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[All Proceeds from these sales will go to PROJECT RESTORE US, a local charity that helps Boston Restaurants, Restaurant workers, and local families experiencing food insecurity]

The Hoodoo Barbecue [also, at various times, spelled Barbeque and BBQ] was a “hidden gem” in the annals of Boston culinary history. If you didn’t frequent The Rat in Kenmore Square in the ‘80s, it might have even remained hidden to you. But for those who were part of founder James Ryan’s orbit in the late 1970s through the late 1980s, The Hoodoo made a big impression, and it even changed some lives along the way.

The food was great, but, interestingly, old-timers rarely talk about that. What really brings them back with a smile is the camaraderie and family vibe that James and his kitchen crew brought to their lives. James was, of course, more than happy to feed paying customers. But he was just as likely to offer free or reduced-price meals to a range of Kenmore denizens, from broke rockers like the pre-record-deal Del Fuegos and Scruffy The Cat to the undisputed King of Kenmore Square, the late Mr. Butch.

If you needed a laugh, some sustenance or a place to crash for a couple days or weeks, James was there for the people of Boston. (And if you needed a vocalist for your encore cover of a Chuck Berry or Howlin’ Wolf tune, James was there, too.)

The following marks the beginning of a Hoodoo BBQ oral history, fittingly set off by James, who – aside from his culinary panache – is an excellent writer and storyteller (as proven by his monthly “Fryin’ With Ryan” columns in The Noise in the ‘80s, some of which can be seen below).

[ For a related oral history about the early days of the Del Fuegos and the early 1980s Rat scene – including interviews with James, Wayne Valdez, the Del Fuegos and early group manager (and Hoodoo employee) Lilli Dennison – click here ]

[ Photos below by -- or provided by -- Wayne Valdez ]

1 James Ryan in kitchen.JPG
Hoodoo Rat crew out front.JPG
2 Wayne Valdez photo by Lilli Dennison.J
5 Randall Gibson Terry Hanley Keith Dunn

A History of The Hoodoo Barbecue (and a lot more)

by James Ryan

Hoodoo Barbeque "took up space" on the 1st floor and balcony of the legendary "Rat" (Rathskeller) in the heart and soul of Kenmore Square for some six-plus years, beginning in the early 1980s. The staff was a "come as you are / leave as you learn" amalgam of musicians, artists, photographers, and borderline ne’er-do-wells – none of which were mutually exclusive – who meshed in an effort to offer "American food" to all who crossed our doorstep. Those steps included the alleyway entrance, out of which we fed an ever-expanding network of urchins, as well as "tenured" members of "the street"!

The food could easily have passed a “lie detector” for "down home" – pork ribs, beef ribs, lamb ribs too...chicken, fish, chopped barbeque. Through it all, we operated on somewhat of a utilitarian ethos – to each according to their need, and from each according to their ability. A relatively constant flow of artists, writers, musicians, (in season) baseball fans, and the gathered masses – either in-house, or at the many social gatherings we catered – were our milieu. We fed on and were nurtured by the love and respect we showed, and were shown in return, by all those we served.


I moved to Cambridge in the Fall of 1972. I had just completed my second stint as a teacher in the Upward Bound Program at Ohio Wesleyan University, where we lived in the dorm with the students. I had also just completed the "orals" for my PhD at University of Pittsburgh, and turned down a grant from the Carnegie Institute to write my Dissertation.

I taught at Pitt, and loved it, and thought I could find a job in Boston. But… no dice! There were a goodly number of folk with equally, if not better, credentials, and I ended up working on a "Minority Painting Crew" at Harvard. It was Affirmative Action time, and there were many efforts to include minorities on the campus. (I had met the gent I ended up working for quite by chance, as he and his wife were "fronting" a sub shop on Comm Ave. in the 1300 block, for a bookie that I had been painting apartments for.)

One thing led to another, and I ended up meeting a guy who was friends with someone who came thru our Mass Ave. apartment, which was near the Plough & The Stars [in Cambridge]. We got involved in the "weed business", and began cooking for any number of friends, either in my apartment, or his rented home on Little Nahant. Everybody kept saying, "You guys should have a restaurant!"

By then, I had moved to Back Bay. One day I was walking up Mass Ave., and saw a corner spot that used to house the "Chicken Out" store, at the corner of Newbury, next to the Pike entrance. We talked to the landlord, and "took it over" in 1977. It was called the Rainbow Rib Room.

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[ Mark Canon (left) and James Ryan (right) at the RRR, 1977. Photographer unknown. ]


I tore out the insides, and made / sculpted a concrete counter that separated the open kitchen from the dining area. Other than growing up in an ethnically and racially mixed section of the South End of Columbus, Ohio, I had no "barbeque" experience, per se.  We "seat-of-the-pantsed” it, and learned as we did. I brought Mr Johnson (the painting contractor) and his wife along for the ride, and we had some "authenticity" to our endeavor.

One of my "counter people" was [nowadays big-time TV writer and producer] Eddie Gorodetsky, an Emerson student, and disc jockey, whose program I was playing on the radio in the late hours one night (We were open until 2:30.) One of his friends told him that I was listening, and he came over after the show, and introduced himself. We took a likin' to one another, and I hired him. He couldn't cook at all, and one evening, while burning the beJesus out of a burger for a customer who had asked for a rare one and complained, Eddie said, "Ever seen one like it?" It turns out that somebody from 'BCN was sitting there, cracked up, and offered Eddie a job – a move that also further cemented my relationship with on-air and management personnel at the station.

My experience with barbeque was limited to brief encounters at home, growing up, and the "honored" position I had as the only Caucasian on a crew that allowed me relatively free access to Roxbury and Dorchester. We had to change the name from Rainbow Rib Room, given that the Sonesta chain had taken out a patent on usage of the words “Rib Room” in connection with the Food Service Industry. They were just around the corner on Comm. Ave.

So we took out an ad in the Boston Phoenix (whose office was across the street, over the old Newbury Steak House), lamenting the passing of our "senior name," and draped a black crepe over the "Room" part of the sign. We never did much advertising / promo, but we got a ton of free press, for making BBQ "safe for white people"!

Mr. Johnson and his wife "moved on", and I eventually burned out from working too many hours and not getting the support I needed from my partner. So, I walked... and the place ended up folding some 4 months later. I took a job tending bar for the Medieval Manor dinner shows, and eventually went back to work for Mr. J and his painting crew.

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[ Above: Boston Phoenix review of Rainbow Rib Room, June 21, 1977. By R.D. Rosen. ]


Following the Rainbow Ribs experience, in which I had become quite friendly with a good number of on and off-air staffers at WBCN, I was holding regular meals for any number of them at my Marlborough St. apartment [Back Bay]. In the early summer of 1980, David Bieber and Tony Berardini had been in and out of The Rat, conversing with (owner) Jim Harold about the upcoming WBCN Battle of the Bands (Rumble) – a good bit of which was to be at The Rat. At dinner that evening, they mentioned spotting an open / unused kitchen, and set up a meeting between Jim and myself to discuss it. He offered me "free rein" and a rent deal that would amount to 20% of my sales. That was easy enough, and varied from $200 / month at the start to a bit over $2,000 / month by the time we were through. (Liquor sales were all his, of course.) So that summer I set to work cleaning up, painting and procuring equipment, and opened by early Fall [of 1980].

Photos below by Wayne Valdez

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Business was slow through the Winter [of 1980], but in the Spring we were "rediscovered" by the Boston Phoenix, and in the Summer, Esquire magazine named us one of the best 100 new restaurants in America. Word was out, and I needed to "hire some help"! This went on until the Sumer of 1986, at which point Jim decided that he and his wife would take over the kitchen – she began doing a "Pasta Night" on Wednesdays. So, I left.

David Bieber introduced me to his pal, George Lewis, and we struck up a deal to use the front and kitchen space on Beacon St, just out of Kenmore, where Stitches Comedy Club occupied the back. It turned out a little too much for me for numerous reasons so I left, and gave up all usage of the word Hoodoo to them. They folded in not too short order, and I went back to The Rat, managing the bar and doing some cooking, until leaving Boston for a brief (18 month) return to some dear friends' bar & restaurant in the South End of Columbus, Ohio, where I had grown-up. I lived upstairs, and was the night bartender/cook/basketball coach for the 7th grade team at the local Catholic School.


Wayne Viens [Valdez] – He was working at New England School of Photography across the street, and we got to know each other, never realizing that he would be (and continue to be) such a significant figure in my life.

Stona Fitch – A Princeton grad, writer (now owns Concord Free Press with his wife, Ann), Scruffy the Cat mainstay.

Randall Lee Gibson – Drummer extraordinaire...also one of the few folks working with me, who had actual food experience.  He was 18/19 when we started together.

Terry Hanley (deceased) – Stalwart worker, original drummer with The Neats.

Tom Lloyd – Del Fuegos bassist / confidant / continued dear friend.

Steve Morrell – Original Del Fuegos drummer (after the hubcap player), and a pal to this day.

Lilli Dennison – Managed the Del Fuegos & others, served as our guiding light  (de facto Den Mother of us all!).

Holly Sievers – Quite talented artist, now lives in Taos and operates Gallery with husband Robert Cafazzo.

Tracy Swan – A seriously "class act" who served in many capacities.

Michael Jones – Photographer / chronicler.

Colleen Cardin (deceased) – Our "spirit."

Linda Viens – An absolute joy to be around, multi-talented songstress / guitarist.

Johnny Angel Wendell – Musician / bon vivant / humorist / terrible fry cook!

Keith Dunn (see below)

Brother Cleve (see below)

[ Video of Kenmore Square, The Rat and the Hoodoo, May 1983.

Courtesy of Reed Lapin of In Your Ear Records.]

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James Ryan on stage with Johnny Angel.JP

[James Ryan and Johnny Angel. Photo by Wayne Valdez.]

I was married the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years at Ohio State. She was a local (South End of Columbus) woman, and for my eventual graduation, her mother bought me a guitar. While in grad school at Pitt, I taught myself to play it, and eventually was able to turn out some blues / country tunes that were "passable". I teamed up with one of my students and we formed a duo that played in coffeehouses on the campus. (He was a Flamenco it was an unlikely pairing.) He eventually moved to Cape Cod.

When I moved to Boston/Cambridge, I looked him up, and would hitchhike back and forth to play with him on the Cape. He knew a classical guitar teacher at the Community College, who joined us. At one particular gig, we met a gent who went by the name of "The Dunes Rider", and had a vast interest / knowledge / collection of country tunes. He joined (along with his dobro), and we became "God's Own Jukebox".  That lasted thru three "tourist seasons", and then Rainbow Ribs happened [1977].

By then I was a "frequenter" of the Eliot Lounge, and met Professor Harp (Hugh Holmes), and often joined him on stage there, and eventually "everywhere" – including a first trip to Newburyport (to play The Grog), where it was dark when we got there, and dark when we left! Hugh also knew (harmonica player) Keith Dunn, who Eddie Gorodetsky had introduced me to, and who eventually joined in and even worked at the Hoodoo briefly, while fronting Roomful of Blues.

Then came Hoodoo, and a party one night at some Dean's house on Bay State Road, where the Del Fuegos (who Lilli Dennison had just started managing) were playing. They invited me to "join in", and we did a version of "Fever" which became something of a staple. I ended up doing a lot of numbers with them, and even won an Elvis impersonation contest at the Paradise, where I "took them in" as my own band, despite the fact that there was a House Band for the show. (I won a small Bourbon-filled statuette of Elvis, which I managed to sheer off the head of on a cymbal, as I stumbled off-stage!)

The Fuegos and I recorded a Christmas Song, "Punchbowl Full of Joy" for a Newbury Comics-released Boston band record. [Sonny Columbus & his Del Fuegos, from the 1983 EP A Boston Rock Christmas, on Boston Rock Records.]

Eventually we had reclaimed the balcony at the Rat, and built a small stage in the corner, to house "acts" on weekends. One evening, Johnny Angel was on, and I started doing tunes with him. We soon added Brother Cleve (who also eventually worked at the Hoodoo), and even more eventually, bass and drums and two female vocalists, and The Swinging Erudites hit the bricks! I recorded one record with them, and they kicked me to the curb – and went their way.

It was at about that time when I moved on, and headed for the 18-month stint in Columbus. My friends Timm & Susan, had a place called the Hey-Hey Bar & Grill. There was a stage in the back room, and among others, Sleepy La Beef (who I had introduced them to on a visit to Boston, when I took them to the old Hillbilly Ranch) was a "regular", and he always let me join him for a few numbers.

I still have a guitar, and occasionally amuse myself, but can never tell if it is actually in tune!

Fryin With Ryan column mastheads

In the mid-1980s, T. Max of The Noise magazine tapped James to write a monthly column called "Fryin' With Ryan." These were rarely serious, and showcased James's penchant for storytelling and over-the-top "dad joke" puns. Here are a couple examples....


[All Proceeds from these sales will go to PROJECT RESTORE US, a local charity that helps Boston Restaurants, Restaurant workers, and local families experiencing food insecurity]

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