By Rita Savard
Away from the rush of the city, past old New England homes, the village green and farmland, there’s a down-home kind of place that’s been serving the thirsty traveler for almost 300 years.
Welcome to The Bull Run in Shirley. Built in 1740, it’s one of the oldest watering holes in New England and this cherished grandaddy of a hangout is bursting at the woodwork with stories — a resident ghost named Nigel, a wall mural painted by Ben Affleck’s grandma, an iconic roof-top bull named Sandy and an Egopantis head hanging above the fireplace to name a few.
Ego what you ask? We’ll get to that later.
A touchstone to Shirley’s history, this small-town tavern is attracting a whole new generation of food, beer and music connoisseurs.
Legends like Dr. John, Leon Russell and Levon Helm have put on legendary shows in the Bull Run’s Sawtelle Room, an intimate venue with a powerful and crisp sound system. (click here for concert schedule)
And acts on the verge of hitting the big time, like Nemes, Darlingside and Liz Longley are quick to put the historic pub on their road maps.
“It’s a very unique place,” says owner Alison Tocci. “It was built for comfort and built to last. From the moment the public was welcomed through the doors here 300 years ago, it earned a reputation for being a boots-off, sit by the fire and relax kind of place. And that really hasn’t changed. Whether you’re coming in for dinner, a show or just drinks, people really feel at home here.”
Look around and you’ll find characters of all ages sipping spirits round a roaring fire, from the hipster baby-faced beardos in Chucks to pony-tailed and tie-dyed dads, buttoned-up college professors and blue-collar farm hands.
The building itself is time travel pure and simple.
In the Early American Room, just off the tavern, the pre-Revolutionary era floorboards creak under foot. Here you get a true sense of New England’s horse and carriage hey-day, when news from one town to the next was passed down through its travelers.
Formerly known as The Stagecoach Inn, the clapboard building at 215 Great Road was the first stop on the Boston to Albany route.
Alison says it was the place to be for county dances. That’s where Nigel the ghost comes in.
Nigel was supposed to meet his lover at the tavern, where they planned to run off together. Except she never showed up. Nigel, as the story goes, never recovered from his broken heart and continues to wait for her.
“My husband poo-pooed the story for 25 years until he was alone in one of the rooms one day and had his own strange encounter,” Alison says. “But he appears to be a friendly ghost so we’ve learned to coexist. Whenever something goes missing around here or seems to mysteriously move from one place to another, it’s usually blamed on Nigel.”
The Bull Run has been in owner Alison Tocci's family since 1946. The mural behind her was painted by Ben Affleck's grandmother, Nancy.
The Bull Run’s present-day name is rumored to have been born out of a bar brawl in the Tap Room.
According to legend, a group of patrons got into a heated debate over the Battle of Bull Run that escalated to full-on fisticuffs. By the time the scuffle was over, only the burly bartender was left standing. Just then, a late comer entered the bar asking, “what news of the battle?”
“We just fought the Battle of Bull Run right here,” was the bartender’s answer.
The name stuck.
Alison’s dad, an Italian immigrant named Leonardo Guercio, bought the building in 1946.
At that time, The Bull Run was the area’s exclusive power center. A meeting point close to Boston, yet still far enough way, it was a place where the common man, politicians and celebrities of yesteryear could be themselves and enjoy a drink.
This was where Alison’s parents first met.
Leo was no-nonsense. The type of gentleman who wiped down your spot at the bar, put down a napkin and asked for your order. And he remembered exactly how the regulars took their drinks.
An attractive brunette named Mary came in on a date in 1948. She ordered a Southern Comfort Manhattan with two cherries. Leo only added one.
“I understand you’re the new owner,” Mary said. “You know, the secret to success is attention to detail.”
Leo chatted with the couple for the rest of the night and ended up dancing with Mary.
The rest as they say, is history. The couple’s wedding photo, along with many others that tell the tavern’s colorful story through time, hangs on the wall.
Since 1740, the Bull Run has grown, adding rooms and always, adding family. From birthdays and funeral suppers to weddings and milestones, this Shirley institution has helped define its patrons as much it’s fed them.
Part of that lure today has a lot to do with Executive Chef Isaac Carter.
Carter was Todd English’s Golden Boy at Olives in Las Vegas’ Bellagio and was the Executive Chef of Eva Longoria’s former Beso Restaurant, also in Vegas.
But this top chef says his roots run deep in New England, where he turns his passion into an artform that largely supports local farms. The Bull Run’s huge menu is based on comfort foods with a modern twist — like fresh caught Maine scallops, pan seared and served with traditional brown bread and roasted beets from nearby Wilkins' Farm in Groton. Don’t forget the beans slow cooked in molasses and bacon.
Chef Carter’s menu changes with the seasons and is sourced from more than a dozen local farms (view menu here).
“We’re not urban, but when it comes to creativity in cooking, I’ve never felt more on the cutting edge,” he says. “This is as new and fresh as you can get. We make as much as we can from scratch and being close to so many amazing, local farms, we have fast access to the best produce, meats and dairy in every season throughout the year.”
Combining New England tradition and organic produce always comes to mind when planning the menu from dinner entrees to pub fare, like the The Johnny Appleseed burger — grass-fed beef, apple chutney and cider-cured bacon with smoked cheddar on top.
Alison and her husband, George Tocci, took the reigns from her brother in 2009. Like her parents before her, she met her soulmate at the Bull Run bar.
“This place is also lucky for love,” she says. "Well, unless your poor Nigel."
Owning the place she grew up in is a dream come true. As a kid, she remembers falling asleep on a couch in the Early American Room — the heart of the building — while a party was happening all around her.
“I’d hear the piano playing, lot’s of laughter, happiness and joy,” she says. “I loved it. To this day, I can fall asleep with a lot of noise around. All the memories here are good ones.”
With nearly 300 years to make merry, there are enough stories here to fill several books, including the one about the iconic bull on the building’s roof, which was named Sandy after the hurricane that blew it across the parking lot last year. The incident resulted in the loss of its horns.
The famous Drunkard’s Progress mural — based on a popular 19th Century anti-alcohol cartoon — was painted on the Tap Room’s wall by Ben Affleck’s grandmother, Nancy.
And here you’ll also catch a glimpse of the elusive Egopantis.
Actually, we’ll save that story for the bartender and patrons. Go ahead and ask. Besides great music, food and spirits, at The Bull Run good conversation and laughter are always on tap.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Bull Run, a restaurant, tavern, music hall and function spot.
WHERE: 215 Great Road, Shirley, Mass. (directions here).