Welcome to the New Year, and to a new volume of Etiquetteer! Alas, this volume begins with an ending, the surprise news yesterday evening that the storied restaurant Durgin-Park, '“established before you were born,” will close January 12, 2019. Its “market dining rooms,” originally serving workers of all shifts as well as sailors from Boston Harbor, were gleefully absorbed into the “festival marketplace” that Faneuil Hall became in the 1970s. Over the years Etiquetteer has also met many men of the Greatest Generation who, as college students, would flock to D-P on the weekends for its economical steak special. The restaurant is a Bostonian touchstone for older generations and for those who love traditional New England foods.
Mark White, the son of Boston Mayor Kevin White who led that transformation, was quoted saying that Durgin-Park is “part of the soul of the city.” Etiquetteer must respectfully disagree. In the last 50 years it may have been so for visitors to the city, but for the locals - not so much. Indeed, many have suggested that D-P was “cooking for the tourists” for years.
Part of the restaurant’s fame came from the deliberately crabby attitude of its waitresses - and Etiquetteer has met many men of the Greatest Generation who, returning after long years away, discovered that the memory of a crabby waitress is better than her reappearance with bad service. Etiquetteer has never been a fan of the rudeness schtick anywhere, but still raises a glass in grateful memory to the crabby D-P waitress who taught him how to eat king crab legs. Many years ago in the 1980s, Collegiate Etiquetteer celebrated a professional milestone with The Boss over dinner at D-P and ordered the surf and turf - which that night happened to be king crab legs. For those unfamiliar, this is a collection of hard shell tubes with a sharp point at one end and an opening at the other. Etiquetteer, completely at a loss, was picking away at the opening with a fork as a crabby waitress came by. “Ya nevah gonna get much that way, deah!” she cried. Almost seizing the crab leg and the fork, she fit one tine down one side of the shell and, using the fork as a can opener, deftly cracked open the entire leg. Thank ya, deah!
Those crabby waitresses also knew how to turn on the charm for a rowdy version of “Happy Birthday!” of which Collegiate Etiquetteer was once the focus long ago. They were not going to let the occasion go unobserved!
The city of Boston has undergone several restaurant closings lately. L’Espalier just announced that it’s closing, a blow for those who love fine French cuisine. Jacob Wirth announced last year it was up for sale, a threat to those who love good beer and German food (and for the theatre people who find it convenient to the stage door). And of course Etiquetteer is still mourning the closing last autumn of Brasserie JO, that beloved bistro, and a tear still falls when remembering when the Ritz-Carlton dining room closed (in the 1990s) for luncheon. Whether fine dining or market dining, restaurants help define our public lives and our Perfect Propriety. Indeed, it could be said that the community table that’s so popular in so many restaurants now got its start at Durgin-Park, where all individual diners were served at long tables in the market dining rooms - and you didn’t get to choose your seat either.
And the only way to keep the restaurants we value part of our communities is not to expect other people to keep them in business until we “feel like going.” Put your table manners to the test in public and head out to your favorite restaurant soon. You may not know it’s endangered until it’s too late!
Durgin-Park is a storied part of Boston, to be sure. But just as New York is getting along fine now with a Mrs. Astor, Boston will survive quite well without Durgin-Park. But perhaps we’d all better make reservations at the Union Oyster House . . .