These working-class watering holes have food fit for a king
By Rita Savard
Nothing beats the simple satisfaction of bar food – burgers, fish and chips, wings and onion rings.
All go well with a pint, so belly up and follow Howl to the best bar food in the city.
But hear this: Don’t expect fancy. Do expect character. Because good taste at our favorite places all comes down to what’s on the plate.
333 Westford St.
This lower highlands bar became world-famous after Hollywood spotlighted it in The Fighter, the 2010 blockbuster about Lowell boxer Micky Ward’s epic rise to fame. But long before it made the big screen, locals knew the scrappy neighborhood blue-collar bar as the champion of dishing out delicious seafood.
The owners, brother and sister team Nicholas “Nick” Kozombolis and Maria Kozombolis-Lemay, get shipments of fresh seafood in every other day. They have to, says Maria. Food this good goes fast.
If winter blues get you down, a seafood plate at CJ’s helps your mind wander to summer days by the beach. Seriously, this food rivals any of those award-winning clam shacks along the Maine and Cape Cod coasts. The haddock arrives fresh from Gloucester. The clams, from Ipswich. The Boston sea scallops are huge. Nothing is pre-battered and thrown in a microwave. The heaping plates of fresh ocean catches are all made to order – cut, battered and baked right in the kitchen just like mom would do.
Nick and Maria’s parents, John and Stella Kozombolis, opened the kitchen and bar in 1961. Back then it was called the Lobster Basket. John learned how to cook seafood when he emigrated to the U.S. from Greece and worked in a clam shack along Route 1, near Biddeford, Maine. He passed those secrets down to his kids, who took over the business in 1983, when John passed away.
Captain John’s is a working-class heroes’ joint, where retired postal workers and veterans rub elbows with retired boxers, businessmen and the occasional hobo. The bar itself is like an old soldier, tattooed with the signatures of patrons past and present.
“Graffiti,” Maria calls the names carved into the wood. Even Micky Ward, who met his wife, Charlene, at CJ’s (she was a bartender there for about five years), has his name scrawled along the wall along with his friend and former opponent, the late great fighter, Arturo Gatti.
History, character and a heaping seafood plate for around $10, definitely gave the Howl Street Team something to howl about.
Best home cooked meal
The Whipple Café
394 Lawrence St.
Forget peanuts and pretzels. Probably one of the best kept secrets in Lowell, The Whipple Café is the place to come for food that tastes like good old fashioned home cooking. The kind your mom made with love.
Regulars at Paul Silva’s South Lowell pub have been licking their fingers for years. On Tuesday afternoon, patrons who already ate the day’s special were carting out extra meals for family members.
Nearly a pound of baked chicken with homemade gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce – all for the incredibly low price of $5.95.
“Thanksgiving on a plate,” says Bartender Latonja Johnson.
Satisfied customers couldn’t agree more.
“You can’t beat the price and you can’t beat the food,” says Deborah Perley, a longtime patron who was saddled with a couple of takeout bags. Dinners to bring home to her parents
Meatloaf. Prime Rib. Shepard’s Pie. Every day there’s a new special and the menu changes weekly, but the heaping portions are always affordable, and most often under $10.
Silva’s comfort food always hits the spot, especially when paired with a nice cold beer.
Best seasoned meats
373 Central St.
As one reviewer put it, this bar is the Cheers of Lowell. Cozy and inviting, the Back Central tavern allows strangers to make fast friends around its horseshoe-shaped bar.
And owner George Bernardo’s arsenal of secret sauces, knack for delicious seasoning and a hot trick or two up his sleeve has made the menu’s Portuguese meats the talk of the town.
Here, the Flaming Linguica (Portuguese sausage for $6.95) is the star of the show.
Pub fare at IV Seasons has made this bar one of the busiest at lunch time, when downtown lawyers, business professionals and blue-collar workers share laughs and stories over plates piled high.
Bernardo led Howl in Lowell up to the IV Season’s kitchen this week, which is spotless by the way, to show us how he prepares one of his most popular dishes.
Placing two large sausage links on the grill, the chef diverts his attention only for a minute to stir the secret sauce that goes into the bar’s famous seafood stew.
When the spiced, smoke cured sausage links are ready, Bernardo gives them a drink. He pours on a little Portuguese brandy, lights a match and whoosh – perfectly flaming linguica.
From steaks and sausages, to the Howl in Lowell tried and tested Seafood Stew, you simply can’t go wrong at this friendly, neighborhood tavern. One gigantic plus is plenty of outdoor seating in the summertime, so be sure to stop by for a cold one.
Best Burger in Lowell, and quite possibly the world
51 Fletcher St. (Sadly, Furey’s is now closed)
No one can touch this Acre neighborhood bar when it comes to grilling up the best cheeseburger on the planet. The secret, says bar manager Chris Alcorn, is in the bar’s 1960s grill that flame broils an unbelievably delicious patty every time.
The old “Ember Glo” has been at Furey’s longer than Alcorn has, and come June 2, he’ll be celebrating his 30th anniversary working behind the bar!
The bar has been standing at 51 Fletcher since 1966.
“This grill has years and years of character built into it,” he says. “It’s what makes the flavor of the burgers taste so great.”
About five years ago, when the bar went up for sale, a bidding war broke out over the grill. Thousands of dollars was offered up. But in the end, the old Ember Glo stayed with the bar and burger lovers everywhere rejoiced.
“This is the one place I’ll come to get a great burger,” says Mike Riley of Dracut. “It’s nice and juicy. Perfect, really.”
A neighborhood bar with a floor level stage, pool tables and dart boards, the people at Furey’s like to boast that theirs is the “friendliest bar in Lowell.”
There are a lot of friendly bars in Mill City. But Howl agrees the service from Chris Alcorn and those magical burgers ranks Furey’s high up in the top 10.
Got a favorite haunt or dish we just have to check out? Drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Video By Caroline Gallagher