• January 2012

Seafood and History Lovers Will Rejoice at Boston's Union Oyster House

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine

If you adore oysters, love clams, and crave lobsters and the creamiest clam chowder you have ever tasted, you’ll want to stop in for a meal at the National Historic Landmark, Boston’s Union Oyster House: at 41 Union Street, 617-227-2750.

The oldest restaurant in town has been owned by Joe Milano and his family since the 1970s.

More than 250 years after the building opened for business with proprietor Hopestill Capen selling fancy dress goods, this hotspot shines like a pearl in the popular Faneuil Hall Marketplace district of town.

From this site in 1771, printer Isaiah Thomas published his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, one of the first papers in the United States. A few years later, the building became the headquarters for Ebenezer Hancock, and the official pay station where the Federal troops received their Revolutionary War wages.

By 1796, it was home to the future King of France, Louis Phillippe, who lived on the second floor. In temporary exile from his country, he earned a living teaching French to Boston’s most elite young ladies.

Food became the focus of the establishment in 1826.

That was the year that the Atwood family took ownership. Known to have operated a number of oyster shops in Boston since at least 1818, the new location was originally known as Atwood’s Oyster House, before becoming Atwood & Bacon from 1842 to 1860.

The open-coal range on which oysters were roasted was installed in the kitchen. By 1916 the establishment was simply referred to as Union Oyster House—the name it holds today.

For Joe Milano, the most important element of his centuries-old restaurant is the food. The semicircular Oyster Bar, which regularly served the notables of Boston society, is a focal point.

“Senator Daniel Webster, a constant customer, is said to have daily drunk a tall tumbler of brandy and water with each half-dozen plate of oysters that he ate,” Milano shares. “Lore has it that he seldom had less than six servings of each.”

And since Milano and his family took the helm of the establishment, Massachusetts politics have played a role at the Union Oyster House. In fact, the night we visited in early December 2011, in addition to a packed house, there were three parties going on—one of them featuring some of the most prominent figures in the local Democratic political scene.

Not surprising. The Kennedy clan has patronized the restaurant for years. JFK feasted in privacy in the upstairs dining room (in fact, Booth 18, called The Kennedy Booth, has been reserved nightly since it was dedicated to his memory in 1977).

Other famous patrons include Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton—as well as governors, athletes, and stage and screen stars visiting Boston.

Of course, Milano, the consummate restauranteur, is happy to host events for both political parties—as well as international events. In fact, the gracious gentleman with a heart of gold is the official Consul General of Thailand.

Step inside his office, on the top floor of the historic building, and you are officially in the land of smiling faces.

“Traveling is one of my favorite things to do, and I fell in love Thailand years ago,” he explains. “It was my honor to meet the King and Queen,” he says, and since then he has been honored to be the consul for what he considers to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

“It’s incredibly hot in Thailand, Milano says. One of the things that I find most amazing about Thailand, however, is that when anyone comes to us for a Visa, someone who has been there before, and I ask them their perceptions of the country—no one ever complains about the heat! It’s a fascinating thing to me, because I have felt like I was close to melting some days. And yet, it’s truly so beautiful, so friendly, so spectacular in Thailand that this aspect of the country pales in comparison. It just goes to show what people value most. And that is the reason that I am the consul general.”

Back to the Food

That said, Milano’s focus, and claim to fame, is running the Union Oyster House—which, he says, has been holding its own through the recession.

“We are historic, we serve wonderful, fresh food. People come here for a great, affordable meal that is served in style. In 2012, we are looking forward to having even more ladies and gents stop by for what is one of the best feasts in Boston.”

What’s Joe’s favorite dish?

“The Sauteed Lobster Scampi,” he reveals. “It’s traditional, uses only the best ingredients, and the recipe involves a bit of a riddle.”

It turns out that in the United States, scampi refers to a method of preparation using olive oil, or butter, and garlic. In Europe, it refers to a particular type of shrimp, although they are often prepared as they are in the Union Oyster House recipe. Confusing, but delicious.

Here’s how to make the Union Oyster House’s Sauteed Lobster Scampi at home:

What you need:

  • 4 lobsters, 1-1/4 pound each, or 1 pound of lobster meat
  • 6 T. butter, divided
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 1 T. minced fresh basil
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh chives
  • 2 cups Roma tomatoes, canned or fresh, chopped
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 lb. linguine (or your favorite pasta), cooked
  • 2 T. Italian parsley, chopped

Here’s how:

1. Boil lobsters for 10 minutes, or until lightly cooked. Remove the meat from the shell. Cut into large chunks. Set aside.

2. In a large saute pan, melt 4 T. butter. Add garlic, and saute until garlic softens.

3. Add basil, chives, tomatoes, and white wine. Saute for 3-4 minutes. Swirl in remaining 2 T. butter.

4. When the butter is incorporated, add in lobster and cook until warmed through.

5. Serve over linguine. Garnish with fresh parsley. Serve.

Want more Union Oyster House recipes? Click here to order the cookbook, which offers more than 131 pages of dishes you’ll love to prepare.

More great fact about oysters, courtesy of the Union Oyster House

About Oyster Shells

Oyster shells have been used for centuries for various purposes. They have been used for roads and footpaths; as filling for wharves, low lands, and fortifications; as ballast for vessels; as manure for exhausted fields; and as raw material for lime.

The reason for such diversity is that the shell comprises about 4/5 of the oyster’s entire weight, and is its only means of protecting its soft body. Unlike the shell of the clam, which is hinged at the long end, the oyster’s shell is hinged at the narrow end. The outside of the shell is rough and irregular, but the inside is polished smooth.

About Pearls

When a foreign body gets lodged in the oyster shell, the oyster begins to build concentric layers of onion-like material, thereby giving birth to a “pearl.” Certain tropical species of oysters produce pearls of iridescent luster that are commercially valuable. Pearls come in many different shapes and hues, but the most valuable are the large, perfectly round and flawless, black pearls. Rarely is a pearl of any value found in North American waters.

About the Oyster as Food

As if fending off natural enemies were not challenging enough for the oyster, man has an insatiable appetite for oysters, and is relentless in his efforts to harvest the delicious bivalves. Oysters are harvested either wild from natural beds or, as is more often the case today, from cultivated grounds. (Wild oysters are rough and irregular, while cultivated oysters assume a more uniform shape, and produce more standard meat.)

Not all oysters taste the same. In fact, of the more than 100 species, only a few have any commercial value. And the size, shape, flavor, and food value of oysters are severely affected by their habitat, the foods eaten, and the temperature of the water in which they have grown. Oysters, due to their native element, are more or less salty, and in fact were at one time sold as accompaniments to drink.

Oysters were first served to the public in this country in 1763 when a primitive saloon was opened in New York City in a Broad Street cellar.

In the 19th century, the American people were swept up in an oyster craze. Every town boasted oyster parlors, oyster cellars, oyster saloons, oyster bars, oyster houses, oyster stalls, and oyster lunchrooms. The oyster houses were very popular amongst the best class of people in the city. They were also popular among tourists because they knew they would get the choicest seafood, cooked and served in the best style. And with the “express” service and the coming of railroads, oyster houses became popular inland as well.

As early as 1926, the U.S. Public Health Service undertook a system of sanitary controls to ensure the purity of oysters and safeguard the public and the industry.

For more information, and to make a reservation, visit:
Union Oyster House:
41 Union Street, Boston, Mass.