The Union Oyster House – A Boston Tradition

categories: USA Travel

The Union Oyster House is the oldest restaurant in continuous service in the United States.  It is the earliest standing brick building in Boston.  For more than 250 years it has stood sturdily on Union Street as a major local landmark.

In 1742 the building housed importer Hopestill Capen’s fancy dress goods business, known colorfully as “At the Sign of the Cornfields.”

In 1771, from this site, the painter Isaiah Thomas published his newspaper “The Massachusetts Spy,” long known as the oldest newspaper in the United States.

In 1775 Capesn’s silk and dry Goods store became headquarters fro Ebenezer Handcock, and Federal Troops received their “War Wages” in this official pay station.

In 1796 the future King of France, Louis Philippe, lived on the second floor.  Exiled from his country, he earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston’s fashionable young ladies.

1862 marked the end of Capesn’s silk and dry goods store and the beginning of Atwood and Bacon’s establishment.  The new owners installed the now world-renowned semi-circular Oyster Bar where Daniel Webster was a constant customer.   Another first for the Union Oyster House is it has the honor of being the first place in the United States that a toothpick was used.  Enterprising Charles Foster of Maine imported the picks from South America.  To promote his new business, he hired Harvard boys to dine at the Oyster House and ask for toothpicks.   President Kennedy and other members of his family have dined at the   Oyster house for years.  J.F.K.’s favorite spot was a booth in the upstairs dining room.  This booth has been dedicated in his honor.

In 2003 the Union Oyster House was designated a National Historic Landmark.  This is a double designation.  Not only is it the oldest continually operated restaurant in the United States, but it is also the earliest standing brick building in Boston’s Georgian architecture.

Now that the historical stuff is out of the way, Union Oyster House was my family’s first place for a meal after moving to Boston.  Needless to say, we were trying to do all of the tourist things.  The Oyster House is a neat place.  Everywhere you look you can see the history of the building.  The food is good, my daughter still raves about the clam chowder, and for a ten-year-old that says a lot.  Being that we moved here from Georgia, we were excited when the waitress served us cornbread.  We eagerly picked it up and started eating.  Then we noticed we were the only ones in the place eating cornbread with our fingers.  Everybody else was using forks.  At that moment we realized we were not in the South anymore.   We have tried the fish and chips, scallops and pasta, clam chowder and kid’s chicken fingers.  All of the food is very good and everyone enjoyed the meal.  The one thing I can say is the booths are a little uncomfortable for adults.  The benches are just too small to sit in comfortably, I am sure they are as they were in 1862 but they are still small.

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Chuck Prevatte

by Chuck Prevatte

Chuck Prevatte is a regular contributor to The Amateur Traveler. His travels include North America, Europe and the Middle East. He is happily married and the father of three children.

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