Last Call at Doyle's Cafe

We’ve had weeks to process the news that our beloved Doyle’s is dying of Stage IV Capitalism, but the passing of time hasn’t made it any easier. Every moment that we can, we crawl inside the warm body, knowing this will be one of the last times we feel the familiar comfort of a place we’ve come to know as home and cherish like family. As the days and hours run out, we watch the giant clock on the wall of Doyle’s tick forward with dread. The beloved staff do what they’ve always done, though they’re grieving just the same. They take care of us.

When we moved back into the neighborhood behind Doyle’s 10 years ago, my older daughter was two and a half years old. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when, somewhere along the way we began going to Doyle’s every Friday night. Two tired parents after one long week, we’d spend the first evening of each weekend hoping no one would mind that our picky eater was still refining her inside voice.

When one daughter became two daughters, I apologized to the waitstaff with my eyes. I tried to clean up after them as best I could. From the chaos of working and raising a family, we were building a scaffold of traditions to create some structure in our messy lives. Doyle’s was a break from the neverending cycle of work and parenting.

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When I went back to college a few years ago, each semester I would carefully avoid Friday night classes until I couldn’t anymore. Last fall, my History of Boston class met every Friday from 5 to 9 pm. Although the professor was the best one I ever had, my heart was always with my family and I knew there was an empty seat in our booth. I did my best to honor the time away from my beloved Doyle’s. I wrote my final paper on it.

Owner Gerry Burke, Sr. sat down with me in his favorite booth next to the coffeemaker in the barroom to provide an interview for my paper. With boyish playfulness and sparkling Irish eyes, he recounted tales of shoot-outs and immigrants and politicians and his own family. I’m so grateful I was able to spend this time with him and I hope I was able to capture his stories accurately.

Last winter, as we sat in the shadow of Michael Collins in the middle room, legendary Boston rocker and veteran server Rick Berlin asked us if our band would represent Doyle’s Café with him in the JP Bar Wars. “Sure!” we chirped, and then hoped he didn’t hear us squeal with glee as he passed through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

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From there the stars aligned for us. Joined by Doyle’s waitresses Erin and Emily Keane and our good friend Mike Allen, we won the JP Bar Wars (yes, we know that having Rick Berlin in the band tipped the scales in our favor). Throughout the whole experience, I couldn’t help but think of the movie “The Commitments” where a scrappy group of misfits somehow pulls off something beautiful together.

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As a prize, we got to open up the JP Music Fest last month. It was a magical day. The hurricane that had threatened to ruin the festival couldn’t even land a punch, and the sun got brighter and hotter as the day went on. I’ll always be grateful that this day lives in my mind – I know I’ll go back to it again and again. I wish I had known how heavy Rick Berlin’s burden was that day; he had learned that Doyle’s was going to close the night before.

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Over the past 10 years, Friday nights have changed. My daughters, now 12 and 8, have fairly reasonable inside voices. Their childhood friends have come and gone, sharing crayons and playing in the phone booth together until they fade away like a Polaroid picture developing in reverse. My nephews keep getting bigger and bigger, but some things have remained constant. My sister always lets me eat off her plate.

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As our family tries to wrap our brains around what life will be like when Doyle’s is no longer a part of it, I struggle to teach my children lessons that will prepare them for the next time they lose something they love with all their heart. We talk about gratitude and living in the moment. Tonight, as we visit this hospice we once called home, I realize we’ll have to talk about death too.

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Rest easy Doyle’s, and thank you.

A Short History of Doyle's Cafe

Since 1882, Doyle’s Cafe has been welcoming patrons into their comfortable barroom in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Located on Washington Street near the transportation hub of Forest Hills, this beloved establishment has survived the construction and demolition of the elevated train, industrialization, the Great Depression, de-industrialization, eminent domain land seizures in the 1970’s, the construction of the submerged Orange Line in the 1980’s, and 21st century gentrification. For the past 137 years, Doyle’s has been owned by only two families – the Doyle and Burke families – and their unique intersection is a story that could only originate in Boston.

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When the Doyle family first opened the saloon for business in 1882, Jamaica Plain was a very different neighborhood than it is today. Located across the street from a large gas company where English High School sits now, customers were mostly Irish factory workers who came to Doyle’s to cash their paycheck – and often spend it. Jamaica Plain had only been a part of Boston since 1873 and it was rapidly changing from a rural farming community to an industrialized center in Boston’s southwestern corner.

This economic transformation accelerated after the elevated train opened on Washington Street at the turn of the 20th century. In response to the immediate population growth from the influx of new residents, in 1907 Barney Doyle, grandson to Dennis Doyle, moved the bar about 60 feet to accommodate for expansion. His barroom and adjacent general store had arrived at the right place at the right time.

When William Burke first emigrated from Galway in 1897, he was told to go straight to Doyle’s Cafe to look for work. The bar had already established its reputation as a “workingman’s pub” where an Irishman would be welcomed and given the opportunity to find employment in one of the neighboring factories. By 1902, William Burke had bought his own bar – John Sheehan’s Tavern – about a block away from Doyle’s. Despite their business rivalry, the Doyle and Burke families would become close friends as members of the Ancient and Honorable Hibernians.

These two neighborhood bars would soon face the end of their successful beginnings when in 1919, the ratification of 18th Amendment criminalized the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Doyle’s was forced to close the bar and rely on its general store for business, while Burke turned his tavern into a shop selling candy and other notions. But behind the locked doors of Doyle’s Cafe was a thriving speakeasy – stocked by bootlegged liquor made at William Burke’s store a block away. The friendship and illicit business relationship would help both families weather the economic downturn that impacted much of the area, which had been home to several breweries before Prohibition.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, it’s said that Mayor Curley himself presented Doyle’s with the reinstated liquor license. Now out of the bootlegging business, William Burke needed to find another way to support his family. Mayor Curley awarded Burke the contract to run the concession stand at the Franklin Park Zoo, an empire that the Burke family would manage for the next 50 years. It was through this relationship with the city that the Burkes would learn that business and politics were tightly intertwined in Boston – and if you wanted to get anything done – you had to grease a lot of palms and “eat a lot of crow” along the way.

In the 1930’s, Francis Doyle inherited Doyle’s Cafe. Now in the middle of the Great Depression and faced with a crumbling building, Doyle would strike a deal with a distillery that would change the name and economic circumstances of the pub. In the mid-1930’s, Irish heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock was a household name in Boston. Doyle capitalized on this by promising a Maryland based distillery that produced Braddock Rye naming rights and favorable promotions at the bar in exchange for money to repair the building. As a result of this deal, Doyle’s became known as “F.J. Doyle and Company, dba Braddock Cafe.” Throughout the mid 20th century, Doyle’s was often referred to as the “Braddock Cafe.”

One of the more famous accounts of the Braddock Café was a robbery that occurred in 1964. At last call early one Friday morning, two men with guns blocked both doors to the bar. About 20 patrons were forced to the ground and the robbers asked bartender Tom McDonough to hand over the cash from the register. When he didn’t comply, one of the gunmen jumped over the bar, hit McDonough on the head with the end of his revolver, and stole the bar’s cash. As Doyle recounted to the Boston Globe, “They played ‘Yankee Doodle’ on poor Tom’s head.” The robbers had almost gotten away when Bill Doyle, a retired Boston police officer and nephew of Francis Doyle, fired his gun out the window, killing one of the robbers. As Gerry Burke Sr. recounts, Bill Doyle was an extremely thrifty bartender: “Those were the only 4 shots he ever gave away for free.”

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The late 1960’s were a tough time for Boston, and Jamaica Plain in particular. Plans for a federally funded eight-lane highway threatened to split the neighborhood in two. Hundreds of houses and businesses throughout the area had been seized by eminent domain to clear the path for the highway. With the end of the industrial era and the expansion of the suburbs that came along with the automobile, many working-class white families had left the area, depressing housing costs and diversifying the neighborhood just as the riots of the civil rights era were heating up in Boston. With all of this economic uncertainty, the Doyle family wanted to sell the café. They were down to only 5 employees and their business was stalling.

In 1971, William Doyle sold the bar to Eddie Burke, grandson of bootlegger William Burke. Faced with owning a new business in troubling financial times, Eddie made a bold move – he decided to expand both the restaurant and the menu. The bar had been attracting a rough crowd, so Burke stopped selling Budweiser and found that the troublemakers soon moved on. As Gerry Burke once remarked, “not everyone who drinks Budweiser is an asshole, but every asshole drinks Budweiser.”

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While Eddie Burke was technically the owner of Doyle’s, his brother Bill quickly joined him as a bartender, and not long after he lured his brother Gerry Burke into the business. A former member of both Mayor White’s and Mayor Flynn’s administrations, Gerry had deep connections within the Boston political scene. With the addition of Gerry into the family business, Doyle’s became the cornerstone of Boston politics that it is today. He began lining the walls with photographs of politicians who had visited the bar, along with newspaper clippings of Boston history and artifacts honoring the bar’s Irish heritage. As patron Carol Leary noted, “It’s like a Greek forum. You can get a political debate and find out who can do the plumbing in your house.” Eddie and Bill eventually left the business, leaving the daily operations of the bar to Gerry, and eventually his son, Gerry Jr.

On any given night, you can find a city councilor, journalist, or school committee member tucked away in one of Doyle’s high wooden booths. Giving politicians privacy and anonymity is an operating principle adopted by Gerry that is still honored to this day. Mayor Ray Flynn treated Doyle’s as a southwestern annex of Boston City Hall and could often be found tending bar or singing Irish songs. In one of Gerry Burke’s favorite photos, Mayor Ray Flynn is pictured with former Mayor Kevin White, along with then City Council President Tom Menino who only stopped by to pick up a pizza.

Photograph courtesy of Gerry Burke

Photograph courtesy of Gerry Burke

Doyle’s Cafe is as much a political history museum as it is a restaurant. It’s separated into three distinct rooms – an architectural remnant of the piecemeal additions throughout the years. The Fitzgerald Room was dedicated in 1986 to honor “Honey Fitz” and help raise Senator Ted Kennedy’s profile in Jamaica Plain. The walls are covered in photographs recognizing the legacy of the entire Kennedy family. The rear portion of this room is now the Menino room.

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The center room is broken up into booths both large and small. The history of Boston’s mayors lines the front portion of the room, while the back portion honors Ireland’s Michael Collins. A mural that composites together many of Boston’s political leaders into a fictitious Doyle’s gathering is sprawled across the back wall near a gigantic wooden phone booth that formerly housed one of the neighborhood’s only public telephones in the early 1900’s. Artifacts from the New Deal are peppered throughout the bar.

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In the main tavern, a long wooden bar faces a wall of historically significant murals, painted in 1939 by artist Max Beichel – a WPA era project facilitated by Mayor Curley. A painting representing Paul Revere’s ride has a moon that was added only after one of the gunshots from the 1964 robbery punctured the wall. More Boston history lines the walls at eye level when sitting at a table. Political posters from World War II hang above the bar. Photographs of Boston’s political elite collapse a century of history into this ad hoc museum. While the vast majority of these photographs are of Democratic politicians, Republicans Scott Brown, Paul Cellucci, and a few others are represented as well.

Even though Gerry Burke, Sr. has passed on the business to his son Gerry Burke, Jr., they both can be found rattling around the bar on a Saturday morning. If you go there and see either one of these round faced Irishman bustling around, but sure to ask them to tell you a story about one of the most resilient and welcoming establishments in Boston.

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