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On Boston Common, sandwiches fit for an earl

Earl of Sandwich, chain partly owned by aristocrat bearing the title, restores and reopens 1920s restrooms in park as dining kiosk

For decades, the crumbling men’s comfort station on Boston Common had been locked, a tomb encasing ancient urinals and rusting pipes. On Monday it reopened with grandeur, housing not restrooms but a sandwich kiosk fit for a king — or, at least, for nobility.

Earl of Sandwich, the chain owned partly by descendants of the British peer for whom the lunch staple is named, has resuscitated the 1920s bathroom for its second Boston outpost, investing heavily to restore the eight-sided, 660-square-foot stand.

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“I spent a seven-figure sum — in excess of a million bucks! — on [barely] 500 feet, which I don’t think has been done before. But we have a 15-year-lease with the city and feel very good about it,” said Robert Earl, whose company will pay the city $50,000 annually. “We’re in love with the location.”

Earl is not the earl — his business partner in the chain is John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich — but he presides over a hospitality empire that includes Planet Hollywood. He has two Earl of Sandwich outlets in Europe and 20 in the United States, including one at Logan Airport.

A 61-year-old bundle of energy who resembles the late actor Dudley Moore, Earl described the appeal of the site and his menu as balloons bobbed and signs boasted of “the world’s greatest hot sandwiches!”

Earl ignored his BlackBerry’s ping but interrupted himself to reach out to customers seated under red umbrellas. “How’s the sandwich, sir?” he said, turning to a middle-aged man enjoying a late lunch beside a poodle.

“Super,” the man said.

“I’m so delighted to be in Boston for the very first time,” said John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich and part owner of the Earl of Sandwich fast-food chain.

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

“I’m so delighted to be in Boston for the very first time,” said John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich and part owner of the Earl of Sandwich fast-food chain.

‘I’m so delighted to be in Boston for the very first time.’

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“Spread the word, please! I haven’t paid the contractors yet,” Earl said, flashing an impish grin. And then: “Look how busy we are, straight off.”

The crowd at outdoor tables and take-out windows — there are no indoor seats — was a mix of students, office workers, retirees, and late-fall tourists.

“I’m totally adding this one to my list,” said Jacob Athyal, a Suffolk University junior sitting down for a picnic with a dozen classmates. “We’re going to tell more people, definitely.”

The former bathroom, once known as the “pink palace” for the hue of its stone blocks, is one of nine historic structures on the Common, located near the Parkman Bandstand. It retains its original look, including copper flashing and clerestory windows, but with the chain’s name proclaimed above the roof.

The rehabilitation grew partly out of a trip City Councilor Michael P. Ross made to New York City in 2008 to explore creative uses of park space. Earl’s company, with its made-to-order $6.49 sandwiches, won the bidding process in September 2011, aiming to open within a year. Complications with restoring utilities to the abandoned site pushed that back.

After a soft weekend opening, the formal celebration included speeches by Earl, the earl, and local officials. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is recovering from a viral infection and a compression fracture, thanked the company in a statement.

The Fourth Earl of Sandwich was also First Lord of the Admiralty, commanding the Royal Navy during the American Revolution, but all is forgiven. The restaurant gave free Veterans Day sandwiches to veterans in uniform, and the 11th Earl, a member of the House of Lords, looked thrilled to tour the Cradle of Liberty, strolling the Public Garden and admiring the State House.

“I’m so delighted to be in Boston for the very first time,” said Montagu, whose great-great-great-great-great grandfather, also John Montagu, gave us the sandwich.

Lore says it was invented at the card table, easily downed with one hand and no cutlery.

Not so, said Robert Earl, calling it a wartime naval innovation. “There was no time to feed the troops, so he said, just get two pieces of bread and put some boiled beef in the middle.”

The nobleman, a tall, understated fellow in an elephant-pattern necktie, said he hadn’t heard that before. He credited his ancestor with pioneering copper hulls to reinforce battleships but said at best the Fourth Earl was an early, famous consumer of the food now carrying his name, whether at his desk, at sea, or at the card table.

What is known is that the company is on the march. Earl, whose son is a Boston University sophomore, left the Common to visit potential expansion sites. “We plan to open several,” he said, “and go for domination in Boston!”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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