost compared to the pre-pandemic days: bar food.
In August, Governor Baker’s statewide mandate banned the operation of bars that don’t also serve food and required any alcohol orders at restaurants to be accompanied by food orders.
As a result, college students around Boston are becoming intimately familiar with the menus of bars they never realized served food in the first place. The Circle was previously known for its black box and BC football player bouncers, but it has now become one of the go-to spots for BC seniors to go sit at a table and drink with the same six people they already live with.
The pandemic might have been the best thing to have happened to the Circle. Before the coronavirus shut everything down, the Circle was outshined by the grimmer, marquee-less Mary Ann’s (may she rest in peace), the bigger White Horse, the DJ booths of Tavern in the Square, and the underage-approved Wonder Bar. Now, MA’s is the future home of a dispensary, White Horse is trying to rebrand itself into suburban acceptability, Tavern in the Square’s biggest draw is the mac and cheese, and Wonder Bar is closed forever. The restaurant industry as a whole might be collapsing, but it’s collapse has directly correlated with The Circle cornering the market on the wallets of the mostly functioning, not anonymous, alcoholics of Boston College.
Like any good hole-in-wall bar, the Circle sits inconspicuously between a Vape Shop and a convenience store. In the summer, guests might even catch views of the crashing waves of the public pool. Outdoor dining has been phased out as the temperatures dropped, but those lucky enough to have stopped by in warmer weather may have enjoyed one of Boston’s most glamorous al fresco experiences. In reclaimed parking spots cornered off by orange traffic cones and a cement fence, empty silver kegs and rustic plywood tables dotted the pavement, all of it illuminated by the headlights of cars screeching down Commonwealth Avenue.
The Circle is most known for its pizza, but a quick glance of the menu shows that they also serve pasta, subs, burgers, chicken tenders, and also for no apparent reason, “authentic” Spanish food. I imagine that ordering Spanish food at the Circle would be like ordering lobster at a diner – it’s an insane enough choice they might write an SNL skit about it.
The Circle doesn’t yet have a brunch menu, but they do offer mimosas for those early afternoon football games. The orange juice isn’t hand-squeezed, but we did once spot the owner, George, walk to the 7/11 next door to buy the Minute Maid– so you can at least take comfort in the fact that management appreciates the value of local ingredients.
As for other drinks, a favorite choice among the female clientele is the fishbowls of spiked seltzers – which were probably intended to be a group cocktail, but because sharing drinks is a bit of sin in the coronavirus age, you just might have to drink it all yourself.
The atmosphere is an eclectic blend of McMansion style kitchen stonework, the fragrance of stale beer, overdressed college students and a few underdressed middle-aged men – all capped off by the bellow of WAP in the background. As he makes his rounds around the tables, George vacillates between lukewarm ambivalence and yelling at students to “sit the fuck down” if they pause to chat with another table in route to the bathroom.
Even though the law mandates everyone must order food, that doesn’t always mean that the food ordered is eaten. In fact, whether or not someone eats the bar food that is brought to them is often a good indication of their intoxication. That said, the first time we tried the pizza at The Circle this semester, one of my roommates declared that it was “better than Pinos” – perhaps the highest level of praise a slice of cheesy tomatoey bread could ever receive. According to our scientific research, the individual slices of pizza taste better than slices you get from ordering a whole pizza. The best tasting pizza, however, is the kind that appears seemingly for free – the pizza that arrives at the table without anyone remembering they ordered it, but that must be devoured quickly before someone realizes it may have been delivered to the wrong table.
Despites these compliments to the pizza chef, the fact is, when it comes to bar food, flavor doesn’t even really matter. Anything would taste delicious after three shots of brown tequila served in warm fresh-out-of-the-dishwasher glasses. So the fundamental question here is, really, what is the measure of good bar food? Can you judge it purely on flavor as you would any other restaurant? Or is bar food a totally separate universe of food requiring totally separate quality metrics? I’m inclined to be on the side of the latter.
In Aristotelian ethics, the highest goods and the highest aims are those that lead to eudaimonia loosely translated as happiness, but more accurately translated by scholars as “human flourishing.” In the context of the food we eat at our favorite North End or South End restaurants, the traditional criterion by which we judge culinary experiences – taste, texture, creativity, presentation, aroma, balance, comfort, etc. – are absolutely relevant to the goodness of the experience. We feel the most happiness at the end of a meal that excels at all of these qualities. These qualities are the instruments that swell into a eudemonic glow as you sign the check at the end of the night with the soft lilt of some indistinguishable indie pop song floating your soul – and your stomach – to the heavens.
To flourish at a bar during a global pandemic, however, is to find happiness in an entirely different manner.
Music should be singable and loud enough that the tone deaf among us feel like we are just a recording contract away from performing a sold out shows at Madison Garden. Shots should get easier the more you take. Pizza should burn the roof of your mouth and leave a Rorschach puddle of grease on the paper plate. Fries should be yellow, glowing with steam, and so unassuming that you mindlessly eat the whole plate before the waitress comes back with the ketchup. At the stroke of midnight, when the fairy barmother’s spell runs out and the lights come on, mozzarella sticks should instantly transform from crisp, goldeny cheese pulls into bread crumb-covered rubber. The wine and salad list should be respected as merely decorative embellishments on the menu and not something to be seriously considered. By the end of the night your mask should be soaked in the river of vodka, Whiteclaw and RedBull that flows into tributaries over the plywood table. You should pay the bill feeling simultaneously as if you spent too much, yet also as if you got an amazing bang for your buck.
At all of these things, The Circle excels.
For those who understandably might want to avoid dinning-in due to the aforementioned virus, The Circle apparently also does takeout. But really what’s the point if you aren’t getting the full experience?