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At Union Oyster House, a feast of history

Landmark eatery turns 185 today

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / August 3, 2011

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For Daniel Webster, a light lunch at Boston’s Union Oyster House meant devouring at least six plates of oysters, tossing back a tall tumbler of brandy, and washing it all down with a glass of water - all while holding forth on current events.

The U-shaped mahogany oyster bar at the restaurant, which turns 185 years old today, is now called “Webster’s bar.’’ It is where Webster, the antebellum-era statesman, senator, and shellfish devotee, returned often to become one of the most revered patrons of a restaurant that has attracted many famous diners.

About a century after Webster’s time, John F. Kennedy preferred quieter meals. Reading his Sunday newspaper over a solitary lunch of lobster soup, Kennedy often occupied a booth near the back of the dim, wood-paneled second floor when he was a congressman and senator. Now, the booth bears his name and a gold medallion with his likeness. “He liked the quietness,’’ said Joseph Milano Jr., 67, the owner since 1974, gesturing proudly toward the booth. “He liked to read and think there.’’

“Did you know that?’’ Milano asked the Wieseckels, a Milwaukee family of five - parents, daughter, and two sons - who were eating their seafood lunch in the booth yesterday afternoon. They shook their heads, seeming impressed.

Webster and Kennedy are two of the hundreds of figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports, and politics who have eaten here. Even before the building, originally a dry-goods store, became a restaurant, wives of the Founding Fathers met here to sew, and exiled Frenchman (and future king) Louis Philippe held court with fashionable young ladies in the 1790s.

The restaurant contends to be where the first toothpick was used and Boston’s first female waitress worked.

“It’s a working piece of nostalgia,’’ said Milano, who calls himself “a steward of history.’’

When the Union Oyster House, originally known as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, opened in 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Much of the original restaurant’s flavor and physical structure remains. The floors, overhead wooden beams, bar, and fireplace are showing their age; the menu still features Yankee classics, such as clam chowder and boiled scrod.

A 2003 painting that hangs by a second bar depicts 50 of the famous faces who have visited the restaurant during Milano’s time as owner. Among them: Bill Clinton, Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, Liza Minnelli, Bobby Orr, and Robert Redford.

According to a bartender, guessing the names that go with the painting’s caricatures is a favorite pastime for customers.

But new faces are always arriving.

Ben Bailey, host of “Cash Cab,’’ was spotted yesterday, just hours before he was slated to emcee an oyster-shucking contest at Webster’s bar for a new Discovery Channel show.

“Someone asked when we’re updating that painting,’’ Milano said of the 50 famous faces. “I said, ‘Soon.’ ’’

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.