The Union Oyster House, in continuous operation since 1826, is not only the oldest restaurant in Boston, it’s the oldest restaurant in continuous service in America. In fact, it’s housed in a building which predates the American Revolution. Union Street in which it is situated was laid out in 1626 and while there are no municipal records documenting the Oyster House’s construction, there is more than anecdotal evidence that it was built as early as the 1710s.
A major landmark for more than a quarter millennium, the Union Oyster House is not officially one of the sixteen nationally significant historic sites that comprise the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile red-brick walking trail that leads you through treasured American landmarks. Still many regard it on nearly equal stature as the unique collection of museums, churches, meeting houses, burying grounds, a ship and historic markets that recount the story of the American Revolution and which comprise the Freedom Trail. In fact, no excursion along the Freedom Trail would be complete without a slight detour to the Union Oyster House.
Originally named the “Atwood and Bacon Oyster House” after its founding owners, it was launched when an oyster obsession swept across the colonies. A New York restaurant had begun serving oysters in 1763 and colonists were hooked. Oyster restaurants and bars were the trendy “see and be seen” places, launching throughout New England. While most of its contemporaries have long been out of business, the Union Oyster House remains a Boston treasure not only for oysters, but for fresh off-the-boat seafood.
The decor holds fast to tradition, retaining an old-fashioned tavern appearance much as it probably did two and a half centuries ago. That means weathered wood paneling and distressed wood floors which creak slightly as you tread lightly over them. Nearest to the main entrance is the oyster bar in which veteran shuckers extricate some four-thousand oysters daily from their briny shells. Much like a sushi chef at a sushi bar, the shuckers hold court for patrons who sit in this area, frequently stopping their deft work to take photographs for visitors in between slurps of fresh littlenecks, steamers and cherrystones, the bivalves of choice here.
Daniel Webster, the 14th American Secretary of State renown for his oratory prowess was a frequent visitor to the oyster bar, stopping by daily for a tall tumbler of brandy and water with each plate of six oysters. His typical consumption was six plates of oysters with the accompanying six glasses of brandy.
President John F. Kennedy preferred lobster stew which he enjoyed in a booth (now named for him) he claimed as his own in the upstairs dining room. Today guests who present a JFK Museum admission stub at the Union Oyster House will receive a free cup of clam chowder with the purchase of a lunch or dinner entrée.
Celebrities, politicians, tourists and locals still rub shoulders in the popular restaurant where they slurp down oysters, tuck in their lobster bibs and dine on succulent seafood that continues to win “best of” awards. Some foodies will argue, however, that the Union Oyster House is mostly a tourist trap, a place to be experienced much like a tourist would any Freedom trail relic. Whatever the case, it’s the only restaurant in America where visitors can boast of dining at the oldest continually operating dining establishment in the fruited plain.
The atmosphere remains casual with comfortable seating and warm, inviting lighting. It’s a rare restaurant in that it also serves as a veritable museum with venerable memorabilia displayed throughout. Although the entire restaurant could probably be peppered with accolades from magazines and newspapers, only one “I love me” wall is dedicated for such. Instead, the walls include placards honoring some of the dignitaries who frequented the restaurant, complete with portraiture.
Being a part of history just goes with the restaurant giving America some of its firsts–such as the first waitress (Rose Carey) who worked there starting in the early 1920s. Her picture is on the wall on the stairway up to the second floor. The Oyster House is also reputed to have popularized the toothpick.
The menu is replete with traditional New England fare, sometimes known as Yankee cooking. It includes seafood, poultry, steak, chops and Boston staples such as baked beans and Indian pudding. Many diners come for the name on the marquee, oysters as fresh as when they were plucked from the beach, but there are other shellfish available, too. Shelled mollusks include clams (the steamers are especially good), mussels, scallops and of course, the oyster. Crustacean favorites lobster and shrimp are available, too.
Lobsters go from the restaurant’s own lobster pools onto steaming pots and can be served in several ways: the Union Special Lobster (baked with New England seafood stuffing topped with its claw’s “lazyman’s style); Lazy Man’s Lobster (chunks of lobster meat baked with seasoned bread crumbs served casserole style); Lobster Scampi; Lobster Newburg; Lobster Ravioli and an American Bouillabaisse replete with lobster, steamers, mussels, fish and more.
Many visitors opt for the traditional Shore Dinner, a New England traditional favorite offered by seafood shacks throughout the coast. The feast starts with clam chowder coupled with an oversized platter brimming with steamers, a boiled or broiled lobster (your preference) all served with sweet native corn on the cob and steaming red potatoes. Dessert is your choice of hot Indian pudding (dessert porridge made from cornmeal and molasses served warm) or gingerbread. Indian pudding is an acquired taste, but it’s the essence of a Yankee dessert and should not be missed.
Another popular way to have your lobster is in a lobster salad roll, served on a lightly toasted, ephemerally soft and delicate split top roll. As delicate as it is, it is formidable enough to hold the lobster meat which engorges it. At least eight ounces of succulent, heaping hunks of lobster meat dressed with mayonnaise and celery is stuffed into each roll. It’s an excellent lobster roll, literally an edible work of art. This sandwich is served with French fries, coleslaw and a sliced pickle, none of which distinguish themselves much.
Shortly after you place your order, the wait staff will deliver a slab of cornbread with spreadable butter. The cornbread is one of those surprising traditions adhered to by some of Boston’s oldest restaurants (Durgin Park included). It’s a sweet cornbread imbued lightly with honey. The butter also has the faint flavor of honey, making this a doubly delicious.
If you’re going to have a light meal at the Union Oyster House, it should include its famous clam chowder: potatoes, clam juice, freshly cooked and diced clams, onions, salt pork, butter, flour, half-and-half, hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. It’s a far better clam chowder than we had at the Kingfish Hall. It is both creamy and chunky, redolent with flavor and served steaming hot. Some consider the Union Oyster House THE place for clam chowder and it would be hard to argue against that.
Largely because of its proximity to Fanueil Hall and its bustling marketplace environment, the Union Oyster House suffers slightly from the perception that it’s just another Boston tourist attraction. It’s only natural that tourists would flock to this historical haven for seafood, but locals love it, too. It was one of the very first seafood restaurants I visited when living in Boston more than three decades ago and it’s comforting to believe it will be around at least another thirty or forty decades.
Union Oyster House
41 Union Street
LATEST VISIT: 21 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lobster Roll, Clam Chowder