Row 34 is built on oysters—literally. "When we were digging out the foundation of the building, it was all oyster shells underneath," co-owner Garrett Harker told Eater. "That was a nice omen." Co-owner and chef Jeremy Sewall still has a bucket of the 100-year-old shells under his desk. The Fort Point building was built around the turn of the twentieth century, originally home to the Crucible Steel Company; back then, oyster shells were a common filler material used in construction. Row 34 has kept many of the building's original features, like beams and bricks.
The "workingman's oyster bar" opened in late November at 383 Congress St., a sibling to the immensely popular Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square. Eater met with co-owners Harker and Sewall recently to chat about the genesis of the idea, the philosophy behind creating a neighborhood-focused restaurant, and more. Co-owner Skip Bennett, who also founded and owns Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, caught up a few days later by phone to fill in the oyster-centric pieces of the story.
Opening night was just the previous evening, and Sewall and Harker seemed fairly at ease when Eater stopped by; they were almost in a pleasant state of disbelief that everything came together. They weren't actively seeking out a new restaurant when the space became available, but there it was, and the space informed what the restaurant would be: a neighborhood spot paying homage to the oyster bars that were prevalent at the turn of the century, where workers would grab a beer and a dozen oysters before heading home.
"We would all just marvel at Island Creek Oyster Bar and the relationship the city has had to it," said Harker. "I've loved being involved in the transition of a neighborhood. Not just Kenmore Square, but No. 9 Park as well. When we opened it, that area of Beacon Hill was really sort of desolate. Here in Fort Point, there's a lot of infrastructure that has sort of sparked Barbara [Lynch] and some of the others coming in. But it was really just falling in love with this neighborhood, and then the space is so unique and so strong. We got together and said, well, what if we did a neighborhood oyster bar that's sort of inspired by 80, 90 years ago when there were oyster bars on every corner. It was such an urban experience. We like to say this is like the prequel to the ICOB, in a way, rather than the sequel."
"This is a little more of a stripped down version of what Island Creek is, and not in a bad way," said Sewall. "It's just an every day kind of place that's in a really unique setting and a really unique part of the city. We just felt it could fit in."
"A little more rootsy, a little more rugged," said Harker. "Like the neighborhood."
The story of the neighborhood was like a magnet for Harker. Fort Point, which has been seeing the opening of so many new restaurants lately, is right next door to the also-booming Seaport District, but there's a huge difference between the Seaport's mega-chains and the local, gritty charm of Fort Point. "Watching the interesting dichotomy where all of the big chains are putting down roots in our city...this is our city," said Harker. "And this kind of area would be a little more dedicated to the independent, local restaurateur. I know that attracted me. We're the line right here. All of that [right outside the window] is the new construction. We're in such a cool, urban part of the city. I like that narrative. I like this city. I like what's happening when the next generation comes along and puts down roots and does interesting things that are high quality and have a point of view—rather than somebody in a board room in Las Vegas determining what the next restaurant to open in Boston will be. That sparked a little something."
Looking ahead five years, Harker doesn't think that the Seaport chains will seep into Fort Point. "I think this is our part of town," he said. "I don't think it comes over this line. There's so much character here. It's not like we could ever imagine popping an ICOB down here. We couldn't. We're so informed by the building, by the history of this neighborhood, that that doesn't maybe lend itself to some pre-packaged concept. So I think that's a little barrier of entry for any of those folks. With new construction, you can manipulate it into anything you want. This is a little different. We had to spend a lot of time kind of figuring out how to solve this building."
The idea of opening a "neighborhood restaurant" is a popular one right now, as this year saw the opening of at least a few new restaurants from well-loved chefs who promised spots that were more casual, more driven by the neighborhood, the kind of restaurant you could go to several times a week. But often when the actual menu comes out, there's sticker shock when diners realize that it's definitely not something they could do every night.
Creating a "neighborhood" restaurant with affordable options is partly about providing opportunities for different types of experiences, according to Sewall. "From a menu standpoint, you have to have options," he said. "If people want to come in and sit at the bar and have a beer and a few oysters, that's an experience. If you're a local, you could have that on a very regular basis. If you want to come in with your wife and your in-laws and sit at the table and order the whole fish and oysters and a bottle of wine, that's an experience you can have here too. Both of those live within the space really well together, without being diluted either way. I think we're honoring that. We've got the high-tops in the front, a great bar, and if you want to come in and sit, we've worked hard to find some oysters that have really good value. You can come in and get oysters and a beer and not feel like you got rolled doing it."
There's plenty of focus on that beer, too. "The inspiration is Skip," said Harker, "and the way he approaches his pursuit of oyster perfection. That really inspired us to look at the craft beer movement and the people out there who really have a point of view and a vision and are working towards some kind of ideal. So, that's the way we looked at the beer list—people who were doing really interesting things locally but also beyond (Belgium, Germany) as an inspiration. Those are people who have been doing it for thousands of years and producing some of the really iconic expressions of certain styles of beer."
As for Bennett, it's his experimentation with his 34th row of oysters that led to the name of the restaurant. "I have these friends down in Virginia who grow oysters," he said. "We work together a lot and share a lot of ideas. I was down at their place, and I saw these trays where they were growing oysters. When they opened them up, the oysters were just packed in there, this beautiful shape and size. We have to be really careful with getting the density right; if they're too crowded, they won't grow, and you don't want them too spread out either. It's one of the arts of oyster-growing, really getting that density right."
"Anyway," he continued, "they were just packed in these trays. When I got back, I was telling my dad about it. He used to be a lobsterman, but he's kind of followed in my footsteps now, and he's an oyster farmer. But he still has all his old gear to make lobster traps, so I explained to him what these trays looked like, and he made ten of them out of lobster wire. That spring, I put out all our nursery gear; the trays were in the last row, 34. We loaded them up with small oysters, and they grew beautifully through the summer. In September, when we were ready to start harvesting them, we brought some into the restaurant, and we were amazed at the fact that even though they grew right beside all the other oysters, they tasted quite different. Garrett was insistent that we come up with a name for these special oysters. In the 34th row were these trays, so row 34 just seemed kind of cool and different."
In addition to the name, the Row 34 oysters serve as a metaphor for the philosophy behind the restaurant. "We did something a little different and came out with a really different but really cool final product," said Bennett, "and there are a lot of parallels there with our second restaurant. It's similar but very different. Hopefully received as well as the first."
While Row 34 is literally built on oyster shells, it's also a whole oyster-centered community that supports it—and that it supports. "I love the way that we kind of set out to build the neighborhood oyster bar," said Bennet, "and it just feels like it fits. When I sit in there, it feels like it's been here forever, and it seems right. I'm really so happy with what we've created. The people who work here, everyone is so proud of what we're doing. From the farm to the line cooks to the servers, the bartenders, everyone is so excited about this place and what it means and to be a part of it. If you lift the cover off, there's an awful lot behind this oyster bar. There are people who are making their living on the farm, there are people who are making their living in our distribution company. There's a place that it's actually tied to, a lot of places that it's tied to, so really it's got some depth."
· All coverage of Row 34 on Eater [~EBOS~]