Opened in Canton in 2008, Saute never seemed to truly know itself. The corner establishment served likeable pub fare in a prime location, but the vibe inside felt stuffy and drab. Was it a sit-down restaurant or a casual bar?
As new bars opened around the city in recent years, owner Dave Carey felt the identity crisis growing more pronounced. So last summer, he shut Saute for seven weeks to undergo nearly $200,000 worth of renovations and a rebranding.
The result — Lee's Pint & Shell, named after Carey's fisherman father — debuted in mid-October, and it's a noticeable improvement on all fronts. The neighborhood has responded as he had hoped, packing out the bar on a consistent basis. I've been a handful of times, including most recently last Saturday, and have not once seen a slow night. My friends who live in the area have said the same.
It is again proof that recognizing a need for change is the easy half of the battle. The hard part comes in the execution, for which Carey and his team deserve a lot of credit. Lee's feels much more casual and like a neighborhood hangout, which Carey said were his goals from the beginning.
Saute struggled to feel like an approachable bar, because a wall created distinct separation between the bar area and the dining room. That's gone now, so patrons can sit on both sides of the bar for the first time. Being able to see the crowd across the room makes a big difference, and it makes the bar feel larger, too.
Another smart design detail was replacing the more formal dining tables with high-tops. (Carey noted he kept one dining table in the front because children and older patrons often don't like the high-tops that the younger Canton crowd prefers.)
There are also touches of recycled wood, large garage doors that go up in the warm months and a colorful back-wall mural of locally beloved products (including Tulkoff's horseradish sauce and National Bohemian) by artist Bob Merrell. Combine these new additions, and the former Saute feels like a distant memory.
Aesthetic changes would have been enough to justify the rebranding, but Lee's feels different by the bar, too. For one, they installed a raw bar, along with a tap for Ketel One vodka, so there are four types of oyster shooters to choose from ($5-$7).
There are more subtle changes, too, like the introduction of a sizable whiskey program that leans heavily on bourbon. Lee's offers flights of three ¾-ounce pours ($13-$16), with a mix of trusted brands like Jefferson's, Buffalo Trace, Templeton Rye and Basil Hayden's.
Lee's also added six more draft lines to bring its number of beer taps to 18. The draft list smartly features mostly beers from Maryland (Union Craft Brewing, Key Brewing Co., RAR Brewing and Flying Dog Brewery were all accounted for), and all options ranged from $4 to $7.
During my most recent visit, a friend and I grabbed the only two open chairs we could find. (Carey said there are about 30 seats by the bar, and capacity inside is around 100.) The first Final Four game of the men's NCAA basketball tournament had just started, so seats were at a premium.
A trio of friendly, easy-to-engage bartenders checked on us regularly. Lee's has nine "signature" cocktails, along with an orange crush and four other crush variations. The bar uses its own sour mix, and the staff squeezes the limes and oranges for the juice mixers, Carey said.
What I liked most were the prices — all $8 or $9, an increasingly rare sighting on cocktail lists in the city.
Flavor-wise, the cocktails were middle-of-the-road takes on familiar recipes. They likely won't reshape your perspective on the art of cocktailing, but they work well enough in the sports-bar setting.
The Kentucky mule was made with Fighting Cock Bourbon, orange juice and ginger beer, and tasted as expected. The Bulleit Rye-based seasonal whiskey sour lived up to its tart name, and then some, because of a powerful cranberry-cinnamon-infused simple syrup. The Frontier Old Fashioned used the same base as the sour, but also included ancho chile liqueur, honey simple syrup and chocolate bitters. The sweetness was too much for the other ingredients to overcome.
And yet I walked away satisfied, because Lee's made for a good place to socialize and watch the game, with flat-screen TVs all over the bar and a friendly staff that kept the energy high.
When I lived in Canton, Saute was mostly a brunch option, but now it's a viable nightlife alternative to the bars on O'Donnell Square. (Late one weekend night a few months ago, Lee's looked like "Coyote Ugly" with women dancing on top of the bar to rap records. I do not recall ever seeing that at Saute.)
The success is a testament to Carey seeing the wants and demands of the average Canton customer changing over time, and adjusting accordingly. Not all rebrands are built the same, but this one appears sturdy.