Venue Review: 42nd Street Oyster Bar
I've been reviewing restaurants long enough now that I find myself returning to places I've reviewed before. In some cases, it's a substantial change -- a new chef, maybe, or an extensively renovated dining room -- that lures me back. In others, especially those with noteworthy chefs, I'm curious about how their menus evolve over time.
Then there's 42nd Street Oyster Bar, where I'd be surprised to see any significant changes at all. I go back anyway, and I expect to return every few years, to tell people how much it hasn't changed.
Why? Because, by virtue of its longevity (originally opened in 1931; reopened after a brief closing in 1987) 42nd Street Oyster Bar has become a local institution, one of those rare establishments whose history is inextricably interwoven with that of the city. For newcomers, a stop at this venerable seafood eatery is an essential part of the cultural tour of Raleigh. For longtime residents, it's reassuring to know that the old place is still there, and still adding to its collection of license plates donated by former governors and other grateful politicos who have dined there.
No need to worry on that front. The wait for a table, for those without the foresight to make reservations, ranges from half an hour on weeknights to more than an hour on weekends. Even if you just want to slurp impeccably fresh raw or steamed oysters and clams at the oyster bar, and wash them down with one of a hundred or so available beers, you're probably in for a wait.
The large, high-ceilinged dining room can still get quite noisy. It continues to ooze history, too, from the art deco entry doors to the pair of well-worn booths (inherited from the original restaurant) in the back corner of the dining room. Other period touches -- the vintage shoeshine stand in the lobby, chrome bar stools and neon deco clock in the bar, the huge retro mural over the open kitchen -- give the place a distinct 1930s feel.
The menu has hardly changed since my last review in 1997. My favorite dish then was oyster stew, a classically simple soup of oysters and their briny liquor in scalded milk. It's still my favorite. If there's such a thing as ambrosia of the gods, then this is Neptune's nectar.
The baked oyster sampler offers two each of four styles --Rockefeller, Casino, Pomodori (mozzarella and Italian-seasoned breading) and 42nd Street (bacon and moderately spicy butter) -- just as it did four years ago. This time around, however, the execution was considerably improved, with plump, juicy oysters and toppings that didn't overwhelm them.
Fried seafood, on the other hand, appears to be consistent from year to year, if not from night to night. That is to say, it's still inconsistent. One evening, you might order a combination plate of oysters, scallops, catfish and shrimp, and be rewarded with a steaming platter of delicately crisp-crusted marine delights. Another time, the sweet flesh and filament-fragile shell of soft shell crabs may be ruined by a batter that has gone soft and soggy.
In my experience, it isn't the kitchen that is at fault. The seafood is consistently fresh-tasting and properly cooked, but it sometimes suffers from a post-frying sauna in the steamy kitchen as it waits to be picked up. Not surprisingly, the chances of this mishap occurring appear to vary directly with the busyness of the night, and inversely with the waiter's experience (the menu's claim about team service notwithstanding). I'd suggest using the hushpuppies that are brought to your table at the beginning of the meal as a guide: If they're hot and crisp, then order all the fried seafood you want; if they aren't, consider other options.
Like peel-your-own shrimp, for instance, three dozen to the pound steamed plain or liberally spiced with Old Bay. Or seafood (scallops, shrimp or a combination) sauteed Norfolk style in butter, white wine and lemon juice. Or a 1 1/2 pound live lobster (skip the frozen lobster tails), cooked just right and so sweet you won't need drawn butter.
The blackboard of nightly changing specials is a good bet, too. That's where you'll find four or five fresh fish listings such as mahi-mahi, tuna, salmon and grouper, any of which you can have broiled, blackened or (my preference) mesquite grilled. The portions aren't exceptionally large (8 ounces or so seems to be the norm), but the fish is properly cooked and, because most of it is caught by the restaurant's own fishing boats off the Carolina coast, about as fresh as you'll get in these parts.
Another special is 42nd Street's rendition of the San Francisco Italian seafood stew cioppino. An ample bowl chock full of shrimp, scallops, oysters, mahi-mahi and generously sized lobster nuggets in a tomato-based broth, it's a bargain at $18.95 -- at least it is on the nights when someone in the kitchen doesn't get a little heavy-handed with the oregano. Cioppino is available most nights, though it isn't always listed on the blackboard. Evidently, it has grown so popular over the years that it sells well even when it isn't listed. Just the sort of thing you'd expect at a local institution.