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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.

      -----
      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/

        -----
        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.

              -----
              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/

                      -----
                      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.

                      -----
                      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/

                          -----
                          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/

                              -----
                              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.

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

                                  1. re: ChefJune

                                    and jimmy's harborside. eesh.

                                    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.

                                  2. 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.

                                    -----
                                    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.

                                        -----
                                        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.

                                      -----
                                      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/

                                2. Hey Isolda....I feel your pain, but as everyone has noted, most historic restaurants are in touristy areas where there appeal is their proximity to other places and "look mom, I'm eating in a 200 yr old restaurant" factor, not their food.

                                  The reason they suck, even with high quality ingredients ( you mentioned Union Oyster house's raw bar as an example), is that ingredients are usually only 20% of the cost for restaurants. Labor is the single largest cost, followed by rent / equipment upkeep. Buying lobster will cost you decent money at a 5 star restaurant or a tourist trap, but at a tourist trap, you can hire a sub-par line cook for 1/2 the hourly rate of his 5 star counterpart. Most tourist traps don't have a real executive chef, just line cooks banging out the same recipes for years on end (probably created by an exec chef that got fired years ago to bump profits).

                                  The only chance we'll ever have of getting a Boston restaurant to serve great historic new England food is for someone to open a new restaurant as a "theme dining" establishment....like Medieval Manor or Rainforest Cafe without the suck factor.

                                  As a total aside, but to save you the embarrassment and frustration I experienced when I found out, redaction is not the word you think it is. In historic re-enactment circles, they call reconstructing ancient recipes to ones that can be followed by a modern cook with modern standard units of measure "redaction". This is a made-up meaning for a real word. Redaction is actually a literary term, to describe the process of taking multiple written works and edit them into a single coherent / publishable form. http://dictionary.reference.com/brows... Some just started using that to describe modernizing recipes because they thought it sounded cool / scientific.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: InmanSQ Girl

                                    I thought redacting was the process of blacking out sensitive and important (read "juicy and valuable") information on a document before release, basically making it meaningless in many instances. So I think "redacting" is the right term for what these old-but-bad restaurants specialize in.

                                    1. re: Uncle Yabai

                                      LOL!

                                    2. re: InmanSQ Girl

                                      The only chance we'll ever have of getting a Boston restaurant to serve great historic new England food is for someone to open a new restaurant as a "theme dining" establishment....like Medieval Manor or Rainforest Cafe without the suck factor.

                                      ~~~~

                                      <<blinks>>

                                      what? as a fine dining professional nearly 20 years in boston this sounds like one of the worst and improbable ideas i've heard, maybe... ever?

                                      secondly, having worked for some of the city's most famous and talented chefs, i can assure you their line cooks are not paid handsomely, by any stretch. a few bucks above minimum, at best, but for the glory of having said celeb-chef on resume. their motivation to execute well may be greater, but their compensation rarely is.

                                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                                        AMEN brother, we peeps behind the line work super hard for almost no loot, and I too have worked under some well known chefs...and admittedly it's cool, but it don't pay the bills for sure

                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                          I think you misunderstood my statement regarding the pay of line cooks, which now looking back at my post, I poorly wrote so my apologies for the confusion. I know that line cooks are paid poorly and in fact equally poorly at all restaurants ( I have several friends who work in the food service industry). My statement was meant to read that tourists traps save themselves money by often forgoing the cost of real leadership by not hiring any experienced senior staff ( who make double the money of line cooks) and only using all line cooks and declaring one of them in charge even when they don't have the training / experience to merit it.

                                          As to the idea of a historic theme dining restaurant....I never said it would be probable, I just said it would be the only chance we'd have of having a restaurant in Boston focus on historic new England fare and actually pay attention to the quality of the food. As has been discussed at length, there is no motivation for the tourist traps of Boston to improve their food quality and there is no motivation for the good restaurants to start adding historic cuisine to their menu (unless it was part of that whole reinvented-deconstructed comfort food trends, which is not what the original poster was shooting for). The only was to get high quality historic New England fare served would be for it to be at restaurant who's food was it's focal selling point and who's advertising focused on drawing in people interested in experiencing great historic fare (and are willing to pay for it)...which more than likely means a historic "focus" aka THEME. I'm not saying there are enough people out there interested to make the place profitable, I'm just saying it would create the desired result.

                                      2. Could it be they are just being historically accurate? :)

                                        I wanted to throw out the name Jacob Wirth as another historically old restaurant that serves good food. Only one recent experience, but it was well executed.

                                        -----
                                        Jacob Wirth Restaurant
                                        31 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116

                                        7 Replies
                                        1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                          I've found them to be inconsistent, sometimes it is good, sometimes not so good. That's better than being consistent & bad, mind you :)

                                          1. re: jgg13

                                            I advised my DC to stay on message when we went there - get a braut, some fries -
                                            Don't go off message...
                                            But there she went, ordering a wedge salad with bacon and grilled chicken - I was worried to say the least, but she got a really fresh, crisp iceberg wedge, good cream dressing not overdressed, real bacon generously crumbled and a fine piece of grilled chicken. Not groundbreaking, but I was pleasantly surprised that my worries were not realized - it was the best looking thing on the table.

                                            1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                              That is surprising. Barmy and I went a couple of times maybe two years ago, having stumbled upon their Friday night sing-along. The first time we had beer and fairly decent snacks - an order of fries, maybe fried calamari? Really not half bad.

                                              Then a couple of months later we took my sister & brother-in-law, had more of a proper dinner focusing on the German specialties, and got Sysco-quality sauerbraten, other things not worth the price. It was deeply disappointing.

                                              I *might* try a wurst platter there again, because I do love the atmosphere every once in a while and the place has strong sentimental attachments for me. But overall I'd stick with beer and snacks and strongly resist getting my hopes up.

                                              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                That wedge salad is the best thing I've ever had on the Jacob Wirth menu. In my experience, it's the German food that sucks, not the pub fare.

                                                -----
                                                Jacob Wirth Restaurant
                                                31 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116

                                            2. re: Bob Dobalina

                                              I havent eaten there for at least a year but have had some truly disgusting food there over the years. Even their German specials were spectacularly disappointing, though my standards might be different due to my midwestern upbringing.

                                              It would be wonderful if the food there improved because it's a great spot to drink beer and have fun.

                                              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                My advice on Wirth is: avoid the German food, stick to unchallenging American pub items.

                                                http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                  i've had surprisingly good fried clams there, and i have strong sentimental college years attachments to the place.

                                              2. I miss Maison Robert (or as I affectionately called it, "Bob's House), and haven't visited the Ruth's Steak House that took it's place. Sigh. The best food I've had at a "historic" site around Boston is at the Lyceum in Salem. It's where Alexander Graham Bell made his first public phone call, although I'm not sure what part of the building is original and what parts are modern additions. And I guess that's really not very historic. And I don't think it was a restaurant back then. Do places where JFK dined count as historic?

                                                1. This is an excellent observation………..as you venture out of Boston the examples continue………The Wayside Inn is a perfect one. My parents live about 2 minutes from there and at least once a year we are subjected to a meal there. My wife and I dread it. I can look past the historical outfits etc., we get it, it is an old inn but for God’s sake serve something decent. This place has totally catered to the Bonanza bus tour over 65 crowd. I mean they make a big deal about serving “genuine Wispride spread cheese”………..Really? This is something to advertise? Ooooooo let me order the baked “scrod”……..I will say this, they can at least cook a decent filet as that is the only thing we order…….the glued mashed taters smothered in “mushroom gravy” are questionable at best and the frozen veggie side, of which there is no choice…..”our vegetable today is a steamed vegetable medley”………which to me means, a microwaved bagged frozen generic Sysco corn, pea, carrot, lima bean mess we used to get in grade school………

                                                  I don’t mean to be Captain Negative here………but for $18-30/plate…………throw at least some chef’s specials, but of course there is no “chef”.

                                                  Heck the martinis are maybe a 5 on a scale of 1-10………….so I guess it could be worse…….it could be the Daniel Webster Inn’s “mini-chain” of Hearth & Kettles………

                                                  1. Short answer same as everyone else: because they can. I'm an amateur history junkie (though my passion is more around the turn of the 20th century than the 18th), and sometimes just getting a passable meal in a historic setting is O.K. I'm not expecting chow worthy food at Durgin Park, Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, etc.

                                                    The last unexpectedly great meal in an historic building I've had, was at Stone's Public House (formerly John Stone's Tavern) in Ashland. We only went as a birthday dinner choice of my ghost obsessed 13 year old, but the food and historical atmosphere was rem ally great, and they have the best curry fries west of Cork County.

                                                    -----
                                                    Durgin Park
                                                    340 Faneuil Hall Market Pl, Boston, MA 02109

                                                    Stone's Public House
                                                    179 Main St, Ashland, MA 01721