Landmark pub celebrates 125th year

David Taber

Doyle’s Café, which this year celebrates 125 years of operation at the same Washington Street location, was one of Billy Burke’s first stops when he landed in Boston in 1897, according to his grandson, Jerry Burke Sr.

“All the Irish who landed in Jamaica Plain were told to go to Doyle’s to find out about employment and find a place to stay,” Burke said.

It was the beginning of what would become a close friendship between the Doyle and Burke families. A friendship solidified in 1920’s and 1930’s, during prohibition, when the Burkes supplied bootlegged liquor for the Doyle-family-owned speakeasy run out of the Washington Street location.

Through thick and thin, despite challenges presented by the country’s brief constitutional disfavor for alcohol consumption, and through the industrialization, deindustrialization and gentrification of JP, Doyle’s has remained a fixture of the landscape.

For much of its history, the restaurant was a “workingman’s pub,” Burke said. In 1907, then owner Barney Doyle decided expansion was necessary to accommodate the burgeoning population of Boston and crowds moving southwest from downtown via the elevated trolley line running down Washington Street.

Doyle uprooted the original building from its foundation and rolled it 60 feet northeast, from the corner of Williams Street up toward Gartland Street, on telephone poles. In a presentation sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society in 2005, Burke said the salient features of the expansion effort were an explicit commitment to rely solely on union labor and “the use of only the best materials available.”

The keen business sense of its proprietors over the years has played a key role in keeping Doyle’s in business while other bars on Washington Street, including a saloon on the corner of Rossmore and Washington operated, until prohibition, by Burke’s grandfather, have vanished.

The good name of James J. Braddock, for example, who was heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937, and never patronized Doyle’s, inspired then proprietor Francis Doyle to approach the Maryland-based distillers of Braddock’s whiskey with a proposition to essentially sell the naming rights to the bar.

The whiskey was named after a British General from the French and Indian War, but Francis Doyle offered to officially rename the establishment F.J Doyle and Co., DBA the Braddock Café, and to “push” Braddock’s whiskey. In exchange, Braddock’s refinished the front of the building, which had fallen into disrepair during prohibition and the depression. While the restaurant is commonly known as Doyle’s, its formal name, Braddock’s Café proudly adorns the front of the building.

Thriftiness may have been another factor.

A famous 1964 hold-up resulted in the shooting death of one of the would-be robbers by Billy Doyle, grandson of original owner. The incident is often described by Burke as “the only 4 shot’s Billy Doyle ever gave away for free.”

In 1971 Billy Doyle sold the pub to Jerry Burke Sr.’s brother, Edward Burke.

JP had fallen on hard times. “You couldn’t even get the cops to come down here,” Burke said. Everyone thought Edward Burke was crazy for buying the place, but his strategy of creating a comfortable atmosphere and serving quality food at a time when JP mostly closed down at 6 P.M. and “you could maybe get a hot dog on Centre Street,” proved to be a winner.

Doyle’s established an early relationship with Sam Adam’s Brewery when the beer makers opened up shop in JP in the early 1980’s. The pub is one of the three drinking establishments in Boston that regularly premiers Sam Adam’s new concoctions. Doyle’s is currently testing a new Sam Adams “Tall Ship” brew.

One long-time patron said she recalls Doyle’s being one of the first pubs to offer a wide beer selection including micro-brews.

Edward and Jerry, along with their brother Billy, managed the tavern for over two decades. Jerry was the last of the three Burke brothers involved in operating the café, and, in June 2004, he handed the reins to his son, Jerry Burke Jr., and godson Chris Spellman.

Burke Sr. still treats the bar as his “clubhouse,” he said.

He worked as a precinct captain under Kevin White in the 1960s and now curates a rogue’s gallery of local political luminaries on the walls of the cavernous watering hole.

Photographs of former Gov. Michael Dukakis, Sen. Ted Kennedy, then presidential candidate Bill Clinton, late US Rep. Joe Moakley, and countless others, drinking, dining, and generally enjoying themselves at Doyle’s, speak to the pub’s character.

There is a photograph, taken in the 1980’s, during Ray Flynn’s tenure as Mayor, of Flynn along with former Boston Mayor Kevin White and then City Councilor Thomas Menino, who, Burke said, “had just stopped in to pick up a pizza.”

These days the bar hosts weekly meetings of a group called Retired Opinion Makers Eating Out (ROMEO). The social get-togethers are attended by the likes of former state Senate President William Bulger, former state Sen. Jim Hennigan Jr. and former Attorney General and state Rep. Robert Quinn, Burke said.

A lot of Doyle’s appeal at this point is based on nostalgia, Burke, said. “We are a dinosaur. I don’t know if we will make it in the long run,” he said, pointing to numerous challenges facing independent operators in today’s business environment.

Famously, Doyle’s has been a cash only establishment since 1882. They recently started accepting major credit cards.

In general, Burke said, he thinks things are better today than they were in the past. There are more things to do and more opportunities for young people than there were when he was growing up. “There is no excuse to be bored,” he said.

And, he said, he appreciates JP’s commitment to developing green space over the last 30 years. Everything from parks to the elephant yard at the Franklin Park Zoo used to be asphalt, he said. “It was terrible.”

But he has spent his last 36 years at a 125 year-old bar. “I see a lot of ghosts now, people that have come and gone,” he said staring wistfully out the window across a sun-drenched Washington Street, un-shaded by the long-gone elevated train tracks, at a lush green Boston English sports field.

Doyle’s 125th anniversary celebration is tentatively scheduled for September 15.

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