The Loon and I just love coming to Boston! And a trip to Bean Town never goes without a stop to the historic Union Oyster House. There is something incredibly special about sitting at the oyster bar, which still has the original mahogany facade from when the restaurant opened in 1826. Yes, that’s right…1826. This place is more than an institution, it’s the first-ever restaurant to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark. In fact, it is the oldest continuous service restaurant in the history of the United States.
Look at this shot taken Circa 1920s.
We had the pleasure of speaking with James Malinn, General Manager, and Joe Milano, Jr., President & Owner. They filled us in on the amazing history of how this incredible restaurant came to be, as well as the historic events that occurred in the building prior to its opening as an Oyster House. James said it perfectly when he said, “every restaurant serves food and beverage, but there is the third leg, and that’s the experience you have while being there.” Well, you certainly feel the history and a have an unforgettable experience (as well as amazing food) when at Union Oyster House.
Let’s start with the incredible history, and then get onto to the equally impressive food.
History Being Made
The original building is so old, that it was built before official municipal records were kept. No documentation exists that tells when the massive beams were laid, and who erected the sizable structure. Both Joe and James explained to us that in 2003, architectural historians came to inspect the beams and any existing records, and were able to determine the building was built between 1706 and 1714.
Located on the Freedom Trail and just cobblestones away from the historic Faneuil Hall, this building, one of the 3 oldest in Boston, is home to important parts of American history.
Reportedly, first, the building was a place of business known as “At the Sign of the Cornfields.” Thomas Capen worked here as an importer of silks and fancy dress goods. Eventually, the business would be called: Capen’s Silk and Dry Goods Store. The first official record of the building came in 1742, when the building was purchased by Thomas Stoddard, however the name of the business remained the same.
At this time, the Boston waterfront came right up to the back door of the building, which made it easy for ships to deliver their cloth and goods from Europe. Union Street, where the building is located, became one of the first merchant areas of the city.
The first stirrings of the American Revolution can be traced to the top floor of the building when in 1771, printer Isaiah Thomas published his newspaper “The Massachusetts Spy” – considered by many historians as the oldest newspaper in the United States. The paper’s motto was “Open to all parties, but influenced by none.”
Later, in 1775, Capen’s Store became the headquarters for Ebenezer Hancock, the first paymaster of the Continental Army. As we dined on amazing oysters, lobster and crab…we were reminded that George Washington himself quite likely stood here as his troops received their “war wages.” Pretty incredible.
In 1796, Louis Phillip, who had been exiled from France, lived on the second floor of the building. He earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston’s fashionable young lades. (Eventually, he returned to France where he served as King from 1830 – 1848)
The Great Oyster Craze!
During much of the 19th century, there was an oyster craze across America. Oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls and oyster lunchrooms could be found in practically every town.
In the early 1800s, two entrepreneurs in the oyster business, Atwood and Bacon, decided to capitalize on the oyster boon, and bought the Dry Good Store and opened the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House. Joe explained to us that this practice was one of the few ways a restaurant could come into being during this time: A proprietor sold a product in demand that they could get into the market via a restaurant (ie, oysters). This was part of the evolution of the restaurant industry.
This is when the famed semi-circle oyster bar was installed, and is still there today. We’ve sat at it many times.
Reportedly, Daniel Webster, in between public speeches, sat at this bar almost daily while enjoying a tumbler of brandy and water with a half-dozen plate of oysters, seldom having no less than SIX plates.
The second family to own UOH was a Canadian family from Nova Scotia, Canada, and they bought the restaurant during WWII. In 1970, Joseph Milano, Sr. and Joseph Milano, Jr came in as stockholders and soon bought out the previous owners. Joe, Jr’s mother, Mary, became a constant and welcome fixture at the front of the restaurant. Every day of the week, she would greet guests as they arrived from her legendary desk, situated next to the oyster bar.
The restaurant is now owned and run by Joe, Jr and his sister, Mary Ann.
Joe explains that almost every week someone famous dines at the restaurant. Anywhere from Chiefs of Staff, to Miss U.S.A, to the President. Quite often, the person(s) unannounced arrival involves the CIA and the Secret Service. He says it is always “quite interesting, to say the least!”
On our last visit, we were seated in John F. Kennedy’s favorite (and always requested) booth on the 2nd floor. Check out The Loon in the famed Kennedy Booth.
Now On to the Food
Let’s start with, well, what else…oysters! The Loon and I could sit (and have many times!) at the old semi-circular bar and have plate after plate of freshly shucked oysters. The bar is the centerpiece of the restaurant and has been there since it opened in 1826.
The awesome guys behind the bar are seasoned pros…and fun to talk to. According to Jim, General Manager, the guys behind the bar will shuck 60,000 plates of oysters in a year. Do the math: That means 360,000 oysters a year, with a daily average of 1,000. Most oysters are brought in locally, however they will bring in some Long Island Blue Point oysters, and occasionally, some as far South as Chesapeake Bay. But by far, the majority are local.
Now, onto the other star of UOH: Lobster! The large receiving tank at the front of the restaurant is a real crowd pleaser, but it also serves an obvious, but important purpose: housing the live lobster. Now and then, Jim told us, they’ll get a 10 -12 lb lobster – which always makes for a great photo op! He says UOH goes through an astounding 30,000 lobsters a year. Wow.
Other classics: New England Clam Chowder, Fresh Made Cornbread, Lump Crab Cakes. Oh…just remember to come hungry!!
And that’s just the beginning..UOH also serves amazingly fresh seafood dishes such as Fresh Boston Scrod, Filet of Sole, Fresh Sea Scallops, Seared Haddock…plus non-fish dishes like filet mignon, pan seared chicken breast and pan seared pork chops.
As you can tell, Union Oyster House is a must-visit-place every time we go to Boston. Of course, its popular with tourists…but for good reason! The history of this place is truly palpable. But, still, the ambiance is so comfy, and inviting. And of course, the food! So fresh and super delicious, and won’t break the bank either. Sam Adams even has a beer brewed exclusively for the Union Oyster House. It’s really, really good.
Heading to Boston? Make sure Union Oyster House is on you ‘Must D’ list.Union Oyster House 41 Union Street Boston, MA 02108 Phone: 617-227-2750 Web: http://www.unionoysterhouse.com/index.html Reservations recommended $$$$