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Obama’s spot in Boston plus South End food tour and Puritan Cambridge

IMG_0300BOSTON – I was chatting with a woman at the reception desk at the oh-so-sleek Revere Hotel here and asked about Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe.

“It’s great,” she said. “And it’s just down the street.”

She told me a female guest asked a couple years ago about a place to get lunch and that she recommended Charlie’s.

“The woman asked if there would be a line and I said I didn’t think so. She was really worried about a line-up to get in but I said it wouldn’t be bad.

“She came back later and said, “You said there wouldn’t be a line. I said I was really sorry and that I hadn’t expected a line-up. But she said, “Oh, that’s fine. The line was because Obama was there getting take out.””

I like that story. Even better is an actual trip to Charlie’s, an old-time spot on Columbus St. in Boston’s South End (not to be confused with South Boston, still a reasonably tough part of town I was told).IMG_0301

There are celebrity photos on the wall from the likes of Natalie Cole and others. Two of you might get seated at a small table with four other folks, but that’s part of the fun.

They make a good plate of French Toast with powdered sugar and blueberries but the place is known for its turkey hash; with potatoes and diced carrots and onions and bits of turkey under a pair of eggs done however you like them.

The place has been going since 1927 and there’s a sign that says “hash rules.” It’s hard to argue, as it’s dynamite stuff. Coronary inducing, sure, but worth the risk.

“It’s a like a museum here,” the owner is quoted is saying in a story posted near the cash register, “and our customers like it this way.”

The area is near a lot of concert halls and hotels where black entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. used to play. Blacks weren’t welcome at most of the hotels and restaurants, so they tended to congregate at places like Charlie’s. The area was down its luck a few years ago but has been gentrified of late.

One warning: the coffee at Charlie’s needs a serious kick. It’s weak, weak, weak. But there’s a nice spot down the street called Render Coffee for stronger stuff or an espresso drink.

After breakfast and a walk around the area it was time to take in a Bites of Boston “sweet and savory South End” tour.

I didn’t know what to expect but it was a great, great way to spend three hours. You won’t get the equivalent of a full meal, so you might not want to arrive starving. But you’ll get a taste of some great stuff and a nice variety.IMG_0309

First up was the Parish Café, where they get sandwich recipes from a variety of top chefs in the city and serve them up. I had a meatloaf club sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato and a spicy aioli that went down smooth.

We also sampled a date with an almond inside wrapped in bacon at a south American place called Orinoco, tasted a scrumptious cookie with bittersweet chocolate, coconut, oatmeal and pecans at Flour sampled fried clams at Morse Fish Co. and nibbled on a couple types of cheese at Formaggio. I didn’t have time but the tour also stopped at a vegetarian place.

The food was fun but the real treat to me was seeing the area and learning its history at the same time. The townhouses in the South End are stunning, often with small, linear parks in front or large, urban squares for nature lovers or dog owners, of which there are plenty in this part of town.

We were told that some of the homes were in such bad shape in the 1970s that they sold for as little as $500. Those same homes now can go for $1.5 million, and that’s what you call a tidy return on your investment.

We also passed a school where Alexander Graham Bell used to teach and caught a glimpse of a few spots used in movie shoots and TV shows.

We had a brief look around the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum over near Fenway Park. There’s an absolutely stunning courtyard that’s several stories high and looks like an Italian villa. The light is gorgeous and there are tall spikes of white and lavender flowers and other plantings and gurgling fountains.

The rooms in the old wing are kept on the dark side to preserve paintings from the likes of Titian and Rembrandt. There also is plenty of old furniture and other bits to admire if you’re not so much into art.

The newer wing was designed by well-known architect Renzo Piano and offers up lots of natural light. A couple of exhibit areas seemed to be closed when I visited but there were a number of excellent montages on display, including one showing the Toronto skyline mixed with a swimming pool by David Hockney.

We were supposed to get a Harvard tour but there was a mixup and we missed it. Too bad, but it was still interesting to see the campus.

I found the area around Harvard Square a touch down on its luck, with lots of homeless looking folks milling about. But there are nice shops, including a Curious George bookshop, and some good restaurants. We had a beer at a place called Grafton St., which has a cool interior and a nice patio.

IMG_0380The campus is beautiful, as you’d expect. The library steps are enormously imposing and wide as a football field and the famous Harvard Yard is a model for campuses around the world.

A mile or so down Cambridge St. is Puritan and Co., a lovely restaurant (see photo) with pale blue, painted brick walls, cool light fixtures that hang from the ceiling and a bar area that has an old fashioned cupboard and a row of books, this being the home of Harvard and MIT and all.

They serve a great bisque with lobster and corn and a stunningly beautiful summer squash dish with light, buttery ricotta. The swordfish pastrami is a gently spicy and unusual bit served with a cold mustard sorbet, and they also have incredible risotto with butter, Vermont cheese, faro and tomato. Not to mention luscious scallops.

All in all, one of the better restaurants I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S.

The first couple nights in town we were at the old fashioned Omni Parker House. But I wanted something more boutique-like as well so we did our last two evenings at the Revere Hotel, over in the theatre district and just south of Boston Common.

Where the Omni is all dark wood and gild in the lobby, the Revere has marble floors and shiny silver and gold decorations and feels like a Four Seasons. Our room had a gorgeous shower and bath with funky fixtures and Skoah bath products from Canada and other modern touches and a great view out over the city.

They also have a wonderful rooftop pool (indoor) and bar (outdoor), complete with those covered cabanas where you can lie back and sip your drink and chat with friends or a loved one. Nice views, and reasonable prices; about $10 for a mixed drink.

It’s only a short walk to Boston Common and to the shops of Back Bay, or to Copley Square.

We finished things off with lunch at the Fairmont Copley Plaza as I always like to support IMG_0566Toronto-based hotel groups when I can. The hotel is a sister to the Plaza in New York and it shows. The lobby features soaring ceilings, beautiful fixtures and lovely, intricate floor tiles. OAK Long Bar and Kitchen has high ceilings and big, arching windows and red chairs for a bit of a Parisian look.

Much to my surprise, they were playing Weezer and Coldplay in the restaurant, fairly hip for the sister of the Plaza in New York. Our waiter had fashionably torn jeans and a white shirt and blue blazer; also not a look I would’ve expected.

The sliders with mushroom gravy were a touch bland, I thought, but I tasted a great arugula salad with parmesan, radishes and colourful watermelon radishes, which aren’t terribly flavourful but are beautiful to look at; all pink and green and looking a bit like dragonfruit. The chowder was excellent, with a not too thick base and plenty of clams and not too much filler.

IMG_0595I had just enough time to wander through Beacon Hill for a half hour, admiring the impatiens and trailing vines in the colourful window boxes and the quiet, cobblestone streets and gas lamps and small laneways such as Acorn Alley.

The area also is home to the Bulfinch Pub, the model for Cheers. Tourists still line up all these years later to take photos, which tells you a lot about the staying power of a terrific TV show.

NEXT UP: PROVINCETOWN

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