On a rainy Thursday, a friend and I cozied up to the bar at Scarlet Oak Tavern, eager to finally learn whether the salacious rumors surrounding the restaurant are anything more than urban legend. The bar was crowded for a weeknight. “Everyone’s waiting out the rain on the drive home from work”, the bartender ventured. Even at a busy bar, he was friendly and made time to chat.
But when I asked him to fill us in on the rumors about the tavern, his face darkened. He was adamant, “I’ve worked here for years and there’s absolutely no truth to them. Five years ago, this place was filled with families but the rumors about swingers have scared them off!” This felt questionable, given that we had a baby in tow ourselves. Certainly, he couldn’t have known that I had a baby shower thrown for me in a back room at the Tavern, nor that our family celebrated that same baby’s fifth birthday in their Wine Room.
We were never going to be real investigative journalists at this rate, so we decamped to a table near the front window and ordered two glasses of the Sauvignon Blanc, the blue crab and cheddar dip and chicken fingers for the baby. It wasn’t long before we were joined by Scarlet Oak’s General Manager, Kenny Robicheau. Kenny, a Marshfield native, has made a name for himself in restaurants in LA, New York and Boston. Over a long career in the restaurant industry, it’s safe to say that he’s seen some pretty interesting things.
When he started at Scarlet Oak eight years ago, the rumors were already swirling. He was flummoxed and put in a call to his mentor, a celebrated Boston restaurateur. “Everyone around here thinks my new restaurant is a swingers’ joint,” he recalls telling him. The friend gave him a pep talk, “Don’t let the rumors get you down. It could be worse. Be happy that people are talking about you”. To this day, he is; “The swinging rumors are part of a false narrative that’s gone on for a long, long time. What’s gotten me through the whole thing is that people are still talking about us”.
Ask anyone in Hingham and they’ll count Scarlet Oak Tavern among their favorite restaurants on the South Shore and beyond. The food is consistently delicious, the service is friendly, and the ambience is quintessentially New England (in the best, most charming way).
Even if the person giving the rave review doesn’t mention the swinging rumors, you can be certain that someone within earshot will-followed by a nudge or a wink or some crack about Adirondack chairs. Yet for all the talk about swingers, I’ve never noticed couples chatting each other up in a way that feels like they’ll all end up in bed together at the end of the night. I decided that a real-life swinger might be the best person to cut through the hearsay and give me the real scoop on the Tavern’s reputation. So, I set out to find one.
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At first glance, Dave Coughlin and his wife Lauren (*not their real names), seem like any other suburban couple. They’re an attractive pair in their mid-30’s who spend most weekends adventuring with their young children and working on DIY projects at home. They tried swinging for the first time on their honeymoon when they unintentionally booked a stay at a swingers’ resort. Lauren wrote a list of things she’d like to try on the trip: zip-lining through the forest, hiking Mayan ruins, and - jokingly, a threesome. “…when in Rome”, they thought. The next morning, like any responsible couple, they had a chat. “Did you like that? Would you want to do it again?” Yes, and yes. Seven years later, they’re still at it.
They’re fairly open about their lifestyle. “Our close friends know we swing,” says Dave, “but we don’t exactly shout it from our rooftop”. When I approached him about this article, he was happy to oblige and eager to dispel some of the suburban fascination with swinging. “In my experience, swinging is something that men often think soundslike a great idea. When it actually comes down to it, though, it requires a great deal of communication with your partner and most men don’t actually want to go through with it”.
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Dave’s heard the rumors about Scarlet Oak Tavern. “Everyone has”, he says. “As far as I know, there’s no truth to them at all”. Nor does he know of any local bars or restaurants that host regular, official (or unofficial) swingers nights. Bars and clubs do host events for swingers but event organizers hold the details pretty close to the vest. To score an invite, you’ll often need to speak with an organizer in advance or finagle your way onto the guest list on the recommendation of a friend who’s attended in the past. Potential attendees are vetted to keep voyeurs out and participants safe.
If you’re looking to explore the lifestyle and are willing to travel, there are plenty of resorts catering to swingers (I’ll let you do your own research). You can also try meeting potential partners online, then meeting in person to ensure that everyone is comfortable with one another before the relationship progresses. Even in 2018, it’s possible to meet potential partners organically, as Dave and Lauren do. As he describes the process, it sounds a lot like dating as I remember it: lots of giddiness, lots of awkwardness and lots of cocktails. (But also- lots of bodies!)
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A poll of local residents in their 30’s and 40’s confirmed that everyone has indeed heard the rumors, but no one seems to have any hard evidence of the purported rollicking swingers scene at Scarlet Oak Tavern. The rumors themselves are varied. Look for people in striped shirts, people say. Some insist that if you’re looking to pick up an extra partner or two, cozy up to the bar and put your keys where everyone can see them. Some swear that swingers frequent the Tavern on Wednesdays. Others on Tuesdays. Still others, on Thursdays. For the record, Dave swiftly dismissed the “telltale swinger signs” I broached. “These are every bit as ridiculous as they sound,” he laughed.
To learn more about why the Scarlet Oak swingers myth has captivated our community for over a decade, I checked in with Stephanie Wallace, a licensed marriage and family therapist at South Shore Sexual Health Center. She believes that alternative sexual practices like swinging fascinate us “because they break many of the rules we grow up learning about how relationships are ‘supposed’ to work”. In our culture, monogamy is the norm and the expectation and when we see couples operating outside of this construct, she says, “we pay attention”.
Stephanie finds that people fall into one of three categories when it comes to their outlook on swinging. Some dislike the practice (haters gonna hate) and consider it to represent a violation of the sanctity of marriage. Others take a more laissez-faire approach- they aren’t offended by it nor are they interested in engaging in it themselves- but they’re curious about how it works. Still others, she says, “find it liberating to learn about couples who swing, perhaps opening their eyes to new possibilities for their own relationships that previously seemed exclusive to the realm of fantasy”. Whatever your attitude towards swinging, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to gossip about what Stephanie terms “a divergence from the typical relationship ‘script’”.
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On a recent swinger recon visit to Scarlet Oak (again with baby in tow), I didn’t see any striped shirts or keys on the bar. To my right, though, was a sweet, elderly couple who couldn’t have been younger than 85. They raised their glasses and toasted, “Here’s to old age!” With a twinkle in his eye, the man turned to his companion and warned, “Don’t be surprised if I get some offers tonight “. He was dressed in a tan suit and blue shirt and looked like a grandpa waiting for Easter mass. His date looked confused. “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s Wednesday,” he replied. “This is when the ladies come out to proposition men”. “How do you know?”, she asked. “I know from some pretty reliable sources, guys who used to come down here on Wednesday nights. It’s fine with me if you want to pick up a boy toy”. She giggled nervously. Then she looked in my direction, noticed my wedding band and said, sotto voce, “She’ll never meet a man with that baby around”.