Dining Out at Locke-Ober

LOCKE-OBER, THAT VENERABLE INSTITUTION, that magnificent relic of Boston as a gathering place for the great and the good (and politicians, too), is on life support. As it goes into its 144th year, it sputters along, clinging to its third, fourth, or maybe seventh in its allocation of nine lives. The question this time around is: Should this patient be allowed to live?

I didn’t think I’d ever ask that question. I cheered when chef Lydia Shire reopened Locke-Ober at the end of 2001, after an expensive restoration that burnished the brass, polished the mahogany, shined the huge silver tureens, reapplied the gold leaf, and stripped off six layers of linoleum floors. Shire put Jacky Robert, a chef who can do anything with classics, in the kitchen.  

[sidebar]It was a joy to have the kind of 19th-century grandee’s restaurant you see only in old prints gleaming, and serving real food. Locke-Ober is as much a city landmark as the Old State House and Old City Hall. But the newfound vitality didn’t last: Shire went on to start other restaurants, and Robert opened his marvelously reliable Petit Robert bistros. After a recent three-month closure — during which the building and restaurant’s owner, David Ray, reclaimed management — the institution has once again reopened, and it has, to put it unkindly, a dead-waiters-walking feel. Maybe it’s okay that the gleam is off the gold leaf, that the ceiling is showing cracks. Maybe it’s fine that everything is back to the sort of clubby baseline of the pre-Shire days, when the place was about making deals and showing (or wanting to show) yourself as part of the establishment. It’s certainly primed for a Mad Men–inspired rediscovery, especially given a falling-facelift look that will only add to the appeal for people who wish they could smoke and drink all the time.

As for eating…well, the challenge is what to do with a menu filled with indulgent classics that were once second nature to the smoking-drinking crowd. Vice? Why stop at one? Lobster floating in melted butter (the famous lobster Savannah, market price) and prime filet mignon ($38–$52) seemed less like indulgences than earned rights back then. But people don’t eat that way now — and, to his credit, Ray seems to recognize that reality in a way Shire did not. Managing director Paul Licari has added a wider variety of salads and side dishes to the menu, while roping off the classics in an easy-to-find box. And he’s promising lighter dishes and lower prices when he reopens for lunch this fall.

Locke-Ober will need those affordable options to lure in a crowd whose typical lunch date these days is an iPhone. The tabs are too high to recommend to anyone not on a limitless per diem — high enough that you expect a level of luxury beyond the high-quality ingredients, and service that isn’t distracted because there aren’t quite enough servers. (For the price, you might also want to dine in a place that doesn’t feel like the type of stuffy, tired men’s club that welcomes women and minorities only because it’s supposed to.) Not much on the menu rose above proficient club fare, and all of it seemed too expensive for what arrived.