This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Owner Jeff Nace has been with Neptune Oyster since it opened seven years ago, and before that he was the beverage manager at Olives in Charlestown for twelve years. Neptune is small, it doesn't take reservations, and it doesn't advertise. And apparently it doesn't need to, with weekend waits that can reach up to three hours. Eater spoke with Nace about his life in the biz, from celeb guests to his first oyster.
What's the busiest time of the week? For us, weekends. Most particularly Saturday, especially if an event's going on in the area, at the the Garden. That definitely adds to it. We're pretty busy at the beginning of the year, but definitely our busiest months are July and August.
What's the wait for two people on a weekend? It really depends on what night or what time of night they come in. People can walk in at five o' clock and there might be a ten minute wait, or they'll walk in at seven o' clock and there might be an hour wait, or an hour and a half.
What's the longest you've ever had to tell someone to wait? At some points it's gotten up to three hours, but that's once in a blue moon. In the summer we had a couple Saturdays when it got up to that.
Do people go for it? You'd be surprised. But it kind of works in this neighborhood because at lot of regulars know ahead of time what to expect, so they'll come by and put their name in, walk around, go to a show. They stay close by, because sometimes there's cancellations and the wait gets smaller, but they kind of know what to expect.
How many seats do you have? We have fifteen seats at the bar and twenty-seven seats in the banquettes.
Was the concept to do something that wasn't Italian in the North End? That was the idea. I had lived in the neighborhood for fifteen years prior to opening and just felt a void in the seafood level. I always loved oysters and seafood. I would literally walk through the North End on my way to Olives and people were pulling me over all the time asking where they could find some great oysters or seafood and I really didn't have a place to send them. That's when the light bulb went off.
Do you remember your first oyster? Absolutely. It was down on the Cape, I was with my grandfather, and he had ordered a plate of oysters and a shot of brandy, and I'm this little kid sitting there with eyes wide open; I had never seen it before. And he handed one to me and ever since then it's been a love affair.
Did he share the brandy? No. But later on in life, absolutely.
Did your grandfather get to try Neptune? Absolutely. He passed away two years ago but prior to that he was in once every couple months. I'm truly grateful for that.
So how would you describe the average diner? Definitely intelligent. They're really food-savvy. They find us on websites, because we don't advertise. We get a lot of people in town for business who tell us "oh, we saw you on Chowhound or DailyCandy," and they're really intelligent seafood lovers.
Does that make them more challenging to serve? Well I think they expect more. A lot of tourists come in looking for what they think is seafood - and they've probably had it at touristy places before - and they're blown away by what we have to offer. They've never had it so fresh. I mean oysters that are opened, shucked right in front of you and still sitting in their liquor, where as at a lot of raw bars they've been open and sitting out for a half hour and the thing's dried up. That's what they're used to. It's just great to see them have an epiphany.
What oysters do you have now? We always have a dozen, ten East Coast two from the West. We try to focus on local, usually Wellfleets, we always have Island Creeks. Katama Bays, from Martha's Vineyard, those are my favorite and have been for a while. Thatch Island from Barnstable, we have Cotuits, which are really good now from the Cape. We also try to turn people onto ones from further north, like Pemaquids from Maine or the Glidden Points when we can get those in. We have Summersides from Prince Edward Island, Beausoleils from New Brunswick, or the Peacock Coves from New Brunswick. Then from the West Coast we always have the Kumamotos from Washington state and Kusshis from British Columbia. Once in a while we get the Hog Islands in when those are available. Another thing that we feature this time a year that you don't really see in the city are the Florida stone crab claws, that people love.
Do you get any celebrities? We actually do. It's flattering and it's just amazing to me how they find us. Kelly Clarkson was playing at the Wang last week and sent a driver over to get some food. Ben Affleck comes in a lot, when they were filming The Departed Leonardo DiCaprio was coming in twice a week. Kate Hudson was in several times when she was in town. Ben actually came in with Jennifer Garner one night for dinner, which was really cool to see. Justin Timberlake's been in, we've had The Edge from U2, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was a riot. He came in when the Lakers were playing the Celtics. He had Lakers gear up to his neck and then his hair was bright green.
Do you remember what he got? Yeah, he got a ton of oysters.
With the space being so intimate, did it cause a big stir? I think because of our clientele, not so much. People get excited but they don't attack them. When Ben Affleck came in with Jennifer Garner they were sitting at a table and right next to them was another couple, and they talked their whole meal together, and Ben and Jennifer left, they had a great time, and the couple was still there. They had no idea who they were talking to. Which made it I think a greater experience for Ben and Jennifer, because they just had a normal conversation.
Ever accommodated any really strange requests? We try to. We're somewhat limited because we have a very small kitchen. Most of the ingredients come in every day so we have to kind of work with that. I have to say the strangest request is people that come in and tell us they have a shellfish allergy. And our menu is primary shellfish, with shellfish stocks. We can accommodate them but because it's such a small kitchen, the health department has advised us to warn them that there could be cross-contamination. But we do have a steak on the menu.
What's the most popular dish right now? It's a Southern delicacy: shrimp and grits. They're gulf shrimp with Tasso-Andouille ragout, sweet peppers and hominy grits. We give it a Northern twist with Vermont cheddar, and it's actually gotten a thumbs up from some Southerners. Chef Michael Serpa is the creator of a lot of these dishes. We have a great team here from our dishwasher all the way up to management.
So, when you're not at Neptune where are you eating these days? We had our company party at Sweet Cheeks. Tiffani Faison's an old friend and she's got a great barbecue restaurant. I loved going over there and I love going to Toro in the South End, and when I'm in the mood for sushi I go to Oishii, which I think is the best sushi in the city.
What's the must-order dish? Right now I would say the seared Georges Bank scallops. It's kind of a surf and turf, so it's paired with Long Island duck confit, baby Brussels sprouts, Maytag blue cheese and pear butter. I think that's out of this world.
With Mare Oyster Bar opening, how do think it's going to be with two oyster bars in the same neighborhood? I live in the neighborhood, so it will give me a place to go. Boston's a city on the ocean and it was always amazing to me that it really wasn't as exposed as it is now. I think with Island Creek Oyster Bar, with B&G, I think it's saturated. I don't know if there's a need for another one, but I'm happy that we can turn people on from other parts of the world.
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