A Memorable Dining Experience

October 25, 2011
By

Despite the scores of autographed photos and countless other pieces of sports memorabilia that adorn the walls of West Side Johnnie’s, owner John Caron insists the Portland Street establishment isn’t a sports bar.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia here, but not just sports,” Caron said. “It’s also politics religion, movies and music.”

A Melrose native, Caron amassed the formidable collection on display at West Side Johnnie’s (formerly Johnnie’s On the Side) during his lengthy stint as facilities manager of Fenway Park, and before that as an employee of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings.

Photos personally signed to Caron offer a who’s who of Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots history. Jim Rice was the first Boston pro ballplayer to sign a painting of Ted Williams hanging across from the first-floor bar, while a similar tribute to Bobby Orr now boasts the signatures of several Bruins.

Original lockers and seats from Fenway are prominently displayed near the restaurant’s entrance, but Caron points to a framed Pats cut-off hoodie signed by head coach Bill Belichek as among the most rare items in the collection.

“That’s a one of a kind,” Caron said. “No one else has one of those.”

Of interest to movie enthusiasts, an autographed photo of Sean Connery in his iconic role as James Bond is located behind the first-floor bar, next to a 2-foot statue of the star as a tuxedo-clad 007 that he personally gave to Caron.

Other signed shots include Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Stephen Wright and Conan O’Brien, whose inscription includes instructions for Caron not to serve any of his relatives more than two drinks over the course of an evening.

Downstairs in the West End Lounge, autographed photos of Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall dot the walls, along with gold records given to Caron by B.B. King and Guns N’ Roses. An original model gopher from the 1980 comedy classic “Caddyshack” is tucked away amongst various collectables behind the bar.

Various relics from Boston’s history are on display throughout the restaurant, including original neon signs from Back Bay Station and the Naked i – once amongst the seediest establishments in the Combat Zone – as well as wooden placards from the Public Garden and the long-shuttered Howard Theatre in Scollay Square. Many of these items, Caron said, were gifts or purchased for a nominal fee.

The Red Room, located adjacent to a large first-floor window designed to resemble the Green Monster scoreboard, contains a museum-worthy trove of political collectables. In addition to autographed photos of every U.S. President from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, a portrait of John F. Kennedy is signed by Mayor Thomas Menino, Sen. Scott Brown and other local elected officials. Nearby, a framed photo shows a mustachioed Caron in the Oval Office during a visit to the White House in the late ‘80s.

“The theme here is upscale casual,” Caron said. “You can come in wearing flip flops or a suit and still be comfortable.”

The dinner menu also reflects this philosophy.

Besides comfort food standards, like salads, burgers and mac-and-cheese, other upscale offerings include a grilled tuna steak, a double bone-in pork chop and a grilled bone-in rib eye that Caron said he would confidently put up against the cuts from the Back Bay’s much-lauded steak house Abe and Louie’s.

“We’re a restaurant, primarily…and we don’t serve bar food,” Caron said.

West Side Johnnie’s does serve up an eclectic array of live music, however, with R&B on Thursday nights, country on Saturdays and a reggae brunch every Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. (Friday nights feature deejays, both upstairs and down.)

Meanwhile, Hip Pocket Orchestra – a veteran 10-piece show band from the Boston area – covers songs by artists ranging from Sinatra to Michael Jackson once a month, including Wednesday, Nov. 9, from 7 to 10 p.m.

“Where else can you go see a 10-piece band and eat dinner while you listen?” Caron asked.

West Side Johnnie’s is located at 138 Portland St. For more information, visit www.westendjohnnies.com or call 617-227-1599.

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