The oldest continuously operating restaurant in America is The Union Oyster House, in Boston, whose doors have been open, without fail, to customers since 1826. The building it has occupied for those years has stood on Union Street for at least 250 years, originally housing, in 1742, merchant Hopestill Capen’s haberdashery. Union Street was then the farthest-back reach of the Boston waterfront and so English mercantile ships easily docked and unloaded goods directly into Capen’s store for sale.
In 1775, Capen’s old store also became the makeshift headquarters to Ebenezer Hancock, first paymaster to the Continental Army, and later to King Louis Phillipe of France, who made a living teaching French to Bostonians in his second-floor apartment while exiled from his country. He reclaimed his crown in 1830, four years after the building became home to Atwood & Bacon’s Oyster House. Proprietors Atwood and Bacon are credited with installing the restaurant’s famous semi-circular oyster bar, at which Daniel Webster sat daily, drinking a tumbler of brandy for every plate of oysters he finished. Webster rarely ate fewer than six plates in a sitting.
Since its inception, the Oyster House has had only three owners, and is the better for it. Though not so much as in New York’s McSorley’s (the oldest American tavern), “progress” is an unwelcome intruder at the Oyster House. The place is New England at its best: spare and functional yet comfortable and elegant, without being gaudy, and excessively nautical in theme. Black Dan’s Pub is an alcove off the back end, named for Daniel Webster and his heavy beard, and the Oyster Bar still stands burnished, pitted, and defiant in the entryway. Upstairs is the Kennedy Booth, named for devoted customer John F. Kennedy. It’s a masculine, timeless place, purposefully so, and much appreciated for it.