On June 4, The Oyster House celebrated its 40th birthday. There are a number of reasons a restaurant has been in business for such a long time.
Another restaurant is also about to turn 40. La Famiglia, one of the city’s finest upscale Italian restaurants, opened its doors just in time for the Bicentennial celebrations.
As I wait for new South Philly restaurants to open, I thought it a fine idea to write about two very different places that the public and tourists enjoy. I will write about La Famiglia next month.
The history of The Oyster House actually goes back many years when Sam Mink opened Kelly’s on South Mole Street. Sam’s son David had the idea of opening a top seafood restaurant on Sansom Street years later. Now the third generation of the Mink family is in charge. David’s son Sam, with David’s insight and thoughts, gutted the building and re-opened seven years ago.
I have been a loyal customer for about 30 years. Certain criteria for a restaurant to be a continued success at a time when places are opening all over town must be in place.
I love to eat at the oyster bar where Cornell, the best shucker in the city, along with several others, opens dozens and dozens of oysters from around the country and local jumbo cherrystone clams. On the counter and on each table stands a large footed bowl of oyster crackers and a jar of very hot homemade horseradish.
A number of years ago, Sam had the idea to institute a “buck a shuck” Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Cherrystone clams are one dollar each and the oyster of the day, which upon my visit were Delaware Bays, are the same price. Certain wines and beers on tap are also fixed at a lower price.
The place is mobbed. Patrons of all ages arrive early to capture a seat at the oyster bar, the bar, or the window seats and high top tables. Many stay for dinner.
The fish and shellfish are immaculately fresh. Many years ago, I bumped into David Mink buying fish for The Oyster House at the Seafood Distribution Center. The first rule for success is consistency in quality and purchasing ingredients in season.
On several occasions, we have cleaned The Oyster House out of cherrystones by downing dozens of them with a glass of Muscadet.
The shrimp roll with homemade potato chips is on offer at lunch. Sam flies in rolls from Maine for the shrimp and lobster rolls.
The menu changes according to the season.
On our stop, we enjoyed a Negroni and martini with two dozen cherrystone clams. Unfortunately for us, we ate the last of the lot. Although I have also enjoyed the fish stew or a simple piece of grilled fish with vegetables, we wanted to try the New England clam bake for two ($56).
Our server brought us bibs, lobster crackers, and small forks along with a bowl for the shells. A large blue and white old-fashioned pot, akin to the roasting pan I prepare my Thanksgiving turkey in each year, was filled to the tops with treats from the sea. I asked our server if the chef could find a female lobster. He did. The roe is so delectable.
The lobster weighed two pounds. The slightly sweet tail and meaty claw meat were scrumptious, especially after being dipped into drawn butter. I was not surprised to discover some slightly spicy chorizo included in the pot. Men and women from Portugal who settled in New England often added one of their favorite ingredients to this classic dish. Mussels and Ipswitch soft-shell clams made me quite content. The latter bring me back to my childhood during summers spent at the Jersey Shore. Corn on the cob and perfectly steamed red bliss potatoes are always included in the pot.
Muscadet is my wine of choice with oysters, clams, and now the New England clam bake. Actually, the portions are so generous, this entrée could easily serve three.
Fine service has always been a hallmark of The Oyster House. Servers and assistant servers keep the steady pace going like an orchestrated symphony.
The surprise of the night was a delicious piece of vanilla cake with luscious butter cream frosting.
There is not a seafood restaurant in town to match The Oyster House. This is why it has been a staple in Philadelphia since 1976.
Happy birthday to everyone who works at this Center City gem. I wish you 40 more.
Four tips of the toque to The Oyster House. ■
The Oyster House
1516 Sansom St.
Photo by Tina Garceau