The News: Anthony’s Pier 4 will close its doors on July 31, 2013. Once one of the few buildings on the waterfront, the Boston landmark opened in 1963 and earned its reputation as the premier dining destination for generations of New Englanders. In addition to being the go-to restaurant for the city’s most powerful people, some of its celebrity customers included Elizabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio, Julia Child and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The owners say there is a possibility they will reopen a smaller version of the restaurant in a building nearby.
Boston’s July Fourth weekend came to an end with news that the city will soon be losing a local institution older than the Pops concert: Anthony’s Pier 4. While I haven’t gone to Pier 4 since a deliberately nostalgic dinner over a decade ago, I can’t imagine Boston’s waterfront without it. Pier 4’s squat colonial building sits near the sleek ICA and the striving architecture of the Seaport district as a friendly reminder of an old Boston that is close to disappearing.
Let’s remember Pier 4 as an emblem … of an immigrant’s success, and of families creating their own traditions, and of the mingled cultures that lie everywhere throughout our city.
For my Greek-immigrant parents, there was no better place to celebrate milestones of their life in America than Anthony’s Pier 4. Here, where a man with a real wooden leg greeted diners in a pirate costume with a parrot on his shoulder; where the menu offered things like scrod and corn on the cob and lobster; here, to this most Bostonian of places, they would take me, their only child, at the end of every school year.
Our dinners usually took place on the eve of my departure with my mother for that summer’s trip to Greece. I remember sitting at those heavy cloth-covered tables year after year, looking out at the boats in the harbor. Faced with that view of Boston, and contemplating my plane trip the following day, I came to associate Pier 4 with the transition between cultures. One night: New England. The next night, Greece.
Anthony’s was the perfect place for these moments: an immigrant’s vision of what the adopted country should be. The mob caps on the waitresses, the puffy sleeves on the waiters, the dimpled amber glass of the tumblers — they were all ersatz New England. The restaurant was decorated with symbols that every diner could read instantly and without error. This was olde Boston, presented with clarity and comfort.
More than anything else, the restaurant’s New England message centers for me on the delicious popovers that were served with tongs from a basket. I have no memory of eating any fish at Pier 4, but I will never forget the steam rising from a newly opened popover, this mysterious food object that neither my parents nor I had ever seen anywhere else. In the months between Pier 4 visits, my parents would recall this delicacy with relish and with some amusement, laughing as they pronounced the word (unknowingly) incorrectly: pop-OH-ver. To us, the popover was no simple New England carbohydrate. It was exotic, no less strange than the puri we ate in Montreal at the 1968 World’s Fair.
Opened by Anthony Athanas in 1963 on what was then a utilitarian stretch of Boston waterfront, Pier 4 quickly became the prime spot for important events. When you needed or wanted to impress people, whether they were business associates, political adversaries or future in-laws, you brought them to Pier 4. And in case you doubted Pier 4’s status as the go-to restaurant in town, you had only to scan the walls where Anthony had hung dozens of photographs of himself posing with the many celebrities who had dined at his table, among them: Judy Garland, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Carson. By the time of Anthony’s death in 2005, these photographs would testify to the restaurant’s age, and perhaps to its fading relevance to contemporary Boston. But they represented, too, how vital the restaurant had once been to Boston’s social and political fabric.
Anthony’s Pier 4 is where I learned, through tears and a bursting belly, that you don’t have to drink all the water the waiter pours in your glass. It’s where I learned that grown men and women could wear bibs in public. It’s where I learned that nationality was a shifting thing. When Anthony came to the table, my parents would speak to him in Greek. When he left and I wondered about Anthony’s poor Greek accent, my father would explain that he was from Albania. But he offered this information as a sort of apology. My father felt that Anthony’s native geography was a mistake — a mistake he corrected by claiming him as Greek. The border was blurry, up there in the Balkans.
The border was blurry in Pier 4, too. Two Greeks could toast their American daughter in a restaurant owned by an Albanian man who had become one of the most important figures in a tightly knit New England city. Anthony’s offered a shared American experience. And with every bite of popover, we ate it up.
Anthony’s offered a shared American experience. And with every bite of popover, we ate it up.
During the heyday of Pier 4, Boston was a parochial, narrow-minded place. It would be easy to look at the restaurant’s closing as the disappearance of yet another reminder of a troubled period in our city’s past. When a commercial building goes up in place of Pier 4’s homey clapboard, we may cheer the new, the exciting, the modern. But let’s remember Pier 4 as an emblem of something else — of an immigrant’s success, and of families creating their own traditions, and of the mingled cultures that lie everywhere throughout our city.
Editor’s Note: What about it readers? Do you remember a special night at Anthony’s Pier 4? What do you think about where the restaurant scene in Boston has been, and where it’s going? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.