June 20, 2021
The cocktail napkin and placemat at Union Oyster House proudly declared, “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” and that’s good enough for me. No doubt, there are others claiming the same, but the Union Oyster House can document its continuous operation, something the others can’t.
Originally opened as Atwood’s Oyster House in 1826, and later called Atwood & Hawes, as well as Atwood & Bacon, it acquired the name Union Oyster House around 1916. The original building was constructed in the early 1700’s and served as a dry goods house at the time when Boston Harbor nearly reached its back door. Two other buildings were added later, one in 1851 and another in 1916. Before becoming a restaurant, it was a meeting place for American revolutionists and even housed King Louis Phillippe of France during his American exile. The Union Oyster House website has a nice timeline with more details on some of this history.
The best seats in the house are at the original oyster bar, stools where you can watch as the oysters are shucked. A close second is one of the stall booths nearby on the first floor of the original building. They are wonderfully historic, but terribly uncomfortable. There are other dining rooms throughout, including one upstairs where John F. Kennedy liked to dine, a booth there preserves his memory. There is also a cocktail bar, though it feels a lot more modern compared to much of the rest. And if you need a souvenir to remember your visit, there’s a gift shop where you can pick up an unpleasant looking oyster hand puppet, among other things.
The Union Oyster House gets the unfortunate reputation as a tourist trap, and there is some truth to that: again, there’s a gift shop with oyster puppets. But the food can be good if you know what to get. You’re going to get a nice warm piece of cornbread when you sit down, and that will make you happy. Start by ordering a Daniel Webster, a brandy side car that’s a definite improvement over the brandy and water he liked to drink there. For food, begin with the clam chowder. It’s thick and rich with distinctive flavor of butter and bacon. Then, obviously, go for oysters. Since I can’t eat them raw, I went for the fried oyster roll. It arrives dry, just oysters and a bun, but it comes with fries, coleslaw, and tartar sauce. Use that coleslaw and tartar sauce to dress it up and it becomes really good. If you are still hungry, they serve a Boston Cream Pie, the city’s most iconic dessert.
Until yesterday, I hadn’t been to the Union Oyster House in well over a decade because it’s not the type of place that locals go very often. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it. If you are visiting Boston, it is well worth a trip for the history alone. But beyond that, the food, though classic, is pretty good. It’s more or less beach food in the city, and it’s actually a lot better than much of the beach food I run into. Even if you aren’t a tourist, I recommend a visit, at least once a decade.