Shaw's Crab House: Classic is a virtue

For years, my father made fun of my grandfather for keeping a closet full of skinny ties long after they had gone out of style. He wore wider ties but bound himself to the hope that they'd come back someday. Grandpa didn't live long enough to see his hoarding vindicated by hipsters.

Shaw's Crab House, a stately seafood spot that dropped anchor in River North in 1984, has a lot in common with Grandpa's closet. The restaurant isn't at the fashion forefront, but it's as timeless as a single-breasted navy suit.

The menu, printed daily, plays as classic as a symphony orchestra season. Titles of dishes run in all caps, occasionally without elaboration or just enumeration: "OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER (4)." Many are prepared, as those titles imply, simply. Raw oysters ($3 each), shucked impeccably, build a reef on crushed ice, near lemon wedges, cocktail sauce and horseradish, and a slushy mignonette. Lemon butter, tartar sauce and coleslaw reside in ramekins over Lake Erie perch ($24), breaded and sauteed, fine and without fuss.

Variations are conservative. Lobster tacos ($18 for three small ones) wrap lobster chunks, avocado, cherry tomatoes and cilantro in a wonton shell rather than the expected tortilla. Tuna tartare ($14 on the menu, $16 on our bill) layers smooth sashimi-quality tuna pebbles on avocado in a wading pool of yuzu, to scoop onto tortilla chips like ceviche. The crabcake—on the menu since 1984—fills the hull of a crabcake BLT ($17), an idea so natural CCBLT should be a thing.

The menu may not see sea changes, but the tide goes in and out. Different crabs scuttle on and off the menu—we caught the end of stone crab season. Five of six lunch-menu oyster varieties rotated out in the space of a week. Alaskan halibut was just in.

Like with Grandpa's skinny ties, sometimes the menu stays stationary while a fad swoops in and bestows cool on what's already there. The exemplary lobster roll ($28) loads lobster, celery chunks and leaves, and Hellmann's mayonnaise (awfully mass-market for a name-check) in a splendid split-top brioche bun, putting Shaw's athwart the lobster-roll trend just by rolling how they roll. Oyster-obsessed enough to print the bivalves' species on the menu, the restaurant now coasts on the $3-per going rate.

The dining room sports masculine maroon and a clientele to match, with plenty of suits. Tufted leather banquettes, white tablecloths and wood paneling sum to a ritzy last-century look, actually last renovated in 2004-05. The look comes off chic, a word it's refreshing to divorce from "industrial" for once. The soundtrack comes from the pre-rock-'n'-roll epoch of Ella and Sinatra, feeding the illusion that the restaurant predates its actual opening. Formal, adept service and scattering seated parties create a client-friendly atmosphere.

The tried-and-true, age-flaunting self-presentation obscures the consistency underlying Shaw's. You can't just skate on fresh fish—unflashy preparations still require aptitude. It may not have been around as long as it affects to, but even its actual 33-year longevity is no fluke.

By Graham Meyer

Crain's Chicago Business

(April 13, 2017)