Despite pandemic, Union Oyster House stands strong

After almost 200 years, the Oyster House boasts the title of America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant. Photo courtesy of Joseph Milano.

After almost 200 years, the Oyster House boasts the title of America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant. Photo courtesy of Joseph Milano.

Kate Armanini, news correspondent

Nestled alongside the Freedom Trail, the Union Oyster House sits just as it did 195 years ago. After nearly two centuries, the historic restaurant has endured a lot. The biggest test for the Boston staple, however, came in the past 18 months: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Oyster House — which boasts the title of America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant — was among thousands of businesses that shuttered their doors in March 2020. When it reopened four months later, it was the longest stretch of closure in the restaurant’s nearly two century history.

“It was a real game changer, not just for the restaurant but for the industry,” said Jim Malinn, the restaurant’s general manager. “We didn’t know at the end who would be left standing.”

The restaurant, rooted in history and tradition, had to adapt once it reopened its doors in June. To accommodate customers, management installed plexiglass and an outdoor patio. They also implemented a takeout option, though the menu had to be pared down due to the labor shortage. 

The patio has since closed for the winter, but during the height of the pandemic, it generated 50% of the revenue, Malinn said. Meanwhile, the majority of the employees have returned.

“When we finally did open, we came back to a really tepid public — not many people were very keen on going out to eat indoors,” Malinn said. “We’re fortunate to have a very loyal employee base, but having even said that, it’s just difficult.”

The restaurant has now returned to 80% of its pre-pandemic business, Malinn said. It’s a significant change for an establishment grounded in history. The Oyster House has only had three owners since its founding in 1826, according to its website

Current owner Joseph Milano has been with the Oyster House since 1970, back when his family purchased it. The North End native served three years of active duty in the army before getting involved in the restaurant industry. 

“I like food, to cook and I like people,” Milano said. “The hospitality industry is basically a total effect of dealing with people, whether with employees and with customers.”

As Boston’s tourism grew, so did the Oyster House. Under Milano’s care, it went from 250 to 550 seats. Malinn said the Milano family has also worked tirelessly to preserve the integrity and the history of the building, which dates back to the 18th century.

All the work seems to have paid off: in 2020, the Oyster House was honored with a World Culinary Award for Best Landmark Restaurant in North America.

As a Boston staple, visiting celebrities often frequent the establishment. Popes and presidents are among the Union Oyster House’s extensive guest list, many of whom are listed on a wall in the restaurant.

 “You never have a boring day,” Malinn said. “You never know who’s going to  walk through the door.”

Recently, celebrities Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds visited the Oyster House while filming a movie locally. High-ranking military officials have also stopped by, given Milano’s role in the army. But it’s not the celebrity guests that make the Oyster House, Malinn said.

“Day in, day out, you have a chance to meet people from all over the place,” he said. “As a Bostonian, it gives you a renewed sense of what a special city Boston is.”

Pandemic aside, customers continue to visit each day for a chance to experience the Oyster House and sample their famed menu. 

“I think the tradition, the goodwill and the consistency of the good product and services [are] what causes people to spread the good word and come back again,” Milano said.