Local Author Delights Back Bay with Memories of Dining Out

For those interested in the history of eating out in Boston, local author James O’Connell’s new book, ‘Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History,’ is for you. O’Connell gave a presentation of the book at The Learning Project on Marlborough Street on Nov. 15.

The event was hosted by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay’s Special Events Committee, and a crowd of 55 people signed up to hear O’Connell speak on Thursday night. O’Connell, who teaches urban planning and development at Boston University, was a crowd-pleaser; interacting with the audience and asking them to share special anecdotes about some of the restaurants he highlighted.

He called his book a “guidebook to restaurants which mostly no longer exist,” and focused this particular presentation a bit more on the Back Bay area since that’s where most of the audience resides.

O’Connell went through several restaurants in his presentation, explaining how they went from serving one set meal a day to having printed menus. He said the oldest printed menu was at the Exchange Coffee House in 1824, and that seeing these menus “gives you a sense of how meals would be served.”

At this point in time, meals cost 75 cents to $1, and restaurants were a place where men would sit at longer tables—a much different atmosphere from traditional restaurants today.

He said that women were segregated from this type of city life. “Ladies did not go into the main dining room until after the Civil War,” he said. In the late 19th century, women began to get involved in dining out. There were tea rooms in department stores where women would go, O’Connell said. By the 1920s, there were tea rooms, such as at Schrafft’s, where women would go but businessmen frequented them as well.

He said that each era had standard dishes, and “certain dishes get into the repertoire, if you will.”

“That’s kind of what I try to spell out [in the book],” he said. There are 35 illustrated menus throughout the book, so readers can see the evolution throughout the years.

O’Connell also highlighted the well-known Parker House, which he said was the first hotel in America to offer an a la carte meal, as well as the Union Oyster House, which is the oldest operating restaurant in America.

He continued through the years, highlighting certain restaurants or key shifts in dining culture, but the audience really reacted once he started mentioning things they remember.

At the mere mention of Bailey’s Ice Cream, the crowd responded with “oooohs” and “aaahs” as they fondly remembered the ice cream sundaes. Several audience members shouted out “hot fudge” as their biggest memory of Bailey’s. Another man said he remembers the sundaes being served in a metal dish with the sauce dripping down the sides.

“When it came to ice cream and ice cream sundaes, people around here around here were not puritanical,” O’Connell said. “And it’s really funny that a cold, northern city is maybe the ice cream capital of America.”

In the 1970s, O’Connell said there was a “gourmet revolution,” with the rise of ethnic eating and casual eclectic dining, and the rise of the celebrity chef in the 1980s.

Today, O’Connell said the trends include more fine casual dining, tapas/small plates, and farm-to-table restaurants. People dine out much more frequently than they used to when it was considered a special treat.

“Writing this book was really a lot of fun for a long time; reading all these menus, trying to figure out what the food was like,” O’Connell said. O’Connell had signed copies for purchase at the event, but the book is also available for purchase online and at bookstores.

O’Connell will be leading a Boston Restaurant History Tour on March 3 of next year through Brookline Adult & Community Education; the cost is $22. Visit www.brooklineadulted.org for more information.

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