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A Toast to Bacardi Razz and Unironic Youth

What does the bar by which we judge all other bars look like today? In “Deep Dive,” we send writers back to their college haunts to find out what treasures they still hold. Up now: Leah Mennies on Boston's Joshua Tree.

deep dive joshua tree boston

Thanks to Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, I recently came across a photo uploaded exactly seven years ago: four smiling girls, bodies smushed together in a double-wide prom pose, arms crooked at a flattering 90-degree angle. Two are dressed as “martians,” with black dresses and sparkly antennae headbands. One’s dressed as a baseball player, with a blue jersey and no visible pants. I, meanwhile, am clad in a mostly unbuttoned fake auto-mechanic shirt, with what appears to be a “grease smudge” on my cheek.

Thanks to the backlit, red-paneled walls in the backdrop of the photo, there’s no mistaking where we were in our cringe-worthy Halloween garb—this was one of countless nights spent at Joshua Tree.

As Facebook likes to remind me now with increasing frequency, it’s been a decade since I moved to Boston to attend Boston University, eager to leave behind my suburban upbringing for life as a bona fide city-dweller, and the presumed cosmopolitan nightlife that came with it. But, truth be told, our nightlife adventures seldom extended beyond a geographic region often referred to as the “BU Bubble,” an area that starts in Kenmore Square, extends ten or so stops on the B Line T through the long strip of campus and that concludes in Allston—a seedy-ish neighborhood just off-campus filled with bars and music venues and the types of restaurants covered in “cheap eats” columns.

Whether you self-identified as a concert junkie, club kid or dart-throwing hipster—or you were still trying to figure it out—there was a bar with your name on it in Allston.

Joshua Tree was the one for me—and everyone else attempting to approximate a dance-filled night out without contending with the strict door policies or late-night-transportation difficulties associated with the clubs downtown, which all had single-word names like “Rumor” and “Mantra” and “District.”

J-Tree, as we called it, had notoriously lax bouncers who never questioned the expired ID I’d plucked from my sister’s bedroom while she was studying abroad in Spain. It was a freestanding building near a CVS, with a black façade, large red awnings and a sign that glowed red at night—a bat signal for us underage girls in Forever 21 dresses who had pre-gamed on Bacardi Razz, Crystal Light and Vitamin Water. Inside, it functioned as a sexed-up mullet, with a standard sports bar on top and a basement lounge complete with smoldering red walls, red faux-suede banquettes and a sleek black bar (picture the vampire bar Fangtasia from True Blood and you’re not far off).

If living squarely in the BU Bubble gave us narrow notions of urban dwelling, nights at Joshua Tree gave us a similarly incomplete picture of what it felt to be cocktail-drinking adults. We ordered Amaretto Sours and Long Island Iced Teas and a weird blue drink called the Adios Motherfucker, understanding that the best cocktails taste like they contain no alcohol at all, and we then stumbled home to binge on Domino’s cheesy bread and Cinna Stix.

By senior year, we’d largely aged out of the place, moving on to bars that required real driver’s licenses for entrance; more-sophisticated wheat beers and dirty Martinis replaced the Long Island Iced Teas. But not without giving it a final hurrah.

Thanks (again) to Facebook, there’s a photo that was posted right after graduation of the same friends as before, wet-eyed yet smiling. We’d sat on a pleather banquette one last time, bawling—mourning not the loss of J-Tree as a bar, but the consistent faux-adult experience it had offered, knowing full well that we were on the cusp of actual adulthood.

Soon after, I got a job in town working as a restaurant blogger and my friends began to peel off, one by one, to kick-start their post-grad lives in LA, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Atlanta. Before long, I was the only one left, still living just around the corner from campus in Brookline, still buying groceries from the same Trader Joe’s where I used to stock up on three-buck Chuck and mini peanut butter cups.

But now I was obsessively tracking the boom of restaurant openings in Boston and learning to expand my palate from the bartenders and restaurateurs responsible. I developed a taste for sweet-tart Jack Rose cocktails at Eastern Standard. Perched on a barstool at Drink, I learned that a Moscow Mule with Scotch in lieu of vodka was called a Mamie Taylor (and the fiery punch of housemade ginger beer was wholly different from the stuff in a bottle); at Trina’s Starlite Lounge I fell in love with Aperol, and in Chinatown I discovered the joys of chasing down live-caught salt-and-pepper shrimp with ice-cold Tsingtao at two in the morning.

If I relished the fraudulence of my designer knockoffs and fake ID in the peak J-Tree days, having them exist in the not-so-distant past of my new “food expert” status was, for a while, a source of shame, and flagrant evidence for revoking my foodie card.

About a year ago, I took up running for the first time since college, favoring an economical three-mile loop that starts and ends at my front door. Just ahead of the one-mile mark, the tree-lined stretch of Winchester Street in Brookline gives way to tan brick apartment buildings and overflowing garbage cans, and I’m right back in Allston again. Every time I hit the CVS, I still expect to see the red awnings of J-Tree following soon after. Instead, there’s the white façade of Bee’s Knees, a gourmet grocery store, coffee shop and craft-beer cellar that took Joshua Tree’s place a year or so back, one more example of the all-craft-everything movement that’s peppered modern taverns—Korean taco shops and grain bowl cafes among Allston’s hookah lounges, thrift shops and shawarma counters.

Our House, where we’d sipped cheap beer on overstuffed couches, is now The Hopewell Bar & Kitchen, proffering housemade chorizo corn dogs and Toronto cocktails. Bagel Rising, our hangover breakfast sandwich go-to, is now a third-wave coffee shop called Pavement that offers Maldon-salted honey butter as a bagel spread.

In a way, these runs have forced me to reconcile my erstwhile college nightlife choices with the ones that I make today as a craft beer-drinking cocktail nerd. Buoyed by listicle apps and blogs and a general democratization of high-end drinking culture in cities everywhere, Boston is certainly churning out a student populace that’s far more knowledgeable when it comes to making informed drinking choices.

And yet, that makes me somehow extra grateful for the period of blissful, unironic joy I took in not knowing any better at all, in being one of “those” people who drunkenly danced in a circle to Taio Cruz in a glowing red basement. If I’d also been wondering if I’d missed out on the release of the latest double IPA from Vermont, I’d perhaps be incomplete elsewhere (or, quite simply, completely insufferable).

Maybe I’m not alone in this; the other day, I read that J-Tree’s successor, Bee’s Knees, had also closed. Perhaps some places aren’t meant to be gourmet wonderlands—and perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

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