In 1826, a restaurant known as the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House opened on Boston’s Union Street. It’s been serving up grub ever since. Now known as the Union Oyster House, it ranks among the oldest restaurants in the United States and claims to be the oldest continuously-operated eatery in the country.
The restaurant’s historical connections stretch back before it even opened, thanks to the building in which it is located (which was listed as a national historic landmark in 2003). Built in the early 1700s, it originally housed a clothing and dry goods store named Capen’s. In 1771, the second floor was home to The Massachusetts Spy newspaper, published by Isaiah Thomas, a thorn in the side of the Royalist government. The building’s most surprising resident was none other than the exiled Prince Philippe of France. The prince lived on the second floor for a few months in the late 1790s, later returning to France to take the throne as Louis Philippe I.
When the space became known as the Union Oyster House, the steady flow of famous faces was far from over. Its oysters, clams, and scallops, served from the same semicircular oyster bar that exists today, were a hit with both locals and visiting dignitaries alike. One of the restaurant’s most notable patrons was the American statesman Daniel Webster. He often pulled up a chair to the oyster bar, where he would order a tall tumbler of brandy and water, then devour half a dozen oysters, before repeating the process at least six times.
During his time as a representative and senator, John F. Kennedy often dined alone at the Oyster House, preferring one particular booth on the second floor. In his quiet and secluded booth, Kennedy would unfurl his newspaper and enjoy a lunch of lobster soup. The “Kennedy Booth” has since been dedicated to the president and features a gold plaque with a portrait of JFK.
But Kennedy wasn’t the only president to have dined at the Union Oyster House: Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all come for a bite to eat (Obama ordered 10 chowders to go). The walls are now covered with photos and paintings of these and other notable patrons.
As for the food, it’s good, old New England fare: homemade crab cakes, broiled Boston scrod, clam chowder, Boston baked beans, lobster, and, of course, as many oysters as you can eat.
Know Before You Go
With such a rich history, the Union Oyster House is understandably a tourist attraction as well as just being a restaurant. So yes, it has its touristy side, as attested by the attached gift shop. But locals still frequent the restaurant, and the downsides of the Union’s popularity are offset by the sheer history of the place.