Best of Boston All-Stars: What’s New at Jacob Wirth Restaurant
Welcome to Best of Boston All-Stars, a series that takes a closer look at what’s new at longtime Best of Boston favorites.
With a clientele that, over its century-plus lifespan, has included local and national politicians, actors, filmmakers and athletes, Jacob Wirth is more than one of Boston’s top German restaurants—it’s a Boston institution.
According to Jacob Wirth lore, it was here that Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci sat with MIT engineer Bill Reynolds and drew up the plans for the Big Dig—on a napkin. It was here that famed 19th-century boxer John L. “Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan was knocked out when he tried to copy Jacob Wirth and stop the beer kegs, which rolled down a ramp into the basement, with his foot. And it was here, too, that Larry Bird stopped in the night he retired.
So don’t be disappointed that they no longer brew their dark beer in the cellar: Having been around for 147 years ensures that Jacob Wirth Restaurant, founded in 1868 by German immigrant Jacob Wirth, is rife with colorful stories and a rich history.
“We are literally a Boston landmark,” says co-owner Kevin Fitzgerald. In fact, they earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. And they’d already been around for 100 years by the time Boston magazine rolled out its inaugural Best of Boston issue. (We gave them an award for the first time in 1984, praising the German restaurant for its Irish coffee.)
Fitzgerald likens the space to “every saloon you’ve seen in a Western movie.” Though there are no more sawdust floors—those are to blame for the 1975 fire, which led Kevin Fitzgerald and his brother to purchase the establishment from the Wirth family—the double doors are a throwback to the bar’s earliest days. “We try and hold true to the Wirth’s history and maintain the fact that this is a historic site,” says Fitzgerald.
Maybe there’s some irony in the fact that one of our favorite bars is a German beer hall in Chinatown that resembles an old Western saloon, but Jacob Wirth’s has always been a place that embraces individuality. Upon walking through these double doors, the first thing you notice may be the 90-foot Old World wood carved bar. Inscribed upon its mantelpiece is the motto “Suum Cuique”—to each his own.
It’s a fitting ethos for this bar, which caters to all walks of life. At Jacob Wirth, the walls are plastered with menus signed by the likes of Conan O’Brien, Boston politicians, and the casts of theater productions that have stopped in for a bite, while longtime regulars mingle with the craft beer snobs drawn in by the establishment’s 47 taps and larger bottled beer selection. And they can all join in a rousing chorus of “Sweet Caroline” with the Emerson students who mob the place for the three-nights-a-week piano sing-alongs with Mel Stiller and Patrick Durkin.
Though we’ve hailed Jacob Wirth as a “true scrap of the past,” it’s managed to reinvent itself to suit the times. “No one comes in for pig’s knuckles anymore,” says Fitzgerald. And while you can still order all of the schnitzel, knockwurst, and bratwurst you’d like, the classic German fare shares menu space with an updated list of pub-grub options like barbecue steak tips, nachos, and onion rings.
While Jacob Wirth remains something of a time capsule, the same does not hold true for its surroundings. Sitting on the edge of Chinatown in what was once a German neighborhood, the old 19th century building has a new neighbor: the cantilevered, glass AVA Theater District apartment complex, whose 398 units tower over Jake’s sturdy, squat, vaguely steampunk exterior.
Some may find the juxtaposition unsettling, an ominous harbinger of the looming threat of gentrification—but we’d prefer to think of it as a symbol of Jacob Wirth’s resoluteness in an ever-changing Boston landscape. Here’s to another 147 years.
Jacob Wirth Restaurant, 31 Stuart St., Boston, 617-338-8586, jacobwirth.com.