Piano, Pageants & Politics

What ever happened to Jacob Wirth?

It’s been a year now since a kitchen fire disabled Jacob Wirth: the Theatre District’s German beer hall boasting the title of “2nd oldest restaurant in Boston” and a cameo appearance in the latest Ghostbusters film, at the time of its demise. Still, at least once a week, I get a message in my Facebook or Instagram inbox asking some variation of the question I gave up trying to figure out a while ago: When is Jacob Wirth reopening?

I wasn’t the owner. I wasn’t the manager. I didn’t work there full-time—even “part-time” would be a charitable designation. I played the piano there every Saturday night; although my residency didn’t span 25+ years like our Friday night guy, Mel, for a few years that place was my home. We had a few good Oktoberfests, Marathon Mondays, Halloweens, St. Patrick’s Days, Red Sox games, social media challenges and other freezing, dismal nights that escalated into 300 strangers screaming Sweet Caroline at the top of their lungs. I also use nights at Jake’s as a reference point for personal milestones; on the eve of my college graduation, I performed there until 2am, only to throw on a commencement gown a few hours later. Those walls (and staff) saw many boyfriends come and go and smiled at them all the same. I was introduced to thousands of people and dozens of friends I still keep in touch with today. Early in my tenure at Jake’s, I met a group of underage college students who religiously attended Saturday night sing-alongs and sang along to every. Damn. song. When each of them actually turned 21, we celebrated at Jacob Wirth and after they came in for the last time right before graduation, I honestly missed seeing them around. This was just one of the many groups of regulars—and we had a lot of them, of all different ages, races and backgrounds. That’s the cool thing about piano bars; they don’t attract one particular demographic of people, but people from all walks of life who possibly share nothing else in common but an eagerness to belt Bohemian Rhapsody after a few beers.

Because Jake’s kitchen was open pretty late and we were walking distance from many of the hotels, there was no shortage of people spontaneously showing up from around the country and around the world; I loved being one of their first impressions of my city. I have endless stories about the never-ending rotation of interesting people, college students (and their professors), wedding parties, tourists, politicians, athletes, celebrity sightings, Tinder dates, forbidden lovers and drunk idiots that sang with me. On the best nights, as well as the worst nights, this was the type of place that embodied the plot line of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”. I remember the first night as well as I remember the last.

At the end of each show, I’d walk back to my car in Chinatown---which was usually illegally parked, technically, but something I knew I could get away with on a Saturday night. I remember walking down the street late one night and thinking “there is going to be a day when this all comes to an end”. See, there is an unspoken understanding when you work at a bar, especially as a musician, that every gig has a shelf life. We knew we were in trouble when the place went up for sale (I still remember getting the text from a regular to the Boston Globe link). We didn’t talk about it, but like a wildcard team in the post-season, the staff knew any weekend could be our last. Of course, we could’ve never suspected that it all would’ve come to a halt they way it did, but in this industry, you start to become numb to these circumstances.

If a night was particularly awesome or particularly awful, I’d grab a post-performance drink at the Tam around the corner, another recent casualty in Boston’s dive bar landscape. It seems that more and more, the Boston where everyone knows your name is being phased out, replaced by posh nightclubs and the ritzy Seaport hotel bars I now occasionally perform at. I suppose that is a side effect of maturing into one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Over the past year, I have traveled around the world performing and whenever I mention I’m from Boston, I’m 1) asked if I went to Berklee and 2) met with the same one-liners about “pahking the cah in Hahvad yahd” and other overplayed Boston-isms. Often, the conversation somehow leads back to Jake’s--it was one of those places that everyone just knew. A few months ago, someone joked about being a little more afraid of me once they knew I was from Boston. I obligatorily laugh, but we all know that Boston, with a thick accent and genuine disappointment over a Sox loss, is dwindling. Today’s Boston, where the future of the Citgo sign was temporarily uncertain and Starbucks apparently belongs in the North End, is more preoccupied with oat-milk lattes and $30 fitness classes. I guess this is happening everywhere and maybe I’m just increasingly sensitive to it when I return home every few months. But on a Saturday night, places like Jacob Wirth kept that Boston preserved—or at least we pretended it did.