Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of shellfish
Feast on history at the Union Oyster House
Though we usually review new restaurants, this week we’re looking at the oldest: the Union Oyster House. This national historic landmark, located just outside Faneuil Hall at 41 Union Street, dates back to 1826 and is the oldest restaurant in continuous service in United States. While most Bostonians think of it as a tourist trap (and we cannot deny that it is), it does have an interesting history—one that makes it worthy of a review.
Union Oyster House occupies a brick building that was constructed in the early 1700s on what used to be Boston’s waterfront. Its first tenant, Capen’s Dry Goods Store, was the backdrop for countless pivotal moments in American history for over 100 years. Within its walls, printer Isaiah Thomas published America’s first newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy; Ebenezer Hancock issued war wages for the Continental Army; and founding fathers’ wives met to sew and mend clothing for colonists.
In 1826, around the time that oysters were becoming increasingly popular as an American staple, proprietors Atwood and Bacon bought the property. After installing a coal range and the semi-circular oyster bar that stands today, it became a prominent gathering spot for a growing city. Here famous colonists like John Adams, John Hancock, and Daniel Webster would order tall tumblers of brandy and water and plates of oysters. (Legend has it that Webster seldom had less than six plates!) Today the restaurant attracts local Bostonians and tourists from all over the world.
Though colonial-era buildings are generally thought of as small, the current incarnation of Union Oyster House is quite expansive with over 12,000 square feet spread out over three floors and eight rooms, each of which has its own distinct feel. Patrons enter via the Oyster Bar, where a seasoned shucker (who has worked here for over 20 years) expertly opens oysters on a granite stone located behind the original, u-shaped bar. A lobster tank (the temporary home of a massive 13-pounder last weekend) and rows of painted wooden booths complete the nautical look.
Further in, the casual atmosphere in the Union Bar feels more like a modern sports bar rather than a historic tavern. To the left of the bar is the Freedom Trail room, which features informal dining space and a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical sites in Boston. The last room on the first floor, Webster’s Den, evokes the crisp décor of a ship’s dining quarters and is well suited for overflow or private parties.
One the second floor, you’ll find three dining areas that are more traditional and authentic feeling. The first room, the Pine Room, has an old tavern feel with dim lighting, drawn curtains, and high wooden booths. The Heritage Room, the next dining room where we were seated, is brighter with spindle-backed chairs, framed portraits, and brass sconces. No matter where you’re seated, be sure to visit the last dining room on the second floor, The Colonial Room. Five of the oil paintings on the wall are original and worth seeing. There’s even an intimate dining room on the third floor called Capen’s Loft that can be reserved for private parties.
Unlike its equally established neighbors, the Bell in Hand Tavern (American’s oldest tavern since 1795) and the Green Dragon Tavern (which you may remember from your history class), Union Oyster House plays up its rich history at every touch point. Replete with artwork, tableaus, educational displays, and photographs, every nook and cranny of this place tells a story about the people and events that make it and Boston special. Even branded materials, despite their 70s (that is, 1970s) feel, do a good job of relaying historical information via storytelling and illustration.
But that doesn’t mean everything you see at Union Oyster House is authentic: new and old pieces intermingle throughout, and you can never be sure which is which. And lets just say that the owners don’t hesitate to capitalize on history’s moneymaking potential. The Ye Olde Gift Shop at the entrance hawks cheesy souvenirs like t-shirts, baseball caps, and lobster ornaments. Overall, Union Oyster House straddles the line between authentic historical presentation and colonial kitsch. While some parts feel true, others feel a little bit like Disney World’s Liberty Square—a faux expression of the past.
The food lies in sharp contrast to Union Oyster House’s engaging interior. Though perfectly fine, it’s not going to win any awards for culinary innovation. We suggest you stick to the classics—oysters, clam chowder, and boiled lobster—all of which are hard to screw up, especially in Boston.
While it would be interesting to see how an acclaimed chef could elevate Union Oyster House’s seafood-focused menu, it is and has always been popular—it's clear that the owners attitude is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Even in the middle of February (the slowest month of the year), walk-ins were waiting an hour and a half for a table at dinnertime.
As restaurant consultants who have worked with some of Boston’s best chefs and hospitality groups, we’re often asked where to bring visitors from out of town. And while we could recommend a number of great restaurants, we’d still put Union Oyster House on our list. Is the food as interesting as some of our other favorites? Definitely not. Nevertheless, it represents historic Boston in a way that few places do. Union Oyster House is not about being au courant or adapting to change. It’s about preserving a significant time in our city’s history in a simple, genuine way.
We hold this truth to be self-evident: Union Oyster House may be touristy, but it is an experience that is true to Boston.