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Apr 20, 2007 10:26 AM

Any Lydia Shire / Locke Ober fans/critics out there?

We're on our way to visit Boston for the first time from LA, and years ago a friend of ours cooked with Lydia Shire at Biba. Always wanted to try her food, and even though Locke-Ober was named to Gourmet Magazines Top 50 Restaurants list recently, I'm wondering why there's only a few recent mentions of her on Chowhound. Can any locals here shed some light on Locke, and is it worth a visit? And is there some other Boston "institution" to check out?


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  1. I'm grateful to Lydia for reviving, refurbishing, and updating Locke-Ober, a beloved local institution, a purveyor of haute Yankee cuisine that had gotten so faded before she bought it that ceiling paint used to flake into your lobster chowder. It's once again beautiful, sedate, a bit Boston Brahmin stuffy/snobby, pricey, and very good.

    Her other venture, Excelsior, is huge step down from Biba. I'll quote from a recent post of mine on it: "I haven't been to Excelsior in a while, but my experiences there have been pretty awful. It's one of the more hideous high-end dining rooms in the city, loud and cramped besides. I have yet to get a meal that justifies its $40 entree prices or exorbitant wine markups. Its predecessor Biba was long one of my favorites, so maybe I have an unfair bias against the current concept, which I find dull, sort of a luxury chophouse with some bare hints of its chef/owner's former innovativeness. The bar on the ground floor remains a decent place for high-end nibibles and drinks, if you can ignore the Fellini-esque hookup scene (think young gold diggers of both sexes and suspiciously tight-faced wealthy oldsters)."

    There aren't many "institutions" that I think are worthwhile: the Union Oyster House is a nasty tourist trap except for a quick dozen oysters at its downstairs raw bar. Parker's is quite down on its heels. Durgin-Park is fun, a kind of touristy Colonial New England experience, redeemed from kitsch by its still-excellent prime rib, Yankee pot roast, and Indian pudding.

    At the high end, there are a few local celeb chefs whose work is well regarded by Boston Chowhounds, if not especially local in flavor: Ken Oringer at Clio/Uni, Barbara Lynch at No. 9 Park/B&G Oysters, Gordon Hamersley at his eponymous bistro, Frank McClelland at L'Espalier, Chris Schelsinger at the East Coast Grill, Marc Orfaly at Pigalle/MarcO, Ana Sortun at Oleana, Jody Adams at Rialto. Most of these are quite worthy, though I think two of our nationally known chefs, Todd English and Ming Tsai, don't live up to their hype.

    There are plenty of other below-the-national-radar options in every cuisine at every price that are worth your attention here. A few examples that quickly come to mind include Ten Tables, the Rendezvous in Central Square, Salts, and Trattoria Toscana.

    There's a recent thread (with useful back-references) on "Boston essentials" that you should check out, too: . I'd encourage you to look into, among other things, the North End (carefully -- it's riddled with mediocrities), our Chinatown (excellent Hong Kong seafood among other regional cuisines), East Cambridge (some great Portuguese food), our raw bars (like Neptune Oyster, a rare non-Italian North Ender), and certain neighborhood bars that feature great food.

    6 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I totally agree with your thoughts about Biba-Excelsior. But I wouldn't blame Lydia for the menu as she is still part owner but not chef - Eric Brennan is the chef there - and Ken Himmel 'fired' Lydia according to her lawsuit last year. We were regulars at Biba, and at Excelsior when she was still there (her fried clams, and bacon sandwich were some of my favorite bar snacks in town), but stopped going once the menu seemed to change. We made one more attempt last year - after half an hour at the bar they lowered the lights and turned it into a late-night 'scene' with hideous electronica. Are they still doing that? It was enough for us to write it off completely. Sigh, I miss Lydia there.

      Needless to say, as huge Lydia Shire fans, we like Locke-Ober. I haven't been in probably a year, but have always had a nice time there - excellent food (though it's hard for me to stray from the buttery lobster stew and decadent Lobster Savannah), wonderful service, and the upstairs room is a beautiful space to enjoy dinner.

      1. re: Rubee

        So Shire no longer has any connection to Excelsior? That is news to me. A look at their website appears to confirm that. Guess I don't catch every industry story.

        1. re: MC Slim JB

          It was only in a couple of stories, and then kind of faded away, so not quite sure what happened. I think she is still part owner though. Anyways, here's a couple of articles Googled from last year. Hmmm - interesting - at Excelsior, Himmel "didn’t want the menu to resemble Biba’s, which he believed appealed mainly to foodies"...

          1. re: Rubee

            I don't think she has any part of it anymore.

      2. re: MC Slim JB

        I don't think Salts is under the radar any more; the chef there just got Food & Wine Best New chef recently.

      3. I'll second Slim JB's thoughts (as always), but I'll add that my last couple of visits to Locke Ober have been a little underwhelming. The service in particular has been lax, and there doesn't seem to be quite as much care being put into the food as when Lydia first took over. That said, I think it's still an excellent choice for an out-of-towner looking for a Boston "institution." Certainly miles ahead of guide-book favorites like Durgin-Park or the Union Oyster House.

        I would also add that Barbara Lynch's first big restaurant, No. 9 Park, has been around for awhile and could legitimately qualify as a Boston Institution by now, and is still at the top of its game. Another contender for Institution status would be Olives, Todd English's breakthrough restaurant. It has many critics but many fans as well.

        1. The other comments are thoughtful and well presented. All I can add is that the Locke Ober food tastes as good to me as all Lydia Shire menus. However, also like her venues from days gone by, I experienced unpleasant to wretched service and/or ambience problems that, for me, ruined the experiences and made me feel cheated. This was true of Biba (although I only went thrice) and also of the one time at Locke Ober. I never bothered with Excelsior, but I had to try Locke Ober because I would go with my family when I was a child and because I always did like the food at Biba. I think your first reply has such wonderful advice.