By: David Wieneke

Frank Locke and Louis Ober were competitors. Locke opened a sumptuous wine room next to Ober’s fashionable restaurant in 1892. Diners began a tradition of drinking at Locke’s before dining at Ober’s.

Restaurateurs Wood and Pollard saw that the two competitors at the end of an alley called Winter Place were worth more combined. They renamed the united restaurant the Winter Place Tavern. In 1898, they sold it to John Merrou, who went bankrupt in 1900.

In 1901, it was under the control of an entity called the Locke-Ober Company, headed by Frenchman Emil Camus, who had served as manager under Wood and Pollard. Until his death nearly 40 years later, Camus presented a menu of European and American specialities which made this a temple of gastronomy for the well healed.

As Close As You Can Get to a Gentlemen’s Club Without a Vote

Boston history is full of “old money”, and Locke-Ober’s is one of the places where many of Boston’s most powerful businessmen dined regularly. A promotional piece from the restaurant boasts: “This is the place where Caruso cooked his own sweetbreads; where John F. Kennedy habitually ordered the lobster stew, drank the broth and gave the meat to the waiter; where a dying man came for his last lunch; and where, when regular customers pass away, their plates are turned over and their chairs are cocked against the table.”

Known as Yvonne (said to be the name of the model), this entrance way painting became the restaurant’s mascot. Traditionally, when Harvard loses to Yale, Yvonne’s upper torso was covered. (The only other time the mural has been draped was when the New York Yacht Club lost the America’s Cup.)

As was the case with many exclusive restaurants, women were generally excluded from dining at Locke-Ober’s until as late as 1970. Before then, women patrons were only allowed on the second floor’s private dining areas, or on the first floor if Harvard won a home game against Yale.

Now Serving: Delicious Irony!

Fast forward through Boston’s restaurant renascence of the 80’s and 90’s. Staid Locke-Ober’s remained a destination for limousined executive’s, looking to impress clients or staff. But the real action of Boston’s food scene was with innovative chefs creating more lively untraditional fare.

Now, one of America’s top chefs, a woman who Locke-Ober’s wouldn’t have had a seat for as she grew up in Brookline, will be owner. A James Beard Award Winner and a graduate of London’s Condon Bleu — Lydia Shire has an impressive record of taking over and establishing top restaurants..

In 1989 she established Biba, a luxuriant and soft around the edges space of bold colors and flavors. In 1994 she opened the airy Pignoli, which has gone on to win top food honors, and gain a young hip downtown following. Her style is anathema to Locke-Ober’s, which makes this a greater watershed. Shire has the savvy and creative power to make Locke-Ober’s a contender to be Boston most desired restaurant, and write a new chapter in its idiosyncratic history.

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