Old traditions die hard. That's probably the only way to explain why the Locke-Ober Cafe, one of Boston's oldest, proudest dining traditions, continues to thrive, defying the dictates of discriminating taste and classical economics.
It has a long and colorful heritage It has a wealthy and powerful patronage. It serves singularly unexceptional food, and it masks ordinary fare with extraordinary prices. If Locke-Ober's legendary stature is unrivaled, it is also without contemporary culinary foundation.
The specialty of the house at 3 and 4 Winter Place, on the fringe of the city's Combat Zone, is mystique. Established in 1875, the downstairs men's bar at Locke-Ober remains the definitive smoke-filled room, a place where deals are struck and expense accounts are expended.
It almost goes without saying that this venerable institution has ancient and enduring ties to another organization with tradition on the brain--Harvard.
When the Crimson falls to Yale's Bulldogs, the restaurant's portrait of a naked "Madame Yvonne" is draped in black as if to hide her shame from the guests.
Perhaps partly because of Madame Yvonne's allure, Locke-Ober remains a favorite haunt for pseudo-sophisticates caught in a time warp between prehistoric and modern Boston, between the 18th century void and the glittering array of gastronomical alternatives now twinkling throughout the city.
And Locke-Ober remains a seductive trap for well-intentioned parents visiting from out of town, eager to entertain their malnourished college students. When uninitiated Mom and Dad from Weehauken decide to splurge on An Evening at Locke-Ober, cold, cruel reality intrudes on myth, and expectations are bound to be disappointed.
The first dashed expectation is that dining at Locke-Ober is an elegant experience. Both the service and the setting are less than refined and hardly rarified. Locke-Ober's several dining rooms run the gamut from gaudy to inhospitable, and despite the restaurants alleged character, ambience is an elusive commodity.
In the downstairs men's bar, tables are decoratively adorned with baskets of crackers--the kind that come with airline food, wrapped in cellophane. An incessant din reverberates off the uncarpeted floor and the exposed plumbing, making intimate conversation an ambitious undertaking. The waiters, who are at times inattentive, seem to seem to give newcomers the short end of a double standard.
The second dashed expectation, which probably defied reason to begin with, is that Locke-Ober's food somehow will be worth the money. The extensive menu of continental dishes makes no claims to creativity, but the prices make false pretentions of excellence.
On a recent visit, a $22.50 slice of red, utensil-repellent beef purported to be a medium well-done filet mignon. A paltry serving of sickly-looking lamb chops masqueraded as a rack of lamb (quote pretentious name from menu). A selection of fish dishes were uniformly dry and disappointing. A side order of hollandaise sauce could have come from your grocer's freezer. A self-professed lobster bisque was decidedly lean on the lobster.
"The proof is in the pudding," a wise man once said, but even the Indian Pudding paled next to mom's. And the list of grievances goes on.
The restaurant's one unimpeachable dish was its rich and famous concoction, Lobster Savannah, which exceeded all expectations for a mere $39.50.
Any and all of the aforementioned shortcomings might be overlooked at Valle's, but they are brazen insults at Locke-Ober, where $20 entrees (with vegetables a la carte), $10 appetizers, and $4 desserts are standard fare. The presumptuous price-tags only spoil the appetite and increase the probability of indigestion.
For the Locke-Ober diner, money is no option, loyalists might proffer.
For the discriminating diner, money will remain an option as long as Locke-Ober continues to regard quality as optional.