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Carlins: Rediscovering a Landmark in Ayer, Massachusetts
Carlins Tavern, Ayer.
Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article
created on 1/11/18.
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The scene at Carlins in Ayer, Mass., looks forever familiar,
but, at the same time, offers something wonderfully different, unlike
any other time in its
history dating back to 1933.
The long bar, drinks selection, drinking buddy conversations,
friendly local staff and timeless, classic Main Street tavern exterior
well intact and keep
long-time faithful locals coming back. On the other hand, a growing
professional business community at nearby Devens, families moving to
Ayer and vicinity, a military contingent remaining from the days of a
fully operating Fort Devens and others seeking good dining options see
in a new light, as opposed to its dimly-lit barroom past.
The transformation is more loud and clear than the rock music that once
played at higher decibels in this renowned drinking establishment
version from the past.
Carlins has gone beyond hot dogs and frozen pizza heated up in the kitchenette oven
to offer an appealing restaurant menu that showcases foods made from scratch. The interior, while still somewhat
dimly-lit, shows increased signs of brightness, literally and
figuratively, as this beloved local landmark becomes more of a
family-friendly restaurant. You can see the excitement in owner Dave
Berry's thoughtful, articulate voice and in his hometown eyes, knowing
he has expanded upon that his
father Phillip's vision of running a popular, respected establishment
since 1973, as did the Carlin family prior to that.
"The tavern had undergone a number of transitions during World
War II, the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam as a military bar, biker bar and a
place for entertainment," said Berry. "It was time for a next generation vision."
Berry started working in the family-owned restaurant at 12-years-old, but
for many years never envisioned a career in the industry. Trained as a
fine artist, Berry earned bachelor's and master's degrees in sculpting
from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Mass., and,
point, had a large, beautiful spherical sculpture featured on the front
lawn of the famed DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. Not exactly a
starving artist, Berry still realized that more of a steady career
would better benefit his growing family. He returned home to Main
Street by assuming oversight of the restaurant that his father so
lovingly crafted through the years.
Berry realized, however, that the old school version of Carlins needed
further schooling to meet the needs of the new face of Ayer -- that is, by
offering an eating and drinking establishment with a foot in the 21st century and reducing the need to
drive into the city or somewhere else out of town for a similar dining
experience. He closed the
restaurant for several months and worked hard to create a new image for
Carlins. In October 2017, Carlins reopened with a new, significant place within
its own historic time line.
"My dad is excited for me," said Berry. "This is the next generation.
We have a new vision. We want to appeal to everyone by offering
families and individuals a clean restaurant with reasonably-priced food
in a family-friendly atmosphere. We definitely needed to move in a
different direction. Times and attitudes have changed. We no longer
a transient population from the military (installation). We need to
the next generation as Ayer has changed."
While still more bottle of beer than Botticelli, Carlins has also
definitely benefited from Berry's artistic eye. A new
countertop paints a more attractive look for the bar area, while the
small, cozy dining room takes on better aesthetics with brighter colors
and more complementary decor. A new, full kitchen better frames
the former kitchenette area, and the 30-seat outdoor patio comes across
as a fabulous-looking assemblage for the warmer seasons.
Carlins dining room. Photo by Sierra Young.
Additionally, Ayer plans to build a community park adjacent to Carlins
-- a potentially perfect scenario for those wanting to grab a bite
right next to this future green space in a increasingly revitalized
Carlins outdoor dining patio. Photo
by Sierra Young.
General manager Sierra Young perfectly
complements Berry's restaurant vision by bringing a strong managerial
approach to the
restaurant. Only 27, the friendly Acton native already possesses
several years in the restaurant industry. Young has all the earmarks of
a tremendous manager -- a good listener, kind to fellow employees,
assertive more than aggressive, faithful to ownership, and committed to
customer service. She worked at, and gained manager's experience
at The 99 Restaurants in Westford and West Concord, Mass., and like,
Berry, saw the vast potential in a "new Carlins."
"We make everything from scratch and look to source more locally soon,"
said Young. "This is just the beginning and I think people are really
going to like what we have to offer. We are already accomplishing that."
Carlins' menu is a work in progress -- a starter menu, at this point --
but still satisfies by offering
dishes better than what is found at similar restaurants in the
area. I recently tried a bacon cheddar burger with applewood
smoked bacon and homemade roasted garlic aioli that ranks among the
best personally experienced -- mouthwatering and
with that perfectly seasoned char-grilled taste (and huge!). Many of
those new burger places that
perceive themselves as being really good should embark on a field trip
Carlins to take notes and receive a "101 education" on what a burger
should taste like, and also to be reminded that servers and bartenders
who are kind
and humble are preferred to those with elite attitudes. That friendly
staff has gone a long way in making Carlins such a likable destination.
Cheddar burger with bacon and garlic aioli
sauce from Carlins.
Appetizer items, at this writing, include deviled eggs, zucchini chips,
poutine, grilled bone-in wings and boneless chicken tenders. Featured
dinners: pulled pork sliders, meatballs and crostini, grilled marinated
steak tips and a "Not Your Father's BLT" with bacon atop a spring mix
with fresh tomato and garlic aioli. Carlins also serves a Caesar salad, steak
tip Caesar, and garden salad.
Steak tip dinner from Carlins. Photo by Sierra Young.
For those concerned about the drinks element fading into the sunset at
Carlins, quite the opposite is true. A 24 draft beer system including
craft beers and three old-standby domestics brings more options that
quite frankly, no could could have ever envisioned many years ago
at Carlins. It all makes sense, though, as Carlins opened
the day after the Twenty First amendment to the U.S. Constitution
repealed the 18th Amendment -- in other words, lifting a 13-year
nationwide prohibition of alcohol near the end of 1933.
"Yes, we will always have drinks, " said Young. "We don't forget where
we came from."
New bar area at Carlins. Photo
by Sierra Young.
For those that know the Ayer area well, it was common to hear something after the work day
to the effect of, "Hey, we're headed out to Carlins for some drinks.
Wanna come along?" Today, or in the very new future, those words will
be, no doubt, changed to "Hey, we're headed out to Carlins for a home-cooked meal
and some drinks. Wanna come along -- and don't forget to bring the
As Berry puts it, "This is not your father's Carlins."
located at 7 Depot Square in Ayer, MA. Tel. (978) 772-2317. Web
Facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/CarlinsPage. Twitter page: http://www.twitter.com/CarlinsAyer. Carlins
opens at 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and will start opening for
lunch some time in the spring of 2018. Closed Mondays.
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