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Brian McGrory

Changing tastes

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / April 6, 2011

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As raw as it was outside, the chill felt oddly sharper inside the eerily quiet dining room of Locke-Ober, where owner David Ray sat amid the dim light of a plate glass window and vowed not to let this once thriving restaurant go gently into the culinary night.

Not so many years ago, Locke-Ober would have been humming on an afternoon like this, with knowing waiters shuffling through the high-ceilinged room with plates of oysters and thick cut steaks for a clientele that was as well-connected as it was well-heeled.

But since mid-January, Locke-Ober has been empty, its doors unceremoniously locked, its fate and future imperiled as Ray, a former owner, retook control and cobbled together a plan for revival. Tomorrow, license permitting, it will open for private parties; on Friday, it will reopen for dinner with a new, healthier menu; in the autumn, it will resume its once-famed lunch.

“I have time,’’ Ray said. “I own the building. I’m committed to it. And I know it’s not going to happen overnight.’’

He plans to bring back much of the kitchen crew and many of the waiters who mark their tenures by decades rather than years. He knows none of this will be easy. Locke-Ober has been pummeled by a dining revolution that has veered toward lighter fare, a social transformation that calls for short and sober lunches, and an economic stagnation that has especially hurt the corner of Downtown Crossing where the restaurant has stood for 143 years.

“Two martinis went to white wine, went to water, went to a bag in the office,’’ Ray said.

Still, Locke-Ober is a restaurant like Fenway Park is a sports stadium. It is a place apart, a link to a different day and another world in which industrialists, lawyers, stockbrokers, and politicians gathered each noon in a clubby room to dine on food that many regulars never thought was all that great. But the fare was never the point.

It was tradition, unaffected by outside forces. Many of the same men — women were allowed downstairs after 1970 — sat at the same tables year after year, greeted at the door by Tony Accardi, the masterful maitre d’, and led through a room where they knew just about everyone else by name. And such a room, with a mural on the ceiling, massive serving dishes (that were rarely, if ever, used) on the L-shaped mahogany bar, and the trademark portrait of a woman named Yvonne gracing the near wall.

Through the early 1990s, it was a must stop for celebrities in Boston — Paul Newman, Bill Clinton, James Cagney, Jackie Gleason, Joe DiMaggio, John F. Kennedy. Henry Kissinger told his medical staff at Mass General he’d take them to Locke-Ober if they got him through heart surgery, and he did. “Kind of funny, given the food we serve,’’ Ray said.

The tales go on — the State Police cruiser that escorted crates of late-arriving crabs from Logan to Locke-Ober for a private event; Yul Brynner insisting that two Locke-Ober waiters deliver his dinner every night to the old Ritz; the chairs that were leaned against tables to mark the death of a regular.

“But we didn’t change with the times,’’ Ray lamented. “I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t eat here.’’

By the time prized chef Lydia Shire took over as a principal 10 years ago, there was too much to overcome. It’s now left to Ray, a restaurateur from Newport, to not only preserve a slice of Boston’s past, but propel it forward. He knows things have to change. “Salads,’’ Ray said, a twinkle in his eye. “And some sandwiches. Not a lot of butter and not a lot of cream.’’

As voices drifted in from the kitchen, Ray quietly surveyed the room. “I just hope there are lots more chapters to be written,’’ he said. “I almost don’t care about the old ones anymore.’’

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is mcgrory@globe.com.