The Haunt: Blurring Eras, One Carafe at a Time

By Jolyon Helterman | Boston Magazine |

The seventysomething at the next table wants to remember the name of the pianist who used to play here. It was Don or Dick—no, Davy?—and he was very, very good. ("He was decent," counters her companion.) "Dave. Dave McKenna," offers the hardy waitress, whose black vest, white shirt, and gold name tag bespeak dated country-club propriety. "A little before my time. But not," she clarifies, "before I was born."

Time is a funny thing at the Fairmont Copley’s Oak Bar, where the historical and the modern intertwine constantly, provocatively. The décor is straight-up old school: coffered ceilings, gilded fleurs-de-lis, and a color scheme so rigorously boys’-club even the real flowers exude brown, gold, and dusty red.

Modernity lurks, however. The seniors chasing nostalgia for the Merry-Go-Round, the bar’s name until the late ’70s, are barely but surely outnumbered by thirtysomethings nursing $20 martinis, served in quarter carafes kept cold in ice buckets. (The old-timers, in sticker-shock solidarity, stick with wine and $6 beers.) Unlike at Locke-Ober, which safeguards its vintage aura from the relative isolation of a Downtown Crossing alleyway, the Oak Bar’s tall French windows look out onto Copley Square, a bustling reminder of forward motion in every sense.

In contrast, as though by two-way mirror, the Oak Bar becomes invisible from the square, as the ruthlessly up-to-date scurry past in pursuit of the new and trendy. This curious anonymity has proved a magnet for celebs, and regulars have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tom Brady, Caroline Kennedy, and the late Paul Newman. In 2007, Kate Hudson treated fellow revelers to an impromptu piano recital, where the aforementioned McKenna had plinked some two decades earlier.

"It’s an old, old room," estimates the matron, savoring her last sip of shiraz. ("A beautiful old room," concurs her date.) "You don’t see them like this anymore."

Oak Bar, Fairmont Copley Plaza, 138 St. James Ave., Boston, 617-267-5300, fairmont.com