You travel back in time when you walk into Locke-Ober. This venerable Boston landmark has maintained a reputation for elegant continental cuisine and old world service since its launch in 1875. Little has changed. You can sit in the same room your grandfather's grandfather sat in, and order the same meal.
Upstairs, there are two large dining areas and a warren of tiny private dining rooms, but the cigar aficionado should request a seat in the first-floor Men's Café, with its white linen tablecloths, burgundy leather chairs, waiters in black tuxedos and an intricately carved mahogany bar. The weights and counterweights hung over the bar lift up the burnished sterling silver domes that cover a series of steam dishes. Legend has it the buxom nude in the painting on the wall was named Yvonne; she is draped in black when Harvard loses to Yale.
Locke-Ober's steak tartar is legendary as well--a spectacularly delicious mound of minced raw sirloin, chopped onions, capers and anchovies, bound together with an egg yolk, fresh lemon juice and a splash of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces. The Jonah crab cakes are moist, meaty and redolent of curry, in a pool of white wine cream sauce. Clams and oysters can be prepared eight ways; nine if you count clam chowder.
The baked lobster Savannah is as beautiful as it is delectable. Lobster meat is sautéed with diced red and green bell peppers and mushrooms, combined with a sherry-cheese sauce and presented en casserole with a mashed potato piping. Sweetbreads fricassée, in a rich beurre blanc, are served with half a lobster tail and three intensely woody, reconstituted morels. The rack of lamb persillade is so tender, one almost doesn't need a knife. Brushed with a minted tarragon glaze, the lamb is excellent with whipped potatoes and a tangy onion comfit.
As conservator of Locke-Ober's culinary legacy, executive chef Prahbas "Jam" Navaraj dares not tinker with the high calorie-high cholesterol mainstays of the menu, but the kitchen does offer a half-dozen "low fat" selections for guests who prefer lighter fare. Lighter does not mean less flavorful. The blackened swordfish is piquant and peppery in a tomato-garlic-olive Provençal sauce. A special of Thai coconut barbecued chicken, with grilled vegetable salad and fried rice, reflects Navaraj's Thai roots.
There is no better place to enjoy familiar New England desserts like homemade Indian pudding and Boston cream pie. Where else can you still eat baked Alaska? A thick slice of sponge cake is topped with chocolate, vanilla and coffee ice creams, slathered in a blanket of meringue, briefly baked, then doused with brandy and flambéed. The fiery spectacle stops conversation.
Locke-Ober's wine list covers 18 pages and is especially deep in French selections. If you're willing to spend the money, you can sample some renowned vintages, like a 1949 Château Gruard-Larose (St.-Julien), a 1959 Château Latour (Pauillac), a 1959 Château Margaux, a 1961 Château Haut-Brion (Graves), or a 1978 Château Pétrus (Pomerol). There is an extensive after-dinner drink menu of Brandies, Ports and single-malt Scotches.
Smoking is permitted in all seven private upstairs dining rooms and throughout the Men's Café. At one end of the café bar, a glass humidor houses a dozen cigar selections from five manufacturers (Davidoff, Macanudo, Nat Sherman, Oscar and Partagas). A printed cigar menu is updated regularly. The restaurant hosts as many as 10 cigar dinners a year. Next to the humidor stands an old Art Deco brass gas candle that used to remain lit so patrons could fire up an after-dinner smoke. It is a testament to the Locke-Ober tradition that fine food and wine deserve a fine cigar.
-- Mat Schaffer
Mat Schaffer is the restaurant reviewer for Boston Magazine.
3-4 Winter Place
Phone: (617) 542-1340
Dinner: about $40 to $50 per person, without beverages