Ever since owner Tom Larsen announced two weeks ago that he will close the Pillar House restaurant in suburban Boston in June, his telephone has been ringing - and ringing. Loyal patrons have been calling to express regret at the loss of the locally famed establishment and to wish him well.
"They comment about their memories, but they also say they understand," Mr. Larsen says.
What they understand is his reason for closing the restaurant, started by his father in 1952 in a handsome 170-year-old residence and named for its four majestic pillars. The landmark institution features a huge urn of fresh flowers in the dining room, crisp linens, soft music, and attentive service. All women receive a long-stemmed rose at the end of the meal.
As Larsen explained in a letter to more than 7,000 guests and friends, "Our tradition of elegant dining in a relaxed atmosphere is, unfortunately, part of a bygone era." Even Boston's Ritz-Carlton, he notes, recently closed its formal dining room.
"Everything has changed," Larsen says philosophically in a telephone interview.
Eras end with remarkable regularity these days, and the phrase "the end of an era" can easily become a cliche. But in Larsen's case, the words are carefully chosen and accurate. For many patrons, memories of the Pillar House era run deep. Here marriage proposals have been made and accepted. Birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated. Business deals have been forged. Friendships have been nurtured.
To trace the Pillar House's historical timeline is also to track the sociological faultlines of American life in the past 30 years. The restaurant becomes more than simply the story of a local landmark ending a half-century run. It serves as a mirror reflecting broader national trends that have produced gradual shifts in customs and expectations.
Rather than 250-seat establishments like his,
Larsen finds that "the boutique restaurant, the storefront, the 60-seat restaurant is what a lot of people want today." He adds, "People like food, but I don't think they're as concerned about the environment and the service."
Long known as an innovator in the restaurant business, Larsen has made his share of brave decisions. In 1972, long before the phrase "family-friendly workplace" was coined, he closed on weekends so his staff could have Saturday and Sunday off.
In 1986, the Pillar House became the first restaurant in the state to ban smok-
ing. Two years ago, Larsen also banned the use of cell phones in the dining room, restricting their use to other areas.
After watching noontime business fall from 40 percent to 20 percent of his business, Larsen stopped serving lunch in 1995. "People wanted a fast lunch," he explains. "And 'fast' just doesn't fit with the slower pace at Pillar House." He adds, "Now business people take their lunch to work."
Still, he finds a silver lining. "One good thing is that the three-martini lunch is a thing of the past," he says. "Not good for my business, but good for society."
Other social changes have also demanded flexibility. Five years ago, Larsen revised the dress code. No longer must men (or "gentlemen," as he calls them) wear a jacket and tie. "We truly would be out of business by now if we hadn't relaxed that," he explains.
Restaurants aren't the only institutions facing changes like these, sartorial and otherwise. Ever since casual Friday invaded the corporate world, managers and employees alike have grappled with the question: How casual is too casual?
Some companies, finding that casual sometimes means sloppy, are now testing a novel idea: Dress-up Monday or Dress-up Thursday. The Bush White House has also instituted a dress code.
Even laid-off dotcom workers accustomed to a jeans-and-sneakers uniform are having to polish their wardrobes. They need - gasp! - an interview suit, or at least a tie and jacket, the very attire that became a burden for some Pillar House guests.
Will casual elegance and a degree of formality eventually come back in style, satisfying a hidden hunger for order and beauty? Even if they do, nothing will change the Pillar House's future.
On June 29, the restaurant will greet its last guests, serve its final order of pan-seared salmon, hand out its last rose. Lights will be turned off and doors locked as the building awaits redevelopment as a high-end office. One era ends, another begins.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor