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Why do historical restaurants serve bad food?

My husband and I are history buffs. We love the idea of eating in a restaurant that is, say, 200 years old and in this area, there are many to choose from. But the food at these places runs from mediocre at best, to boring, to downright nasty. Why? Serving traditional New England food is fine, but why not do it well? Or better yet, why not reach way back and serve some actual historic food, perhaps with the spices tweaked to suit modern palates? (I've got some redactions of antique recipes I'd love to lend these places!)

And would it really be a crime to serve innovative, contemporary food at an ancient establishment?

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  1. Because these places will continue to get patrons/tourist regardless of food quality. Locke Ober isn't 200 years old but I would consider it a "historical" place with excellent food.

    2 Replies
    1. re: joth68

      I guess I think of Locke-Ober as an historical restaurant, rather than simply a restaurant in an historical building. Maybe that's the difference? If you're marketing the building, the food can suck.

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      Locke-Ober
      3 Winter Place, Boston, MA 02108

      1. re: Isolda

        That is certainly true..we've all seen examples of Old warhorses that, in their day, were reputed to be terrific but which wheezed along on the strength of the physical plant. Bookbinder's in Philly comes to mind, Arnaud's in New Orleans (although it made a comeback after about 25 years on the doldrums) Luchow's in New York. And, for awhile, we had that fear at L-O. Scared the Hell out of me, I can tellyou

    2. Locke-Ober has been serving food for many many years in Boston and I can't think of a better restaurant that has some of the best food I've ever had!

      1. But the point is well-taken: for every Locke-Ober (which itself was in decline before Shire took it over), there are 20 historical restaurants with mediocre to awful food: think Durgin-Park, Union Oyster House, Warren Tavern.

        I agree that the answer is "tourist trap", much the same as it is for places with waterfront or sky-high views. They do it because they can. Repeat business isn't really a priority.

        http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

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        Locke-Ober
        3 Winter Place, Boston, MA 02108

        10 Replies
        1. re: MC Slim JB

          You could argue that Locke-Ober isn't really the same restaurant since Shire took over. The fact of the matter is that these places never were really any good to begin with but benefited from a series of quirky circumstances to survive as long as they have.

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          Locke-Ober
          3 Winter Place, Boston, MA 02108

          1. re: baldbert

            my best friend family has been going to Locke Ober since the 1800's and he was telling me that the food has always been quite good..

            1. re: Beach Chick

              But your memory tends to fade after you hit age 150 or so ...

            2. re: baldbert

              I must disagree that Locke-Ober was "never really any good" although it sure as hell went into a decline when that G-D consortium took over. A friend, who is a present investor, stopped eating there and later told me the owners neglected the building. But in the 1960's and early 1970's, Locke-Ober was one of the very few places in town that were quite good. The Ritz-Carlton did its take on French cooking (and it was quirky) and Lucien was doing the French haute cuisine at Maison Robert. The rest of the places in town were serviceable. Union Oyster was fine for raw oysters ...and that was about it. Durgin-Park was perfectly fine for the rib and the Indian Pudding...(but I cannot forgive that awful "new" bar). Locke-Ober was eccentric, with the delightful amalgam menu which I loved. After Frank Curro left and Chico died, things did go downhill horribly but, prior to that, it was a temple of butter and cream and seafood and, almost alone in Boston, it used garlic. Shire has done wonders saving it but I wish she'd bring back that German/French/Yankee menu.

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              Locke-Ober
              3 Winter Place, Boston, MA 02108

            3. re: MC Slim JB

              I agree, MC. Although I do occasionally go to these places for their ambiance, and usually stick to simple dishes, which they typically aren't able to screw up as much.

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                I agree with Hazelhurst. Right before Lydia's group took over Locke Ober, Brian Halloran was doing triage as Executive Chef, and the food was really quite good! (I think he is now at Cornell School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, IIRC.)

                1. re: Small Plates

                  I remember the pre-Lydia era, too, but less fondly. The menu was tired, really dull, and you risked paint flaking from the ceiling into your lobster chowder. The historic feel was still there, but it was kind of sad, a faded glory.

                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                    ...and people had stolen all the silver

                2. re: MC Slim JB

                  And yes, this was kind of my point. I guess it is similar to the "view" restaurants. My parents live in the Seattle area and they are always dragging us to places with mediocre $50 seafood dishes and fabulous views. MMM, yummy Puget Sound....

                  1. re: Isolda

                    Isolda, maybe you can take your parents to Waterfront Seafood grill sometime...good views *and* respectable food...I hear even Canlis has improved in the last year or two...and there's always Crush

                3. Because they don't have to. While in Rome on vacation we didn't find a foodie quality meal until we got far away from tourist sites (which is difficult in Rome). So even in a great food country like Italy tourism drives down quality. Why should restaurants spend more on ingridients or be more creative if the number of they guests they receive can't get any higher due to tourism?

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Chinon00

                    But is good food really that much more costly to prepare? The Union Oyster House serves oysters, after all, which are rather expensive. And some of my best homemade meals use fairly inexpensive ingredients like lentils or chicken breasts. What makes them good is the seasoning.

                    1. re: Isolda

                      The Union Oyster House serves a lot more than oysters. But unless you get fresh-shucked oysters, which are served only at the downstairs oyster bar, the place is a bad idea.

                      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

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                      Union Oyster House
                      41 Union Street, Boston, MA 02108

                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                        Well, at least SOMETHING is consistent...but my overarching memory of teh place was the night OIl Can Boyd pitched in the 1986 World Series and I was in there for some reason. Makes my head hurt to think about it.

                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                          My point was that if a crappy restaurant can serve something expensive like oysters, then the high cost of good food can't be the only reason it's crappy. My husband occasionally brings out of town colleagues to the Union Oyster House (because they insist on trying it), but warns them to eat only the food that's raw.

                    2. In general I agree, particularly the "name" places mentioned above. But for an exception, look at Marliave. Granted it's had its ups and downs over its 125 years, but in its current incarnation it's serving good creative food - sometimes better than good.

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                      Marliave
                      10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                      16 Replies
                      1. re: BobB

                        I'm glad you mentioned that...I always forget it even exists. Will probably try it the next time I'm in town.

                        1. re: BobB

                          I like Marliave, too, but it was pretty much reinvented under new ownership. It is mostly unrecognizable in most respects from what it was in the last, oh, 30 years before the ownership change. Might look physically more like it did 100 years ago: the new owners stripped away years of incremental renovations, but the menu, despite the positioning as paying tribute to Marliave's history, is quite eclectic and modern.

                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

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                          Marliave
                          10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                          1. re: BobB

                            I'd forgotten about Marliave. I haven't been there in years.

                            1. re: Isolda

                              Before it closed, Marliave was really grim. It's a very different place now.

                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

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                              Marliave
                              10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                That is very encouraging---as is the whole improvement to Boston dining. Remember the 1970's?

                                1. re: hazelhurst

                                  Oh dear, the 70's! That was when Anthony's Pier 4 was THE place to go. (NOT!)

                                  but Legal's was good.

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                                  Anthony's Pier 4 Restaurant
                                  140 Northern Ave, Boston, MA 02210

                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                      Ah, yes, another place my good-view-and-mediocre-food-loving parents would insist on taking me to when they visited me here. But in those days, I was poor and they paid, so I didn't mind so much.

                                    2. re: ChefJune

                                      I have to go to a work meeting on friday at Anthony's......it's a yearly meeting and it's always AWFUL. The food is terrible, and the service is surly/depressed. What gets me is that every year when we do this, when I'm leaving, people are coming in to the place in droves....what gives? The food just sucks, no ifs ands or buts

                                      1. re: devilham

                                        eat before and just enjoy the view.

                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                    Oh to be a fly on the wall when the whole red sauce crowd came back to the newly reopened Marliaves! I am sure there were a lot of angry patrons.

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                                    Marliave
                                    10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                                    1. re: Bellachefa

                                      There is a very nice meatballs and ragu dish on that menu.

                                      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                        Yeah, there's nothing all that snooty or intimidating on the revived Marliave's menu, it's just that it's done with a more careful hand.

                                        Though I agree with the general consensus that I wish the bar staff was better, I like Marliave quite a bit, and if I was with someone who wanted to see Old Boston, I'd certainly take them there before Durgin Park or Union.

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                                        Marliave
                                        Boston, MA, Boston, MA

                                        Durgin Park
                                        1 Faneuil Hall Sq, Boston, MA 02109

                                        1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                          I have a friend in from out of town and we had a nice lunch there today. The grilled ham/cheese sqndwich with awesome rosemary accented fries and a very good mac n cheese.

                                    2. re: MC Slim JB

                                      I love Marliave. Cleanliness can be a challenge at the old establishments, but in general I enjoy the ancient ambiance. My family and I frequent the Opera House and the Wang for matinees and tried to get into Silvertone; they aren't opened on Sundays. We stumbled upon Marliave and feel like regulars. I love the Croque Madame for brunch, and the (older) kids can get a burger or a fair pasta dish. Service is friendly, prices are good, food is plentiful and well prepared.

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                                      Silvertone
                                      69 Bromfield St, Boston, MA 02108

                                      Marliave
                                      10 Bosworth Street, Boston, MA 02108

                                      1. re: rosiebcook

                                        I don't think a restaurant's age has anything to do with its cleanliness. I've been in new restaurants that look filthy a couple of months in, and ancient restaurants that are spotless. Management either focuses on the issue or it doesn't.

                                        http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/