When Island Creek Oyster Bar opened its doors in Boston’s Kenmore Square six years ago, the city’s oyster appreciation was nowhere near its frenzied levels today, when you can find a dollar oyster deal on every corner. Skip Bennett — founder and owner of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury and a partner in Island Creek Oyster Bar — has been watching the enthusiasm increase since the early nineties, when he started growing his first oysters at a time when there wasn’t much demand for them.
"When I first started offering chefs farmed oysters many years ago, I was surprised at the reaction," says Bennett, who began selling his oysters to restaurants from the back of a pickup truck around 2000. "There was this latent demand; people couldn’t believe they could have local oysters on their menu year-round. The six-year period since Island Creek Oyster Bar opened has really been the second turn of this cycle, and in a way, it’s been even more surprising than the initial pop. I could never have dreamed of the extent to which eating oysters has become a part of people’s lives and identity. Boston has become the city where people can come to indulge that passion, like Northern California is to wine or Kentucky is to whiskey. It’s incredible and humbling to be a part of it."
"One of the best things Skip has taught me is the rising tide floats all the boats," adds Jeremy Sewall, Island Creek Oyster Bar chef and partner. "Appreciation of oysters by more people is good for everyone. I think this trend isn’t slowing down any time soon."
Today, Island Creek Oyster Bar expands up to Burlington, MA — and it’s not the first expansion for the team. First came Island Creek sibling Row 34, which opened three years ago in Boston’s Fort Point, followed by a Portsmouth, NH location in 2015. So why Burlington, and why another Island Creek Oyster Bar rather than another Row 34 or a new concept altogether?
"So much of what we do is dictated by the community and the space itself," says partner Garrett Harker. "Row 34 is very much a neighborhood oyster and beer bar, in the same ways that oysters take on the flavor profile of the water they grow in. In Burlington, we have a community that is already a sophisticated dining and retail hub. We felt that something like an Island Creek Oyster Bar has a chance to be successful."
"Burlington is a unique community that is growing at a rapid pace," adds partner Shore Gregory. "It’s a central hub for some of our state’s most recognized and successful brands, like Keurig, Care.com, and Lahey Hospital. Their employees and their families make up a dining community with a strong interest in world-class cocktails, wine, oysters and seafood. It’s exciting to be in a community with a close proximity to Boston that is excited about indulging in Jackson Cannon’s cocktails and Jeremy Sewall’s cooking."
The Burlington Island Creek will feel similar to fans of the original location; both were designed by Bentel & Bentel with an eye towards Duxbury Bay and life on the oyster farm. "You’ll see the reclaimed Wyoming snow fence along the windows and my favorite — the Gabion cages filled with tens of thousands of Skip’s cleaned oyster shells," says Harker, noting that the design firm "maintained the soul" of the original location but "modified" it for Island Creek number two.
Unlike the original location, Burlington will have a 30-seat seasonal patio; it’s too late to open it this year, but keep an eye out for it next spring. Also new to Island Creek Oyster Bar, there will be private dining space — complete with soundproofing and A/V capabilities — that can accommodate anywhere from 10 to 70 people.
As for the food, Nicola Hobson has been promoted to executive chef, and she’s overseeing both locations. Diners will find some classic dishes from the Boston location, including oyster sliders, oysters Gregory, lobster roe noodles, seafood casserole, lobster rolls, and yes, the buttermilk biscuits. The opening oyster list has about eight to 10 varieties from both coasts, says Sewall.
He and Hobson work closely together to continue Island Creek Oyster Bar’s focus on making responsible seafood purchasing choices. "We’re continuing our effort to introduce diners to lesser-known fish varieties," he adds.
One aspect of the Burlington space that particularly excites him is that the raw bar seats look right into the fish cooler, where the chefs will be breaking down whole fish. "Guests sitting at these seats will have a front-row seat to the work we do," says Sewall.
Like much of the food, the beverages will feel familiar to fans of the original location — Jackson Cannon will be overseeing the cocktails. "You can get a world-class cocktail at the bar," says Harker.
As the team opens the doors in Burlington today, continued expansion is in the works, but the team has always been fond of a slow and steady mindset. "I think we try not to get too ahead of ourselves," says Harker. "We are conservative by nature. Right now, we’re focused on Burlington and our new concept in Cambridge opening in 2017. Beyond that, time will tell. We have to get these two right!"
The team hasn’t revealed much about the Cambridge restaurant yet, but as previously reported, it’ll be at 2 Bennett St., the Conductor’s Building. It won’t be an Island Creek or Row 34. "The Conductor’s Building is one of the most important buildings in Harvard Square," says Sewall. "We are honored to be able to build a restaurant in it. We’re starting to think through our food and beverage program a bit more — but first figuring out how to build a restaurant that is only 17 feet wide!"
As for the Island Creek farm in Duxbury, there’s always something new going on. "We’re always working on ways people can experience what we do and what we create," says Bennett. "Satiating our customers’ endless curiosity for what they’re getting on raw bar menus with new growout sites and methods on the farm (look for Aunt Dotty’s around Boston and New York City this fall); finding great new products for our retail customers (like [Stoughton-based] Sky8 shrimp in last month’s farm share shipment); and giving people access to the farm (this summer’s public tours were a blast). We’ve got a lot of exciting stuff in the pipeline."
Island Creek Oyster Bar opens at 300 District Ave. in Burlington at 5 p.m. today, November 3, but keep an eye out for the launch of weekday lunch and weekend brunch in the future. To start, hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are available on the restaurant’s website and via the Reserve app.