First opened in 1826 as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, the Union Oyster House claims to be “America’s oldest restaurant”. It is probably more accurately described as “America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant”, but that doesn’t look as good printed on a napkin. Being a long-established Boston landmark and tourist destination, EA had avoided the place until very recently when KD convinced him to at least give it a try.
The Union Oyster House has multiple floors and dining rooms, a couple of bars, and a combination of table and booth seating, including the famous “Kennedy Booth”, JFK’s favorite place to sit. Since we were looking for oysters, we grabbed a couple spots at the historic mahogany raw bar, downstairs. The semi-circular raw bar has an oddly slanted top that runs downhill towards the customers, making proper drink placement absolutely essential. When we visited, there were four shuckers behind the raw bar, serving up plates of fresh shellfish, chatting with customers, and pouring beers.
We ordered half a dozen oysters and a couple beers, although EA was tempted to ask for a tall tumbler of brandy and water, we settled on Samuel Adams Colonial Ale, a beer that is brewed exclusively for the Union Oyster House. The Colonial Ale, based on beer recipes from colonial times, had a slight smokiness and a hint of molasses flavor that paired well with the salty sweetness of the oysters.
The oysters were large, with a bright and briny flavor that spoke to their freshness. They were shucked right in front of us in the particular style of the Union Oyster House, which involves inserting a knife into the oyster, and tapping the knife’s butt end against what appears to be a granite brick straight from the home improvement warehouse, thus popping the oyster open.
The guys behind the raw bar were fairly nonchalant about shucking, often not even looking at what they are doing (this could just be a bit of showmanship). However, when we visited, two of them were training for an upcoming oyster shucking competition, and would periodically challenge each other to see who could shuck the most oysters in ninety seconds. This, of course, was a big hit with the patrons at the bar.
While it is a tourist trap in some sense, the Union Oyster House is well worth a visit, whether you come looking for a glimpse into Boston’s history, or just a plate of oysters and a pint of beer.
Editor’s note ~ At Hungry Native, our restaurant reviews are by no means comprehensive, we may have visited a particular place many times, or perhaps only once. For the most part, we focus on specific dishes. We try to judge restaurants for what they are, rather than compare them directly. No review should be taken as a blanket endorsement of an establishment but rather a guide to what we found especially good or interesting.
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