Row 34, where are you?

By JOLYON HELTERMAN  |  March 12, 2013

Sewall, Bennett, and Harker

With the situation at the Seaport devolving rapidly into some kind of Epcot-style food court, there's zero shame in indulging a few good tears. So go ahead. Sob it out. Over mean corporate carpetbaggers poaching service staff and driving up rents. Over itinerant celebrity chefs (Batali, Zakarian) jetting in to extrude tourist-friendly piles of "concept" onto our choicest harborside plots. Over the chicken-Florentine-slinging steakhouse chain called Eddie Merlot's (seriously), bringing its namesake, private-reserve white zinfandel (that's right) all the way from Indiana to turf where even Strega musters a 16-deep list of rosés.

At some point, however, all the handwringing about how Del Frisco's doesn't "get" us has to give way to action — to some brick-and-mortar counterargument to the proposition that it's either Sportello or sports bar, that you can't service biotech conventioneers and Fernet-breathing industry cool kids under the same roof without undercutting the experience for both. If anyone's capable of bridging this divide, my money's on the Island Creek Oyster Bar crew, who this fall will partner up again to open a seafood eatery in Fort Point Channel.

The new venture won't be a carbon copy of the Kenmore Square flagship, say principals Skip Bennett, Garrett Harker, and Jeremy Sewall. Though details remain fuzzy, here's what we know: it'll be called Row 34 (after the oyster bed in Duxbury Bay where Bennett experiments with unorthodox farming techniques). It's going into a 4000-square-foot space at 383 Congress Street, and the design will preserve the interior's raw, industrial quality. Sewall's food will echo the more casual parts of his ICOB menu: fried clams, lobster rolls, simply prepared fish, and, yeah, the occasional pristine oyster. As for the bar program, plans are to maintain the group's trademark superlative caliber.

In short, Row 34 won't be an ersatz, Disney-fied version of their Kenmore successes, either. Which gets at the crux of what I believe it will bring to the waterfront. The area already has excellent food, if you dodge the duds. It's got smiling service and sun-dappled views. Yet too many players have doubled down on the notion that tourists are best serviced in a casino-style glitz fest — which is anathema to discerning locals.

"Even tourists are going deeper at vetting a local restaurant scene," says Harker. "They seek authenticity. They don't want the prefab 'Boston' experience, or a national concept that offers no sense of place." Which can be hard to come by in a neighborhood still figuring out what the hell it is. That said, Harker and crew nimbly threaded a similar needle back when Kenmore was still a transitional question mark. Perhaps they'll do it again.

As someone who has sipped a perfectly constructed Jack Rose at Eastern Standard beside a sweaty tourist knocking back an après-Sox margarita — both served sans eye roll — I fully believe they're onto something. Take that, Mr. Merlot's.

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  Topics: Food Features , eXpansion, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Seaport District,  More more >
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