BOSTON – History matters in one of the oldest cities in the United States. Here, Bostonians revere older buildings that house historic institutions. Places like Boston’s Old North Church (built in 1723) and Faneuil Hall (built in 1742) played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. Even “newer” places like Symphony Hall (built in 1900 and home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and Fenway Park (built in 1912 and home to the Boston Red Sox) hold a special place in Bostonians’ hearts.
Near the State House Building (built in 1798), not far from Boston Common (1634), the Old State House Building (1713) and Old City Hall (1865) down a dead-end pedestrian street, an ornate, black metal sign hangs outside an unassuming building painted black. For more than a century, this three-story building on Winter Place housed Locke-Ober, one of the oldest “old school” Boston restaurants—a place where women weren’t even allowed to eat or drink until 1970 and the menu seemed frozen in time.
Now, this same space features Yvonne’s, one of the liveliest, most inventive restaurants in the city. Recently voted one of the top 100 restaurants in the United States by the website Open Table, Yvonne’s builds on Locke-Ober’s storied past but gives the menu and décor a modern twist. Imagine an old brownstone owned by a Boston Brahmin (the nickname for Boston’s stuffy, established, elite upper class) decorated by a pierced and tattooed twenty-something from Brooklyn who spent time abroad in Paris, Mexico City, and Tokyo and you’ll have some idea what the menu and interior are like at Yvonne’s.
To fully appreciate Yvonne’s restaurant, you need to understand Locke-Ober. A restaurant was located at the same location starting in the early 1860s. Then in 1875, Louis Ober from France’s Alsace region took over the restaurant, renamed it Ober’s Restaurant Parisien and began specializing in French food.
Under Ober, the restaurant was gradually transformed into an elegant, masculine bastion for fine food and classic cocktails. Dark, mahogany wood fixtures, sumptuous leather furniture, brass fixtures, and crisp white linens adorn the large, round wooden tables at Locke-Ober, a destination for generations of men working in business, finance, or the nearby statehouse. There was even a John F. Kennedy room at Locke-Ober, where the former president of the United States regularly ate and entertained guests.
But while Locke-Ober had a distinguished reputation and a formal dress code until 2011, it was not a fussy bastion of haute cuisine. The restaurant was famous for its perfectly prepared steaks and other hearty foods, including its signature dish, Lobster Savannah, a slightly spicy, Southern twist on a classic New England delicacy.
The restaurant changed hands several times over the decades, including in 2001 when chef Lydia Shire took over and began revitalizing Locke-Ober to its old glory. Under Shire’s tenure, Gourmet magazine ranked Locke-Ober the 18th best restaurant in the country. But the owner of the building did not restore Shire’s lease and the restaurant closed in October 2012, when many of the antique furnishings in Locke-Ober were auctioned off.
Three years later, in 2015, Yvonne’s restaurant opened in the same location. Fans of the former bastion of robust food served in subdued surroundings were skeptical. But Yvonne’s wisely took an inventive approach toward Locke-Ober, choosing to create a “polished, energetic, social dining experience that evokes the nostalgia of the ’20s and ’50s, catering to the sensibilities of a new generation of trendsetters and tastemakers,” according to Yvonne’s website.
Even the name of the restaurant is a cheeky reference to Locke-Ober. Yvonne’s was the name of the all-male club located in the basement of Locke-Ober, even after the restaurant started admitting women in 1970, according to a server at Yvonne’s.
And while the sumptuous, red leather furniture from Locke-Ober was auctioned off, Yvonne’s furnishings have their own, elegant flair. Locke-Ober’s hand-carved mahogany bar thankfully remains firmly in place. Plush, gray furniture fills the restaurant. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling in one dining room. Another dining room has been decorated to resemble a dark, wood-paneled library. And throughout the restaurant and the restrooms, cheeky paintings featuring Elvis, Clint Eastwood, and other well-known celebrities dressed as Napoleon adorn the walls.
“The landmark restaurant [Locke-Ober] was known for its elite clientele, paramount discretion, globe-trotting food, and wild parties—all elements Yvonne’s maintains today,” states Yvonne’s website. Skeptics of such claims simply need to go to Yvonne’s nearly any night of the week, when the packed restaurant feels almost like a nightclub. Even on a recent Sunday night, patrons had to wait nearly an hour for a table at this lively restaurant hidden on a narrow, dead-end street.
Yvonne’s looks and feels stylish, but it’s the inventive menu and outstanding food that keeps people coming back week after week. “Yvonne’s caters to groups looking for shareable plates in a setting that keeps glasses raised and conversations buzzing,” its website writes. “Its worldly cuisine refuses to be defined, just as Locke-Ober’s ‘guiding spirit’ Emil Camus, envisioned when he owned the space in 1901 and introduced Brahmin Boston to a global palate. A cosmopolitan menu designed by Chefs Tom Berry and Juan Pedrosa offers guests shared dishes weaving in flavors of the Far and Middle East, Mediterranean, Europe, and America.”
Many of the dishes at Yvonne’s are meant to be shared by everyone at the table. Snack-size plates include Gigante Bean Hummus (green bean miktos, marinated mushrooms, cucumber tzatziki, and mint), Jamon Iberico Croquettes (smoked tomato aioli, Idiazabal cheese, and spiced pine nuts), and Baked Oysters “Savannah,” a nod to Locke-Ober’s signature Lobster Savannah featuring Duxbury oysters, lobster porcini cream, and Parmesan.
Larger “social” plates include Chicken & Quinoa Meatballs (Chinese garlic sauce, spicy mayo, and spicy peanuts), Seared Brussels Sprouts (marinated Manchego, Marcona almonds, and Fino raisin sauce), Seared Octopus (blood orange, chickpea falafel, coriander, and green olive sauce), and Charred Lamb Ribs (za’atar, Turkish BBQ, sesame yogurt, and grape molasses).
But the dishes that really make Yvonne’s stand out are the feasts for two or more people. These feasts include Crispy Tuna Fregola (10 ounces of fregola, baby arugula roasted cauliflower, green olives, pine nuts, and Calabrian chili dipping sauce), and Whole Roasted Hoisin Duck (spring pea congee, preserved lemon, pickled trumpet mushrooms, and spicy Chinese carrots). But if you have to choose one feast on the menu, pick the outstanding Niman Ranch Long Bone Ribeye Steak, a two-pound steak with steak fries, black garlic butter, and marinated mushrooms Louis Ober would have been proud to serve more than a hundred years ago.
One of the reasons Locke-Ober’s restaurant was so beloved was because of its impeccably prepared classic cocktails. This was the place where patrons regularly enjoyed bone-dry Gin Martinis, ice-cold Manhattans, and refreshing Bourbon Old Fashioneds during lunch or dinner.
At Yvonne’s, you can order all the classics. But the restaurant also features many unique, signature cocktails, including Firestarter (spicy Tequila, almond, lime, parsley, and soda), Cherie Amour (Vodka, Sherry, coconut, lemon, and cinnamon), and Corpse Reviver #2 (Gin, Cocchi Curaçao lemon, and flamed Absinthe).
Another signature cocktail on the menu is the Right Hand Man. Made with Bourbon, Apple Brandy, suze cinnamon, and walnut bitters, this Manhattan-like cocktail served neat in a Martini glass has a subtle sweetness mixed with a dry finish and a hint of roasted apples. Imbibing such cocktails seated at the long, wooden mahogany bar, the glory days of Locke-Ober don’t seem that long ago. That’s because Yvonne’s strikes just the right balance between nostalgia and inventiveness, all perfectly blended together inside an iconic, Boston landmark.
2 Winter Place, Boston, MA
Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily