A final bowl of the famous Durgin-Park Indian pudding.
Photo Credit : Julie Tremaine
Durgin-Park, the stately old restaurant in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, proudly boasts on its facade that it was “established before you were born.” The “you,” in this instance, could refer to anyone reading it, certainly, but also 26 American states and practically every present-day country in Africa and South America. When Durgin-Park was founded in 1827, its surroundings were very different. The restaurant was in the middle of a noisy, smelly marketplace. There were no skyscrapers and no taxis, and if you were proclaiming your support for the Patriots, you were having a very different conversation than you’d be having today.
But one thing is the same as it was back then: the old-fashioned Yankee cooking at Durgin-Park. When Ark Restaurants announced on January 3 that it would be closing the venerable eatery on January 12, it started a wave of public outcry — from those nostalgic for a restaurant that’s been a beloved gathering spot across generations, and from hungry customers wanting to have one final meal.
The Sunday night after the announcement, hundreds of people were lined up outside in the cold, waiting for a table. Gina Schertzer, a 43-year veteran of the restaurant and head waitress, showed me a picture of that crowd when I went for my final family meal the next day. “This is how it was in the ’70s,” she said. According to the managers, business is up 300 percent in the past week or so, after years of declining profits.
One of the many unique charms Durgin-Park has offered over the years is a letter, filled with an article from the now-defunct Collier’s Magazine and several of the restaurant’s iconic recipes, ready-made for you to write at your table and mail to a loved one. On the front, it says “Durgin-Park in Boston, where your great-grandfather dined a century ago.” The history is this: John Durgin, Eldridge Park, and John G. Chandler purchased Faneuil Hall’s food hall in 1827. In 1877, after the death of his two partners, Chandler changed the restaurant’s name to Durgin-Park in their memory. First his family and then two other families ran the restaurant for more than a century, until it was purchased by the corporation in 2007.
The menu has expanded a little over the years — adding pasta in 1997 for Boston Marathon runners who needed carbs, for instance, and offering some smaller cuts of prime rib than the original 32-ounce Durgin Cut — but this is a place that has honored its history and is intensely proud of its 192 years of service.
That history is important not only to the restaurant and its staff, many of whom have worked there for two to four decades, but to the guests as well. As I was talking to Gina, a customer came over to say good-bye; he said he first came to the restaurant in 1956 as a kid on vacation in Boston with his parents. As for my own family, our connection to Durgin-Park began with my grandfather, who started dining at the restaurant in the 1950s when he was a student at Boston University, and he brought us all back there many times over the years. “There are so many people with stories like this,” said Felix Hernandez, a manager who started as a busboy 28 years ago. “Sometimes my job is to sit and listen to stories.”
In the past week, people have come from all over to pay their respects, some from as far as Canada. One 97-year-old man, Gina told me, had his family drive him in from the Cape for one final meal. People may not have been coming in droves the way they used to, but when faced with a future that doesn’t have more of that Yankee cooking in it, they got in the car, and fast. The restaurant has been closing by 7 p.m. simply because they’re running out of food.
What are people coming for? Prime rib, of course. Yankee pot roast. Steamed lobsters, clam chowder, and steamers (which the menu warns are sometimes sandy — but any real New Englander knows that already). Boston baked beans, served in crocks and made in such vast quantities that the restaurant has employed a “chief bean man” over the years. And baked Indian pudding, that unbeautiful concoction of molasses and cornmeal that’s by turns sweet and savory, and is the marker of a truly authentic meal at the restaurant. You may have been to Durgin-Park and ordered something else for dessert, like the coffee Jell-O or the apple pandowdy, but unless you’ve tasted the Indian pudding, you haven’t really been to Durgin-Park.
When the restaurant closes, Felix said, “everything will be auctioned off, and that will take the beauty of the place. You can’t replace that.” There may be good news on the horizon, though: Ark Restaurants says it’s in talks with two potential buyers. The staff is extremely hopeful that someone who loves the restaurant’s history will come in and save it, and preserve the jobs of those who have been instrumental in creating that history.
Durgin-Park will definitely close on January 12, maybe forever. But maybe not. As Felix says, “This place is too beautiful to let it go.”
Durgin-Park. 340 N. Market St., Boston, MA. 617-227-2038; durginparkrestaurant.com