Tucked away down a small alley in the heart of bustling Downtown Boston, Locke-Ober, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, quietly shut down Saturday night, with no notice except a sign on the door thanking its loyal patrons and another stating, “Sorry, we are closed.”
The landmark Boston restaurant, which opened in 1875, was long a meeting place where the city’s power brokers made their deals and internationally known political luminaries like Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton made appearances. In the heyday of Locke-Ober, the dark, stately dining room would be abuzz with patrons savoring their thick-cut steaks and signature lobster stew.
But the restaurant has struggled in recent years, and on Sunday afternoon, the polished hardwood tables sat vacant, the lights in the elegant chandeliers and sconces were switched off, and nothing stirred within the crimson and gold-colored walls — an eerie scene frozen in late-1800s opulence. The street, Winter Place, a small branch off Winter Street at Downtown Crossing, was as empty as Locke-Ober.
A sign addressed “to our loyal and valued customers” stated that the restaurant is “currently closed for business, pending Locke-Ober’s sale of its buildings located at Winter Place,” and thanked people for their support with a wish that “the many warm memories we have shared within” would live on.
In 2001, celebrity chef Lydia Shire and business partner Paul Licari took over Locke-Ober and embarked on a much-lauded restoration, but the restaurant struggled in the recent economic downturn.
Locke-Ober suspended lunch service in 2009 and closed briefly in 2011, after Shire’s departure and the return of previous owner David Ray, to renovate. The restaurant reopened in April 2011.
Shire declined to comment Sunday, and Ray could not be reached.
Licari issued a statement Sunday night thanking the restaurant’s loyal customers and staff.
“Locke-Ober was closed and the real property sold because we did not feel it was in the best interest of Locke-Ober and its customers to continue at the present location,” the statement said.
One of those loyal customers, Gina Schertzer, 70, of Belmont, expressed dismay that Locke-Ober had closed.
“It was the place to go in the day,” said Schertzer, who has worked at Durgin Park, another venerable Boston restaurant, since 1975.
“It was a very historical feeling, being part of the past,” she said. “It had a very 1800s, early 1900s ambiance.”
Over its 137 years in business, Locke-Ober has attracted film and television stars such as Paul Newman, James Cagney, and Jackie Gleason, along with political movers and shakers.
David Artiano, 40, executive chef and partner of Pesce Pazzo in Revere, was once a chef under Shire and briefly served as executive chef of Locke-Ober after it reopened in April 2011.
“I would have to say it was one of the most fantastic experiences in the 25 years I’ve been cooking,” said Artiano.
Artiano said he did not know much about Locke-Ober’s closing, except that the property and business were up for sale.
“It’s a national historical monument, if you ask me,” he said. “My greatest hope is that someone can save it and pull it from the ashes. Give it a rebirth.”
But a rebirth would take significant investment and work, Artiano said, because the building is so old that new owners would have to do extensive renovations to bring the facility up to standards required by current building codes.
“They still have a steam generator in the basement” that was used to heat the restaurant, said Artiano. “It’s old school. It’s really kind of neat.”
He added that Downtown Crossing is an increasingly difficult area of the city to run a higher-end restaurant.
“In general, a lot of restaurants have suffered because of the new waterfront area,” Artiano said. “Everyone’s struggling, including myself with my own restaurant,” he said.
“I want to cry. It’s very, very sad,” he continued.
“With any luck we’ll see a new Locke-Ober when someone comes along to put in the money.”