Monday, November 14, 2005

No Name Restaurant. Things Change

In Boston yesterday we went to the No Name Restaurant, on the Fish Pier, for lunch. To get there from downtown, you cross a broad highway bridge and drive along a wide street, four lanes across at least, past some big empty parking lots and a new convention center and something called the World Trade Center, which made me cringe. To the left as you're crossing the bridge is an old steel bridge, now closed. Then you turn left on Fish Pier and drive halfway down between two newish-looking buildings that may or may not house fish wholesalers or distributors – it was hard to tell because it was 12:45 on Sunday afternoon and the place was almost deserted.

We sat upstairs in a big, low-ceilinged room, at a table next to a window that looked out on the harbor. Nothing was going on out there except the bleak landscape, a harsh blue sky and an occasional gull. A waiter brought us a plate of garlic bread. We all ordered fish chowder, which was good – milky, not thickened with anything, full of fish. The fish dinners, fried clams and fish sandwich that followed were good too, although some components of the fish dinner (the scrod, for example) were considerably better than others (the shrimp). The place was by no means full. There were plenty of waiters, all of whom were cheerful and relaxed and happy to serve.

In other words, except for the food, it was a far cry from what No Name used to be. It used to be a relic of the days when that part of town was a working waterfront. Now it’s a forebear, at best, of something that someone (probably the city’s urban development agency) wants the waterfront to be. It was a relic in the same way that Sweet’s fish house was a relic in the Fulton Market neighborhood of Manhattan (when I went to Sweet’s in the mid 1970s, I asked the waiter, a slow-moving, effortlessly efficient black man, something about beef, and without so much as looking at me he answered, “Aint no meat in this house,” which prompted me to bury my nose in the menu and order a broiled flounder).

I’d been to No Name only twice and I make no claim to have participated in any way in anything having to do with a real working waterfront, in Boston or anywhere, except to have been the grandson of a laborer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the son of a tug boat deckhand who eventually found a better job as a ferry boat deckhand. I went to No Name in 1974 because it was a hip thing for college students to do (which of course begs the question that my daughter would ask: if it was so hip, what were you doing there?). But to prove that I’m a nostalgic, romantic middle aged fogy, I liked the old No Name better and so I dug around in my old journals and found something I wrote after my most recent visit, a mere 24 years ago. The price for lunch yesterday for four, by the way, was about $70.

1/27/81 -- Arrived home last night about 9:30, after a hard drive from Boston. Before I left I had a bowl of chowder at No-Name. I was not sure I could find it, but when I drove down Boylston I saw a sign for the waterfront, so I followed it. It led over a steel bridge partially enclosed by girders. The road then passed the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Voyage and led down to the fish pier. I drove through the gate and parked right in front of the No-Name. It was ten-to-four, and not very crowded. I entered through what I think is a new room -- more fashionable than the counter-and-tables in the adjacent room. I went to the counter, which was lined with forks and spoons, and plates of bread and butter. If one customer did not eat the bread and butter, it was left for the next person. Behind the counter was a middle-aged man with silver hair, dressed in white. He looked at me as I sat down, and without stepping any closer, said, "Yeah?"

"Bowl a chowder," I said.

He ladeled out a thick stew of fish chunks and creamy, off-white broth that filled me up easily.

"Something to drink?" he demanded.

"Water."

A younger man with a navy blue v-neck sweater, jeans, and a long white apron tied around the waist replaced him. He spoke with a slight Italian accent.

"You gonna have anyting else?"

"Nope."

Two guys about my age came in and sat at the counter. They were not workers on the pier, they were fairly well-dressed. Before they reached their stools, the young counterman asked, "Youse gonna have chowder?"

One guy said yes, the other no. The guy who didn't order the chowder ordered a haddock sandwich, and they both giggled with delight when they saw the fish piled on the roll and stacked next to the roll, and the huge mound of coleslaw and some other salad that I could not identify. A couple of stools past them, a man had a fish dinner with the same bounteous portions, plus an enormous helping of green beans, which the counterman offered by saying simply, "You want green beans?"

"Yeah, string beans," the customer said.

I ate up, paid $1.52, and was in my car by 4:15.

3 Comments:

Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Not that I want to swamp you with comments today, but this post speaks to anyone who has lived in or near a "working waterfront" on the eastern seaboard. So quickly these locales become tourist attractions and minature boardwalks, real watermen replaced by periodic shark tournaments and weekend warriors. Let's hope the few relatively pristine - untouched by WalMart's reach - coastal towns are able to hold on...as dubious as that hope may be.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Wench said...

My grandfather captained a fishing boat from Boston for a while, and mom told me he used to drop off the best of his catch with the No-Name before going in. So we used to eat there whenever we were in Boston. I remember, vaguely, dark brown wood and a dark booth. I always used to get the chowder (I was afraid of fish with bones, a humiliating admission for a fisherman's granddaughter). I had a navy blue sweatshirt with the name of the restaurant on it... this was a long time ago, though, probably around the time you visited.

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a student, living in Cambridge in what had been a janitor's closet (it was all i could afford in the expensive Cambridge market of the time) in 1974 - on an independent study at Harvard, MIT, and the Boston V.A. Hospital, when I discovered the No Name through word of mouth from other students I met around Cambridge. Taking The T and walking up the pier and taking a seat in the dining room with a sawdust covered floor, I enjoyed some of the most memorable Boston seafood I can remember this side of Gloucester (I live in CT, now). I cannot not take the time to go back to No Name because of what it has become -- and it's a shame.

10:38 PM  

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