Boston's "Combat Zone" was once known for strip clubs and prostitutes, and the mix of sailors, thugs and just-plain curious that potent brew attracted. Now, though, except for a few holdouts, this neighbourhood between Washington and Tremont streets has morphed into a different kind of entertainment hot spot. Restorations of iconic theatres (spearheaded by two of Boston's universities), posh restaurants, a Ritz, and a W hotel are harbingers of dramatic change in the neighbourhood.
Here are the highlights:
THE PLAY'S THE THING
Boston's run-down, turn-of-the-century movie, vaudeville and opera theatres have been gloriously renovated down to the last gilded, plump-cheeked putti. The latest theatre-house dowager to emerge from cosmetic surgery, thanks to Boston's performance-oriented Emerson College, is The Paramount, an art deco movie theatre that first opened in 1932. The interior with its trompe l'oeil mural, grand fixtures and little museum of vaudeville memorabilia offers productions from legends such as Peter Brook and Robert Lepage to Montreal's cutting-edge Les 7 doigts de la main, and the oddly mystical Rude Mechs. A visit is worth the time, but the showstopper is the theatre's glorious marquee and its 7,000 colourful bulbs that light up the whole district. 560 Washington St.; 617-824-8000; artsemerson.org
ON YOUR TOES
The Boston Ballet, known for its classical repertoire and innovative performances of Balanchine works, moved to the magnificently restored Opera House in the old Combat Zone. In the 1920s, the Opera House was a palace of vaudeville, its opulence unrivalled in the city. The dance company's residence in this exactingly restored confection of a building has been a thrill for audiences and dancers alike. "It creates a great intimacy between the performers and the audience," says Toronto-born dancer Rachel Cossar. The respected company has dancers from 17 countries as well as Finnish choreographer-in-residence Jorma Elo. 539 Washington St.; 617-695-6955; bostonballet.org
The flowering of this once seedy and boarded-up neighbourhood has attracted restaurateurs hoping to lure the trendsters from the city's hip South End. One of the front-runners is the Milan-esque BiNA Osteria. A visit to BiNA is de rigueur not just for its private-label pinot grigio or its fresh pappardelle with spicy tuna, raisins, toasted pine nuts and fresh ricotta. BiNA is also a destination for its award-winning design: picture lounge tables of recycled railway ties, exposed structural columns, oddly shaped banquettes in red Tuscan silk, and an asymmetrical canopy-like ceiling. Inspired to recreate your meal at home? Duck into the adjoining BiNA Alimenteri, a European-style gourmet shop, and you'll find all the ingredients. 581 Washington St.; 617-956-0888; binaboston.com
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Part of a project to put Iraqi refugees – many of whom are goldsmiths – back to work, Gold Power isn't your typical gold exchange. Yes it deals in flash, with both delicate jewellery and hockey-puck-size crosses and eagles. But the real draw is the jewellers, including Iraqi-born Wisam Breegi, who hold court in this gold market modelled on the old Baghdad tradition. 495 Washington St.; 617-426-0508
Boston, home of iconic Berklee College of Music (think Keith Jarrett, Quincy Jones, Esperanza Spalding), is never short on music and one insiders' place to chill, snack and hear cool jazz from the Berklee talent pool is Kingston Station. This hip watering hole (also a bistro) has a 10 metre-long zinc bar and a Fidel Castro cocktail, a potion of fresh sugar cane, Brugal rum and passion fruit. If it's a good enough hangout for Red Sox honcho Theo Epstein and hip hop's Gnarls Barkley, it's good enough for us. 25 Kingston St.; 617-482-6282, kingstonstation.com
WHERE TO STAY
W Boston: The 26-storey, angular glass hotel's cool quotient is high – its glittery lobby-cum-lounge is packed. Revellers banter on a backdrop of pulsating after-work beats and the W's Bliss Spa has a cult following. Foodie highlight is chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's candle-lit minimalist Market. The rice cracker encrusted tuna with a citrus chili emulsion or black truffle pizza are just two of the many reasons to go. From $270 (U.S.); 100 Stuart St.; 617-261-8700; whotels.com/boston.
Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common: Don't want to sleep in the Combat Zone? The Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, never tries to play catch-up to hip. The Ritz is predictably luxurious, refined and attentive. (And the fitness-obsessed will love having the LA Sports Club in-house.) From $395 (U.S.); 10 Avery St.; 617-574-7100; ritzcarlton.com.