Dining at Boston's rough-and-ready Durgin-Park
Its menu was planned from the beginning to satisfy the appetites of visiting seamen in the days when a five-ton anchor was winched up by hand and when climbing the rigging was an everyday event, not an occasional acrobatic display. Its other regulars were equally hearty eaters -- longshoremen, marketmen, and merchants from along the waterfront.
The wanted good, hearty food in servings that covered all but the outer rim of the plate. They got what they wanted and at a reasonable price, too, which is reason enough for the restaurant to have survived and thrived for well over a hundred years. Over the years its reputation spread so that Durgin-Park is known today in faraway Christ Church, New Zealand; in England's Boston, and in such nearby communities as Austin, Texas, and San Diego, Calif., to name a few.
Every profession form tradesman to banker, from politician to entertainer now eats at Durgin-Park. And tourists by the thousands. Why? Because they're curious about the rough-and-ready restaurant which has made few concessions to modernity, and none to gentility. And because the good Yankee fare of yesteryear remains good Yankee fare to this day, even if the staff that prepares it might have Lithuanian, Polish, or Irish ancestry.
Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, and F. D. R. have all eaten at Durgin-Park as have countless other somewhat lower on the political ladder. Big-name entertainers haved included such greats as Helen Hayes and the Gish sisters. And, while these names have added substance to the restaurant's reputation, nothing indicates the spread of that substance more effectively than the letter from New Zealand asking to reserve a table some weeks ahead.
In fact no reservations are ever made. Most tables seat 20 anyway. Some folks call this family-style dining but a more appropriate title here is wharf-style. The long tables combined with fleet-footed waitresses whose style is efficient rather than graceful means good service and few waiting lines. It is said that the dinner sometimes arrives on your table ahead of the plate, but that sort of serving has never been my experience.
Each day an average of 1,000 diners are served. If there's a production-line ring to that sort of efficiency, don't be concerned. There's more leisure to your meal than is at first apparent. You're never asked to hurry along just as you're never expected to wait for your meal more than a few minutes.
The menu is as traditionally Yankee as in the days when Peter Faneuil built the neighboring Faneuil (it rhymes with panel) Hall -- New England boiled dinners, meat and potatoes dishes with a string of vegetable options on the side , and seafood that ranges from cod, through oysters, to lobster. Always there is Johnny cake. And, of course, there's beans. Baked beans went over big in Colonial days and they still do at Durgin-Park.
Beans and franks start at $3.50. The broiled mackerell and baked potato I enjoyed recently ran out at $4, plus 50 cents for the additional boiled onions. For only another 25 cents I could have had a plate of fried oysters. Lobster ran at $14 for a two-pounder that same night. Roast pork and fresh apple sauce is a $4.50 dish, and on the other end of the meat menu is roast prime rib of beef for $10. But entire brigades have been known to march on less meat than comes up on that plate! Doggy bags are a familiar part of the Durgin-Park scene , and no wonder.
Red meat is served rare and a bold notice on the menu warns: "We are not responsible for steak ordered well-done." Long ago the proprietors began filtering all water used for cooking and beverages so that it might approximate the taste the original Yankees knew when the Shawmut penninsula first was settled 350 years ago.
Rich Indian pudding, with cream or ice cream (the choice is yours) is as natural to a Durgin-Park dessert menu as is the apple pie. The servings are generous and the apples are fresh, the menu proclaims. Two apple seeds turned up in my slice of pie as if to prove that the contents came direct from the tree and not from the can.
This is not the place to take a companion for a confidential chat, and no suitor in his right mind would select Durgin-Park as the place to propose -- unless he didn't mind sharing the mood and the moment with 18 or so fellow diners. You sit across the narrow table from your companion and alongside whoever happens to be there that day. Inevitably you share in some of his dinner conversation and he in yours unless you're particularly soft-spoken. It was at Durgin-Park that I learned all about the wild blueberry industry from a businessman who also said he had begun investing in gold coins before it was fashionable to do so. He expected to be sitting pretty by the time it came for him to retire.
An eating house has existed in the same warehouse building since it went up in Colonial times, but it was not until the mid-1800s that it got its present name when three regular customers, John Durgin, Eldredge Park, and John Chandler bought the business.The first two partners gave the restaurant its name but Chandler, who outlived the others by decades, built its reputation -- a reputation that continues intact to this day.