The West

Joe Milano, owner of Union Oyster Bar. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

For Daniel Webster, a prominent US senator at the time of the American Civil War, a meal at the restaurant at 41 Union Street in downtown Boston typically consisted of six serves of half-a-dozen oysters, each washed down with a tall tumbler of brandy.

Many years later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy - not yet the 35th President of the United States - would call in on Sundays at the Union Oyster House for a rather more modest lunch of lobster soup while reading the newspapers.

And for me today, seated in a cosy booth close to the one favoured by JFK, lunch is six freshly shucked oysters followed by fried shrimp served with corn bread and mashed potato.

Boston's history since its founding in 1630 has been a rich and varied one, and this building has been here to witness most of it.

The earliest brick building in Boston, it is thought to have been built at the very beginning of the 18th century. By 1742 it was a silk and dry goods shop and in the lead-up to the American Revolution served as the offices of Isiah Thomas, publisher of the radical newspaper The Massachusetts Spy.

During the war, it was the headquarters of Ebenezer Hancock, paymaster for the Continental Army, and home to the exiled Louis Philippe, later King Louis Philippe I of France, who earned a living teaching French to local ladies.

It wasn't until 1826 that the building entered its current usage as a restaurant, opening as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House on August 3 of that year.

These days, it's known as the Union Oyster House. A designated national historic landmark, it lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in continuous service in the US.

Welcoming me to the restaurant is manager Jimmy, who gives me a tour of the rambling, surprisingly large building.

He also points out the historic semi-circular wooden bar by the front door, where Webster would perch to take his repast. Nearby, there's a tank filled with live lobsters. On average, Jimmy tells me, Union Oyster House serves between 45-90kg of lobster from this tank every day, along with an average of 1000 oysters and assorted other traditional New England fare.

The original menu at the oyster house was relatively modest: various kinds of oysters, clams and scallops, a selection of sides including "crackers and milk", "bread and milk", dry toast and various pies. These days, the focus is remains on seafood, with New England classics including clam chowder and lobster along with dishes with local clams such as cherrystones and littlenecks. This is undeniably a touristy spot but my food is tasty, the service friendly and the surroundings cosy and atmospheric.

After lunch, owner Joe Milano comes to meet me. His family has owned the restaurant for 44 years and he's clearly proud of what they've achieved, preserving the historic building while more than doubling the restaurant's seating capacity. A public-minded sort with a broad Boston accent - he says "aht" for "art", "paht" for "port" and so on - he's also the honorary consul general for Thailand.

Union Oyster House has had only three owners since 1826 and Joe's late mother, Mary Milano, was a constant presence in the restaurant until her death, aged 93, in 2009. She was, Jimmy told me earlier, one of those warm, welcoming types born to work in hospitality.

The restaurant is home to an extensive collection of artwork, most of it depicting the history of the restaurant and the city, and other curiosities.

As he shows me around, Joe points out some notable examples. There's the series of murals showing scenes from Boston's colonial history, a collection of 3-D dioramas depicting stops on the city's popular Freedom Trail historical walking route and, my favourite, the shell of a massive lobster mounted on the wall in a private dining room nestled at the top of the building. Caught by a friend of Joe's some years ago, it weighed a whopping 44 pounds and is thought to have been more than 90 years old.

Another memorable display commemorates the history of the toothpick, which is said to have been first used here. Its enterprising inventor, one Charles Forster of Maine, paid students from nearby Harvard University to dine in the restaurant, instructing them to request toothpicks after their meals to help popularise his product.

There's also a wall commemorating the famous faces who have eaten here, everyone from Tiger Woods to Bill Clinton to Meryl Streep. They're a strikingly numerous and diverse bunch, which seems fitting - having stood amid the hubbub of downtown Boston for the best part of 300 years, it's safe to say that the building at 41 Union Street has pretty much seen it all.

Gemma Nisbet visited Boston courtesy of Emirates airline and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.


For more on the Union Oyster House, visit

Emirates launched its daily direct service to Boston from its Dubai hub in March and now flies to numerous destinations in North America. Its services to Boston and New York are a particularly attractive option flying from Perth, enabling travellers to reach the east coast of the US with only one stop, and it will launch a direct Chicago service on August 5. Travel agents, and 1300 303 777.

XV Beacon Hotel, in a historic building on the edge of Beacon Hill, provides a comfortable and convenient base for exploring Boston. Rooms at the boutique hotel start from US$395 ($418) per night.

For information on visiting Boston, see


Boston is well supplied with places to eat, with everything from local seafood to international cuisine on offer. Some ideas:

Lobster bake, with fresh lobster, clams, potatoes and corn cooked over an open flame in a heavy pot, is a New England beachside tradition. The version at Aragosta Bar and Bistro, part of the Fairmont Battery Wharf hotel and perched on the harbour’s edge, adds in chorizo, with s’mores (an American campfire classic incorporating biscuits, marshmallows, chocolate and, in this case, peanut butter and banana) for dessert. It’s available from June to September, and costs $US45 ($48) per person for a minimum of four. boston/dining/lobster-bakes.

If you’re in the mood to wander and choose somewhere for dinner at will, head to the North End, traditionally the Italian quarter and said to have more than 100 Italian restaurants in less than one square mile. Many are concentrated on Salem and Hanover streets.

L’Espalier, in the shopping district of Back Bay, is an elegant option for a special meal, serving French cuisine with a New England influence and a strong emphasis on local and artisanal produce. In the evenings, there’s the option of a three-course prix fixe menu ($95) but if it’s an occasion go all out with a degustation ($115, with a vegetarian option available).

The Beehive, in the up-and-coming South End neighbourhood, is a good place to make a night of it — there’s live music every evening, with a particular focus on jazz, and the bar and restaurant adjoins the Boston Center for the Arts, which stages dance and theatre performances. Inside, there’s an eclectic atmosphere with exposed bricks, draped fabrics and chandeliers, and a frequently changing menu with Middle Eastern, Eastern European and rustic American influences. Also open for brunch on weekends.

Boston has plenty of good bakeries — ideal for a quick lunch or a snack while you’re exploring. Look out for Flour, which has four locations throughout the city, and the South End Buttery. If you want to try a local specialty, keep an eye out for Boston cream pie, the official dessert of the State of Massachusetts. flourbakery and

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