A taste of Liberty
It can be tricky to do theme hotels well; either you get the over-the-top cartooniness of Vegas (with its chlorinated Venetian canals and Parisian boulevards lined with trees fitted with electrical outlets) or you get a half-hearted nod to history (as at Jurys, housed in the old Boston Police HQ, which got as far as calling its bar Cuffs and then stopped).
The Liberty has pretty much got the balance right--the bar is called Alibi and the restaurant is Clink--but really, given the surroundings, it would be hard to downplay the building's backstory. A working jail for 140 years, it closed in 1990 (though declared unfit for human habitation since '73). Famous inmates included Sacco and Vanzetti, Albert DeSalvo, Malcolm X.
The $150 million spent on renovation included the removal of two tons of pigeon guano from the walls and roof. This audio slideshow from WBUR has some great before- and during-renovation images; compare and contrast with the "after" shots in this Flickr slideshow.
Three-storey arched windows, a 90-foot ceiling with wooden rafters and century-old brickwork. Circumferential catwalks, and cell numbers etched in stone above doorways fitted with iron bars. And then the modern touches: immense photographic silhouettes of trees, oversized white leather wingback chairs, octopus cassoulet.
Come on--you know I was getting to the food.
We tried for a table in the restaurant, but they were booked solid. Unexpectedly, the hostess asked if we wanted to eat in the lobby. "There are a couple of seats over in the corner," she said; "I'll send someone over."
We took up residence, people-watching the bright young things at the lobby bar, and waited. And waited.
But just as we were starting to consider relocating, the hostess came over. "Has anyone seen to you yet? No? I'm so sorry--I'll get someone for you right away."
I'm pretty sure that was a first for us: it wasn't necessarily her responsibility to look after the cocktail-centric crowd in the lobby. And although she was already busy, she took time to cross the room to check up on us. Big points there.
Soon thereafter arrived a waitron, and soon thereafterafter arrived wine. The Liberty sells their by-the-glass stuff in 100-mil and 250-mil quantities (the former being a reasonable $10-$15, the latter a slightly scary $25 and up); I ordered the smaller "taste" but ended up with more because the bartender wanted to finish up the bottle.
We just wanted small plates because we'd lunched on huge grilled tuna steaks (assuming each weekend might be the last grilling opportunity of the year) so started with a snackette of chicharrón with pink salt, lime and Thai basil. The pork cracklins were out of a bag, but the extra ingredients gave them a bright, hot, wake-up-tastebuds kick. Interesting enough to go on our next party menu, for sure.
Then octopus cassoulet for me (not really cassoulet as such, but rather some meaty blackened octopod served with a creamy stew of Parma ham, white beans, cranberry and orange) and duck confit flatbread for The Boy, the duck moist and dark and delicious.
And we don't usually do dessert, but they had peach kebabs with lavender marscapone, which seemed like the kind of thing we would order if we did. So we did. Not a huge plate--two small sugarcane skewers with a couple of grilled peach slices and a mini-ramekin of cheese--but enough to give us ideas (I still have bunches of lavender from this year's harvest).
And then it was time for a jailbreak. Oh, we paid the bill first. It seemed wise, given the surroundings. And then we busted out of the joint. Down the escalator.