David Ray, the owner of the venerable Locke-Ober, called this morning to confirm what a city already knew. He has sold the building on Winter Place in Downtown Crossing, shuttered his restaurant, and is moving on.
“All done,” Ray said, pausing for a moment. “I think we gave it a good effort.
“Here’s what I was faced with,” Ray continued. “I had a choice. Make Locke-Ober more casual, lower our standards to conform with the way society is today, or I could close it. I could close it with its history and its dignity intact. Because, frankly, it looked as good as it’s ever looked. The service was good, and the food was good.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Ray continued. “It’s bittersweet for me. I’ve owned it since 1978.”
But the reality, Ray has learned over the past decade or more, is that Boston has changed, often for the better, but not always so. An increasingly younger city is on a constant search for the next new thing, restaurants being no exception. Formality, here as everywhere, is a thing of the past.
Which is why the Ritz-Carlton on Arlington Street is no longer the Ritz, and even before it changed ownership to the Taj, it had shuttered its second floor dining room overlooking the Public Garden. It’s why the famed Oak Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza has been completely reimagined into the contemporary and snappy-sounding OAK Long Bar + Kitchen. It’s why L’Espalier now has contemporary quarters in a modern hotel. It’s why Maison Robert in downtown Boston and Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons are no more.
Locke-Ober, for a long period of time, represented Boston, or a certain element of Boston, that which is bound in tradition. Founded in 1875, it’s where the captains of downtown industry mingled with the city’s most prominent lawyers and financiers over lunches composed of lobster stew and thick cut steaks. Famed maitre d’ Tony Accardi presided masterfully at the door. Jackets were required of diners, and many of the waiters – all male – marked their tenures not in years, but decades.
Presidents visited, along with sports stars, Hollywood actors, and power brokers from coast to coast. Some diners were so regular that the Globe once published a map of the dining room showing who sat where. When customers died, their chairs were leaned against the tables to signify the loss.
But maybe too many of those regulars died, or vacated the decreasingly desirable Downtown Crossing, or retired to Florida. Times have changed. Long, liquid lunches have slipped into the past. Heavy food has given way to salads. Ray sat in his own dining room as recently as last year and joked about the calorie-rich offerings. “I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t eat here,” he said.
Still, while Ray tinkered with the menu and made jackets optional, for the most part, Locke-Ober has resisted any radical transformation. If it had succumbed to the times, it wouldn’t have been Locke-Ober.
Rumors have abounded since the late 1990s over the restaurant’s future. At one point, John Kerry was believed to be a potential suitor to buy it. Famed chef Lydia Shire was brought in as a principal a little more than a decade ago and the room underwent a mild renovation and deep cleaning, but even that didn’t stop the decline. Shire has since moved on.
“Business has been OK,” said Ray, a Newport-based restaurateur. “You have busy nights and you have nights when there are 25 people in there. I wasn’t losing any money. We were just treading water.”
Ray said the new owners plan to put housing in the upper quarters of the building, where there is now a warren of private dining rooms, including one tiny alcove reputed to be the site of more marriage proposals than any other room in Boston.
Those new owners will likely put a restaurant on the first floor, city officials said in confirming that a purchase and sales agreement has been signed on the building. But it will be something different.
“There’s not going to be another Locke-Ober in that building,” Ray said. “I’m the one locking the door.”