Boston’s culinary scene seems to change quicker than its ever-developing skyline: new restaurants pop up at a rapid pace, and some disappear soon after opening. It takes some doing to keep a restaurant going for decades. Sadly, some of Boston’s oldest, dearest eating places have closed recently, including Doyle’s Café, Durgin Park, the No Name and, unthinkably, the Top of the Hub. So make it a priority to celebrate these throwbacks while they’re still around. Be sure to check out the oldest bars in Boston, and if history is your thing, walk off the calories with a stroll along the Freedom Trail.
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Oldest restaurants in Boston
The Warren Tavern has been in its current location on Pleasant Street (near the Bunker Hill Monument) since 1780. It is named for Dr. Joseph Warren, a patriot leader killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. This historic building may have hosted the likes of Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and President George Washington, but it’s much more than a tourist spot. Local families gather for food and relaxation as they have for generations, enjoying dishes ranging from traditional New England breadcrumb-topped baked haddock to spicy salmon tacos.
Originally opened as the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House in 1826, the Union Oyster House near Faneuil Hall has endured the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and two World Wars. And, the building itself dates to 1714, predating both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Yet, it wasn’t placed on the Historic Register until 2003. Its claim as one of America’s oldest restaurants and its quaint 18th century design make it a tourist must-do, but the Union Oyster House is equally a place Bostonians cherish. A fire in 2017 briefly shuttered the old dear, but thankfully it continues serving New England seafood classics along with Boston’s famous baked beans, and, of course, oysters.
The Omni Parker House’s steeped-in-history restaurant boasts many famous guests; John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie in the dining room in the early 1960s. Even the kitchen staff has included notorious figures: Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh worked there. But it is best known as the place where delicious Boston cream pie was first served. Founded by Harvey D. Parker in 1855, the Omni is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States, but most of what you see is a 1927 renovation. Parker’s has a grand Victorian look, brightened by contemporary chairs and banquettes covered in elegant silver and gold patterned brocade. The menu still includes fluffy Parker House rolls, baked scrod, and the custard filled, chocolate fudge topped Boston cream pie, all of which were invented here.
Set on a quiet courtyard off Downtown Crossing’s busy Winter Street and accessed behind a dry bar salon, speakeasy style, Yvonne’s is located in a building that dates to 1832. It is the former home of the legendary Locke-Ober restaurant, which opened in 1875 and closed in 2012. Locke-Ober had a reputation as an old boys network, a men-only kind of place that was occasionly frequented by women like latter-day namesake Yvonne, a supposed lady of the night, whose portrait hangs in the main dining room. Original fixtures and features are paired with whimsical touches, and the lights are low for a suitably debauched atmosphere.
Originally opened on Bosworth Street in 1885 as Restaurant Marliave by a French immigrant chef of that name, this quaint restaurant and espresso bar is the sister spot to Beacon Hill’s longstanding favorite, Grotto. The menu mixes French classics such as escargot and cassoulet with American culinary standards like Caesar salad and macaroni and cheese. There are a few left-field additions like a Welsh rarebit, along with plant-based delights like roasted cauliflower piccate, for modern tastes. Still, stepping inside the building is like stepping back to a Boston long lost.
Amrheins is the oldest restaurant in South Boston and claims lineage back to 1890. This once grand red-brick Victorian building on West Broadway is edged with copper facing and black paintwork, giving it a very serious demeanor. The wood-lined interior, including an antique carved wood bar, is well worn by a devoted local clientele who enjoy classic American comfort food. Recently sold to a local developer, the site will see some changes, and it is hoped that Amrheins survives.
Opened in 1909, this Victorian styled haunt has held its ground on East Berkeley Street for over a century. Its customers are locals or those in s search of an authentic feeling old Bostonian haunt. The tenderly named J.J. Foley’s Café was once the watering hole for the Boston Herald staff when the newspaper was headquartered nearby. Times may have changed in the South End, and how, but Foley’s certainly hasn’t. Well, that’s not entirely true, in 1909, the menu would not have included nachos, fig and goat cheese pizza, or poutine, but whatever was cooked up iwas very likely served in the same no nonsense fashion.
Though recent renovations have completely changed the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel’s dining room and bar, and for the better at that, a restaurant has occupied this space on the corner overlooking Copley Square since the hotel opened in 1912. First, it was the Copley Café. In 1934, it became the Merry-Go-Round Bar complete with a mini merry-go-round, the tracks of which are still visible. By 1978, it was The Plaza Bar and Dining Room. In 1996, lined with trompe d’oeil plaster pained to look like oak, it became The Oak Room. To celebrate the hotel’s centennial, the large high ceilinged room was gutted and reassembled as a gleaming fin de siècle inspired beauty: OAK Long Bar + Kitchen is undoubtedly a Back Bay dining landmark, and hotspot.
The S&S’s mid century modern design belies its early 20th century roots: this Inman Square icon opened in 1919, and is thought of fondly as the S&S Deli by many. Its proper title, however, is the S&S Restaurant. The Somerville favorite just happens to have a delicatessen, besides a full kitchen. The name derives from original matriarch Mrs. Edelstein who would encourage all with “Es, es,” Yiddish for eat, eat. Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, each with massively long menus that includes seemingly every choice, from a kale and quinoa salad to matzo ball soup.
Regina Pizzeria lays claim as Boston's oldest pizzeria. Opened in 1926 by Luigi D'Auria on Thacher Street in the North End, it has been run by the Polcari family since 1956, and is rather confusingly also known as Pizzeria Regina. Regardless, it has grown into a regional pizza chain. The original location on Thacher is still in operation and is Mecca for pizza lovers, who swear its freshly made dough makes for the best pie this side of the pond.
Opened in 1929, this pretty café in the North End is Boston’s oldest Italian café and sits atop a supposedly haunted basement, now a cigar bar. Who knows about that, what’s important upstairs in this rococo-inspired gem is the expertly brewed espressos and cappuccinos, as well as a remarkably good hot chocolate. The pastries include cannoli, limoncello cake, and tiramisu equal to any in this Italian neighborhood. The gelati — in around 20 flavors — and sorbetto makes for a classic afternoon pick-me-up, a tradition straight from the old country.
The building that houses Santarpio's Pizza in East Boston outdoes Regina Pizzeria in age, but though it opened in 1903 as a bakery, owner Frank Santarpio didn’t start making pizza there until the 1930s. Still, the family-run Santarpio’s is equally a local landmark and its pizzas regularly praised. Unusually, toppings go under the sauce, baking more flavor into the dough. That’s about as innovative as it gets in this no-frills joint known for grumpy wait staff. And that seems to be just fine for its numerous fans and visiting pizza lovers.
South Street Diner has retro-cool cred. Though it’s only operated under this name for 24 years, the diner goes back several decades and is one of the Worcester Dining Company’s original no-frills, cheap eats dining cars. This one dates to 1947 and originally opened as the Blue Diner. It is the last true dining car in Boston proper, making it a local landmark. Food-wise, carb up on American comfort food and cool down on milk shakes. Don’t miss the Boston crème pancakes, a riff on Boston’s famed dessert. And, it’s open 24/7.
There is often some confusion around having two Foley’s within spitting distance, but this is the younger sibling to the South End Foley’s. It was opened on Kingston Street in Downtown Boston in 1959 by a descendant of the same Foley family. The building is certainly older than this business and was formerly a 19th century merchant’s HQ. Foley’s downtown attracts the after-work crowd as well as students from the nearby colleges at weekends. The menu is suitably rudimentary for those concentrating on drinks: burgers, hot dawgs, as they put it, and sandwiches. Which is just as traditionalists and blue-collar bar preservationists would want it.
This Newton family favorite has been scooping ice cream since 1969. It feels a little older and is styled like a classic 1950s diner and ice cream parlor. Actually, it’s the other way around because the emphasis here is on ice cream turned into sundaes and floats, and served in big melting portions in around 70 different flavors, with dozens of toppings to choose from. Cabot’s serves breakfast all day, along with lunch and dinner. But the unwritten rule is save room for dessert, and that has to be ice cream.
Opened in 1975, Harvest lays claim to being the training ground for many celebrated chefs: Eric Brennan, currently chef at Harvest’s younger sibling restaurant Post 390; Kitchen Confidential author and chef Scott Bryan; Boston chef and restaurant impresario Barbara Lynch; the indefatigable Lydia Shire of Biba and Locke-Ober fame; and chef and cookbook author Sara Moulton. Tucked down an alley off Brattle and Mount Auburn Streets, and with an interior courtyard for al fresco eating, Harvest remains one of the top dining destinations not only in Cambridge, but also the greater Boston metro area.
Though opened in 1977 on Hanover Street, Lucia feels much older. That could be the traditional Italian style and the impressive murals replicating Michelangelo’s work in Rome’s Sistine Chapel. Still, this restaurant, which is spread over two floors, is small and cozy. Undoubtedly, Lucia has become a Little Italy staple with classic Italian dishes and wines, including handmade pastas. In the early evening, the chef can be seen making and shaping the dough in the window side pasta making area.
Though a relative youngster, opened in this Back Bay location in 1983 in the historic Salada Tea Building, Grill 23 has since become a dining institution. It actually feels a lot older than it is due to the cavernous, bi-level room's design, influenced by grand American dining rooms from the 1800s. The waitstaff uniforms are old-school smart, pairing boxy jackets over white shirts and black pants. Though changing times might add some grains and non-meat dishes, Grill 23 sticks with the raw bar, fish, and meats format, and includes an a la carte steak section from which to pick and choose cut and sauce. One exemplary element is an expert sommelier, who circles the room to talk first-class wine, or even local beers.