J’s Oyster offers character without dipping into caricature, and this, I suspect, divides diners into two camps: Those who relish the J’s hole-in-the-wall experience and those who do not.
It’s important to manage expectations, and because J’s is a joint that has welcomed oyster seekers to Portland’s waterfront since 1977, it’s doing something right.
Over time, J’s Oyster has accepted the reputation of “where locals go” — or, more condescendingly, a place for local “color.” Add that visit from Anthony Bourdain, and on any given August evening, there is likely to be a J’s hostess stationed in the makeshift parking lot dining area and a thick knot of out-of-state license plates angling for parking and hungry for “real Maine.” At least, this has been my experience.
Personally, I prefer J’s in the off-season. It’s dark, it’s dusty and the windows need washing. Rainy or snowy days are best. There is a Hemingway quality to J’s, and I can easily imagine the literary Papa nursing a drink at one of the copper-topped tables, watching the boats toss just outside the gray window mist.
Martinis at J’s are made super-cold with generous pours and cheap olives. Remnants from the cocktail shaker are brought as well, adding at least another half drink to the cost. It’s a very good deal and a great way to spend an afternoon.
Recall that 1977’s Commercial Street had not yet seen the revitalization and influx of tonier eateries, and this historical context helps the J’s aesthetic make sense. Both of the entrances are side doors accessed by side streets, and that awkward layout contributes to the appearance.
Once inside, the U-shaped bar dominates the space, and table seating is crowded. An ancient Winston cigarette machine with pull-knobs stands in the paneled route to the restrooms, signifying that J’s is indeed a throwback.
First, the oysters — and I can already feel the heat of protesters saying, “But the oysters aren’t local.” No, they are not. When I asked why J’s serves Chesapeakes from the James River, the answer made sense. They have done business with the supplier for decades, the oysters are not farmed and, bottom line, J’s can sell them cheaper to customers.
Served simply, with the muscle still attached (and occasionally sporting bits of errant shell), these are not elegant oysters, but rather the “get your hands dirty” kind. Accoutrements include lemon and cocktail sauce with a red plastic pitchfork and a little bag of crackers. At $12.50 per baker’s dozen, the price is right.
People get heated about lobster rolls, too, and J’s serves them straight up — a toasted white hot dog roll overflowing with cool lobster and a little packet of Hellman’s on the side. Diners will either love or hate this method, but at $13.50 for a massive portion of sweet lobster meat and, depending on the season, a corn cob or coleslaw, it’s hard for this writer to complain.
While J’s New England clam chowder is certainly good and the fish chowder delicious (both cost $5.50 for a cup), I suggest an upgrade to the lobster stew ($9.50). The sherry taste is sweet but not overpowering, and the portion, even the cup, is substantial and satisfying. It’s rich, but not too rich. Creamy, but not too thick. I loved every lobster-filled spoonful.
Make sure to order steamed clams, too. A regular bucket ($15.50) is plenty for a party of four to share, and a large bucket ($18.50) is an afternoon project. With no hint of grit, these steamers are the real deal.
If your hunger is bigger than a chowder, steamers or plate of oysters (although I advocate just ordering more of each), J’s offers a menu of sandwiches, salads and seafood entrees. Be warned: The salads are the basic lettuce-tomato-cucumber variety and accompanied by a packet of Ken’s dressing. The sandwiches, while certainly a convenient downtown lunch option, are not particularly memorable.
Of the raw offerings, I recommend the Scallop Cocktail ($9). Six thick, massive scallops on a diner-style saucer with the signature lemon, cocktail sauce and red plastic pitchfork. Or if you are feeling indecisive, try the Combo Cocktail ($13) for two shrimp, scallops, oysters and a mound each of crab and lobster meat.
Pasta plays a large role in the dinner menu, and choices include linguine or angel hair (shells for the Bouillabaise). Scampi, pesto and marinara sauces dominate the options, but there is also Lobster Pernod ($21). This licorice-flavored cream sauce and full-lobster’s worth of meat over linguine tasted delicious, but I advise sticking to the simpler preparations.
I felt the same about the eponymous Crabby Janice Casserole ($16.50). Janice “J” Noyes was the founder of the restaurant, and this signature oblong dish of layered spinach and crab with Rockefeller and Mornay toppings tasted lovely. There was nothing wrong, but after the experience of unadorned shellfish, it felt like a reach.
Dessert? There is a single option, and it is Portland-based Izzy’s Cheesecake. Flavors rotate, but expect some of the smoothest, most flavorful cheesecake ever created. (Cheesecake lovers should visit Izzy’s website, izzyscheesecake.com, if only to get the Louis Armstrong song stuck in their heads for the rest of the day.)
Remember that J’s is a joint. Entrees are ample and tasty, and diners won’t leave hungry, but it’s not fine dining. It’s a sleeves rolled up, slurp some oysters with basic horseradish and shoot the (expletive deleted) over a few beers locale. Placemats are paper, and house rules are clearly stated on cards at each table.
And that’s part of J’s charm.
If you want a sort of authenticity that places less emphasis on local sourcing and more emphasis on serving the needs (and budgets) of seafood-loving locals, J’s delivers.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”