The South End’s great old watering holes are vanishing: Tim’s Tavern was supplanted by the sleek new Coda; the DEA shuttered the Waltham Tavern. Aside from live-jazz haunt Wally’s and gay dive Boston Eagle, all that’s left standing is J.J. Foley’s, a family-run saloon that has been in business since 1909, including a Prohibition-era stint as a suspiciously popular shoe store. Its rail has long been a favored gathering place for off-duty cops, newspapermen and Gillette workers to swap stories and toss back shots and beers. (Cocktail glasses mostly gather dust here.) Even the barmen are old-school: cordial but not too gabby, with neatly knotted neckties and crisp white shirts and aprons. For locals like me, it’s a godsend: a no-frills, casual neighborhood hangout with cheap pints, no suits and space on the floor for my big, smelly dog.
I’ve often wished I could get a sandwich or pickled egg here to go with my brew and BoSox. So I hooted with joy upon learning that Foley’s was repurposing its seldom-used private room as a restaurant, leasing a gleaming new kitchen to Katie Grealish, of Costello’s Tavern in Jamaica Plain. While there probably aren’t any James Beard awards in this kitchen’s future, the food is everything a South Ender sick of trendy eateries could want: well-executed, rib-sticking fare in generous portions, attractively priced for regular weeknight visits.
The fourth-generation owners began sprucing up this well-worn local institution a few years ago. The result is clean and retro, befitting a century-old establishment: pressed tin ceilings, dark wood, exposed brick, stone tile. The dining room’s bar seats are comfy, the TV placed high where the whole room can see it. Widely spaced tables and banquettes fill the rest of the space. The menu is a “greatest hits of bar food” (wings, nachos, potato skins) with some British Isles pub classics. Mussels and garlic fries ($9) are representative: two dozen mussels topped with very good skin-on fries (ubiquitous here) and a ladleful of aioli, enough for four to share. The mussels’ simple broth improves once the garlicky mayo drips its way in. Curry chips ($6) are a heap of fries splashed with brown English-style curry gravy — you’ll need help to finish them before they get soggy. Crab and shrimp cakes ($8) are floppy, mostly filler-free pucks, tasty despite muted crustacean flavor. A special of “stuffies” ($6), quahogs with their meat chopped and mixed with chorizo and bread crumbs, are likewise delicious without much clam flavor shining through. A Caesar and a house garden salad (both $6) are ample, fresh and not overdressed.
Sandwiches impress with size and quality, like a sub-sized BLT ($7) on a good baguette with fries and pickle slices. The classic burger ($8) and turkey burger ($9) are both excellent, each a half-pounder with a nice char, properly cooked to order, and served on a sturdy egg-brushed roll with fries. I expect the pizza to be a frozen-crust, pan-baked, Greek-style mediocrity, but Foley’s surprises with an 8-inch-wide oval with a very thin, barely crisp, almost bubble-free crust sliced into squares. The house pizza ($7) starts with two cheeses, then drizzles on very fine pesto and sweetish red sauce. The crust’s lightness makes this pie a nicely shareable appetizer for two, though I eagerly destroy one myself. The steak-and-onion pizza ($9) is less successful: cheeses, mashed potatoes and caramelized onions (sans marinara) are undercut by insipid, frozen-tasting shaved steak.
Entrées do Foley’s Irish heritage proud: The enormous shepherd’s pie ($14) has a beautiful layer of coarsely minced beef and lamb topped with mashed potatoes. With what must be a quarter-pound of added butter, it’s so rich that I can forgive frozen instead of fresh corn and peas. Steak tips ($14) are another winner, five large pieces of flap steak barely tenderized by a sweet Long Island-style marinade, grilled to order and flanked with mashed potatoes and terrific grilled zucchini rounds. Their fish and chips ($12) is also superb: two or three giant haddock fillets in thick beer batter, fried crisp (almost to the point of scorching) with little residual grease, plus tartar sauce, lemon wedges and malt vinegar for seasoning.
The dozen draft beers run to the usual Irish suspects (properly pulled Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s), locals (Harpoon Summer Beer and IPA), Americans (Long Trail Ale, Blue Moon, Pabst) and continentals (Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois) at a wallet-friendly $4 per pint. Another dozen bottles are available. Wine drinkers can choose from eight economical New World entries ($22-$24/bottle, $6-$7/glass), like the 2005 Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon from California (soft and quaffable) and Washington State’s 2005 Covey Run Riesling — a lovely little food wine, with good acidity to balance its grapefruit-scented sweetness.
Our servers are sweet, friendly and efficient, making sure our next drinks hit the table as we’re draining the last ones. Despite having decimated rafts of hearty fare, we squeeze in one dessert, a rich creamy, pudding-like chocolate torte ($6) with a wafer-thin brownie-like crust and a sprinkle of raspberries. For a digestif, we head over to the saloon side for darts, videogames and Jameson Irish whiskeys ($6). We’ve been fed and watered like Irish royalty, yet our check barely nudges $25 a head. I ruefully recall spending twice that recently on a decidedly middling dinner at a new hipster joint just blocks away. With many South End eateries overpromising and underdelivering, I expect Foley’s will draw crowds of neighbors who’ve been longing for just this kind of restaurant: one that doesn’t aim high but always manages to hit its modest target.