God knows I love a restaurant where the pasta is made from hand-milled flour and the service is as polished as the decor and I feel like maybe I’m in Italy, not Boston at all. But then I also love a restaurant — I probably love this restaurant even more — that has been around forever, that has a crowded bar and eccentric regulars and dark wood booths bathed in the glow of the fruit-themed stained-glass lights overhead.
I always want to be eating meatballs at Anchovies.
At this South End institution (it’s impossible to write about the place without using that phrase), the drinks are strong, the food is laced with garlic and ladled with marinara, and each main course comes with an old-school house salad on the side. There are always specials — a lasagna of the night, maybe made with ground beef and spinach; baked ziti with chicken, hot sausage, smoked mozzarella, and an array of vegetables. You could order an appetizer of burrata with tomatoes and basil, or a chopped salad, but let’s be honest: Your table is going to want the Italian nachos, a pile of crisp corn chips topped with braised short-rib ragu, ricotta, and pepperoncini. It’s a comical cultural adaptation, and it’s delicious.
The linguine with meatballs and the chicken parm offer a satisfaction so predictable it’s soothing, but there are also sleeper hits on the menu. A friend ordered the chicken marsala with penne recently, and I silently doubted this decision, and then it came and it was also satisfying. You can get linguine with littlenecks either in a white wine and garlic butter sauce or with marinara, and there is no wrong choice; the steaming bowl arrives with another bowl plonked on top of the pasta, to be removed and used as a receptacle for the shells. The food here is both better than it has to be and not so good that it distracts you from the business of having some drinks and being with your people.
Those people might be anyone. There are customers of all social stations and ages, sports bros and students and gay couples and townies. The kitchen is open until 1:30 a.m., and the later it gets, the more it feels like bizarro world Cheers, the brick walls hung with taxidermy, old signs, and assorted bric-a-brac. There’s always a crush of regulars at the ornately carved mahogany bar. “Oh my God! You should have called me. I would have reserved a seat for you,” a bartender says to someone trying to squeeze in. I spot a woman I once did jury duty with at a table with her entire extended family, multiple generations having dinner together. I brought my son here when he was a toddler. Anchovies was my friends’ regular date night going back decades. They came for the dry martinis, and in truth they stayed for the dry martinis, but the reasonably priced food and warm welcome never hurt.
It is nice to be able still to go out for dinner and a beer in the South End for less than $50. All of the entrees here cost $18. For most customers, this probably just seems like a deal. For the Jew pilgrimaging to Anchovies, it is auspicious: In gematria, the Hebrew system of numerology, 18 is significant because it’s the sum of the letters that spell “chai,” or life; Jews often give gifts or donations in $18 increments. I am entirely willing to pay my bill that way, and to believe that Anchovies is some kind of mystical vortex, where all comers are welcome and time is elastic.
Because they don’t make them like this anymore, kiddo. Anchovies feels like the old South End, or an old South End, the one I think of as the real iteration of this neighborhood — a quirkier, gayer place with less money and more artists; the one where I once went to a wild party at a space called the Cloud Club, where Amanda Palmer played in the courtyard garden, and at the top of the building there was a glass dome filled with cushions you could lie on and look out at the surrounding rooftops. This is nostalgia speaking, I know. Ada Calhoun is the author of “St. Marks Is Dead,” a history of the New York street she grew up on: “If you’re complaining about the East Village, or New York in general, being dead, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that, yes, it is over — for you,” she once wrote in The New York Times. “But for plenty of others, the city is as full of potential and magic as it was in 1977. Or 1964. Or 1992. Or whenever you last walked down the street and felt like it belonged only to you.”
I can still go to Anchovies. I can still go to the Delux. You know what I really miss? Pho Republique. I guess the food was good, but I don’t remember it with any clarity — there were ribs we liked, I think? What I remember is that it was dark in there, that what light there was had a reddish cast, that you could be there comfortably even when you didn’t want to be seen. It felt like home, and it practically was: At one point I lived in the building overhead, and when I called down for takeout, I felt like Eloise.
Some restaurants, once they’re gone, you miss like characters in the story of your life. May Anchovies never disappear. I just couldn’t take the meatball-size hole in my heart.
433 Columbus Ave., South End, Boston, 617-266-5088, www.anchoviesboston.comDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.