42nd Street Oyster Bar and Seafood GrillMar 07, 2016 01:58PM ● By Crash Gregg
Article by Brian Adornetto, Food Editor • Photo by Crash Gregg
In 1931, J.C. Watson purchased a small neighborhood grocery store on the corner of Raleigh’s West and Jones Streets. Little did he know that his decision to serve fresh shucked local oysters and draft beer would pave the way for the 42nd Street Oyster Bar to become a North Carolina icon. Yet as time passed and the menu grew, Watson cultivated a loyal following of doctors, lawmakers, and business people. The oyster bar thrived for decades. Eventually, Thad Eure Jr., of Angus Barn fame, and Brad Hurley bought 42nd Street and, in 1987, moved it a few feet off the corner to its current location. After Eure’s passing, Hurley partnered with John Vick, who co-owned Fat Daddy’s with Eure. The restaurant remains in Hurley and Vick’s hands today.
While 42nd Street’s exterior resembles a 1980s nightclub and the lobby a museum, the inside is vintage 1940s. In the lobby, you’ll find an old boiler (believed to have steamed more oysters than any other in America from the late 1940s through the early 1970s), a display of antique oyster knives, and neoprene gloves. Upon entering the restaurant, you’ll immediately feel the nostalgia courtesy of the dark woodwork, linoleum tiled floors, dim lighting, and swinging Big Band sounds. Straight ahead is the bustling open kitchen oyster bar, where you can watch as the cooks shuck and steam hundreds of oysters. Above the kitchen is a hand painted mural portraying local legends—including Thad Eure Jr. and Sr., J.W. “Willie” York (the Raleigh real estate mogul who built Cameron Village), former Governor Bob Scott, former Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Graham, and movie star/ NC State graduate Burt Reynolds—who were all 42nd Street regulars. The wall opposite the kitchen is covered in the framed license plates of some of the North Carolina politicians who have dined in the restaurant. To the left is the lounge featuring an art deco cocktail bar, 42nd Street’s original neon sign clock, tall weathered wood tables, and old- fashioned metal and leather stools. Throughout the space, guests can discover photos of old Raleigh, relics from 42nd Street’s past, and mounted fish. The main dining room, with its white linen draped tables and booths, sits on the far right.
Executive Chef David Greenwell’s menu is straightforward, containing neither contrived names for his dishes nor trendy ingredients or buzzwords in his descriptions, “just” traditional seafood, surf and turf, and Southern sides. “Most seafood has mild flavors that need highlighting, not masking. Simplicity is important,” he explains. Chef Greenwell, an NC State alumnus, began cooking at 42nd Street under then Executive Chef Mark Edelbaum as part of the reopening team in 1987. He left in 1992 to work for Alliant Foodservice, but returned in August 2001 to take over for Chef Edelbaum. As a result, 42nd Street has had only two chefs over the course of almost 30 years—a remarkable feat in the restaurant industry. “Consistency is the basis for our success. So I see my role as a caretaker of sorts,” Greenwell says with a grin.
When it comes to oysters, 42nd Street has some of the best in the region. On a daily basis, the selection fluctuates between six and ten varieties with about half coming from either the Carolinas or Virginia. In addition to raw and steamed oysters, the restaurant also offers them baked ($13.55). You can choose from Oysters Rockefeller, Pimento Cheese Oysters, 42nd Street Oysters (stuffed with breadcrumbs, bacon, spicy butter, and parmesan), or the Baked Oyster Sampler, which provides two of each.
42nd Street’s Crab Cake ($12.55 appetizer/$26.95 entree) was one of the best I’ve ever had. It was crisp on the outside and, thanks to an abundance of chunky crabmeat, succulent and sweet on the inside. This delicate patty was neither weighed down with filler nor overpowered by mayo and Old Bay. Also not to be missed are the Blackened Bacon-wrapped Scallops ($12.55 appetizer/$33.95 as part of a Surf & Turf). The slightly spicy NC scallops were meaty, smoky, and sweet, and their wonderfully charred crust gave way to a tender, juicy center.
We also sampled the Pan Seared Hawaiian Ahi Tuna ($31.95), Shrimp and Crabmeat Fettuccine ($22.95), Cioppino ($22.95), and Blackened Chicken Creole ($16.95). Served rare, the tuna was sweet and nutty with a hint of heat courtesy of the sesame ginger sauce and wasabi vinaigrette. The spicy fettucine with roasted poblano pepperjack cream sauce and red bell peppers teemed with sautéed shrimp and lumps of crab. A cross between a stew and a soup, the hearty Italian-American classic Cioppino was loaded with scallops, mussels, shrimp, peppers, onions, and tomatoes. For 42nd Street’s Chicken Creole, blackened but juicy chicken was sliced, set atop a bed of rice, and finished with a chunky Creole tomato sauce. It was spicy, filling, and quite good.
Most entrees come with your choice of a side, but if yours doesn’t, or you simply want another, they’re only $3.50 each. Though the Collard Greens with ham, Sweet Potato Chips, and Black Eyed Peas with ham all delighted, my favorite was the 42nd Street Cheese Potato. Silky puréed potatoes were topped with a blend of cheeses and broiled, exactly as they have been since 1931. It was comfort food at its best.
As for dessert, the refreshing Key Lime Pie achieved just the right sweet-tart balance, while the Peanut Butter Silk Pie ($6.95 each) was overwhelmingly nutty. We had to take alternate bites of the peanut butter pie and the rich, hot cocoa-y Chocolate French Silk Pie ($6.95) to make it work. But together, it was like eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup flavored mousse.
With roots dating back to the late 1920s, 42nd Street Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill has a lively, authentically retro vibe. Add to that good food, exceptional wine, and solid service and you’ve got all the ingredients for a wonderful night out.