Thames Street Oyster House
Fells Point raw bar and seafood restaurant is the new go-to for seafood
Published: September 7, 2011
Thames Street Oyster House
1728 Thames St.,  449-7726, thamesstreetoysterhouse.com
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For a seafood-loving city, Baltimore has remarkably few dedicated seafood restaurants that don’t double as fish markets or crab houses and aren’t either incredibly old-fashioned or prohibitively expensive. Which makes Thames Street Oyster House, with its paper-covered tables, po’boys, and Prosecco by the glass, a very welcome addition to the downtown dining scene. For anyone who’s ever had visitors ask for a recommendation of a quality, reasonably priced seafood restaurant downtown—or if you’re in search of one yourself—this is the place.
Like Baltimore County’s Catonsville Gourmet, Thames Street Oyster House shares much in common with the kind of casual, modern seafood restaurants you find at beach resorts such as Lewes and Rehoboth. The interior is clean and unfussy, with the majority of the sit-down dining occurring on the restaurant’s second level, a hardwood-floored, exposed-brick-walled space lit by a picture window with a water view and decorated with a handful of framed Aubrey Bodine prints. You can feel equally at home in jeans or something nicer, with a date or treating your parents to a night out. Although we didn’t see any, early in the evening, I don’t think kids would be out of place here either (and given the noise levels from the bar on an evening during a Ravens preseason game, even a noisy youngster would probably be drowned out by the din).
Thames Street’s menu is compact, and at first glance looks a lot like typical pub fare. You’ll find fish and chips, a burger, grilled chicken—standard stuff, right? But on closer examination, the chicken is boneless thigh meat bound with spicy mayonnaise and queso fresco in a Latin-style torta; the hamburger is garnished with a robust house-made ketchup and garlic aioli, and the cod in the fish and chips ($17.50) tastes as if it was caught this afternoon.
Other classic coastal dishes on the menu boast similar fresh twists. Fat, braised clams ($10) share a rich tomato-and-beer broth with slivers of onions and chorizo—Natty Boh has never tasted so flavorful. A bowl of Maryland crab soup ($7) brims with corn, string beans, blue crab . . . and shredded short ribs, which give the soup heft without overpowering the crab. And the raw bar offers oysters from local waters and both coasts, as well as top neck clams, Maine lobster tails, three different mignonette sauces (Cucumber-tarragon! Watermelon-chili!), and still-life-worthy shellfish towers whose old-fashioned names—the Queen Anne and the Lord Baltimore—recall feasts Mencken might have attended.
Of course, the questions every Baltimorean has regarding a new seafood joint are, “How are the crab cakes?” and “Do they use local crabmeat?” The answers are “very good” and “yes.” As a server forewarned, the crab cake ($26) isn’t baseball-round or bursting with lumps. Instead, this cake is a throwback, still large, but flattened, filled with very sweet blue crab and served in the same black cast-iron skillet in which it’s fried. I’d prefer less of the accompanying remoulade, fine as it is, and the horseradish potato salad lacks punch, but the watermelon salad, which also comes with the crab cake, feels like the perfect match on a warm evening. It’s both sweet and savory, as well as visually striking thanks to a chiffonade of basil.
Other sides please just as much as the watermelon salad. Sandwiches such as the New England lobster roll ($17), ruddy red tail and claw meat tucked into a toasted bun, or a perfectly simple oyster po’boy ($14) come with a choice of beach fries, a garlicky good Caesar salad, or a refreshing vinegar-based cucumber salad like the ones your grandmother made with the excess from her garden.
During the evening, we spied another table taking in lobster and crab risotto and a seafood pasta served in swooping white china bowls. And though I didn’t see any food that didn’t originate in water, the menu also offers grilled skirt steak and a Greektown lamb-steak sandwich. I also didn’t see anyone order dessert, though all sweets, including dulce de leche bread pudding and Baltimore peach cake, are made in house. (Myself, I gorged on beach fries.)
Thames Street Oyster House had been open just a month at the time of my visit, but other than noise from a packed bar—something the restaurant can do little about—the only other issue is the time it takes to bring entrées to the table. It’s not egregious in the long run, but could be improved and most likely will as the restaurant continues to find its feet. Otherwise, this place is a keeper. I’m already planning my return visit.
Thames Street Oyster House is open for dinner 7 days and lunch Wednesday-Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac