Union Oyster House: Take a Bite out of History

1919 photo provided by Union Oyster House, 2022 photo taken by Luke Smith. Union Oyster comparison over the years. The first taken photo and a most recent photo

By Malaya Hayes

Walking into Union Oyster House, is like stepping through a time machine. A step back into 1826.

After you step into America’s Continuously Operating restaurant, see the first place in the U.S where a toothpick was used, read about all of the celebrities and politicians who have visited the restaurant, or just take the time to read all of the plaques posted within the three floored business to learn about its historic past.

Staying continuously open for 196 years is an accomplishment that no other American business can claim. Union Oyster house has managed to adapt but maintain its core values to stay successful through the years.

The building that houses Union Oyster House is also an important part of history. Since 2003, it has been declared a national historic landmark.

“I feel pride in owning a historic business.  For one thing, I love history. We check our reviews constantly. And so we’re very proud,” said Joe Milano, the owner. “We’re in five buildings, and when we came I believe it was two buildings. So, you know, there’s been a lot of change over 50 plus years. So it’s like, it’s a privilege.”

The restaurant has had a long history over its many years in operation. With its doors being opened in 1826 by the Atwood family. In 1913, the Atwoods sold it to the Fitzgerald family. There isn’t very much information about what happens between this period but by 1940, the Greaves brothers owned the property and began expanding it. Finally, in 1970, they sold it to the Milano family who still own it today.

 “Okay, it’s 1970, the city was very tired, it was probably 60 of destinations to come to, if you come into the state, it was that bad. And then we had a little bit of a renaissance. But the Quincy Market area really created a strong destination. That’s the key is you have to establish a destination and you need a magnet. And in that case, that’s what happened,” said Joseph Milano. “So everybody got on board a lot more people were coming. So the Freedom Trail got alive. So we came in 70s and then we bought it.”

With the Milano family taking over, they begin to make changes to the business to bring in more customers.

Photo taken by Malaya Hayes.
Union Oyster House during the 1920s.

 “It was a brother, sister and the mother, Mary. Back in the early 70s, Mary was marketing the Union Oyster House towards the Japanese travel. At that time, most Japanese travel was geared towards business, they were just starting to travel for pleasure,” said Jim Malinn, the general manager who has worked for the restaurant for 42 years. “That was you know, I always thought that was far sighted of her to see it that far back.”

According to some reports, the building that houses Union Oyster House is the earliest standing brick building in the city of Boston. For more than 250 years, it has stood on Union Street.

“The building, goes back to the early 1700s. It’s nestled among some of the oldest buildings or buildings in Boston, started out as a dress store, actually, that became a dry goods store, and then became a restaurant. I’ve actually seen it mentioned in three different novels. It is the Oyster House,” said Malinn.

The first step of the Milano family plan to make Union Oyster House into what it is today, was to build it into a brand.

“Brand is very important. So you want to build brand, establish the fact that we’re Boston’s oldest or America’s oldest restaurant of continuous service in the United States. So those who are important, and you never should be shy, bashful, laid back because you living on expectation, it needs to maintain that you need to please the customer. So I think that’s absolutely essential,” said Milano.

They rely on reporters and blogs significantly to inform people about the restaurant and earn their media.

“But we’ll market it to people with blogs and like reporters for papers and magazines, bring them in, give them a tour, have them have lunch and talk about the restaurant. Then you’d see an article appear and it is kind of like a laser beam form of marketing. Tap that then they go out and they just blast it all over their market eventually and see something from it. So it is good at marketing, its good at getting the name out there, we’ve been consistent. We’ve been in business. People look to us as a brand you can trust, you know what you’re going to get, you know what your experience is going to be,” said Malinn.

The Union Oyster House makes sure to have their prices affordable and their food is consistent.

“We’re still I feel very moderately priced. I mean, prices have gone up, but I’ve gone to restaurants, I can’t believe their prices. And I know when I’m getting on the plate, I say, Oh, my heavens. But we’ve always been very traditional. We offer ambiance,” said Milano.

Charlene Feeley a teacher who grew up and still currently lives in Melrose. Massachusetts, enjoyed the ambiance when she visited the restaurant.

“The restaurant had an historical feel, the aesthetic looked untouched and I was brought back in time. The food was old time comfort foods- great for tourist or families. I recommend it to everyone who wants to take a trip through history,” said Feeley.

Union Oyster House has long been a part of Boston history having been visited by Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, J.F.K. and more celebrities. But the family in charge has worked hard to build the business into a successful legacy that is here to stay.

Stop in at Union Oyster House located at 41 Union Street to be welcomed into a history lesson and have a bite of seafood. Maybe enjoy your food at Kennedys favorite booth.

About Malaya Hayes 4 Articles
Malaya Hayes got a Bachelors degree in Communications from Michigan State University, before she earned her Masters degree in Journalism from Emerson College. She has a deep passion for social media and writing. Malaya plans to go into public relations.