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The Bull Run Restaurant Still Making History in Shirley, Massachusetts

Article and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Eric Hurwitz. Page created on 10/15/17.

Bull Run Restaurant, Shirley, Massachusetts
Bull Run Restaurant, Shirley, Mass.

Many historic restaurants in New England have ironically become "history" by hanging on too much to the past instead of incorporating the present and future. The Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, Mass., on the other hand, takes on a more visionary position, combining the best of both worlds by marrying its glorious past with a 21st century relevancy. You can tell that this was the place that men from Shirley gathered before marching into Concord and Lexington in April of 1775, while, at the same time, coming here to see live rock, folk, jazz and blues music, or enjoy an heirloom tomato caperse salad, panko crusted ocean perch and one of 19 craft beers.

It's a marriage made to last. Upon first sight, the Bull Run's quaint, historic exterior and charming post-and-beam, tavern-like interior have been wonderfully restored and refreshed to lend a new life to virtually the entire facility without compromising the beautiful 1741 architectural template. That doesn't mean that everything is new, however: The wide pine floorboards, colonial-era fireplaces and many fixtures deliberately remain from pretty much the beginning as a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of people who have walked into this storied restaurant and bar.
Bull Run Restaurant dining room in Shirley, Mass.
Quaint dining room at the Bull Run.

Fireplace in the dining room at the Bull Run in Shirley, Mass.
Dining by the fireplace at the Bull Run.

It all first started in this rural neighborhood as Sawtelle's Tavern -- named after Obadiah Sawtelle, reportedly, the most fun-loving of the local tavern keepers in Shirley. The fun continues today at the Bull Run today, just in a different way. Each twist and turn of the restaurant offers something unique such as this 1940s painting of the perils of alcohol created by locals Nancy Byers Affleck and husband Myron Affleck -- the grandparents of actors Ben and Casey Affleck.

This 1940s painting at the Bull Run in Shirley, Mass., was created by the grandparents of actors Ben and Casey Affleck
The Drunkard's Progress painting at the Bull Run.

There's even a secret toy area at the main dining room fireplace.

"I have a treasure box of toys in the open space next to the fireplace because we get lots of families with young kids," said Alison Tocci, who co-owns the Bull Run with husband George Tocci. "I make a big deal out of telling them the toys are there for kids only and they like that. We let them rummage through and play by the fire to keep them busy while parent dine!

Toy treasure chest at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, Mass.
The treasure chest of toys at the Bull Run.

Respecting the glory days of her family's restaurant dating back to the 1940s in this building born as a tavern, Alison and George have operated the restaurant as innkeepers since New Year's Eve of 2009 (purchasing it from Alison's brother, Chip Guercio and his wife Dolores) with a clear resolution to ensure the Bull Run has a great run in its new chapter. The locals seem to love it, knowing that Alison is a hometown girl made good having worked 30 years in corporate media in New York City, N.Y. (including CEO of a global media company), before returning to Shirley for peace of mind, small town community values and a chance to carry on the Guercio family tradition of owning the Bull Run since 1946. The phrase "You can never go home" clearly doesn't apply here, as, in addition to their local upbringings, George (a Leominster, Mass., native) and Alison first met at the Bull Run seeing their friendship and then love turn into marriage that remains as solid as the Bull Run Run's foundation many years later. And along the way, they have met many friends...

Bull Run innkeepers George and Alison Tocci share a special moment with former Young Rascals frontman Felix Caviliere.
George and Alison Tocci share a special moment with Felix Cavaliere, former front man of the legendary Young Rascals ("Good Lovin", "How Can I Be Sure," "Groovin'").

"The Bull Run is one mile from my home in Shirley," said Alison. "I can ride my bike here. The last job I had to report to a 40-member board. It's very different, but there's this passion to create a place that creates a sense of community and escape from pressure -- and to just relax."

Wanting it to be more than just a roadside stop for good grub and drink, the Toccis have brought in a renowned local chef in Stephen Barck and resourced food from small local farms and providers, en route to offering a farm-to-table dining experience. Barck, founder and executive chef of Tables of Content Catering in Boston, Mass. -- and with culinary experience of the Asticou Harborside Inn in Northeast Harbor, Maine, Mayflower Relais and Chateaux in Washington, Conn., the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston and Concord's Colonial Inn in Concord, Mass. -- brings his fabulous background to the Bull Run where he develops and oversees the seven seasonal menus.

"We source from farms within a 100 miles," said Alison. "We are 98 percent a made-from-scratch business. -- the sauces, the soups, the bread, the produce. We go with what is in season, too." The Toccis have also added a handsome new bar in the Tap Room, created an outdoor garden patio, secured a greater diversity of entertainers to appeal to all generations, added an ambitious catering program, and fostered better surroundings and services for special events. And a little innovation goes a long way like offering weddings and romantic dinners on the beautiful covered bridge out back. Or
the hallway leading to the concert room where a formerly drab corridor now features a revised, brighter look and some beautiful art work on the walls.

Wedding at the Bull Run Restaurant covered brige in Shirley, Mass.
What a place for a wedding -- at the Bull Run Restaurant covered bridge! Photo credit: Veronika Patty.

Art work lines the wall leading to the concert room at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, Mass.
Art in the hallway at the Bull Run.

Alison and George have kept in mind, however, that making the Bull Run a better place should never prevent anyone from dining here. The upscale food is smartly balanced with more affordable selections like pizza, grass fed burgers, fish and chips, New England clam chowder, a turkey club sandwich, and a veggie wrap. This gives customers with all different budgets the chance to eat locally at a landmark restaurant.  On the more ambitious side, menu items like the oven roasted prime rib beef ("One of the 4 best places for prime rib in New England," stated the Phantom Gourmet in 2017), farm raised roast turkey, pan seared Atlantic salmon, and panko crusted ocean perch give diners a chance to enjoy the best of traditional and upscale dinners without the need to ever have to travel to the city.

Salmon dinner from the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, mass.
Salmon dish from the Bull Run. Photo credit: Robin Terhune.

"We are not your standard Yankee meat and potatoes place anymore," said Alison. "We made a conscious effort to change that. But we made sure this is still a place for everybody. You'll see senior citizens, those out on dates, young families. You can buy a $37 steak or a $14 pizza." Additionally, the renovated main music venue -- known as the Sawtelle Supper Room -- seats 300 and stands as one of the best small business entertainment venues in the United States. The Boston Globe, in a 2015 mention, stated of the Bull Run entertainment offerings: "World-class entertainment in an off-the-beaten path club, housed in a beautifully preserved tavern."

It's amazing that a tavern in the middle of nowhere is actually just 35 miles northwest of Boston, offering such a remarkable mix of entertainment (and food and drink, of course!) not too far from the city. A look at the current schedule reveals rock, jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, blues and guitar heroes, soul, southern rock, singer-songwriters and comedy. Many of the entertainers are quite well-known including The Yardbirds, the aforementioned Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, The Larry Carlton Quarter, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Forbert (remember "Romeo's Tune?"), Tom Rush, Savoy Brown, Dana Fuchs, Lenny Clarke, The Albert Lee Band and Iris Dement.

Singer/songwriter Dana Fuchs at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley, Mass.
Singer/songwriter Dana Fuchs entertains at The Bull Run.
Photo credit: Lawrence Libby

The Bull Run also features two other music rooms: The Ballroom and the Tap Room which provide smaller, more intimate settings for entertainment (although the Sawtelle Room offers a truly intimate setting for a larger space!).

George has much to do with the direction of the concerts as he possesses an impressive music background. He was known as solo artist Ellsworth Hicks in the 1970s, played country blues as part of Ellsworth and Hicks, and has original songs played on terrestrial and internet radio, as well as in features films, including 2001's Ghetto Dawg starring Drena DeNiro and Gianna Palminteri. He also produced and booked shows in New York City for many years.

While business is good in the summer, the Bull Run draws in more significant crowds from September to May. From fall and spring weddings to a touch of Christmas holiday spirit, the New England weather never puts a freeze on the beauty of this landmark.

Bull Run, Shirley, Massachusetts
Bull Run at Christmas. Photo credit: Robin Terhune.

Once the first stop on the Boston-Albany stage coach route back in the early 1800s, the Bull Run Restaurant, in its new life, carries on that wonderful tradition as a go-to food and entertainment destination on Route 2A and in north central Massachusetts. It's a fascinating mix of history repeating itself and history not repeating itself with its historic-tavern-meets-modern-world presence.

"The best thing to do is not to put all the eggs in one basket," said Alison. "We have full dinners, a la carte, a Sunday Brunch, entertainment, catering, weddings, functions. It's unique and we love offering all these things...We are one-of-a-kind."

The Bull Run is located at 215 Great Rd. Rd., in Shirley MA. Tel. 978-425-4311.

The Bull Run has a great, new web site! Check it out at
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Stay at an exceptional New England inn just 30 minutes from The Bull Run: The Amerscot House Inn in Stow, Mass.
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Love historic New England restaurants? The Bull Run in Shirley, Mass., is one of those must-try places serving fabulous New England fare and offering a wonderfully quaint ambiance.

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