Frank Meloski had just celebrated his daughter Elsa’s birthday by devouring a baked stuffed filet of sole, and now the two were outside taking photos of each other.
“I’ve been coming to Anthony’s Pier 4 for years, and I always take pictures,” said Meloski, a retiree who lives in Cambridge.
But as he looked through the lens at his daughter, her hand gently rocking a baby carriage, the 66-year-old Meloski saw something unsettling. Crowding the frame were construction workers, a crew of hardhats standing around a gaping hole in the ground just 100 yards from the restaurant’s front door.
Soon a gleaming, 21-story apartment and retail tower will rise from the chasm along Northern Avenue, and, in a long-anticipated move, Anthony’s Pier 4, once one of the busiest restaurants in the country and a local institutionfor a half-century, will close its doors, a vestige of a bygone Boston giving way to the new. Considered progress by some, to others the prospect of the South Boston waterfront without Pier 4’s white tablecloths, popovers, and lobster a la Hawthorne is painful.
“Like a knife in the heart,” said Meloski.
In an interview this week, Anthony’s owners, the sons of late founder Anthony Athanas, confirmed that the business famous for hosting generations of Brahmins, Beacon Hill powerbrokers, old-school celebrities, and ordinary families will be shuttered in August. Business isn’t what it used to be. Just a few dozen people wandered in for lunch on a recent weekday, sparsely populating a dining room that seats 500. Meanwhile, the neighborhood, a wasteland of rotting piers and dirt lots when Anthony’s opened in 1963, is teeming with development, including sleek office towers and several hot new restaurants.
The family of Anthony Athanas says their father always figured the site would be developed, and the time has come. Like Jimmy’s Harborside, which closed in 2006 after 75 years serving plain cuts of fish, the glory years of Anthony’s Pier 4 hark to another era, one that seems less and less relevant to many of today’s diners.
“This is something that’s been in the works for 15 years,” said Michael Athanas, 68, wearing a double-breasted suit and sitting in a corner booth with his younger brothers Robert, 65, and Paul, 60. (The eldest, 71-year-old Anthony Athanas Jr., was out of town.)
“Our father had a vision of this whole area and look what’s come true around us,” said Michael. “Our father was a pioneer.”
By any definition, Anthony Athanas, who died in 2005 at the age of 93, was indeed a pioneer, beginning with his exit from Albania at age 4 on the back of a donkey. After stops at Ellis Island and New Bedford, where his father worked as a fruit peddler, Athanas ended up here. In 1937, he pulled together $1,800 to buy the Hawthorne in Lynn, and it soon became the most successful restaurant in the state, grossing more than $1 million a year.
That led Athanas to buy restaurants in Swampscott and Salem, and, in 1960, to purchase the property that would become Anthony’s Pier 4.
With its incomparable water views, impressive wine list, and a menu stocked with local seafood — oysters on the half shell, clams casino, and, of course, all kinds of lobster — Anthony’s became a phenomenon. By 1981, it was grossing $12 million annually, making it one of the five most successful restaurants in the country.
“A very slow lunch might be 600 people and a very busy dinner would be 3,000,” Michael recalled. “People would wait for two hours just to get in the door.”
Anthony’s national profile was dramatically enhanced in 1964 when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton dined there during the run of “Richard Burton’s Hamlet” at the Shubert Theater. Taylor, who would return several times over the years, was a prolific eater and drinker. Once, tired of bothering the bartender, the actress asked if she could put a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the floor by her feet. Twice she had Athanas ship chairs from the dining room to her home.
“When John Warner [a former Senator from Virginia] came in after his divorce [from Taylor], he said, ‘Remember those chairs you gave us? We split them six and six,’ ” recalled Robert, chuckling.
The walls of framed photos that greet guests in the foyer are evidence of the restaurant’s popularity with the celebrity set of its heyday. Grinning alongside Athanas and his sons are the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Richard Nixon, Judy Garland, Edward G. Robinson, Alfred Hitchcock, Ginger Rogers, Julia Child, and Jack Nicholson, to name just a few.
Not on the wall, they note, are gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who sometimes came in and sat alone at the bar, or “Hollywood Squares” regular Paul Lynde, who was turned away when he showed up one night drunk and shoeless.
“Steve McQueen, when he was here doing ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ was out back on [movie producer] Joseph E. Levine’s yacht and there were 200 people waiting on the dock,” said Michael. McQueen “looked at the crowd and then said, ‘Follow me.’ Just like in the movies, he jumped up on the table, over it, in the door, and ran up the stairs [into the restaurant].”
For years, Anthony’s was a second home to politicians and influence peddlers who made a habit of hosting fundraisers, business meetings, banquets, and birthday parties in the dining room overlooking Boston Harbor. After Rose Kennedy died in 1995, the Kennedys, longtime patrons of the restaurant, held a memorial dinner on the second floor. It was a family-only affair, so Carolyn Bessette, who was not yet married to John F. Kennedy Jr., was made to wait downstairs.
“I’ve gone to so many fundraising lunches and dinner meetings there I couldn’t count them on a typewriter,” said 87-year-old former State Treasurer Bob Crane. “Anthony and his sons always made you feel like you were having dinner in your own living room.”
But as times and tastes changed, and innovative restaurants like Olives, Hamersley’s, and Biba began changing the city’s culinary landscape in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Anthony’s was sometimes described as a “tourist trap,” a characterization that upset its founder.
“So I’m no longer the only good-looking dame on the block,” Athanas told the Globe in 1993.
Still, loyal customers kept coming. WBZ-TV anchor Jack Williams and his wife, Marci, have been eating at Anthony’s for 37 years, usually in the afternoon on Sunday. They’ve had the same waiter and sommelier for years and the halibut is still “the best in town,” but Williams acknowledges the place has lost some of its luster.
“The last time we were in, the air conditioner wasn’t working,” said Williams, whose photo on the restaurant’s wall of fame is between Carson and Cardinal Bernard Law. “That would never have happened in the old days.”
Over the years, Athanas had assembled an enormous amount of property around Pier 4 and pursued a series of mixed-use developments. But he lost much of the land in a legal battle with his onetime development partner, the Pritzker family of Chicago, and in the late 1990s he sold the development rights to Pier 4 to New England Development CEO Stephen Karp. (New England Development in turn sold some of the property to the Houston-based Hanover Company, which is building the apartment and retail tower.)
Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz, whose nearby Legal Harborside is one of a slew of hot waterfront restaurants crowding out Pier 4, takes no pleasure in seeing Anthony’s close.
“I’d be lying if I said Anthony’s didn’t serve as an inspiration for moves I made down the road. He was a visionary,” said Berkowitz. “Take his wine list. Anthony’s was one of the first places in the country where you could get a great bottle of wine at a reasonable price.
“But there are many more choices today,” he added. “And there’s just not a lot of white tablecloth business being done in Boston anymore.”
The Athanas sons, who still own Hawthorne by the Sea Tavern in Swampscott and Anthony’s Cummaquid Inn in Yarmouth Port, say there’s a possibility they will reopen a smaller version of Pier 4 in one of the new buildings going up.
Meanwhile, longtime customers will soon be left with only the memories of the storied original.
“I really don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Richard Sweeney, a longtime customer and owner of Sweeney Brothers Home for Funerals in Quincy. “I asked my wife to marry me there in 1974, and we’ve been going ever since.”
Likewise, Crane, the former state treasurer, isn’t sure where he’ll go when Anthony’s is gone.
“As Scarlett says, ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow,’ ” said Crane, who lives in Wellesley.
Meloski seemed stricken as he wandered back to the car with his daughter. Turning back to look at the familiar brick building at the water’s edge, perhaps for the last time, he recalled all the times he’d gone to Anthony’s as a child.
“Driving to the waterfront, I would tell my father to roll up the window because the stink from the harbor was so bad,” Meloski said. “Now look at it down here. There’s been a lot of progress. But we’re losing Anthony’s and I’m heartbroken.”