Dorchester’s newest restaurant, the Lower Mills Tavern, will officially open its doors next week, just in time for Dorchester Day. It’s worth the wait.
The Reporter was given a chance to peek inside and sample a beer or two during a private, pre-opening event hosted by co-owner Ken Casey, the front man for the Dropkick Murphy’s, and his business partner, Brian O’Donnell, a Milton native who lives in Lower Mills and can walk to the new eatery. O’Donnell’s wife, the acclaimed interior designer Taniya Nayak, came up with the concept for the space, which sought to brighten and modernize what had become a tired-looking watering hole. The trio has succeeded in transforming the former Lower Mills Pub into a welcoming and cozy neighborhood hang-out that feels hip without a hint of pretentiousness.
“It was really important to us to get this right,” said Nayak, who has designed restaurants all over the world. “We know the Lower Mills Pub was there forever. We wanted it to feel a part of Lower Mills, but a revised version.”
This is the third joint venture for Casey and O’Donnell, who own and operate Central Bistro and McGreevey’s, an Irish-themed sports bar on Boylston Street. They are in the process of building out another restaurant space at the Ink Block in the city’s South End.
The Lower Mills project, initially slated for last fall, has enjoyed overwhelming support from the local civic association, which approved the developers’ pursuit of the pub in April 2015. But the Casey-O’Donnell team did not acquire the property until late last year, the sale having been prolonged by a licensing issue stemming from a decades-old dispute over the ownership under the previous management.
In January, the new owners transferred the old pub’s liquor license to their South End project, then sought and acquired a new license for the Lower Mills space.
Renovations went into high gear over the winter. Nayak says her husband would sometimes walk over to the space from their Milton home, pick up a jack-hammer, and pound away on the demolition work himself.
“This place feels like our baby,” she said. “We put so much into it and so much care. [Brian’s] dad would come in and help with the work. It’s very much a family place for us.”
Last weekend, during a private event that included patrons of the old pub, Nayak said she was elated that the feedback was so positive. “It needed a little update, it needed a change, but part of my design MO is making sure there’s always a tie back to something.”
In this case, Nayak and the team seized on a vintage mural that pre-dated even the old pub. The colorful oatmeal ad was painted on the side of an adjacent building and was left intact when the pub was built next to it, likely in the 1940s.
The mural now serves as a perfect backdrop for the bar. “It was the greatest thing,” said Nayak. “We found out that we had a few inches more mural to expose. We didn’t have to do much to it. We gave it a good scrub-down, but the colors are so vibrant, it held up.”
Nayak added her own touches elsewhere: tufted leather booths that are favored by O’Donnell and Casey in their other pubs. Large windows that swing open in warm weather line the Dot Ave frontage and let natural light pour into what was once a darkened space, but which now has room for 91 customers.
“It gives it that nice, cozy pub feel. You want to sit down and not get up.”
Nayak went to greath lengths to find the right vendor to install a throwback hexagon-shaped tile mosaic – with the initials LMT – that greets visitors at the entrance.
Casey was content to leave the finer design touches to Nayak. “I haven’t seen an idea of hers that I didn’t like,” said Casey, who is recording an album with his band and prepping for a month-long tour in Europe that starts next week. “We’re very fortunate to have her involved. What she did was just right: It’s a nod to the old place and also such a cool look to it.”
Casey has been just as impressed with the menu, which is coming together under the direction of 26-year-old Colton Wood, formerly of the Ashmont Grill and Loco.
“I came in for tastings a few times and the food was way better than I expected. You know, when we started, we just planned simple pub fare in the McGreevey’s style, but this has now become a legit awesome restaurant and I think people will really like it. I definitely think in this day and age people expect more,” he said.
Casey joked: “I’ve never had a black bean burger in my life, and I’m not the type to have one, but it is awesome.”
The tavern has also turned to its neighbors down the block to help design a signature dessert: The Ice Creamsmith teamed up with Colton to create an ice cream sandwich that Casey proudly dished out to friends last Sunday.
Despite the lack of a traditional stage, the tavern will still find room for music “a couple of nights a week,” said Casey. “If you take a space that’s already small and put in a kitchen where there wasn’t one before, you run out of room pretty fast,” he said. “But there’s a nice spot in front of windows to put in a riser and have a small three-piece.”
The tavern is still hiring and training staff, and the owners are careful to note that they are not open yet, despite some private events that included a visit from a prominent neighbor, Mayor Marty Walsh.
Casey said they’re excited that they’ll be throwing open the doors on May 31. “For me, this is an area where I know a lot of people. This is somewhere where I’ll spend time and bring the family to eat.”
O’Donnell and Nayak, who live just across the Neponset, will be regulars, too. The pub’s proximity to their home was what drew them to the project in the first place.
“The nice thing about having a place in the neighborhood is that we have felt that people are so supportive.”
Follow the team’s progress to the opening on Twitter: @LowerMillsTav