News that the owners of Doyle’s were seeking to sell its liquor license to restaurateur Steve DiFillippo earlier this month prompted an outpouring of anger and nostalgia, along with a “Save Doyle’s” Facebook page. But for those who know Boston’s restaurant scene and Jamaica Plain’s red-hot real estate market, there’s a sense that the neighborhood gathering place’s demise was almost inevitable.
“If anything, you might wonder why it took so long,” said Matt Kiefer, a veteran real estate attorney and longtime Jamaica Plain resident. “When we moved to JP in the ’80s, if you wanted to have a sit-down meal with a beer you had one choice: Doyle’s. But now the neighborhood has changed so much.”
The prospect of Doyle’s shutting down looms larger following a City Hall hearing last Wednesday at which DiFillippo formally sought approval to buy the 137-year-old Jamaica Plain pub’s coveted liquor license for $455,000, for use at his new Davio’s restaurant in the Seaport.
The bar sits on a stretch of Washington Street that was long the domain of auto shops and small factories, but in recent years has become a hotbed for new housing.
A few blocks south of Doyle’s, near the MBTA’s Forest Hills Station, there’s a huge new apartment building that opened in 2017 and a condo project nearing completion where some units will top $1 million.
To the north, toward Green Street, two-bedroom apartments in a new building rent for $2,900 a month, brew pubs and doggie day-cares have moved in, and several more apartment buildings are in the works.
And a zoning plan approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency in 2017 calls for about 2,500 apartments and condos from Forest Hills up to Egleston Square and would enable five-story buildings where Doyle’s now squats.
The flurry of changes happening around the pub, among other factors, prompted the sale of the liquor license and, soon, the land on which Doyle’s sits. Like Anthony’s Pier 4 in the Seaport and Amrheins in South Boston, Doyle’s has owners who are cashing in as property prices skyrocket, restaurants face mounting financial pressures, and more contemporary spots supplant old-style joints like Doyle’s.
Doyle’s has two owners, which complicates it sale.
Gerry Burke owns Doyle’s and the liquor license — at least until next month, when the sale to DiFillippo is likely to close.
Gerry’s uncle, Eddie Burke — one of three brothers who owned and ran Doyle’s for decades before selling it to Gerry about 15 years ago — owns the building, the land on which it sits, and several other parcels that add up to more than an acre along Washington Street. Together, they are worth a lot of money.
Neither Burke has said much since Doyle’s closing was announced, and they did not attend last week’s licensing board hearing, which focused on the establishment buying the license — Davio’s — not the one selling it.
Gerry Burke did not respond to messages seeking comment. Eddie and his wife, Joni Ross Burke, released a lengthy statement, thanking customers for their support and confirming they were selling.
“It is our decision as a family and as owners of the property that we can no longer maintain Doyle’s as some would like or think practical,” they said. “We have therefore chosen to market the property for sale in order to secure our much-deserved retirement.”
How much the Washington Street lots might command will depend somewhat on what a buyer plans for them, but real estate experts said that just the restaurant and its parking lot — about four-tenths of an acre — could fetch around $4 million.
It would be a logical spot for a midrise apartment building with retail space — perhaps a neighborhood bar — on the ground floor, said Marie Mercurio, a former BPDA planner who now works for the Jamaica Plain development firm Boston Community Ventures.
“I’d imagine another four stories there, a nice, mixed-use project,” Mercurio said. “But I don’t know if development would be embraced.”
Indeed, a movement has sprung up to preserve Doyle’s as is, or to steer the beloved bar into the hands of an owner who would keep it largely intact. More than 2,100 people have joined a “Save Doyle’s Cafe,” Facebook group.
They’re floating the idea of seeking city landmark status for the pub, and printing postcards to send to Eddie Burke, urging him to reconsider.
Another approach, said City Councilor Matt O’Malley, is to try to ensure that whoever buys the site includes in the plans an establishment that is, well, Doyle’s-like.
“The thing I’m really pushing for is that it be an affordable restaurant,” O’Malley said. “Have nice food, but I also want to see steak tips and a cheeseburger. A $12 glass of wine, but also a $3 beer.”
The Burkes said they’re open to selling to a wide range of operators, including “a locally owned tavern.” Pete Gori, a veteran real estate broker who’s advising the Burkes, said they have been approached by some restaurants.
“There is interest in a new food and beverage establishment there,” Gori said. “But we don’t know yet what form that might take.”
Any buyer would have to contend with the realities of the highly competitive restaurant business. Modestly priced neighborhood pubs such as Doyle’s have found themselves squeezed by high labor costs and customers’ changing tastes. As craft beer pubs and gardens have sprung up around the city in recent years, long-established bars — from Jacob Wirth’s downtown to the Green Briar Pub in Brighton — have closed.
“The story isn’t really that a $450,000 liquor license got sold,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
“The story is that a 50-year-old restaurant owner said, ‘I can’t afford to stay in the business anymore.’ ”Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.