By R. W. APPLE Jr.
Published: February 20, 2002
FOR generations on end, the Locke-Ober Café occupied almost as honored a place in Boston and Massachusetts as the bean and the cod. Many a Brahmin family gathered in its clublike rooms to celebrate an important anniversary, and many a coterie of political cronies huddled there to seal an important deal.
But like the bean and the cod, the old restaurant, hidden at the end of an alley just a block from the Common, gradually ceased to play a central role in the life of the city and commonwealth. In the last few years, said Thomas Winship, a former editor of The Boston Globe who has eaten there, on and off, for half a century, “the food was lousy and the atmosphere was worse.”
Now Lydia Shire, the proprietor of Biba, another leading local eating place, has ridden to Locke’s rescue. This is a startling development, for two reasons: Ms. Shire is a woman running a restaurant that excluded women from its main dining room until as recently as 1970, and she is a culinary innovator running a restaurant whose menu had seemed graven in stone.
Boston seems to be taking the revitalized Locke’s to its heart, and visitors to the city are beginning to follow suit. Since shortly after it reopened last Nov. 16 after a major overhaul, Ms. Shire told me, it has been fully booked every night.
A casual first glance might tell you that nothing has changed, but in fact a lot has changed, mostly for the better. The elaborately carved Santo Domingo mahogany woodwork, long the hallmark of the distinctive premises on Winter Place, glows again with youth, thanks to cleaning and better lighting. The spectacular array of silver domes along the bar, each attached to a chain, a pulley and a counterweight so it could easily be raised and lowered over a tureen or a platter, has been polished to a mirror-bright sheen. The old rug and the old curtains, which had grown shabby even by the standards of a city where well-worn objects are badges of pride, have been replaced by handsome new ones.
And the food? What of the lobster stew that John F. Kennedy loved so much, and the storied scrod, and the rich, pink-centered calf’s liver with thick bacon and caramelized onions? All there, all lightened and brightened without imprudent “improvements.” The ingredients come from the best sources once more (and the new menu is not above noting the fact that Niman Ranch supplies the pork chops).
Anchovies Winter Place is still a he-man’s salad, a small fleet of salty little fillets afloat on a sea of lettuce, with sliced tomatoes and plenty of chopped onion on the side. The Indian pudding is still the elusively flavored apotheosis of New England nursery food, an irresistible blend of milk, cornmeal, rum, molasses and a bit of cinnamon, topped with vanilla ice cream.
But lobster Savannah, the house specialty since spats were in style, has been put on a diet. In the old days, it consisted of cooked lobster meat, taken from the shell, blended with paprika, sherry, mushrooms, green peppers, canned pimentos and a couple of gallons of gooey béchamel sauce, spooned back into the shell, dusted generously with Parmesan and baked. Ms. Shire banished the béchamel, replacing it with a much smaller quantity of a much lighter velouté, substituted fresh red peppers for the pimentos, and added a healthy slug of brandy.
In the contemporary version you can actually taste the lobster.
Ms. Shire and her executive chef, Jacky Robert, a nephew of the proprietor of Boston’s excellent Maison Robert, have discreetly added a few modern dishes to the old stalwarts — broccoli raab with hot peppers finds a place alongside creamed spinach and pommes dauphine among the side orders; the roast duck for two comes with a tart, mildly exotic blood orange sauce; and a buttery, densely magnificent foie gras terrine is cooked, so as to minimize the loss of that fabulous fat, in a microwave (micro- onde in the menu’s Franglais).
The foie gras comes with a shimmering little cube of beet jelly. Inspired! Also with a white bean salad. Boring!
Although stove-top short ribs turn up among the entrees (is this a statutory requirement in the first decade of the 21st century?), most of Ms. Shire’s and Mr. Robert’s offerings remain resolutely untrendy. No foams. No emulsions. No ahi tuna. At lunch, they serve calf’s brains with brown butter, broiled haddock and fish cakes with a parsley sauce that tastes of the essence of the herb. The late George Apley would have felt right at home.
Orson Welles devoured dozens of oysters when he came in. Enrico Caruso always ordered sweetbreads Eugenie — and, according to Ned and Pam Bradford’s history of the restaurant, “Boston’s Locke-Ober Café” (Atheneum, 1978), never once left a tip. The daughter of one regular married the maître d’s grandson. Another habitué, a furrier named Gus Masow, ate at Locke’s 11,000 times in 60 years, or so he claimed.
Huntington F. Hardwick, the star of Harvard’s undefeated national champion football team in 1914, became a financier later in life and ate lunch at Locke’s most days, working on a crossword puzzle as he waited for his food. When he died, his table was set with the plate upside down, a newspaper open to the crossword, a pepper mill, and his chair tilted against the wall.
THIS is the dream of my lifetime,” Ms. Shire said of the arrangement that gives her and her backers full control of Locke’s for 10 years, with an option for another 10. “I feel a little like Walter Mitty getting this.”
Born near Boston, she has spent her whole career here, so she knew better than to try to change too much too fast. Like many in this city, she first visited Locke’s with her father. She and Adam Tihany, the designer of Le Cirque 2000 and Jean Georges, regilded walls and updated the lighting, but they never considered cleaning the ceiling, which is stained, as she said, “by the cigars of five generations.”
For the bar, she found an antique Italian table with an inlaid marble top depicting card games. Perfect, but the budget for the project would not stretch to cover it. So she paid for it herself, on the installment plan.
Ms. Shire kept most of the old waiters on the payroll, including some who have been at Locke’s for two decades and more. But she brought in a young sommelier, David Weitzenhoffer, who won my undying fealty by suggesting that I order not the Chablis Valmur that I had picked but a Chablis Vaillons instead. It was better and cheaper.
In the months ahead, Ms. Shire plans to open a new banquet kitchen on the second floor. The two big private rooms there, one of which will be used to handle overflow from downstairs, will get a face-lift from Mr. Tihany. The look will be much leaner than the Victorian exuberance of the main restaurant, Ms. Shire said, drawing upon the work of the pioneering turn-of-the-century Viennese modernist Adolph Loos. The third- floor private rooms will reopen after air- conditioning is installed.
Some old favorites will soon find their way back onto the menu, including finnan haddie (lightly salted and smoked haddock) and perhaps a New England boiled dinner (corned beef and vegetables). Others, like the loose-textured, almond-scented macaroons and the ravishingly fresh, perfectly iced Wellfleet oysters, never came off.
Most main courses cost $25 to $35, but lobster Savannah is $48 — a slight increase from the price quoted on the 1939 menu, $1.60.
Perfection is still some distance away. On a busy Friday night, the service was slow and in some cases inept. (“I ordered two entrees and only one arrived,” I overheard a baffled diner protesting to the headwaiter.) For my taste, and that of my wife, Betsey, several dishes were oversalted. And Betsey’s schnitzel à la Holstein, topped with two immaculately basted eggs, had been inadequately pounded, lending a sadly lumpy texture to the veal.
Not every innovation Ms. Shire tried in the kitchen met with instant approval. The roast beef hash, she thought, looked and tasted as if it came from a can, so she took a different approach. It bombed. The regulars complained. She has returned to the old recipe, but asked nervously what I thought of it. A clunker, I replied; dry, tasteless and drab-looking.
“Right,” she said glumly.
Other innovations have proved more popular, like the skate wing with vividly sharp capers and the rum-rubbed and tobacco- smoked salmon. Slightly sweet, slightly cedary, the salmon is an adaptation of a dish she tasted in Quebec City many years ago. The translucent slices look handsome laid out on a big plate, with capers, finely chopped onion and sieved eggs scattered across their surface like confetti. They come to the table with brown bread.
“If you do new things, you want them to read Locke-Ober,” Ms. Shire said. “Smoked salmon falls into that category. Hamachi with sesame, no.”