The Locke-Ober Café, one of the grand restaurants of not only Boston, but in the United States, closed its doors for business this past October, after being in business for 137 years. Needless to say, a lot of history has passed through their doors. So, for the restaurant that was the third oldest in Boston, and by far considered the longest standing fine dining restaurant in Boston to shut its doors, and never use the name Locke-Ober in that location again, the city of Boston has lost a treasure. I am saddened as I worked there in the late 1980s, and felt that Locke-Ober's Café had many of the old school features that could attract a whole new generation of customers; a beautiful bar, with a separate entrance, a majestic first floor dining room with an oyster bar and one-of-a-kind brandished silver, a good-sized second floor dining room, smaller party rooms on the third floor, and a beautiful club or banquet room, that could seat another 100 plus people. Never mind the tradition and history that should be a natural draw.
Factors Working Against Success
Why couldn't Locke-Ober's make it? Even in the 1980s when I was there, my feeling was there was more of a sentiment to reaching back to tradition, rather than looking into tweaking the restaurant in a little more modern food approach, as well as giving it a little life with a marketing and PR effort aimed at fun for a younger clientele. A meal at Locke-Obers was a special treat, not necessarily for the outstanding food, but for the surroundings, the elegant service, the history of the building, the traditions that were carried on only in this one rather special historical treasure in Boston. When a regular customer died, their chair was respectfully leaned against the bar, so that no one could sit in their place. There was Frederick Childe Hassam's iconic nude painting of ' Yvonne' (Circa 1886) that was positioned over the door in the main dining room. This is the restaurant of JFK, Enrico Caruso, Ogden Nash, the bluebloods of Boston, Heads of State, tycoons, and local politicians. This was once Boston's power restaurant. The bar, and the club "Yvonne's," were not utilized to their potential. There was nothing stopping Locke-Ober's from modernizing and upgrading their food, other than Locke-Ober's themselves.
Restaurant competition in Boston has changed dramatically. Boston, once known as one of the worst restaurant cities in America, as recently as the 1970s, has become one of the best. Locke-Ober's really had to compete. There have been arguments made that Locke-Ober's, who only admitted women in 1971, was always way behind the times. I would counter with the argument that Harvard University only started to admit undergraduate women in 1973. In that respect, Locke-Ober's made their adaptation, and opened their doors to women. They survived that change, and countless others during their long history, which included Prohibition, two World Wars, Vietnam and much cultural upheaval. What is it that made this the time that Locke-Ober's should close? Daytime drinking patterns had changed, and business meetings that were filled with wine and cocktails were replaced with water. Their clientele had gotten old, and was not being replaced. Casual dining patterns have taken over the restaurant landscape, both in Boston and the rest of the country. Very formal restaurants in 2012 require jackets for men. That was Locke-Ober's policy, and I would think it is in step with formal restaurants everywhere else. The downtown area, where the Winter Place address is located, had degenerated. Still, had the restaurant made some concessions to upgrading food, and aimed their marketing (something they never used to have to believe in, as everything with Locke-Ober in their heyday, was by word of mouth), I believe their doors would still be open.
The Last Attempt
The last decade of Locke-Ober's existence was spearheaded by the presence of legendary Boston chef Lydia Shire. The irony of a female chef in a restaurant that would not have even allowed her to dine in her early years was not lost on the ownership, nor on chef Shire herself. Yet, despite her presence, Locke-Ober's never fully worked its way back into the prominence it might have been able to gain, had there been more of an eye toward necessary changes that would have given Locke-Ober's an opportunity to continue on. I often wonder if Locke-Ober's would have thrived under the leadership of a visionary like Danny Meyer, or Drew Nieporent. Some person who could have taken the best elements of a historically classic restaurant, and put the modern touches on the menu and marketing, to make the legend of Locke-Ober's continue on.
We will never know. David Ray, now the last owner of Locke-Ober's made a statement to the Boston Globe saying,
"I fought for the dignity of the place...it was better to close it."
I view Mr. Ray's position as that of a steward of a legacy. A restaurant with 137 years of history bears a certain responsibility to the business owner. Locke-Ober's was David Ray's restaurant, but it was Boston's restaurant too. He is a business owner, and of course he has every right to sell his business. I just wish he had allowed someone else to come in and give Locke-Ober's a chance for a future.
Mr. Ray sold the building without allowing the name of the restaurant at Winter Place to ever be called Locke-Ober's again. He sold it to Mr. Jay Hajj, a local businessman, for $3.3 million dollars. Much of Locke-Ober's belongings were auctioned off. Mr. Ray did not auction off the iconic Frederick Childe Hassam painting of "Yvonne," which prominently sat over the doorway of the main dining room. Now he, and he alone, can view this iconic art piece that came from his restaurant, and Boston's most elegant restaurant too.
R.I.P. Locke-Ober's Café (1875-2012)