Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Kenmore Square and Fenway
More than a bookstore and a red, white, and blue sign
This article was originally published on March 4, 2009; it has been updated to include new locations and current information as of 2012.
Not so much a square as a confusing convergence and confluence of Commonwealth Avenue, Brookline Avenue, and Beacon Street, Kenmore Square has several claims to fame—first may be its six-story Barnes & Noble at BU, the largest bookstore in Boston. Well, perhaps books come second, after the neighborhood’s best-known landmark, the famous Citgo Sign, which hovers near a little box of a baseball field called Fenway Park. A product of the 1960s, the sign’s 281,000 red, white, and blue LED lights serve as a beacon at night, visible from both sides of the Charles River.
For years, Kenmore Square was little more than a busy doorstep to Fenway, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. Prior to the 1960s, it was part of Boston’s Auto Mile, famous for more than 100 automobile dealerships. The 1970s ushered in a new era, when partiers from all over the region thronged to the infamous Rathskeller, a punk-rock venue that helped launch the careers of the Ramones, R.E.M., and the Police, among others.
It was around this time that the dreadlocked Mr. Butch, possibly the city’s most famous homeless man before his death in 2007, moved to the neighborhood. The subject of YouTube videos, a MySpace tribute page, and a Wikipedia entry, Mr. Butch, whose real name was Harold Madison, Jr., gained notoriety for his involvement in Kenmore’s underground rock scene. When he died, 1,000 mourners attended his memorial.
During the 1980s, Kenmore Square fell into disrepair. By the 1990s, even the Red Sox were threatening to leave. But the 2002 opening of the Hotel Commonwealth, backed by the University, sparked a renaissance, helping transform the neighborhood into a dining and nightlife destination. Kenmore has resurrected—today it is lively, diverse, a mini-hub within the Hub.
4 Yawkey Way
Home of the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park is the oldest, the most famous, and arguably the most interesting baseball stadium in the United States. The park opened on April 20, 1912. With a capacity of just 37,402 spectators, Fenway is one of Major League Baseball’s smallest stadiums, and the Sox have sold out every home game since May 15, 2003. Because of its age and constrained urban location, renovations and additions have resulted in some unique and quirky features, most notably left field’s famous Green Monster—a 37-foot wall that prevents home runs on many line drives that would clear the walls of other ballparks, but turns some pop-ups into game-winners. Fenway Park tours include a 50-minute walk around the ballpark, with stops at the Budweiser right field roof deck, the State Street Pavilion, the Green Monster seats, and the left field grandseats. Tour schedules and rates vary. For more information, call 617-226-6666.
645 Beacon St.
Built in 1897 and designed by Stanford White, one of America’s most famous architects, the Hotel Buckminster was the largest building in Kenmore Square when it was completed. Over the years, the hotel has played a notable role in the city’s history. Here the plan to “fix” the 1919 World Series was hatched, and 10 years later, in 1929, the hotel was the site of the nation’s first network radio broadcast. During World War II, part of the hotel was used to hold Italian prisoners of war. In the 1950s, George Wein (CAS’50) opened the popular jazz club Storyville, in the hotel, where legendary artists like Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Louis Armstrong performed. Today, the hotel bills itself as “Boston’s only true budget hotel.”
An oasis of green, the Emerald Necklace is a series of nine parks covering 1,100 acres designed in the late 19th century by one of the nation’s foremost landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. Olmsted designed the parks, which are linked by parkways and waterways, to provide a respite from urban living for people of all classes. The necklace begins at the Boston Common, winds through the Back Bay Fens (a former saltwater marsh in the Fenway), and ends at 527-acre Franklin Park, the city’s largest park. The Emerald Necklace has numerous walking trails and bike paths and various events throughout the year. More information and maps are available here.
Culture and entertainment
Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Ave.
The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the nation’s largest art institutions, with a collection of nearly half a million objects. It is also one of the most popular, with more than a million visitors each year. Famed for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection, including works by Manet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, among others, the MFA also holds an extraordinary collection of Chinese art, Egyptian artifacts, and the largest collection of Japanese art anywhere outside of Japan. The Art of the Americas wing opened in 2010, adding 53 galleries and enough new exhibition space to display over 5,000 American objects, more than double the previous number. It houses the MFA’s extensive American art collection, including numerous works by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, and American impressionists Childe Hassam and John Twachtman. MFA admission is free for BU students.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
280 The Fenway
The Isabella Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s most beloved cultural institutions. Situated in a replica of a 15th-century Venetian palace, the museum contains artwork collected by prominent Boston art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). Gardner helped design the museum, personally overseeing how the collection was hung. At the center of the four-story palace is a mesmerizing courtyard filled with flowers year-round. The museum’s distinguished collection comprises more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts, rare books, and decorative arts, all reflecting the specific tastes of Gardner and her husband, Jack. Among them are works by Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sargent. The Gardner also plays host to a highly regarded concert series held in the courtyard. The museum made international headlines in 1990 when a pair of thieves masquerading as Boston police officers entered the building and stole 13 works of art, including priceless works by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The thieves have never been caught and no works recovered, making it one of the world’s greatest art heists.
Buy tickets here. Student discounts are available.
House of Blues
15 Lansdowne St.
The newest addition to Lansdowne Street, the House of Blues officially opened in February 2009, returning to the area after vacating an early incarnation in Cambridge. Formerly home to the dance clubs Axis and Avalon, this 53,000-square-foot concert venue, restaurant, and bar headlines a new musical act nearly every night of the week. Founded in 1992 by Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett and actor Dan Aykroyd, the chain features blues, some folk, and Southern-inspired cuisine. Up-to-date performance info is here.
145 Ipswich St.
Jillian’s Boston, a 70,000-square-foot, three-story entertainment complex, offers billiards in a 52-table pool parlor, an upscale bowling alley, a spring break–themed dance club (Tequila Rain), plasma TVs, five full bars, and two restaurants. Most patrons come for the bowling, but take note: despite 16 lanes, weekend waits have been known to top two hours.
464 Commonwealth Ave.
The 22-year-old Comicopia stocks several thousand comic books and trade paperbacks, from X-Men to Batman to Buffy. New comics arrive every Wednesday, and the store carries a huge selection of indie and self-published titles, as well as an extensive manga and graphic novel collection.
466 Commonwealth Ave.
A Kenmore Square landmark since 1988, Kenmore Collectibles specializes in Boston sports memorabilia and vintage coins. This tiny shop boasts the city’s largest selection of Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox, and New England Patriots collectibles and souvenirs—ideal gifts for the folks back home. Patrons receive 5 percent off packs and boxes of cards every Friday.
486 Commonwealth Ave
Nuggets has been supplying BU students with music since 1978. With more than 10,000 rare and out-of-print titles, this repository of pop culture sells several decades’ worth of tunes, used promo glossies, and old copies of rock magazines, as well as videos and DVDs. Check out the store’s extensive collection of local music. Short on cash? No worries. Customers can buy, sell, and trade.
The Bleacher Bar
82A Lansdowne St.
Opened in 2008, the Bleacher Bar lies under Fenway Park’s center field bleachers, a few feet from the Ted Williams Red Seat, which commemorates the Splendid Splinter’s 1946 502-foot home run, the longest ever hit into the Fenway bleachers. Offering a wide range of local brews on tap and deli classics like roast beef and pastrami, you’ll find something to satisfy your hunger and thirst whilst getting an amazing view of the field—all at a reasonable price. The Bleacher Bar provides patrons with the experience of an All-American pub while steeping in the history of Fenway Park. It is open off-season as well as when the boys of summer play.
Boston Beer Works
61 Brookline Ave.
The brews on tap at Boston Beer Works always flow. This Beantown landmark, just a curveball from Fenway Park, specializes in a changing assortment of 16 beers, including the Bambino and a blueberry ale. You’ll need two hands for the burgers, and the appetizers range from traditional (wings and onion rings) to obscure (fried pickles and sour cream and chive fries).
654 Beacon St.
Boston bleeds green, especially on Saint Patrick’s Day, but it was colonized by the Brits. Even so, British pubs are a rarity around here, but with its steaming plates of bangers and mash and pints of hard-to-find English ales, Cornwall’s tops the list. The pub is an excellent choice for a glass of London Pride and a game of darts or a round of Scrabble—the bar stocks a shelf of board games.
528 Commonwealth Ave.
Located in the Hotel Commonwealth, Eastern Standard is one of Kenmore Square’s fanciest restaurants. Menu items are pricey and range from seared striped bass with eggplant, kalamata olives, fennel confit, and pistachio butter to a bone-in rib-eye with asparagus, hollandaise, and beer-battered onion rings. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the butter-poached escargot or crispy frogs’ legs.
Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave.
Known for its superb cuisine, innovative décor, and a staff that knows the menu and wine list inside out, Island Creek Oyster Bar serves high-quality seafood and oysters. The raw bar, with an array of some of the freshest oysters to be had anywhere in Boston, is undoubtedly the main attraction. It also offers an innovative cocktail list. Island Creek isn’t cheap, but it’s an excellent place for a celebratory dinner.
484 Commonwealth Ave.
Rated Boston’s best Indian restaurant by Zagat, India Quality is the destination if you’re craving a warm, spicy curry. With more than 40 entrees, including beef, lamb, chicken, and vegetarian options, the selection can be overwhelming. If you’re having trouble deciding, the Dinner for Two and Dinner for Four options include a good cross-section.
Petit Robert Bistro
468 Commonwealth Ave.
For a truly French experience that doesn’t involve transatlantic airfare, there’s Petit Robert Bistro. It’s not difficult to find; just look for the miniature Eiffel Tower out front. The prices are reasonable by French standards, with all entrées under $20. Try the soupe à l’oignon gratinée and the escalopes de venison with blueberries and foie gras. And be sure to save room for a pastry bar with more than a dozen desserts.
1301 Boylston St.
Tasty Burger is not your average burger joint. Named after a line in the film Pulp Fiction, this edgy restaurant is covered with artworks of Pulp Fiction on all four walls. With a menu that is easy on the wallet and fast food that leaves your mouth watering for more, Tasty Burger lives up to its name. Most visitors enjoy the Big Kahuna Burger—also a Pulp Fiction reference—and the Spicy Jalapeño. It’s open until 2 a.m. every day, just in case you have a midnight craving for a burger.
To get there
To Kenmore Square: take any MBTA Green Line trolley to the Kenmore Square stop or walk down Comm Ave. To Fenway: take the MBTA Green Line D trolley to the Fenway stop. To Fenway Park: walk down Brookline Avenue from Kenmore Square; the park is on your left. To the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: take the MBTA Green Line E trolley to the MFA stop or the #39 bus from Copley Square to the Museum stop.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Kenmore Square and Fenway area.