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Original Issue

Requiem for a Beloved Bar

Before it closed in 1996, the Eliot Lounge in Boston was one of the best sports bars ever

ONCE, THERE WAS a place where nobody batted an eye the night the horse walked in. The horse stopped to visit with everyone sitting at the bar, and then it took eight people to get him out again, and nobody in the place thought it at all remarkable, though they thought the horse well-behaved.

Once, there was a place where the Stanford band marched in playing Truckin' and marched out playing White Punks on Dope. Once, there was a place where Fuzzy Zoeller came in for a drink at the end of the day and wound up tending bar until four in the morning, in contravention of every local ordinance. Once, there was a place where a future Olympic gold-medal runner spent the night of the Boston Marathon biting complete strangers on their hindquarters and playing the trumpet besides. Citius, altius, munchius, with a flourish.

And then there was the day in 2000 when I had just finished writing a book and I was halfway to my car on my way to toast the occasion before I remembered that the place wasn't there anymore. All of the celebration went out of me and into the air because there didn't seem to be any real place for it to go.

I first went to the Eliot Lounge, in 1979, for the food--specifically for the free happy-hour snacks. I had taken a job with The Boston Phoenix, the offices of which were located directly across Massachusetts Avenue from the Eliot in Boston's Back Bay. The Phoenix salaries were as underground as the copy, so cheddar on a Ritz fulfilled my most basic nutritional requirement. Namely, that it was free. I was in there after work every night, more or less, for the next five years.

The place had already achieved some standing by the time I started going there. Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee famously commented after his loss to Cincinnati in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, "[Don] Gullett will go to the Hall of Fame, and I will go to the Eliot Lounge." (For the record, Lee was only half right.) And the Eliot became famous for its association with the Boston Marathon, which ran right by the place every April. But it's fair to call the Eliot a "sports bar" only if the emphasis is placed--as it properly should be--on the second word. The Eliot was a great sports bar because it was a great bar.

It opened shortly after Prohibition closed down; old-timers remembered that there once was an organ suspended above the bar that played tunes for the spooning swells in the darkened corners. The place fell into disrepair--it got so dead, people used to come there to play chess--and languished until Tommy Leonard came to work there in 1972 as the daytime bartender.

He was an orphan with the same birthday as FDR. A former Marine and a runner himself--SI ran a picture of him, head down, pushing through the end of the 1956 Boston Marathon--Tommy was the heart and soul of what the Eliot became. He was a man of unbridled, limitless passions that ran in a hundred different directions, all at the same time. (Once, smitten by Jessica Lange's performance in Tootsie, Tommy briefly abandoned his Budweiser and began drinking Chablis, as Lange's character in the movie does, resulting in the Los Alamos of hangovers.) I remember one particular afternoon during my first year as a regular. Jacqueline Gareau of Canada had been the actual winner of the women's division of the 1980 Boston Marathon. However, she'd famously crossed the finish line after Rosie Ruiz. Eventually, the marathon officials had a little ceremony at which Gareau got her medal and laurel wreath, but Leonard didn't think that was enough. So he brought Gareau and her husband to the Eliot, where she got a couple dozen roses and a spirited chorus of O Canada from the assembled at the bar, albeit a chorus that fell into heartfelt babble long about, "the true North, strong and free." Gareau cried a little, and we all cheered and stayed in the place for a very long time.

There are occasional Eliot reunions, but they're not at the Eliot. That's been gone since the bar lost its lease and closed in 1996. I rarely go to the reunions. You can see the people, but you can't live the days again. Once, there was a place, you see, and once, there were the days.

--Charles P. Pierce




Leonard, the Eliot's barkeep, built a sense of community through sports.