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Fire damages venerable Union Oyster House

A video from the scene of the Union Oyster House on Thursday, August 3. Credit to Kait Creamer.
A video from the scene of the Union Oyster House on Thursday, August 3. Credit to Kait Creamer.

The historic Union Oyster House, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, was evacuated Thursday night after a fire broke out, forcing dozens of patrons and workers out into the street on a busy summer night.

Diners reported smelling and seeing smoke on the first and second floors of the venerable restaurant that sits in the heart of Boston’s Freedom Trail. Some started to yell “fire” while others grabbed their cellphones to dial 911, patrons said.

“You could tell something was seriously on fire,” said Sean Earnest, a visitor from North Carolina, who was seated at the raw bar with his daughter, Bentley, when he smelled smoke.

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Someone opened the door and smoke rushed into the building, he said.

Earnest said he then grabbed a fire extinguisher and handed it to someone outside to use on the front of the building, where heavy smoke and flames could be seen licking a column-like part of the red-brick facade.

That person couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to work, he said, so he grabbed it and started spraying the flames.

His daughter called 911. She said the dispatcher asked her multiple times if she was sure the building was the Union Oyster House.

“I told them, ‘Yes, yes, that’s where it is,’” she said.

Video from the scene of a fire at the Union Oyster House on Thursday, August 3. Credit to Kait Creamer.
Video from the scene of a fire at the Union Oyster House on Thursday, August 3. Credit to Kait Creamer.

Boston firefighters responded to the restaurant shortly after 8:30 p.m.

Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said the fire appeared to have started on the outside of the building, near some exterior light fixtures.

“The big problem was it generated quite a bit of smoke and this is one of the oldest buildings in Boston,” said MacDonald.

“The firefighters took great care not to break out the windows,” he added.

The Fire Department called for an electrical inspector to take a look at the building, said MacDonald.

MacDonald could not say how long the restaurant would be shut down.

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At least 35 firefighters responded to the one-alarm fire, said MacDonald. Firefighters had cleared the scene by 10:45 p.m.

Employees and patrons were quickly evacuated, said Susan Hargrove, the dining room manager.

“It started on the first floor,” Hargrove said standing outside the restaurant near Faneuil Hall. “Then smoke crawled up into the second floor dining room. You could smell it. It was like it was in the walls.”

“So we immediately packed up and evacuated,” Hargrove said.

Firefighters directed patrons out of the restaurant and onto Union Street.

Nearby restaurants and bars Paddy O’s and Saus were also evacauted as a precaution, according to firefighters at the scene.

Smoke could be seen billowing from windows on the second floor of the centuries-old restaurant.

No one was injured in the incident, said Deputy Fire Chief Robert Calobrisi. Smoke reached the basement, first, and second floors of the building, Calobrisi said.

Firefighters worked on the upper floors with smoke ejector fans to ventilate instead of breaking windows because the building is so historic, Calobrisi said.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. An investigation is ongoing.

As fire crews worked outside, diners left in an orderly fashion, patrons said.

“Nobody panicked,” said David Weber, a visitor from southern California, who was having dinner on the second floor when the fire broke out.

“Everyone seemed calm,” Weber said.

He tried to stick around to pay his bill, but wasn’t allowed to stay, Weber said.

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Kait Creamer, a 26-year-old who works for a music software company in Colorado and is in town for a work conference, said she was seated at a bar inside the restaurant when she noticed a crowd outside.

People were outside pointing at the front of the building, she said, and some people started tapping on the glass to indicate to those inside that there was a problem.

She said she saw smoke coming from a grate on the ground near one of the restaurant’s entrances.

“I came here literally to have my first oyster,” Creamer said.

Lauren Paisley, a 27-year-old from San Francisco who works in marketing and is attending the same conference as Creamer, said they had to leave their meal of a half a dozen oysters, cornbread, clam chowder, and fishcakes unfinished.

“It didn’t seem real at first,” said Paisley.

Diner Adriano Borriello, a 33-year-old software developer from New York City, said he didn’t notice the smoke until people started banging on the windows.

“I’m not an oyster guy,” he said. “But I liked the crab cake.”

The Union Oyster House, which bills itself as “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” has stood on Union Street for more than 250 years, according to its website.

The restaurant draws a mix of tourists and celebrities for its famed oyster bar, clam chowder, corn bread, and other traditional New England fare.

According to city records, the Union Oyster House property is valued at $1.8 million.

The building itself is valued at $1.3 million, according to those records.

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A worker cleaned the Union Oyster House on Friday.
A worker cleaned the Union Oyster House on Friday.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)
The Union Oyster House is closed while it is cleaned and inspected by City of Boston officials.
The Union Oyster House is closed while it is cleaned and inspected by City of Boston officials. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Jake Johnson can be reached at jake.johnson@globe.com. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com