THE NEWS: The victim of declining business and changing times, the Locke-Ober restaurant has closed indefinitely pending the sale of its building near Boston Common. The Boston landmark opened in 1875 and earned its reputation as a fine dining haven by serving the city’s most powerful people, from executives and lawyers to judges, senators and cardinals. Some of its customers included John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Paul Newman, James Cagney and Jackie Gleason. (Photo: Don't Wake Me, I Plan On Sleeping In/ Flickr)
I remember watching my father do battle with his tuxedo — struggling with the cufflinks, cursing the red bow tie — as he got ready for the men’s only Harvard Club cigar and boxing night at Locke-Ober.
It was the only time he donned his tux without my mother’s assistance. She refused, unwilling to help him prepare for a night out that excluded women.
Among of the men in my family, boxing night was rite of passage. My grandfather took my father and my uncle to the annual fete so they could drink, smoke cigars and cheer a little boxing. In later years, my older brother, and some of my younger male cousins were included. But the invitation was never extended to the girls or the women in my family. I didn’t know to be jealous – but I was very curious. And because the men wouldn’t share any details — the myth was even more compelling.
I finally got the chance to see Lock-Ober for myself when the restaurant opened its doors to women in 1970. The anticipation! The mystique!
The carved mahogany bar and highly polished silver were somewhat impressive – but overall, the place fell short of my expectations.
In my imagination, Locke-Ober was epic. But in reality, it was just nice. The food was fine: We ate Lobster thermador, finnan haddie, and calf liver. And it was certainly a lot fancier than the Red Coach Grill or The Rib Room –– the two places my grandfather took all of us. But I didn’t love it.
But in retrospect, the Locke-Ober experience had little to do with the food.
It was an institution, a sort of manners-school-meets-lunch-club for the Irish, Jewish, and Italian men who worked downtown – but weren’t welcome in any of the exclusive clubs controlled by the Boston Brahmin. It was a place ethnic men of Boston learned how to behave like Yankee gentlemen. They ate the Yankee dishes, perfected proper necktie etiquette, and thus – they hoped — helped ease their sons’ entry into the social stream.
About 15 years ago, before Lydia Shire took over as chef of Locke-Ober, I actually thought about buying it. The restaurant was on hard times after several failed resurrection attempts: a tawdry membership only nightclub, stag party and Bar Mitzvah rentals.
As I conducted my due diligence, I got to know the place well: I read all the history I could get my hands on. I interviewed the long-time staff. I watched the crowd carefully.
But as much as I appreciated its past, I couldn’t imagine its future.
At its height and in all its glory, Locke-Ober wasn’t just a restaurant. It was a vehicle for social transformation in a world where there was but one path to success: fitting in.
My grandfather, a Cohen not a Cabot, was a believer in the Locke-Ober School of Etiquette. He desperately wanted his male progeny to learn the rules of the game. And if that included a little black-tie boxing and booze, even better.
I will miss Locke-Ober.
Not for the food, or the beautiful bar, but for the hope it gave generations of Boston men that if they just followed the rules, they too could find their rightful place. For a time it was true.
Listen: Corby Kummer, the restaurant critic for Boston magazine and a senior editor at The Atlantic, on Locke-Ober’s place in history. (WBUR’s All Things Considered)
EDITOR’S NOTE: What will you miss about Locke-Ober? Share your thoughts and your memories in the comments below.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.