By 10 a.m. last August 8, a day of low nineties’ soaking humidity, a line had formed outside the door of Boston’s famed Union Oyster House and snaked halfway to the corner. The day marked the 175th birthday of the local landmark, and for two hours the owners were offering Ye Olde Fare at circa […]
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
By 10 a.m. last August 8, a day of low nineties’ soaking humidity, a line had formed outside the door of Boston’s famed Union Oyster House and snaked halfway to the corner. The day marked the 175th birthday of the local landmark, and for two hours the owners were offering Ye Olde Fare at circa 1826 prices. The only way to ensure entry was to wait in line.
By the time the restaurant’s doors opened and people began funneling in to slurp down Cape Cod oysters (10c a half dozen, 40c for a plate of fried), owner Joe Milano, who bought the restaurant with his sister 30 years ago, shook hands, accepted congratulations, and had his back slapped in front of a sugary confection in the shape of the Union Oyster House building decked with swales of red-white-and-blue icing-bunting, some of which found its way to Milano’s shirt straightaway.
Apart from Colonial re-enactors who read a birthday proclamation and a brief history of America’s oldest restaurant, the scene was much like any other midweek lunch hour at the Oyster, with Boston’s professionals rubbing elbows at the horseshoe-shaped bar while they munched on salted oyster crackers, mixed up their own cocktail sauce (horseradish and Tabasco come on the side), and washed everything down with beer or ginger ale (5c that day). Behind the bar, Mitch the bartender dispensed cups of chowder (15c) and chilled littlenecks on the half shell. Each time he called out a check total–“Forty-nine cents, please!” “That’ll be 80 cents altogether”–there were sheepish smiles all around. Mitch’s tips didn’t always reflect the true prices of the meals he served, as patrons left $20 bills for 79c tariffs. No matter: All proceeds, including tips, were being donated to the Jimmy Fund and the Freedom Trail Foundation.
“So why do it?” asked one customer. And the same might be asked of Joe and Mary Ann Milano, who have lived and breathed the Oyster House for the last 30 years. Mitch’s answer holds true for them, too: “Life, honey. Life.” Huzzah.
Excerpt from “’Yesterday’s Lunch,” Yankee Magazine, January/February 2002.