In a landscape of restaurants that are resolutely new, the dining room inside the Omni Parker House feels so two centuries ago. Parker’s Restaurant has been open since the 1800s. It is reportedly responsible for the invention of Parker House rolls, Boston cream pie, and (some say) the whitefish catchall term “scrod.” (The coinage is said to stand for “select catch retrieved on the day,” and when it is spelled “schrod,” as at Parker’s, the “h” indicates haddock rather than cod.) Dickens, Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Thoreau were among a group of writers and intellectuals who met here regularly for dinner. Ho Chi Minh worked as a baker. Malcolm X bussed tables.
What could the two revolutionaries have thought of this place where little ever changes? Big trees gave their lives for the walls, wide panels topped with ornate carved trim. There are crystal chandeliers and staunch, ridged columns, paintings of swan boats and nude statuary, floral arrangements and white tablecloths. The leather chairs are excellently comfortable. If you’ve sat in another restaurant recently, you will know this is not nothing.
There are so few places like this left in the city. That is both lamentable and inevitable. Times and tastes change, for better and worse. But for Boston to be Boston, there must remain at least one or two restaurants where formality reigns, the smell of bygone gravy lingers in the curtains, and there can be said to be ghosts. Parker’s holds down the fort.
Here, foreign tourists take selfies in disposable bibs while eating lobster. There are plenty of lobster dinners in these parts, but not ones that begin with a waiter in button-down and vest tying on your bib for you and end with a finger bowl, the lemon in the water stinging the skin. The hard shells are supposed to arrive worked over, pre-split and ready for the diner to deliver the final blows with cracker and fingers. But they are nearly intact, and battle must be done, snowy linens be damned. The lobsters are a touch overcooked, but the meat is sweet. They may be dressed up with jasmine rice and baby vegetables, but this is still a New England lobster dinner at heart.
Field-tripping parents bring their children for chowder and warm, buttered Parker House rolls. A sniff of these is evocative: They are the everyroll, yeasty and fluffy, the sort of thing one eats a hundred times growing up, pulling off pieces and rolling them into balls. They are so classic they almost seem commonplace; it is hard to imagine a time when they made waves. The chowder is classic, too — rich with butter and cream, stocked with plenty of tender clams and potatoes, served with a baggie of Westminster crackers.
Regulars come for Caesar salads and schrod. The salad is a crunchfest of lettuce, croutons, and bones. These are the kind of anchovies that make people hate anchovies, bristling with sharp edges and saltier than anything generally considered edible. It is a shame, given that fully lovable anchovies are readily available these days. Bland baked schrod is coated in cracker crumbs, topped with a pool of beurre blanc, and presented with the same side dishes as the lobster: jasmine rice, tiny pattypan squash, zucchini, carrots, and green beans. These matter less when you are wearing a bib. The plain vegetables need salt and every last squirt of the lemon on the plate, presented in beribboned cheesecloth for seedless squeezing.
Here, the bowtied conventioneer with an interest in history finds his Boston cream pie. He sits alone at his table, hands folded before him, and eyes the sweet for a moment before picking up his fork. What he sees: a little sponge cake — it is a cake after all, not even a pie! — layered with pastry cream, rolled in almonds, and iced with chocolate and white fondant in a floral design. What he tastes: a light and pleasant confection that wouldn’t make a blip on the trendy dessert radar today. (It no longer seems wild to use chocolate for something other than a beverage, for one thing.) The Boston cream pie has been remade and reimagined so many times and in so many ways: doughnuts, cupcakes, richer, more. They are the nouveau riche to this old-money original.
Executive chef Gerard Tice recognizes some are here not for anachronism but simply for dinner. A ravioli starter is a pleasant surprise, with great flavors — gorgonzola, pancetta, walnuts — potentially excessive but well balanced. But a crab cake is soggy and small, with squiggles of aioli parading around the plate, pretending it isn’t so empty. And overcooked quail looks gruesome, pale and unadorned, splayed on its back in a sauce that tastes like too much honey and bottled lemon juice.
For a main course, nicely seared scallops are served atop what are essentially sweet potato latkes, unexpected and tasty. But an enormous pork shank braised in Guinness is hearty and plain; it needs an acidic pick-me-up. The accompanying mushroom risotto is heavy and quite sweet. Tough filet mignon and middle-of-the-road roast chicken both come with a frill of dry piped potatoes. And amid autumnal desserts such as pumpkin cheesecake and apple cranberry crisp, a chocolate torte offers all-season, mousse-like decadence, talking over the cream pie’s decorum.
Servers pour cocktails tableside. A gimlet one evening somehow tastes of Lipton’s soup mix. The wine list is generic rather than classic. Do your drinking before dinner at the in-house Last Hurrah, where the bartenders are old-school and the whiskey flows.
It takes a long time to get your food at Parker’s. The soundtrack needs work: more classic jazz, fewer piped-in lobby stylings. The setting deserves it. On a bite-for-bite basis, the food often doesn’t merit its price tag: Is this simply what gourmet tasted like back in the day?
But there are other determinants of value. The service is the best part of a meal here. On a recent evening, a career waiter with a charming accent waxes nostalgic. He gestures: That’s where the harpist played. There was a swing band in the basement, and everyone descended after the meal. People dressed for dinner. No one showed up in flip-flops or baseball hats: “If it was my restaurant, I’d say sorry.”
Here Dickens drank punch and JFK proposed to Jackie. The marble tabletop where Ho Chi Minh measured out flour is still used in the bakery. Schrod is spelled with an “h,” plain white rolls are ever on the table, and Boston cream pie has not yet learned excess. Parker’s Restaurant keeps the past alive.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.