Meet Gina. She's the head waitress at Durgin-Park and she's been there for 40 years. She's the type of person who, when you meet her, instantly makes you feel like you've known her for about that long. Over a plate of pot roast, she talks about where Durgin-Park, a nearly two-century-old restaurant, got its surliness from, the blizzard of '78, and taking pictures of food.
How did you get started working at Durgin-Park?
My friend Martin Kelley and his family bought it in February 1975 from Mr. Hallett, who had it for 48 years — and then he became ill, and his family didn't want any part of the restaurant business. So that's how I came to work here, because I knew Martin 10 years prior to working here, and he just dragged me with him. I was the first female bartender in the history of Durgin-Park. That was in '76.
How has Durgin-Park changed over the years?
It has really changed. At one point, when they first bought this restaurant, every single seat was taken in mid-hall, which is my area. Every single seat on the long tables was full; businessmen and produce men would have lunch and just sit for hours. Then on a Saturday or a weeknight, people would come and sit, and before the end of the evening, they were exchanging emails and addresses and phone numbers. This is before cell phones, and people met other people from all over the world. It was very casual and comfortable. That's just how it was then. We also used to be closed on Sunday when Mr. Hallett owned it, and then we started opening on Sunday once it got sold. The only day that we close as of right now is Christmas day.
It's changed. There have been a lot of restaurants and a lot more competition in this area. But we still have a lot of the old clients. We still have about a dozen of them that come in. [Whispers.] That's one over there. Jerry. He's a retired post office person, and he's been coming in here since he was 10. He's in his late 70s now.
A lot of the people that used to come in were all gentleman. At that time, they had a different menu. They had lamb hocks, smelts, and chicken legs. But all that's changed.
What's your customer base like now?
We get a lot of tourists, but we also have a lot of repeat customers. Way back when, in 1826, when this was all a market, we'd be open from 6:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, and all the meat men and fish guys, as well as the produce men, would come in. They'd come in at 6:30 in the morning, all tired, and they'd give the servers a lot of garbage. It got to the point where the servers started to give it back, and it stuck. So a lot of people come in looking for the abuse, but we've toned it down a lot. We still do it, but we just have to use our mind's eye to see who we can do it to. A lot of the younger people don't understand how it was, and they might take offense to it. But it's never meant to offend anyone. It's all done in fun. You can't mean to be sarcastic.
This seems to be one of the only restaurants in the city with classic New England baked beans on the menu...
I don't know if there's other restaurants in the city with them on the menu, but there aren't any out there that are like ours. The recipes that we have were passed on from generation to generation and from owner to owner. These formulas, the basic ones, have been the same since 1826. So we've taken away recipes, things like the lamb hocks and the smelts. There have been a lot of changes, and the food is all about the presentation.
We had a head chef that used to always tell me, "Gina, you eat with your eyes first. Always remember that." And I have. That always stuck with me. Now the corporation that owns us has really taken that to the next level and is making the dishes really beautiful. Except for the pot roast...I mean, it's pot roast; there's not really much you can do with that, but it's fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. And the chowder is fabulous too. We win awards for that chowder, and everything is made right here. The only frozen vegetables that we serve are peas. The fish is delivered fresh once a day in the winter and twice daily in the summer, if need be. Everything is so fresh here.
What would you say are some of the most popular dishes here, and has that changed over the years?
The most popular has always been the baked scrod. It's a wonderful dish and has always been the staple. It has seasoned breadcrumbs on it. The pot roast is neck and neck with the prime rib. The roast turkey and chicken pot pie are popular too. All of these recipes are the same, but they've really improved upon it. I mean, the broth that they have it in — it's like the richest beef broth you'll ever have in your life. It's made from reduced veal stock that has been simmered for one day. It's amazing. You have to try the pot roast before you go.
What are your personal favorites here?
[Laughs.] After 40 years of being here, I really don't eat much here. Except the salad — I love the salad here. I'll tell you how that happened. We had a laundry lady, Mrs. Stephanos. She's since retired. She introduced us to the Greek salad; she is Greek. She made the salad dressing — that's made with Phillip Barrio olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon (not the concentrate), fresh oregano, and mint. She started that, and then she retired and gave the formula to me. So I sent it to Saratoga — they are the people that make our dressings — and we had them do it seven times until they got it right. So it's Saratoga dressing, but really it's Mrs. Stephanos' recipe.
And then the Marathon, about 15 years ago, when they started doing the tent over here with the pasta. We had never had pasta on the menu, so it's a new thing, but it works. And when I started, we had the Durgin cut of prime rib, which was 32 to 37 ounces, and that was the only cut we had. Then in the 80s they introduced the Yankee cut, which was 16 ounces, and just last year, they incorporated the Boston cut, which is 10 ounces, because people's eating habits have changed over the years. So they work with that.
Any celebrities you've waited on?
Let me see. I've met John Travolta and Bill Pullman. And a lot of Celtics and Bruins players. Lots of politicians, too. It's an interesting place. And I've met people from all over the world.
How would you say the atmosphere has changed here over the years?
It's changed as far as the waitresses being less surly, but other than that, it's about the same.
How would you say the neighborhood has changed?
The neighborhood has really built up around us. When I started, the garage behind us wasn't there. The Bostonian Hotel and the Gap were not there. And a lot of the high-rises weren't there, so if I stuck my head out, I'd be able to see to the water. But now, it's all changed.
Any standout moments over the years?
The blizzard of '78. We were snowed in for three days, and we stayed overnight. We had a skeleton crew cooking, and it was the most fun time. We stayed upstairs and just partied and served people for three consecutive days. The National Guard was all over the city and came in just to check on things and to see how we were doing. I was younger, and taller, and better-looking, so I said to the driver, who had a 10-wheel, canvas-covered truck, that I needed a change of clothes. He said, "No problem, come on in the truck." He drove the truck and took me to Belmont for a change of clothes. So me and another bartender hopped in the truck and we went to Belmont. I got my clothes and my neighbor says to me, "Only you, Gina, would have the National Guard bring you to get your clothes." So that was a memorable time and so much fun. Everyone was walking the streets because you couldn't drive, so it was just a lot of conversation.
Jerry (the retired post officer from a couple tables over): Hey, are you talking about the blizzard of '78? I remember it pretty well.
Gina: She's doing a story on the history of the restaurant; do you have anything you want to add?
Jerry: I come in here once every two or three months and have been for years. My favorite here is the clam chowder — outstanding! And the prime rib. I have to go easy on that stuff because I have high cholesterol. That's why I'm drinking merlot. But I like to treat myself every month or so. Usually I'm here on Tuesdays, but I came on Monday to have a last meal because I'm going to be snowed in. But this place is real old. Like, it's been here since before there was indoor plumbing.
Gina: That's right. In fact, way back when, so many years ago, if you went over and bought a fish from the fishmongers, they cooked it for you for a small fee. You can't do that now. But the people that work here stay here for a long time. We had a waitress, Dottie — she was here for 48 years, and she was 88 years old when she passed, and she was the most requested waitress that Durgin-Park ever had. She was like number 10 sandpaper. She was so Durgin-Park.
She had a customer, his name was Charlie, and he was with the Mormon church, wonderful man. He weighed, like, 350 pounds, and he would bring the little missionaries in. They all loved Dottie. He would say to her, "Dottie, I really want the kids to try the Indian pudding." So she'd bring out the dish and several spoons so that they could try it. He'd pull her aside and say, "Dottie, I want an Indian pudding just for myself." She's look at him and say "For Christ's sake, Charlie, your ass takes up two chairs; I'm not bringing you the pudding!" And she never did. There's a lot of that that I miss. She just was the best. But everyone's afraid of me. I used to be called "Hot Stuff," and now I'm called "Abuela" (as in "grandmother") because I'm everyone's grandmother here.
Everything has just changed so much. I mean, the food has always been good, but you got it the old way when you were just lucky that it got on the plate. But now it's an oooh and an ahhh. And now everybody takes their cameras out to take pictures of what the food looked like.
Do you see that a lot here?
All the time. They won't even touch the food until they've taken a picture of it. I had a customer in the other night, and he ordered the broiled seafood platter. I like it, if you're not gluten-free. That's another thing that they're into now. Everyone's gluten-free and it's a diet. That's crap. But the guy with the seafood platter, I told him that he has to eat or it's going to get cold. And he says to me, "No, no, I need a picture of this." I mean, everyone's doing it. We get a lot of interesting people. We get some critics too. We have some that complain that we didn't pull their chair out, and I'm thinking, pull your chair out? You're lucky you have a chair! We don't do that; it's just not what we do. Especially this restaurant. If you eat at Grill 23 or Ruth's Chris, that's different. This is a completely different bird. I mean, we're a step above a diner. But some people just don't get the history of this place.