TheFOOD WHISPERER: NOT YOUR FATHER’S CARLINS
FROM THE HARVARD PRESS, BY PATTY MAHONEY
I headed over to Carlins restaurant in Ayer on a blustery late Saturday afternoon, seeking the comfort food and eclectic beer selection that neighbors on Nextdoor have been raving about. After hearing about the place’s colorful past, I was also curious to see if any remnant of it remained. People who grew up in the area remember Carlins— which first opened its doors 86 years ago and has changed ownership since then—as being, for lack of a better word, a dive bar. The clientele overwhelmingly consisted of military personnel stationed at Fort Devens and bikers. I’ve heard stories of ladies getting off the train at the Ayer station, which is located directly across the parking lot, and being greeted with hoots, hollers, and cat calls by drunken soldiers. More than one person told me they were afraid to go near the place back then, given its rowdy reputation. In recent years, however, Carlins has revamped itself from a dark hole in the wall to a bright, family friendly establishment offering good food and even better on-tap brews. My husband and I walked into a clean, tastefully decorated establishment painted in warm hues. Maps of Ayer are proudly displayed on the walls, adding a sense of community spirit. Sports lovers will appreciate the numerous wide-screen TVs perched throughout; when we were there they had the Bruins, downhill skiing, and college basketball playing. The volume on the TVs was muted, and instead of sports voice-overs, the sounds of classic rock filled the air. A laid-back vibe radiated from the granite bar as several couples quietly chatted with the bartender while enjoying their lunch. Carlins offers an affordably priced menu with starters including house-made bar nuts, macaroni and cheese, and Scotch eggs. Prices range from $4 to $8 (the cheese plate is market price). Lunch items fall in the $9 to $16 range and include various salads, sandwiches like a Cubano, and fried chicken. Dinner entrees ($16 to $20) include vegetarian ravioli, steak frites, and salmon. Bringing the little ones? Carlins offers a children’s menu complete with crayons for coloring. If family members grow bored while awaiting their meals, I spotted a Jenga game and a robot boxing game to keep the kids, young and old, entertained. For those adults who like to dance with Lady Luck, there’s a KENO machine next to the bar. In the warmer months, patio dining is available.
Flight of four
My husband, who’s currently on the keto diet (virtually no carbs, sugar, or fun) made the painful decision to skip the beer during this visit. I, on the other hand, dove head first into the carb-laden, multifarious draft beer menu. I chose the flight of four 5-oz pours for $12. I tried the High Water Ramble on Rose (Stockton, California), aged in wine barrels for a year with locally grown blueberries, rosebuds, rose hips, and pink peppercorns; Idle Hands Craft Ales Proème (Malden) with notes of stone fruit, tropical fruit, and bubblegum; SingleCut Beersmiths Kim Hibiscus Sour Lager (Astoria, New York), made with hibiscus flowers and black currant. This one had a pretty pink color and was my favorite taste-wise. My runner-up was the Pony Shack Cider Carlin’s ’33 Blend out of Boxborough. According to the beer menu, this is a custom blend made especially for the restaurant. Carlins has 24 local and nonlocal craft beers on tap that one would not find in most bars. It’s a diverse and unique list, and beer connoisseurs will enjoy taste-testing them all. My husband enjoyed the house special of the day, beef chili (he conveniently forgot beans have lots of carbs) and the dry-rub chicken wings. The cheeseburger and french fries hit the spot for me and solidified the fact that Carlins is a wise choice for a relaxed meal. Our bartender, who was pleasant and knowledgeable about the menu, said she doesn’t remember Carlins from the old days but has heard some crazy stories. She said in the ’80s and ’90s the Hell’s Angels even hung out there. By the look and feel of things nowadays, Carlins seems to be looking to attract a slightly more PG-rated,