The dives are everywhere. City ordinance demands they can't be smoke-filled anymore, and the FBI would have you believe that all the hoods and wiseguys are gone, but the rest of the markings are there. The kind of place where you're not sure what's been there longer, the guy on the end stool or the pre-mixed cocktail in the Smirnoff bottle with the label peeled off.
Not that there's anything wrong with them. Andy Barros knows; he used to own one. The Vulcan Café, he acknowledges, was "a hole in the wall," and a whole lot worse.
That's why he thinks he's got something special with this new place, Gigi's Palace, which replaced the Vulcan. It's a class joint.
"There aren't too many places around here like this, nice places," Barros, 29, says, fiddling with the sound and effects system in his Bowdoin Street bar on Friday afternoon.
Barros compares his joint to the Blarney Stone, the upscale-type, modern Irish pub in Fields Corner. He walked in there one day, he says, and liked what he saw. There are myriad gin mills in the area whose purpose is to provide a good place to tell stories and a better place to hide out, and Barros says he wanted Gigi's place to capture something different.
"A lot of these people are hard-working people, they're nice people," Barros says. "They deserve something like this."
So they get Gigi's Palace, newly-renovated and opened five weeks ago. The new establishment comes at a good time; a few weeks back, the Bowdoin-Geneva business community was shaken when the Yellow Brick Road Ice Cream Company, right down the street from Gigi's, closed, leaving an empty storefront in place of a vibrant gathering spot. Neighborhood people pointed to the renascent Gigi's as consolation.
"It's been a difficult setting for the neighborhood in the past," says Davida Andelman of the Bowdoin Street Health Center across the street. "Andy is a young, energetic guy who really wants to contribute to the neighborhood, and he already has."
Barros says he sunk $50,000 in renovations to the new place, including an expensive bartop and cherrywood floors, both from Brazil. There are $50 shots on the top shelf, an expensive sound system, and a little machine that spews bubbles from the ceiling. The crowd looks like guys in their thirties and forties shooting a game of pool and watching soccer on TV. Pub food, he says, is on the way. On weekends, it's proper dress only, and Barros says there hasn't been a single fight, not one argument, since Gigi's opened.
"That's a good sign," he says.
The bar is the legacy and bears the name of his father, Gigi Barros, whose portrait hangs behind the bar, and who owned both the Vulcan and Gigi's Liquors on Harvard St., which also is still in the family, before his murder in 1992. His father was coming to the aid of a woman in the liquor store being threatened by a man against whom she had a restraining order. The man left the store, and returned later to fire two shots, one of which struck and killed his father, Barros remembers, calmly sipping an apple martini at the bar.
The gunman got life in jail, and the Barroses, Andy's mother, his older sister, Theresa, and his younger brother, John, were left without husband and father. At a family meeting shortly after he died, Gigi's parents decided to keep everything. Andy was 18 years old.
"He is what keeps us going every day," Barros says of his father.
Now he is a father of his own brood, four daughters, and married to Jessica. "They're what I've got," Barros says. "I've got something to look forward to in the future, something to work toward, so they wouldn't have to work as hard as I did."
Working hard is part of the family business. Andy heads day-to-day operations, but the family is all still involved. Jessica is behind the bar and, as yet, there's only one other employee at Gigi's. If the crowd builds, Barros says, he'll add more. He's planning promotions with liquor companies to build a client base, hoping the upscale feel will make the joint a welcoming neighborhood bright spot.
The aesthetic appeal and change in clientele, Andelman says, are Gigi's Palace's biggest selling points, and Barros eagerly hustles around, pointing out amenities and talking plans for the future. Wearing a plaid shirt and a Red Sox hat, he points to the wall where he wants to mount the saltwater fish tank, wonders if piranhas are legal, and muses about caging a panther. A visitor eyes his complimentary Budweiser nervously.
Barros says the redesign strikes at the heart of what Gigi's Palace is about.
"I did it a way that, if I was a customer, this would be a place where I would want to come and drink," he says. So there's a the granite bar, palm trees on the way, expensive bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue and Grand Marnier.
The new feel, Barros and everyone else in Bowdoin-Geneva hope, will attract the barflies who want to relax, and ward off the bad-news customers.
Barros doesn't think they'll want to come in, anyway. He looks up from the soundboard set in the back of the room, pool balls clacking, a Cher remix on the stereo, and a few guys standing around watching soccer and drinking beer. No trouble in sight, Barros says. "Why?" he's asked.
"It's too nice in here." Cheers to that.