I went out to dinner last night with my family. As a delayed birthday celebration, my mom, my brother, and my wife joined me at a local chain steakhouse to celebrate the conclusion of my latest trip around the sun. The prime rib was delicious, the bread tasty, the baked potato delightful. It was an enjoyable evening.
While we were dining, another restaurant on the other side of the country was serving its final order of prime rib. Durgin-Park, a Boston institution since 1827, founded when John Quincy Adams was president, closed for the last time. A dozen or so years ago, its longtime family owners sold out to a New York-based corporation, and apparently it was no longer considered to be profitable enough for the new owners to keep in business (and yes, when a place has been around for 192 years, a mere 12 still qualifies them as the new guys).
If you're not a New Englander, you probably haven't heard of Durgin-Park. They were renowned for their prime rib, their baked Indian pudding--a traditional New England dessert made with cornmeal and molasses, and something they may have been the last to prepare and serve in the traditional way--their communal seating, and their often surly waitstaff. I may be a Californian, but my mother's side of the family are all New Englanders, and she was a Bostonian herself for two years after high school. It was considered mandatory that when you went to Boston, you dined at Durgin-Park. There was simply no question about it.
Unfortunately, not enough people felt that way in the end. I've seen some Bostonians dismiss it as having been a tourist trap, and there was an aspect of that, but it was something more. It was a connection to a time long past, when workers and politicians and the occasional Beacon Hill blueblood ate together at long tables, perched on benches, eating traditional New England cooking, and were treated all alike by waitresses who brooked no nonsense from anybody. Yes, it was a bit of a put-on, but we were all in on the joke together.
Because of its location, across from historic Faneuil Hall on the Boston waterfront, I have no doubt that the space it occupied for so long will once again become the site of a restaurant, but it won't be the same. My guess is that it will probably feature healthier options, with locally grown produce (although good luck with that in Boston in February), and possibly be run by a celebrity chef. It will no doubt be embraced by foodies and accompanied by articles talking about a fresh new start for a historic location. It will be more in tune with the tastes of the modern world (fusion cuisine, anyone?)
But it won't serve Yankee pot roast and Indian pudding. It won't be as egalitarian. It will not be Durgin-Park, for better or for worse. Something was lost yesterday, and it isn't coming back. I grew up in a place where historic means fifty years old, where things are constantly being reinvented. As a native Angeleno, I can't imagine Philippe's or The Original Pantry closing; this is so much more of a loss than either of those would be.
It appears I have eaten my last Indian pudding, and it makes me sad.