Take a look at old Boston. Watch it disappear.
On Saturday, the restaurant Locke-Ober closed for business after more than 130 years. This is as sad as it was inevitable, long predicted as the audience for old-school cooking and ambience dwindles. With it, so does the city’s stock of classic restaurants, wood-lined with bars elbow-burnished. We do not dress for dinner anymore. Aujourd’hui said au revoir in 2009. L’Espalier has seen success since relocating from its romantic Back Bay townhouse to a modern setting by the Mandarin Oriental. And then there’s the Fairmont Copley Plaza’s Oak Room, which this summer became Oak Long Bar + Kitchen, renovated and re-imagined.
On principle, this kind of thing makes romantics and regulars sore. “It’s all wrong,” says one friend who frequented the Oak Room. That place was quiet, dark, opulent yet frayed at the hem. Perfect. How could they change it?
Was it very busy when you went?
“No! That was part of the charm!”
Protests another: “But they made the best martini in town.”
How was the food?
“I have no idea. I only went to the bar.”
However much we love the idea of history preserved, it doesn’t mean we want to eat it. And when there is an opportunity to turn prime real estate to more-lucrative ends, it is hard to fault anyone for seizing it.
But Boston isn’t the kind of city that ignores the past altogether. The team purchasing Locke-Ober will reportedly keep the historic features of the space while opening a new bar and restaurant. And while Oak Long Bar + Kitchen isn’t what it used to be, it has been remade with respect.
Ceilings are still coffered and grand. The tall, arched windows are swathed in draperies with a military trim. The decor has a colonial flavor, somewhere between America and the British Raj. Benches are lined in cushions covered in rich fabrics; they face red leather camp chairs and tufted leather seats. There are fireplaces, chandeliers, and the namesake bar, quite long indeed, topped in copper. Yes, there are televisions on the wall above, but they are hidden by mirrors when they are not on. Wine and cocktail lists are more affordable, but martini service remains, at $18. The room is less cozy, more open, as clubby as ever but in a new way.
As for food, this is a good time to re-imagine the past. Historic dishes are coming back into focus at new restaurants. Downtown, City Landing’s swank modernization of liver and onions looks and tastes nothing like Locke-Ober’s did; in the South End, Kitchen goes so far as to put dates on its menu of mock turtle soup and lobster Thermidor. But Oak Long Bar executive chef Stefan Jarausch mostly ignores the trend. Instead, he embraces modern New England, a more-accessible approach for a hotel restaurant.
A focal point is the new hearth oven. It produces Oak Room-worthy classics such as oysters Rockefeller and crab-and-asparagus gratin, comfort on a cracker. A giant lobster — rubbed in harissa and roasted, lightened with citrus butter, and served with hearty farro and kale — might be today’s version of lobster Savannah. (It is a splurge at $40, but a bargain compared with Locke-Ober’s too-rich-for-my-blood dish.) Less harissa would be more; the fiery rub interferes with the taste of the lobster. The dish with which the oven truly earns its keep is something more humble: roast chicken, redolent of rosemary and pepper, served in a cast-iron skillet with potatoes. There seems to be at least one at every table. It tastes as good as it smells.
Summer lasts longer on the menu than it does outside, which means in October one can still order a red quinoa salad with grilled peaches, pistachios, and summer vegetables. Seasonal or no, the flavors are fresh and clean, boosted by a generous grind of pepper. Fall doesn’t fare as well. The reason to order chicken soup would seem to be the hand-rolled pasta, but although the broth has fine flavor, noodles are hard to come by. Finally, we locate a few wee cavatelli buried beneath too many chopped vegetables.
There are cheese and charcuterie boards, but for sharing it’s hard to beat a pulled pork flatbread. It’s barbecue and pizza all at once, and it’s not too much, even as it sounds like it could be. Topped with shredded meat, corn, caramelized onions, pickled grapes, and smoked cheddar, it’s a scrum of complementary flavors.
The kitchen pulls back with a main course of halibut. The fish is very, very crisp on top, not at all dry inside, and served over a deeply buttery vegetable ragout. Also wonderful is a dish of hand-made tagliatelle with sweet, tender pieces of lobster and craggy chunks of beautifully cooked, deeply flavored short rib. Zucchini and pecorino complete the dish. There is a $19 burger, the patty made from short rib and dry-aged rib eye. It’s a fine effort, if not quite worth its price tag.
“You pay 30 percent more for the ambience,’’ stage whispers the man at the next table. His dining companion recommends the gratin, frowns at her salmon, and eagerly shows off a baby gift she has just purchased: a tiny chef’s outfit. Oak Long Bar + Kitchen plays host to quite a cast of characters. A guy in a sleazy suit and black-and-white checked cap prowls by the bar. Well-heeled frosty blondes with name badges share post-conference cocktails. Chef Barbara Lynch sits at a tall bar table with a group of friends. Servers range from terrific to hilariously, quirkily terrible. There are pickup artists and tourists and post-work locals. It’s not the Oak Room, but it is awfully lively. And busy. On a weeknight, reservations are still a good idea.
Just don’t come here to relive the past. The Oak Room’s classic chateaubriand for two is gone. The consolation prize is a “bone out” rib eye, a 16-ounce steak slicked in Roquefort butter, served with a Flintstone bone of marrow. With it, one wants a martini. The menu suggests vodka, not gin. Garnishes veer from tradition — pickled tomatoes, spicy green beans, blue cheese-stuffed olives. But the drink still comes with the extra in a carafe, set in a little silver bucket ice cold to the touch. It creates a shiver of anticipation.
Then the first sip. How can this be? The martini in the glass is barely chilled, just a few degrees below room temperature.
A moment of silence. Then time moves on.