American social history: Locke-Ober… the grand French restaurant in Boston.
The Brahmin city is so lucky. Jack’s in San Francisco and Perino’s in Los Angeles are gone. So are most of the wonderful American traditional restaurants. These were dining establishments that would have never permitted some parvenu wearing a baseball cap or backpack to dine amongst the swells. Even if the dining dude had founded Face-book. He would still be just branded a déclassé nouveau geek creep.
YouTube video of Locke-Ober: “Locke’s” is the traditional Boston restaurant, a power-broker favorite since 1875. Famed Boston restaurateur Lydia Shire bought it in 2001, but if the ghosts mind a woman boss, you’d never know it. In an alley off a pedestrian mall, the wood-paneled restaurant entertainingly evokes a waspy men’s club. The long, mirrored downstairs bar dates from 1880, and the service is 19th-century-style courtly. The food deftly combines old-fashioned and contemporary. Traditional fish cakes sit alongside jasmine rice, red-pepper aioli comes with Maine crab cakes, and delectable scalloped potatoes accompany the signature roast beef hash. Other traditions, including excellent steaks and chops, Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein, and broiled scrod with brown bread, endure. So does Locke-Ober, an “only in Boston” experience with no equal.
Lydia Shire has a long history in Boston beginning with Season at Bostonian Hotel in 1982, BIBA (Back in Boston Again – after opening the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills) in 1989 and Pignoli in1994, now all in her past. In 2001, she rescued the beauty and grandeur of the historic Locke-Ober Restaurant, where she is still currently serving as Head Chef. She is also the creative mind behind Scampo at The Liberty Hotel and Blue Sky at the Atlantic House Hotel on York Beach in Maine.
King’s Directory of Boston, published in 1883, reported:
“ The leading French restaurant of the city is Ober’s, on Winter Place, off Winter Street. This has more than a local fame. It is most patronized by the possessors of long purses. It has a large general dining-room, a café, and several private supper rooms. The viands here are unsurpassed by any place in the city.”
The story of Locke-Ober begins some thirty years earlier. The buildings in which it is located were originally constructed as dwellings at sometime prior to the records covered by the building department. Luis Ober’s name first appears to be connected to Winter Place in 1870, although in 1879 he makes reference to “This place of over twenty years standing, where French cooking, par excellence, is made a specialty.” It appears that Ober took over 4 Winter Place from a Mr. F.A. Blanc who was operating a restaurant there in 1868. It is believed that Ober was one of Blanc’s customers.
Luis Ober was born in the French department of Alsace in 1837, coming to New York with his parents at the age of fourteen. As a young man he worked in a number of trades- barbering, bookselling, taxidermy, buying and shipping produce- in New Jersey, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and finally Boston. Ober was then, by the time he came to terms with Mr. Blanc, comparatively a man of the world. The availability of Mr. Blancs restaurant at 4 Winter Place offered Ober the opportunity to put his experience and growing sophistication to use in some enterprise of his own.
Prior to 1875, Ober seems to have operated only a small cellar café at Winter Place. The records of the City Building Department show that he filed an application to remodel numbers 3 and 4 Winter Place into a café and dwelling in 1875. It is reported that Eben Jordan, a co-founder of the Jordan Marsh Company advanced the funds which Ober needed to purchase and remodel the buildings. When the restaurant opened as Ober’s Restaurant Parisien, a table was reserved in perpetuity for the executives of Jordan Marsh. Ober’s successors continued the tradition.
This period from 1875-1886, referred to as the first phase of remodeling resulted in bringing the restaurant out of the cellar. At the completion of this phase the main dining room and kitchen were on the first floor (street level) with two dining rooms on the north end of the second floor, and living quarters for the Ober family on the remainder of the second floor and third floor.
In 1886 Ober began the work referred to as the second phase, much of what remains visible today. Following eleven successful years of operation Ober decided at this time to take on a much more costly and time consuming effort, a grand refurbishing of the Restaurant Parisien. During this time the entire second floor and the third floor private rooms were added as dining areas.
Mahogany from San Domingo, huge plate glass mirrors from France, decorated ceilings, etched gold wallpaper, German silver cloches, stained glass, graceful “electrolier” chandeliers and a wonderful hand-operated dumb waiter of brass on brass poles, which faithfully lifts drinks from the bar to dining room above were some of the many materials and items assembled by Ober.
The mahogany was carved by French artisans, and local craftsman were recruited to decorate the ground floor ceiling. The intricately carved mahogany is most noticeable on the front and back of the long L shaped bar in the main dining room. The six heavy silver tureens and platter covers designed to be lifted by pulleys, were made by Reed and Barton. More than one hundred years later these tureens continue as the most distinguishing hallmark of the dining room.
The finely painted dining room ceiling of leaves, flowers and mythical animals in deep greens, yellows and browns remindful of a Etruscan spring would be impossible to duplicate today. The delicate Art Nouveau stained glass motifs filtering the afternoon light are said to resemble those being designed in 1890 by Louis Comfort Tiffany in Brooklyn.
At this time Ober also decided to add two unique pieces of art to the dining room, one purchased on a trip to France and the other commissioned and painted in Boston.
The first, a bronze sculpture known as Gloria Victis, was sculpted by Marius Jean Antonin Mercie. The original of Gloria Victis was honored by being placed in the courtyard of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris in 1874. The Gloria Victis at Locke-Ober was positioned in the dining room and became Boston’s most famous hat rack. The exposed foot of the statue has traditionally been hand rubbed for good luck by the patrons of Locke-Ober, including many from the nearby securities district wishing financial good fortunes.
The second, being a large portrait painted by Tomaso Juglaris in a garret in Bromfield street, rumored to have been commissioned by Ober for $80.00.
Over the years the painting on the north wall of the men’s café has been credited with a romantic history and identified as a certain Mademoiselle Yvonne. Mr. Lawrence Dame art critic for the Boston Herald, “ Tomaso Juglaris, born in Turin, Italy, in 1844, created this real work of art. Some say the model was his wife. He studied at the Turin Academy of Fine Arts and in Paris under Thomas Couture, with a flair for figure painting which is stunningly apparent.”
The guardian of tradition in the Café, this young Victorian woman with goblet in hand whose draped form surveys the room, sets the tone for what has been Boston’s favorite establishment for over a century. Throughout it all, she has remained serene and composed, showing emotion only when Harvard loses to Yale, and as tradition has it must hide her disappointment behind a black crepe sash.
By 1886 Ober was the master of Winter Place. His success however, invited competition.
Dudley S. McDonald, who operated a confectionary at 16 Winter Place and owned Nos. 1 and 2 Winter Place agreed to help Frank Locke set up a café in the space next store to Ober’s vacated by the Winter Place Club. In 1892 Frank Locke’s Wine Rooms opened for business.
Locke was born in Loudon, New Hampshire in 1848. After serving in the Union Army, and coming to Boston after the war, he established a successful saloon on the corner of Broad and State streets.
A booklet describing Locke’s new quarters paints a picture of a Victorian extravaganza clearly designed to outshine Ober’s:
“ The building is now entirely finished, and the establishment open to public inspection and patronage. The business connected is that of supplying the public with fine wines, liquors and buffet luncheon. …. “the general appearance is as of an enchanting picture, a fairy grotto, a sumptuous apartment in some palatial edifice” …
Locke’s grandiose saloon catered to men exclusively, but welcomed the “gentle sex” from the hours of nine to eleven am for viewing the wonders of the place only.
Unfortunately today the only reminder of Locke’s Wine Rooms is a replica of the giant padlock that hung outside Nos 1 Winter Place as its’ sign, bearing the name Frank. Today the padlock has the words “Locke-Ober” on it and is hung over the building between the two original establishments.
Both proprietors left Winter Place abruptly.
In 1894, twenty five years after taking over the “cellar restaurant” Ober sold the business to Wood and Pollard a firm of wholesale liquor dealers. Ober had accumulated a sizeable estate over the years consisting of securities and properties.
Locke was less fortunate, as he had a short time to enjoy the pleasures of the Wine Rooms for he died in April, 1894 at the age of forty six. One month after Locke’s death Wood and Pollard bought the Wine Rooms from his estate, now owning all four buildings on Winter Place. The buildings were immediately combined by breaking through the wall separating Locke’s from Ober’s. Wood and Pollard renamed the restaurant the Winter Place Tavern.
Emil Camus, the guiding spirit of the modern day Locke- Ober enters the scene at this point, 1894. Camus an elusive biographical subject was thought to be a quiet, reserved and some thought haughty man. Arriving in America from France in 1890 in his late twenties he worked in New York for the famous restaurateur Louis Sherry. After two years at Locke-Ober under Wood and Pollard, Camus moved to California.
In 1898 John Merrow, who headed an operation that operated the Revere House, purchased the Tavern from Wood and Pollard and named it The Winter Place Hotel. Merrow’s tenure ended in bankruptcy. Emil Camus returned from California in 1901 and formed The Locke-Ober Company, for the purpose of operating the restaurant and catering to a select group of patrons. He immediately announced the securing of the services of Mr. J.B. Bailhe, the famous French chef for many years with Mr. Ober.
Finally, after many unsettling years it appeared that Locke-Ober had a leader and a direction that would establish order and set goals for the business. Camus and Baihe created a bill of fare that would combine the most popular American regional dishes and ingredients with French cooking methods, while also incorporating French classics such as Sweetbreads Eugenie. This culinary strategy has never left the kitchen at Locke-Ober, and exists even today. Under the guidance of Camus Locke-Ober reached its goals of becoming a complete restaurant of the highest standing with outstanding service and attention to detail.
Emil Camus was considered a genius at assembling a seasoned, conscientious staff, which was critical due to his temperament which was inclined to function more or less behind the scene. He set the standard for Locke-Ober during the early 1900’s and carried it on through the First World War, Prohibition and the Great Depression. During prohibition the Wine Rooms were closed and sold, with not a trace being preserved. Camus continued until he died on April 27, 1939 exactly thirty eight years to the day since his return to command in 1901.
As a memorial to Camus, the same standard of excellence, which included the dishes he perfected with his chefs, the service he insisted upon and the professional atmosphere he created are all being upheld today.
The Locke-Ober Company has had many changes in ownership and managers since Camus, most notably Charles Little and Bill Harrington, who have left their marks on Locke-Ober. In 1950 the second floor of what was the Wine Rooms was acquired and extensively remodeled. In 1981 this room was finally completed with the addition of panels carved in France and acquired from the Astor home in Newport by Mr. David Ray. In 1974 the Ober room was remodeled with the application of the quartered oak paneling acquired from the Columbia National Life Insurance Company around the corner on Franklin Street.
It was also in 1981 that the restaurant finally recovered the original Locke’s location in full. In 1988 an addition in the form of a private club known as Yvonnes was opened in the three buildings located on Jackson Place, adjoining the original Wine Rooms.
Locke-Ober was purchased by Winter Place LLC in 2001, and is currently operated in the same configuration as in 1910 under Camus. Main dining room, kitchen and lounge on the first floor, two large party rooms on the second and 6 intimate private á la carte rooms on the third. The addition known as Yvonne’s is utilized for private functions.