A Place at the Table

My first visits to Durgin-Park were when I was in college — once with a needy roommate, once with a group of guys curious about whether I would fit into their fraternity. I was sober for the first visit, drunk for the second. My needy roommate was from Abilene, Texas, and even as a freshman owned a white Chevrolet convertible that he housed in a private garage. “I need meat,” my roommate said. “I'm paying.”

Boston was a mystery to me, and I had never been to Faneuil Hall, where Durgin-Park has sat, like a legal speakeasy, since a time before food became small and precious. Up a dark staircase we went, into rooms packed with people making noise, clinking glasses and utensils, plates being tossed down and taken away. “Speak up, Sonny,” a woman said, grabbing me by my sleeve. “You've never been to a fancy restaurant before?” She meant it sarcastically. Durgin-Park is anything but fancy.

Platters of roast beef, the slices eclipsing the dishes, were carried by the waitresses, some with four plates lined up along one arm. “Coming through, goddamn it,” one of them called, pushing us aside. As we ate and ate, my roommate confessed, “Ah miss mah West Texas home. These yella dog Yankees talk too fast, too ambitious. It was a major mistake to come up here. Ahm gonna toss myself off the Larz Anderson Bridge.” He wanted to write novels, and, after two helpings of strawberry shortcake with extra whipped cream, a waitress who recognized a lonely boy said, “The second shortcake is on me. Don't tell no one; I'm supposed to be a tough broad.”

My second visit, later in my college career, involved a rite of passage: Could I drink as much as the club members checking me out for inclusion? We were all in black tie after some reception at one of the boys' parents' house in the Back Bay, the kind of house my hosts all were certain they would live in someday. The waitresses at Durgin-Park, great at cutting through the trivial in life, hated us. After the martinis, the cornbread, the roast beef and lobsters, the waitresses got tired of the clubbies lobbing buttered rolls at other tables.

“Bums are bums,” one waitress said. “Out! All of you.” There were murmurs of “not paying,” “outrageous,” “been kicked out of better places.” That's when the off-duty policemen came over. “We don't like our dinner interrupted by punks,” one said, flashing his badge. “Don't even think of asking for badge numbers.”

“Oops,” another cop said, taking a strawberry shortcake and tipping it onto one boy's head. “Pay the bill, leave a big tip for the girls, and shut your gobs.” We shut our gobs and sulked down the stairs.

I had not been back to Durgin-Park since college, until a wise man at a dinner party said to me, “When I want to find out what people from elsewhere think about Boston, I go to Durgin-Park for lunch and sit at the common table.” Common tables have a long history in Boston dining, but mostly at private clubs like the St. Botolph in the Back Bay. They provide companionship for the single traveler, as well as a place to swap stories with strangers, give and get advice about the city, tell lies to people you'll never see again.

Since my first recent visit, I have gone to Durgin-Park a lot, always pausing to shoot the breeze with Rocco. At lunch, Rocco is the greeter downstairs, a feisty little barker, assuring you that the best time of your life, and certainly the best food, awaits you if you climb the old stairs. He steers you up.

At that first lunch, I asked Seana Kelley, one of the managers, what happened to the attitude of the waitresses, which has mellowed. “One of the most famous of them,” I said, relaying something I had heard, “used to wear a button that read, 'Beyond Bitch.'”

Seana laughed, a generous, easy laugh typical of the Kelley family, which has owned Durgin-Park for 35 of its 130-odd years. “Oh,” she answered, “we've had them on Prozac.”

She led me to the common table, covered with a red checkered cloth, and put a basket of cornbread in front of me. “Don't be shy,” she said. “This cures a lot of things. So does talking to strangers.”

So I talked with strangers. And also people I have known, surprised to see them enjoying the company of the anonymous groupings. Ernie Monrad is one of the regulars, a gentleman of high standards who is probably America's dean of high-yield bonds, having joined Northeast Investors Trust in 1960. He looks upon the world with knowledge of history and markets and a cute, dry humor that reflects his understanding of the absurdities of life.

“I never fail to get a good conversation there from the damnedest people,” he told me. “When I first came here, I would eat the 95-cent special: cup of chowder, a slice of poor man's roast beef, and dessert. It was 95 cents because anything under a dollar avoided the Massachusetts old-age tax. I brought an old Boston Cabot into lunch one day. Frugal he was. He was taught that 10 percent was a good tip. He tried to leave a dime on the lunch special, but the waitresses were having none of it. They'd stand in his way on the staircase muttering, 'Cheap.' He did get the message.”

At the common table, I have gotten the color of life and wisdom from odd sources. A Frenchman and his wife sat next to me one day, the man a retired engineer. “We meet Europeans here every fall,” he told me. “My countrymen, lots of Germans, Italians, too. They come for the leaves. The colors in l'automne, you know. Vermont. But first, Durgin-Park for the chicken livers.” He kissed his thumb and index finger in salute to the livers.

I talked with a distinguished retired judge who had come there for the scrod and because “it's comforting to step back into a past that is mostly all gone in this town. Good food served in a highly interesting manner and the hallmark of Boston: stimulating conversation. Gets the juices flowing. Have the scrod. They don't serve smelts anymore, but one adjusts.”

I have lunched with ironworkers, teachers, money managers, and sales clerks. And everyone talks with everyone else. Last week two elderly women came in together and sat down at the common table, toward the middle, where there was action all around them. They ate their food and never talked to one another.

“Aren't you friends?” I asked.

“Sure,” one of them said. “But we always get good financial tips here if we keep quiet and listen and write down what people say on our napkins. Beats the financial pages.” I lifted my coffee cup in a toast to them, not really looking forward to stepping out of Durgin-Park and into the present.