One of a kind
Oyster Bar a classic with a twist
It’s best to forgive the diners who enjoy a meal at Fort Wayne’s venerable Oyster Bar (a saloon first opened there in 1888) and never realize what an unusual restaurant it is.
Think about it. What other fine dining restaurant (or any restaurant, actually) can you name that has the kitchen in between two dining rooms with the result that not only the chefs but also the servers and patrons pass through on their ways to and from tables.
Diners are lulled into missing the significance of this huge logistical challenge that architecture has been presenting to Oyster Bar chefs ever since the saloon became a true restaurant in 1954. The genial and efficient service provided by a wait staff led by Susan Kingsley does not draw attention to the challenge.
Chef Scott Dickmeyer, who has returned to lead the kitchen after about 20 years elsewhere, concentrates on quietly and efficiently turning out the Oyster Bar’s trademark “serious food in a casual atmosphere.” No shouting or other abrasive stuff can happen in this kitchen. People in and out of the kitchen can concentrate on the food.
“Without hesitation,” owner Steve Gard said, “I would say the staff is the key to success.
“We have been very blessed with being able to put together a staff that works very well together and has become a family, probably more. The staff has promoted the atmosphere that keeps people coming here.”
Kingsley has nearly 14 years at the Oyster Bar, and together she, Dickmeyer and Gard can name staff member after staff member with a decade or more of service there — both in the kitchen and in the front of the house.
Gard admits that no one wanting to start a restaurant today would pick the Oyster Bar’s location. Nevertheless, South Calhoun Street is increasingly welcoming for restaurants. Gard said the Oyster Bar had two of its best months this summer, thanks to guests staying in downtown hotels. People here for a convention or festival would discover the Oyster Bar and return night after night, bringing friends with them.
Gard laughs and admits that he spent 21 of the 25 years he has owned the place waiting for something like that to happen. He’s very happy downtown Fort Wayne now has a second hotel and is attracting so many conventions and meetings.
But more than just visiting conventioneers are supporting the Oyster Bar, and that’s because the food keeps luring diners in. Gard and Dickmeyer plan to debut a revamped menu in mid-November, combining some seasonal touches with Oyster Bar classics.
“Obviously, seafood,” Dickmeyer answers when he’s asked to name the strengths of the menu. “We sell a lot of oysters, a lot of shellfish and a lot of fresh fish. We offer a variety of fresh fish weekly. We got in some beautiful fresh sole just today.”
The kitchen presents lots of variations with fresh fish, but the oysters are a different story. “The Oyster Bed” is a special section of the menu, with seven variations ranging from raw with house-made cocktail sauce through Rockefeller, Champagne, Casino, Romanoff, teriyaki and Black & Blue presentations. The customers have a clear preference among oyster varieties, though.
“We change our fish up a lot, but we don’t change our oysters up. People really like the large East Coast oysters we get. The Louisiana and West Coast ones just don’t work out there. People really like the Chesapeake Bay oysters,” Dickmeyer said.
The menu as a whole is more ambitious than even the lavish assortment of oysters and fresh fish.
“We have fabulous ribs we smoke outside,” Dickmeyer said. “They’re tender. They fall off the bones. They’re smoked and then steamed in beer and served with our own barbecue sauce we’ve created.”
Steak is a big seller, too. “We sell as much beef as any other item,” he said.
On holidays, the menu becomes special holiday meals, and occasional wine dinners are offered, too. Watch the website at fwoysterbar.com for announcements.
Overall, Gard is proud of how his restaurant serves as a training ground for young people entering the business.
“This type of restaurant is almost an apprenticeship,” he said. A young person starting up the chain of kitchen responsibilities learns from the entire Oyster Bar staff, he said.
“We have the most talented front of the house staff in the city as far as overall knowledge of the restaurant business, wines, drinks and food,” he said. “Our young kitchen staff benefits from the experience and palate of the front of the house staff.”
Kingsley sees the challenging open kitchen architecture as a benefit to training.
“Chefs that come here could probably work in any kitchen there is,” she said. “There aren’t many kitchens like this.”
Oysters Rockefeller, Oyster Bar-style
Makes 24 oysters
6 ounces fresh spinach
1 stick or 4 ounces butter
2 3/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons anise-flavored liqueur such as Pernod or Pastis
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup ground cracker crumbs
1. Bring 1 quart of water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the spinach, and cook until very tender and the water is green, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain the spinach in a colander set over a large bowl and reserve 2 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Let spinach cool, then finely chop, and set aside.
2. Melt butter in pot over high heat. When the butter is foamy, add the onions, celery and the garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the reserved spinach water, bring to a boil and cook for one minute. Add the reserved spinach, liqueur, salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reduces slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add the cracker crumbs, and stir to combine. Let cool completely.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and arrange oysters on a baking sheet pan. Top each oyster with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the sauce, spreading the sauce evenly out to the edges of the oyster.
4. Bake until the sauce is lightly browned and the edges of the oyster begin to curl, about 20 minutes.
5. Using tongs or a spatula, carefully transfer the hot shells to a plate, and serve immediately.
First appeared in the November 2012 Fort Wayne Monthly