Locke-Ober auction marks end of an era for venerable restaurant

Ralph Stewart held a vintage silver platter from restaurant Locke-Ober at an auction on Friday.
Ralph Stewart held a vintage silver platter from restaurant Locke-Ober at an auction on Friday.
Photos By Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Bobby Sager and his family are big travelers, but they always found time to visit Locke-Ober restaurant about once a week when in Boston.

There was something about the venerable restaurant, Sager said, that seemed to elevate the level of conversation around the table. It made Sager feel at home and kept him coming back, which he did for 40 years.

“It has it’s own personality,” said Sager, a Boston resident. “There’s no place like Locke-Ober.”

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That sentiment brought him back one last time Friday to join a crowd bidding on some of the estimated 250 items that had been in regular use at Locke-Ober before it closed in October. The keepsakes were auctioned off by the new owners of the site, who plan to open a different restaurant on the ground floor next year.

Sager was just one of the many regulars who came to bid on memorabilia and have one last look at the vintage restaurant that welcomed local business leaders, presidents, and even movie stars for 137 years. Among the items up for auction: a pool table, mirrors, glassware, and table lamps.

About 225 people attended the auction and 80 more signed up to bid online. The event raised about $55,000, which co-owner Jay Hajj said would help pay for cleaning and planned renovations.

The bidding started in the dining room, where representatives from the Paul E. Saperstein Co. stood on top of a ladder and announced item after item, including china, pans, menus, chairs, tables, lamps, coffee grinders, and ashtrays.

Several key Locke-Ober items, such as its silver servers, oil paintings, the restaurant’s name, and the famous painting of a woman named Yvonne that hung on the wall of the main dining room, had not been purchased by the new owners, so they were not up for bidding.

Yvonne’s absence was a disappointment to many, including construction executive and Locke-Ober patron Jay Cashman, who said he had been a member of a private Locke-Ober club bearing her name. Cashman, who said he had his bachelor party at Locke-Ober in 1971, bid on several items, including large lobster pots, frying pans, and soup dishes.

To many, Locke-Ober represented a bygone era when tycoons and politicians would feast on three-course lunches and drinks. Women were not allowed in the dining room until nearly a century after it opened, and a dress code was upheld until 2011.

The restaurant’s last owner, David Ray, said he was faced with a choice to either modernize the restaurant or close it.

“I fought for the dignity of the place,” he said. “It was better to close it.”

The property was sold last month for $3.3 million to Hajj, James P. Robertson, and Michael Fallman, local businessmen who bought the building, its liquor license, and everything put up for auction Friday. A sale of the liquor license is pending. Hajj, who also owns Mike’s City Diner, said he and his partners want to keep as many elements of the landmark restaurant intact as possible.

When it reopens in about a year, the new Winter Place building will have a restaurant on the first floor, and the top floors, home to private dining rooms where John F. Kennedy famously negotiated, will be converted into condominiums with much of the restaurant’s wood panelling still in place.

Now loyal patrons only have memories of the restaurant they enjoyed. As the bidding went on Friday, Sager fondly recalled a visit at Christmastime last year.

“It was cold outside, but it was somehow warmer in here,” he said. “Kind of like it was wrapping its arms around you. It wasn’t like you were walking into some four-walled restaurant. It had its own soul, its own purpose, sort of its own heartbeat.”

Sager went to the auction hoping to buy enough things to create a Locke-Ober table in his apartment, where he could eat with friends and family. He bought many items, including 29 dining chairs for $90 apiece.

One final item he purchased for $500: the very table from the front of Locke-Ober’s dining room where he and his family would sit when they visited.