The first thing you see when you walk into the restaurant is a massive tank full of lobsters. The air is thick with Boston accents and the smell of America’s favorite steamed crustacean. And, of course, the sound of oysters being shucked.
Union Oyster House is one of the oldest restaurants in United States. People have been coming here for clam chowder and baked beans for more than 300 years.
Now, they also come here for visas. Thai visas, to be exact. All thanks to a man named Joe Milano.
Milano is the owner of Union Oyster House. He also happens to be the honorary consul general for Thailand.
It all started when Milano — a lifelong Bostonian — learned that the old king of Thailand was born in Mount Auburn Hospital. He thought the king deserved recognition, and Boston’s royal connections should be celebrated.
“I put together a resolution to have a square named after the king,” Milano explained. “And the rest was history.”
The square was a hit. Located right in the heart of Harvard Square, across from the Kennedy School, the space quickly became a point of pilgrimage for visiting Thais. Overnight, Milano transformed into a celebrated, if mysterious figure in Thailand. He became a go-to person for local Thai events, and when the previous consul general stepped down in 2001, Milano was tapped to fill the position.
To get to the consulate, you have to walk through the restaurant. Murals of old Boston cover the walls. A sign hangs over the bar announcing that Daniel Webster used to drink there.
Then, up another flight of stairs and into the consulate.
Milano’s office is chocablock full of memorabilia, a mishmash of old-school Yankeedom and a fancy Thai office. He has carved elephants, baseballs and photos of both Thai and American politicians. A teak desk sits in the middle of the room.
For countries who don’t want to pay for embassies in smaller cities, honorary consulates are a great option. They process visas, help travelers and expats who might have run into trouble and go to local, cultural functions.
Milano’s consulate is small and rarely deals with major issues. Milano doesn’t think he’s ever had to deal with a travel emergency, and if the royal family visits Boston, the US State Department handles the preparations.
But the position is no joke.
If you want to go to Thailand for business or to visit for more than 30 days, you’ve got to go through Milano. He says his office hands out 1,200-1,300 visas a year.
When I ask Milano why he does it, he says that first and foremost, he loves the country. But he admits to something else: “I like the theater.”
Once in a while, Milano escorts a royal or meets a big politico or visits the palace in Thailand. During those times, he’s a glittering elite. He’s on the international stage, even if playing a bit part.
The rest of the time, he’s in his office, stamping visas. And that suits him just fine, too.