Growing up in Warwick, Rhode Island, I was accustomed to the feel and smell of the ocean. No matter where you went, the cool, crisp saltiness of the Atlantic permeated the air, water, and soil. Seafood, particularly oysters, had to have the right brininess and full-bodied taste to seem authentically New England.
Since moving away from Rhode Island, I have rarely had seafood that tastes even close to as good as I had growing up, never mind had the opportunity to experience that powerful feeling of connection between food and its place of origin. Somehow, hidden just off the bustle of Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, DC, Hank’s Oyster Bar surpassed my high standards for seafood, allowing me to savor moments of my childhood as well as to learn new things about seaside food from around the United States.
It is hard to pinpoint whether it’s the food itself, the laidback yet stylish décor, or the knowledgeable and attentive staff that bring Hank’s this level of authenticity. It was a warm, slightly windy early October night when my friend Jayne and I dined at the restaurant, so the full-length front doors were open onto the sidewalk patio. Although we ate inside, there was a pleasant breeze throughout the evening that had the effect of heightening the flavors of what we were eating.
The interior of Hank’s has a roughness to it, with pipes coming through the exposed brick and visible layers of stone. The tables, counters, and chairs themselves are slightly mismatched, which, in combination with the abundant use of materials like tile, marble, and wood, give the place an inviting warmth and ease. Tables are placed close together, purposefully to encourage conversation between diners. Normally, this level of forced intimacy would make me uncomfortable because I like my personal space when I’m dining. Yet, at Hank’s, this coziness enhances the familial feel of the restaurant, encouraging you to dig into your food and to enjoy what you’re eating without shame.
Executive chef and owner Jamie Leeds (in photo above) opened Hank’s Oyster Bar in May 2005. Leeds, former executive chef at the 70-seat 15 ria at the Washington Terrace Hotel and at the Globe in New York City, is one of the region’s most recognized chefs and restaurant owners. The 65-seat Hank’s, which is named after Leeds’ father, won awards in its first year of operation for “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Neighborhood Restaurant” by The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and received praise in a variety of local and national publications, including Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Building on this success, Leeds opened a second location of Hank’s in Old Town Alexandria in September 2007.
The menu at Hank’s is deceptively simple. It offers both small dishes like popcorn shrimp and calamari and griddled crabcake and large dishes like an oyster po’ boy and a lobster roll with fries. There also are daily fish and meat specials, including molasses-braised short ribs on Mondays and Tuesdays. But, the hallmark of the menu is Hank’s Ice Bar, which offers a selection of delicacies, including oysters and clams on the half shell from around the United States. A respectable wine list and decent beer list, including several microbrews, round out the small but appealing menu. Appetizers range from $4-$11 and entrées range from $12-$19.
Navigating restaurant menus is usually an easy task for me due to food allergies (gluten, dairy). While most restaurants are becoming more attentive to food sensitivities, some are better at it than others. At Hank’s, however, my food allergies were far from a problem. While our meal was comped for this review, when I told our server, Tara, of my restrictions, she was unflinchingly helpful at coming up with creative ideas that were not only adapted to my needs but also provided me with an excellent survey of the menu.
Since sharing is encouraged at Hank’s, my friend Jayne and I took Tara’s advice and split a series of dishes. We started with a plate of six oysters on the half shell, which included two samples each of three varieties of oysters from around the globe. At Tara’s recommendation, Jayne and I took a glass each of a 2009 Nessa Albarino, a light Spanish white wine that enhanced but did not overwhelm the flavor of the oysters we tasted.
We started local, first sampling Chincoteague oysters, which were medium-sized and had a briny, yet smooth finish. While I generally prefer to eat local whenever possible, the Chincoteague oysters were delicious but almost too briny for my New England-trained taste buds. We then moved on to try Moonstone Belon oysters from Rhode Island, in honor of my roots. While I have read about the importance of terroir, or environment, to the taste of oysters, I am no expert. Yet, the Moonstone oysters, though comparably less briny and plumper than the Chincoteague ones, had a well-rounded finish and certain salinity that were unmistakably Rhode Island. After the Moonstone oysters, we completed our tour with Skookum oysters, which are smaller and somehow more densely briny than the other selections we tried, perhaps due to their cultivation off the coast of Washington State. These final oysters appealed most to Jayne, who is from Australia, because they reminded her of Sydney Rock oysters.
For our main course, Jayne and I split a lobster roll, which Tara had the chef adapt to meet my food allergies. The lobster was simply cooked in its own juices, mixed with mayonnaise and other spices, and then served over lettuce with fries, which were what all fries should be—extra crispy but not overly greasy.
Oddly, Hank’s does not have a dessert menu. Yet, at the end of our meal, they provide you with a small bowl of dark chocolate and a hard-to-resist list of digestifs and other dessert drinks. This post-dinner approach, I think, is genius, as it is the perfect denouement to a journey of the simple complexities of taste that is dining at Hank’s. In the end, I took a coffee while Jayne sampled a glass of grappa as we chatted and relaxed while savoring the dark chocolate. I must confess that the chocolate was so good that we begged Tara to sneak us another bowl, which she kindly produced.
In all, my dinner at Hank’s Oyster Bar accomplished that rarest of things: it caused me to slow down, relax, and rediscover the pleasure of tasting food. While there was not a lobster bib in site, Hank’s nonetheless has the comforting feel of a local seaside diner mixed with the polish and attention one has come to expect from anything affiliated with Jamie Leeds.
Hank’s Oyster Bar
1624 Q Street NW, Washington DC 20009