Durgin-Park, a sassy classic, at 192. In lieu of flowers, leave a bigger tip
Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall landmark known for Yankee pot roast and salty servers, died on Jan. 12. It was 192 years old, a holdover from a bygone era with few survivors.
In its earliest iteration, the space catered to 18th-century sailors and Quincy Market meat-cutters. Over time, it became a way station for tourists, celebrities, and local pilgrims seeking an unvarnished taste of old Boston: reasonably priced portions of New England classics served with attitude.
The restaurant, family-run for years, was purchased in 2007 by New York City’s Ark Restaurants. CEO Michael Weinstein attributed the closure to loss of customer traffic.
This is not the first legendary Boston restaurant to close, of course. Locke-Ober is gone. L’Espalier, too. But there is a sense that this hits harder, because Durgin-Park was never a restaurant for the elite. It was a hangout with a working-class feel, where people ate baked beans at communal tables. If Locke-Ober was your stately cousin, Durgin-Park was your auntie full of gossip about long-lost relatives — the same stories, always — who mailed you socks on the holidays. You rolled your eyes — until those socks stopped coming.
“What we were offering was pan-demographic, as opposed to something only privileged people would enjoy,” said former bartender Rick Hough.
It was here that Ted Kennedy would sip gin (and he did) and Jack Nicholson would show up after a Celtics game looking for Heineken (and he did). They could sit alongside tourists and families and oddballs, eating pot roast slammed down by women with colorful pasts — everyone from a former fur model who stored pencils in her teased bun to a would-be Salem witch who sprinkled salt over her tables to ward off surly customers.
Hough remembered greeting a customer one evening carrying a six-pack of beer in a bag, peddling his brew. It was an unknown guy named Jim Koch from someplace called Sam Adams.
“The people who worked there, at least when I was there, are a reflection of Boston culture. I don’t mean Brahmin culture. I mean the real Boston,” said Janis Benincasa, a server in the 1970s and 1980s.
But for now at least, Durgin-Park has passed into Boston lore along with Jordan Marsh, Filene’s Basement, and Jacob Wirth — symbols of a simpler, vanishing city.
You’d never know it two days before closing time, though. There was a line out the door, despite snow. Older folks posed next to memorabilia and promotional signage, including a holiday billboard urging families to make new holiday traditions by dining at Durgin-Park.
It was a wake of sorts. Many customers came for a last hurrah. Some hadn’t visited in decades but wanted to pay their respects.
Bob Gulick headed in from Lexington to relive his days as a Harvard undergrad.
“Back then, there was still sawdust on the floors here,” he said, grinning. He planned to order his favorite: fish cakes, baked beans, and Indian pudding.
Eddie and Gineen Rhodes traveled down from Peabody. Eddie used to eat here while in mortician school. (Now he works in financial planning.)
“This is my favorite restaurant on the planet,” he said. “My grandfather took me here when I was 6 years old for prime rib. I’ve been coming since 1956. I’ve been here twice this week.”
Customers were selected one by one to ascend the stairs to the dining room, which offered its own kind of theater.
Frank Cirigliano, a spritely 25-year server with a long orange braid and shorts, took a photo of a giddy group of diners. Longtime waitresses in starched white shirts with buttons reading “Roast Prime Rib of Beef” threw down forks and rumpled napkins, business as usual, despite the customer and media swarm. Many indicated that this isn’t really the end, saying that a city known for its history couldn’t stand to lose a landmark.
Rumors are swirling that a buyer will swoop in to save the day, in a Market Basket-esque act of populist heroics.
“To go to another restaurant after having all this space will be so hard. We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Kim Lemerise, a 15-year veteran, sliding a bowl of chowder — “we win awards for it” — across the communal table. “There’s nowhere like this. This isn’t McDonald’s. People just sit here for hours in the winter, reading a newspaper. We won’t bother you.”
Durgin alumni feel the same way. This is a vocal, forthcoming bunch. Retired staffers called the business a sanctuary for tough, strong women. The restaurant took the lead in employing single mothers and family breadwinners who would often work 12-hour days and relished sparring with guests, they said. These women commanded respect.
“Durgin-Park is a legacy worth preserving, not only because it is a historic site in a city that values history, but because it has always been a place where women had power. Before MeToo, before second- and third-wave feminism, there was the Durgin Park waitress,” said Benincasa.
Amy Graubard worked at the restaurant for five years beginning in 1980, making about $5 an hour, she recalled. The serious money was in tips, and longtime servers would protest when they were too small.
“The old ladies would throw the bad tips down the stairs at the bad tippers, but we weren’t allowed to. They would have fired us young girls for that,” she said.
Here, many women found their voices joking with customers, their patience frayed after hours on the floor. This was not a glamour job. And so those employees formed the kinship that only shared experience and circumstance brings: lending money when a colleague needed it, doling out life advice.
“The women who worked there were tough as nails and at the same time unbelievably nurturing. . . . I love those women so much,” said Benincasa, choking up.
“Most of the waitresses who worked a double shift walked 27 miles a day, mostly in circles,” said former waitress Lois Slavin, who landed at Durgin after being fired from the Union Oyster House for rudeness.
“Then, when you got to a station, every customer at that station was a party of six and wanted to know the 10 choices of side dishes. It got exasperating. Sometimes you just couldn’t help it. You were a little sarcastic. But some people wanted that.”
And while tourists poured in hungry for Yankee pot roast and Indian pudding, it wasn’t about the food. It was never about the food, really. There is only so much you can do with broiled fishcakes, after all. It was about the people.
After news broke about the closure, I received a stream of messages from customers dating from the 1950s, eager to share their memories. The stories were different, but the refrain was the same.
“This is the end of an era,” wrote Concord’s Ed Sonn, who once got a too-small tip thrown at him while he was a student at MIT.
Today, the Yelp! reviews are middling. The homespun service might rub some the wrong way. There are no Instagram-friendly composed plates or big-name chefs peddling Poutine Night or biodynamic wines. There is no chipper Twitter feed. And what happened behind the scenes back in Durgin’s heyday would probably make an HR director cringe. Servers recalled that people swore like stevedores, sobbed, got fired and hired again — often after a convivial drink with beloved former owner Martin Kelly.
Kelly was one of just a handful of owners in the restaurant’s long history. It’s named after John Durgin and Eldridge Park, who, along with John Chandler, opened it in 1827. According to the Globe archives, before it was known as Durgin-Park, a restaurant had been in the space as far back as 1742.
Ever since, it’s been a sanctuary for everyday folks. Hard workers who had something that no amount of training, messaging, or fancy ingredients could ever buy: They had personality, and they had heart.
“There was nothing fake about these people. They were skeptical. They were so nice, but in the gruffest way. They would do anything for you, but without all smiles and rainbows and unicorns,” said Lori Lane, a server in the early 1980s.
Slavin recalled a table of gentlemen with whom she maintained a sassy repartee. They left a healthy tip but kept asking for more backtalk. She said she’d be happy to oblige, for a price.
“At the end of dinner, they left me a $10 tip on a $20 meal. They had Yankee pot roast and baked beans. I looked at the tip and said, ‘Cough it up! I appreciate this, but you’d pay a lot more for this type of abuse in the Combat Zone.’ ”
There is no more Combat Zone. And, it seems, there is no more Durgin-Park.
She laughed at the memory.
“You know what? They threw another $20 in.”