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A Trip to America's Oldest Restaurant, Union Oyster House

As Classics Week winds down, we take a look inside the United States' oldest continuously operating restaurant.

It's late afternoon, just before the big storm is about to start. Union Oyster House, like most restaurants before a big Nor'easter is about to make its presence known, is virtually empty. There are a lot of employees still hanging out, waiting to be sent home. They are talking loudly about storms from the past, comparing them to what the weather forecasters are predicting this time around.

When one opens the doors to Union Oyster House, which dates back to 1826, the history of Boston is everywhere, taking the form of murals, paintings, newspaper clippings, photographs, and so much more. Just past the entryway, there's a gift shop to the right, and straight ahead is the giant lobster tank. Directly in front of the massive, bubbling tank, there's a circular oyster bar with wooden stools surrounding it. A small white plaque on the wall commemorates the 1826 installation of said bar. Crammed into every nook and cranny in this brightly-lit, nautically-themed dining room, there is a history lesson or a fact about the restaurant or the city.

The building itself was built long before the restaurant was opened, and another white plaque on a wall informs that it is the oldest standing brick building in the city. Before it was the Union Oyster House, or the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House, as it was first called, Hopestill Capen's dress goods business was the occupant. It dates back further than the records, but the general assumption is that it was built around 1704.

A narrow flight of stairs goes up to the second floor dining room, where the room is significantly darker and has a much more authentic historic feel to it. The ceiling has dark wooden beams running the length of it. Tall booths are tightly packed into the space, and the floor creaks with every step. It's hard to imagine how many people have walked through that dining room. John F. Kennedy, one of the most notable regulars, used to come on Sundays when he was a senator.

He was known to cozy up with a bowl of lobster stew and some newspapers in his favorite booth, situated just to the back of the room and tucked away. The restaurant has honored his tradition by dedicating the booth to him with a golden plaque. Over the years and particularly after his death, relatives of his have been known to stop in and sit there. On November 22 of each year, the day the president was assassinated, the booth remains empty, with only a single white rose to honor his legacy.

Prior to the opening of Union Oyster House, the second floor of this building was where Isaiah Thomas, who was first to publicly read the Declaration of Independence, published The Massachusetts Spy, a political newspaper. Later, in 1796, Louis Philippe, who was king of France from 1830 to 1848, lived in exile on that second floor.

To the back of the second floor dining room, there is a small and narrow staircase that leads to a third dining room. This room is brighter, with windows that span all across one wall. The other walls have gold framed paintings of famous historic events or regulars. One section of a wall pays homage to Daniel Webster, a senator and leading constitutional scholar. He was said to visit the restaurant frequently, ordering at minimum six plates of oysters.

On the way back down the stairs to the first level dining room, one passes by a booth that commemorates that the Union Oyster House popularized the toothpick in dining establishments. Walking down the steps, one passes a picture of Rose Carey, the county's first waitress. Back in the first floor dining room, past the oyster bar and up a small set of steps, a large bar snakes around the room leading back to the kitchen. The focus of this room is more about recent history, with two Red Sox chairs from Fenway Park and a caricature of some local icons. Televisions give the room a more modern-day feel. Just past the bar, a small private room has murals depicting historic scenes from the city's past — literally popping out of the walls.

Past the bar, there is yet another room, white-walled and blending a mix of history new and old. Several painted white plaques point out more historical facts, and a museum-like glass structure houses artifacts from some of Boston's most famous moments in sports.

Union Oyster house became a historical landmark in 2003.

Via the Library of Congress, here's a photograph of the restaurant from some time in the 1930s, shot by Arthur C. Haskell for the Historic American Buildings Survey:

Union Oyster House, 1930s

Union Oyster House

41 Union Street, , MA 02108 (617) 227-2750 Visit Website

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