Boston has never lacked for fresh seafood or old-school oyster bars, but the reason droves of diners trek up to the small cobblestone streets of the North End to put their names in at Neptune Oyster – only to wait for a call back on their cellphones (an hour or two later at busy times) – is because this perfect, tiny Parisian-style oyster bar with modern attitudes gets everything right in the simplest ways. With an interior boasting a terracotta bust of Roman sea god Neptune, mirrored walls (marked with specials listings), marble countertops, and tin ceilings, the restaurant is revered for its raw bar menu, which includes 12 different oyster choices, featuring East and West Coast specialties like Katama Bays from Martha's Vineyard and Kumamotos from Washington.
The raw bar menu is in fact a small, printed piece of paper that lists the ever-changing selection like a baseball scorecard or sushi menu you must annotate with a pencil. Next to each choice, the card tells you the detailed qualities of each oyster, as well as clams and, this summer, an anchovy cocktail. (For example, Island Creek oysters, from Duxbury, Massachusetts, are medium-to-large-sized with a high salt content, but they remain juicy with a fruity finish. We'll take five.)
The restaurant is also famous for its unusually stripped-down take on the hot lobster roll: that is, chunks of fresh Maine lobster meat, mixed with melted butter, only, on a toasted, classic bun – a bare-bones dish that eviscerates what may seem like the transcendent qualities of the cold mayonnaise-heavy rolls you find everywhere else. (Of course, Neptune will make you one of the cold, lunch-on-the-Cape standbys if you like, but we, along with about half of Boston, urge you to try it hot with butter and a pile of well-seasoned frites.) There's also a fantastic traditional menu with an authentically thin, fishermen's-style New England clam chowder – a bold, ocean-salty switch from those thick, gooey bowls of hot clam dip at Legal Sea Foods or Jasper White joints. This summer we're a little fanatical about the cool, golden tomato gazpacho and the dayboat scallops with a local apple marmalade, a little olive oil and sea salt, and some freshly picked mint. And we should not leave out the carefully made wine choices that the passionate barkeeps describe in laymen's terms, especially a crisp white Vermentino from Sardinia, as well as the mildly fizzy white Txakoli from the Basque country – ideal accompaniments for uber-fresh seafood.
Food aside, it's the convivial nature of the staff and tiny community feel at this unassuming bivalve bar that helps keep devotees planning their weekends around the place. Boston locals have never been subtle about the things they love, so schedule a Neptune night for yourself next time you're in town. Make sure to get there early, give them your phone number, and walk around the North End trying to keep yourself away from appetite-spoiling cannoli. The Old North Church may be a short stroll away, but we know where shellfish connoisseurs come to worship in this town.
More Information: Neptune Oyster is located at 63 Salem St. (between Cross St. & Morton St.), Boston, MA 02113; (617) 742-3474; neptuneoyster.com.