Marylanders love oysters, so news of restaurants focused on the slippery bivalves, like Bel Air's brand-new Main Street Oyster House, is always welcome.
Opened in mid-October, the Oyster House is masterful with oysters and service and does a decent job with everything else. It's lively and fun and sure to be a huge hit with people looking for a good time in downtown Bel Air.
The team behind the Oyster House also owns Ropewalk Tavern in Federal Hill and Ropewalk Oyster House, which opened in Fenwick Island, Del., last summer. Until September, they operated the restaurant that is now Main Street Oyster House as the Dark Horse Saloon. The new restaurant is a complete overhaul, designed to be more upscale and seafood-focused.
Scene & Decor The Oyster House's downtown location promises to be a bustling one. At 6:30 on a Friday night, the place was jammed. Initially, we were told there would be a 45 minute wait for a table but it turned out to be only 15 minutes.
We wouldn't have minded waiting longer. The lobby of the Oyster House, all exposed brick and dark wood, is open to the bar and, thanks to a handful of tall tables, a pretty spot for a leisurely drink.
Our table, in one of several small rooms upstairs, next to a window overlooking Main Street, was equally attractive.
Drinks Main Street Oyster House had an impressive list of wines and beers and a short list of recommended wines, which helped us narrow down our options.
Sticking with the restaurant's theme, we settled in with a fruity and floral glass of Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc ($7.25) and a Flying Dog Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout ($5), a dark and creamy beer brewed with oysters from Virginia's Rappahannock River.
Appetizers After browsing the list of eight oysters — mostly local — we ordered a half dozen house oysters ($8), which are harvested specifically for the Oyster House from Tom's Cove in southern Virginia.
We're partial to local oysters and these, with briny seawater flavor, hit the spot. They weren't perfectly shucked — a couple were still attached to the shell — but they were ice-cold and plump. Cocktail sauce was chunky and spicy enough that a little went a long way.
We also tried the oysters du jour ($8.50), six grilled oysters topped with a condiment that changes daily. During our visit, a smoky chipotle-spiked butter accessorized the oysters, making each bite spicy, salty and wonderful.
Entrees We were flying high after eating the oysters, so our entrees, both decent but not spectacular, were a bit of a letdown.
The surf and turf salad ($18) was a puzzle. The salad, with balsamic vinaigrette served on the side, was bright and fresh, with sweet corn, ripe tomatoes and a sprinkle of heady blue cheese. On top, sliced New York strip steak was seasoned well and cooked nicely to medium rare, and a small crab cake was sweet and light on filler.
Individually, the components worked, but for some reason the salad didn't really gel; it didn't feel like one cohesive dish. But that's nitpicking.
With the South Main Street steamer basket ($19), our disappointment was easier to pinpoint. The Gulf coast-inspired basket of crawfish, shrimp, andouille sausage, onions, potatoes and corn on the cob was well-conceived and nicely cooked, but it lacked seasoning. We expected powerful New Orleans-style flavor, but the seafood wasn't even salted enough.
Dessert Our final course was a whole apple baked inside a puffy pastry shell ($6). We enjoyed its sweet-and-sour flavor and the flaky pastry, though mid-way through, we bit into a small piece of core. That tiny bite didn't ruin the dessert but it did make us wonder if we should've ordered the goat cheese cheesecake instead.
Service From start to finish, we were impressed with the operation at Main Street Oyster House. The trio of hostesses seating customers was efficient and friendly, our glasses stayed filled, the waitress was bubbly — even when a neighboring table had a giant spill — and our food arrived in a timely manner.
For a restaurant that only had a week under its belt when we visited, that's no easy feat. Main Street Oyster House seemed to thrive on being busy. And that's great news, because busy it will be.
Main Street Oyster House
Back story: The team behind Ropewalk Tavern and Ropewalk Oyster House have converted their downtown Bel Air bar, the Dark Horse Saloon, into a friendly, well-run seafood restaurant.
Parking: Street parking and pay lot next to restaurant
Signature dish: True to its name, Main Street Oyster House gives good oyster. The house oyster, culled from Tom's Cove, Va., near the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay, arrives ice-cold and tastes salty and clean. Cocktail sauce lovers will appreciate the thick, spicy red sauce accompanying the oysters, though purists will just slurp them as they are.
Where: 119 S. Main Str., Bel Air
Contact: 443-371-7993; mainstreetoysterhouse.com
Open: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday; Kitchen closes at 10 p.m. on Monday-Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 p.m. on Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: Excellent oysters and good service in historic downtown Bel Air