If the venerable Boston restaurant Locke-Ober were a person, she would be a queen dowager, dressed in finery, eating off only the best linen and china, and drinking imported tea with her pinky finger extended. On Saturday night, after 137 years, this queen, who has hosted Kennedys and Kerrys, Brahmins and barons, took her last breath.
A victim of changing times and real estate, Locke-Ober is closed, its building sold by owner David Ray, who says it just was not getting the business it needed. Ray told the Globe Monday that he had a choice: to make the restaurant into a more casual place to keep up with the times or to close it. He chose the latter, so that he could leave Locke-Ober’s “history and its dignity intact.”
“All done,” Ray said, “I think we gave it a good effort.”
City officials confirmed that a purchase-and-sale agreement has been signed on the building.
According to a statement released by Patrick Maguire, who works at the nearby restaurant Jm Curley, to the Globe Monday night, Jay Hajj, the owner of Mike’s City Diner in the South End, said that he and two partners have signed an agreement to buy the building on Winter Place. He said they plan to open a new restaurant within a year. The sale reportedly includes the restaurant and its liquor license.
Locke-Ober leaves behind a rich history steeped in tradition from its first year of business, in 1875. It did not allow women in until nearly a century after it opened and only abandoned its dress code in 2011.
On Aug. 27, 1970, the Globe covered the first feminine foray. “The girls demanded drinks, got them, and quaffed them in toasts to their new freedom,” according to the report. “Strong men generally cowered, cursed, and turned their backs on the mini-skirted intruders, but a few applauded.”
When she took over Locke-Ober in 2001, Lydia Shire became its first female chef. She and her business partner, Paul Licari, restored the historic building and updated its menu. She added new dishes, such as rum-and-tobacco-smoked salmon, in contrast to some of the heavier old standbys.
Shire stayed for a decade, leasing the property from Ray, until she left in 2010.
“I’m totally devastated,” Shire said Monday. “They were for me 10 absolutely glorious years. Gourmet ranked us the 18th-best restaurant in the country, and named us to the 21 must-visit restaurants in your lifetime.”
But she acknowledged that its location in Downtown Crossing, down an alley off Winter Street between Tremont and Washington streets, was an obstacle. “I think at the end of the day we were faced with being in the worst section of Boston,” she said. “It was difficult for people to get to us.”
When their 10-year lease was up, Shire and Licari tried to negotiate a new one, but they could not reach agreement with Ray, who kept the restaurant going, with Licari staying on as general manager.
“David put a lot of money into it, and we had put a lot into it, and then he came back and put another bunch of money into it,” said Shire. “But in the end, unfortunately, there was not enough support from the Boston community, and I don’t mean that in a snippy or snide way.” Shire said that with the recession, more people want a more casual menu.
Charlie Perkins, owner of the Boston Restaurant Group, said that the older, traditional places that defined Boston dining for years are “dropping like flies.” Cafe Budapest led the way, and Jimmy’s Harborside, Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons, and Icarus are among the many that have followed.
“Locke-Ober was an institution, but now it’s a different market,” said Perkins. “People don’t want traditional anymore. They don’t want to get dressed up; they don’t like white tablecloths. They like new, hip, casual.”
Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, remembers Locke-Ober fondly. “It was sort of on the top of everyone’s list,” he said. “It had great stories behind it, so it’s with a tinge of sadness that you see it close. It’s like someone who was a real tour de force and then retired and then died.”
Berkowitz, whose family opened its first seafood restaurant in 1968, agrees with those who say Locke-Ober’s location was not ideal. “There wasn’t a lot of visibility; it was sort of hidden,” he said, adding that he expects Downtown Crossing to make a comeback.
The real problem, Berkowitz believes, is that the restaurant failed to connect with the current young generation. “One of the reasons it was so popular was that it went from generation to generation,” he said of the restaurant’s patronage. “And I don’t think that took place over the last 20 years. Essentially, the core demographic died off, and there wasn’t a pass-off to the next generation.”
“There’s really nothing wrong with the economy when it comes to restaurants,” said Edward Williams, a Boston restaurant broker. “As bad as things are, people will always eat and drink.”
But Williams agrees that casual dining is in, such as at places like Rino’s, an Italian spot in East Boston. “It’s the food, the pricing, the portions that are the draw. You go to some places in Boston and it’s about the presentation. You eat, and you’re hungry 10 minutes later.”
Shire, who first went to Locke-Ober when she was 8 years old, talked about its many traditions, including the tables that “regulars” had, such as the Filene’s table, the Jordan Marsh table, and various politicians’ tables. When a regular who had his own seat died, the staff would tip his chair to rest on the table.
“It was Locke-Ober’s way of saying that one of our dear friends had departed,” she said. She remembers Senator John Kerry having events there and Senator Edward M. Kennedy dining there, along with other bold-faced names from music, Hollywood, pro sports, and other celebrity chefs. “I’m very sad,” she said. “I think Boston has lost one of its grande dames.”
On its website Monday, below the note announcing its closing, was another note that spoke to Locke-Ober’s place in Boston culture in another era:
“Every city has one; a restaurant whose very name is synonymous with the city itself. In Boston, that restaurant is Locke-Ober.”