You might think that Joe Milano’s world is circumscribed: After all, the owner of the Union Oyster House works just steps from where he grew up in the North End. But that proximity hasn’t made him provincial. The restaurateur has transformed the nation’s oldest restaurant into a global hub, one that hosts thousands of dignitaries, celebrities, and tourists each year — while simultaneously housing the Thai consulate in the same building. An avid traveler, Milano has visited more than 120 countries. He took some time out to talk about why the world really is his oyster.
1. Before he entered the restaurant business, Milano attended Norwich University in Vermont, and eventually attained the rank of Army brigadier general while serving in Vietnam. After his military career, he considered dentistry before getting his start in the restaurant business at a hamburger joint in Salem.
“It struck me that I might go to dental school, but I realized that while I love people, I didn’t want to spend my life looking at someone’s mouth. So in 1969 I bought a franchise of the Pewter Pot. It was basic American fare — hamburgers and eggs — and for me, it was basic training. I cooked, waited on tables, I did everything.”
2. Milano bought into the Union Oyster House restaurant in 1970, and acquired it outright five years later. He eventually expanded the footprint, turning the space into the sprawling, 560-seat complex it is today. Milano’s military service, however, didn’t end entirely when his restaurant service career took off. He served as a civilian aide to the Commonwealth’s Secretary for the Army from 1997 through 2004, and now acts as the aide de camp for Governor Charlie Baker.
“I’ve served six governors, handling all the protocols in terms of the observance of head-of-state visits to Boston. We act as the honor guard.”
3. A 1985 business trip to Thailand led to another unlikely role for Milano. Upon realizing that the then-king of Thailand had been born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, he petitioned to have a corner near Harvard Square designated in the king’s honor. As an act of appreciation, the Kingdom of Thailand named Milano its consul general in Boston.
“I fell in love with Bangkok on my first visit, and was delighted to learn that the King of Thailand was born in Cambridge. He was beloved, and the country has been in mourning this past year since his death. The consulate office is upstairs in the restaurant, and it processes over 1,500 visas a year. I travel back and forth to the country every year or two.”
4. The restaurant was quick to recover from its recent fire — the building suffered some slight exterior damage. Everything was back up and running within three days, Milano said. But that was plenty of the time for the news to spread.
“I had just driven down to the Cape and walked into a restaurant for dinner. All the people there had heard the news and said ‘Joe, I hate to tell you, but your restaurant caught fire.’ I turned right around and drove back, and while on the road, my daughter called from Italy, where she was traveling. Word had already gotten out around the globe. Thankfully, the fire department was sensitive to our historic building, and we came out unscathed. Afterward, I went down to the station and brought a case of clam chowder.”
5. On the subject of Union Oyster House chowder, you can expect to begin seeing it in area grocery stores this fall.
“We’re embarking on a retail clam chowder business. Everyone has been asking for it. It tastes just like our clam chowder — very creamy, and rich with clams and potatoes — only it’ll be in the deli section.”