It’s tempting to linger outside the triple-paned façade of The Darling Oyster Bar, especially once the sun dips and the spacious seafood hall glows from within. A wide display case tempts passersby with oysters, lobster tails, shrimp, crab claws, and whole fish, all nestled in gleaming ice crystals and labeled with handwritten cards specifying from whence they came.
Just beyond the mouthwatering mollusks and crustaceans, the action unfolds. Front and center stand the shuckers, their backs hunched intently over their stations, elbows in rhythmic motion as they wrench open an endless series of slippery bivalves for those lucky enough to have snagged a seat at the wraparound raw bar. Diners slurp down mild, briny Virginia Sewansecotts or, when in season, sweet, elongated local Ace Blades dabbed with a light, refreshing, ginger-studded mignonette. Pendant globe lighting recedes into the bustling room as servers deliver heaping crispy seafood platters and hefty bowls of shrimp and grits to conversant groups tucked into crescent-shaped booths. Walk-ins wait patiently at the long bar for a table to open up, sipping craft cocktails and rubbernecking for a stool.
The Darling doesn’t have difficulty drawing a crowd. Its windows are its best advertisement. Surely designer Smith Hanes had the words “retro,” “preppy,” and “nautical” in mind when he outfitted the space. Sunlight floods the honeycombed tile floor by day, filtered by blinds of sail cloth. Raw linen curtains edged with tartan stretch above comfortable seafoam banquettes as customers fork into soft, lemony spaghettini studded with capers and oysters.
Some diners prefer their oysters baked on the half shell, glistening in butter, swathed in melted pimiento cheese, or even fried, but connoisseurs demand them raw. That’s the best way to savor “merroir” subtleties like the clean buttery finish of White Stone oysters from the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, or the plump meats and mild saltiness of Hatteras Salts from the Outer Banks, still bathing in their own juices. Unsure of your plateful’s origins? Catch executive chef Joe DiMaio on his routine rounds and inquire. He can eyeball an oyster and tell you whether it enjoyed rapid or mellower tidal shifts. And if it’s a touch of traditional red wine vinegar you crave, he has a stash of homemade muscadine mignonette in the back for the asking.
Snapper ceviche arrives jiggling and fresh, accented with an artful and flavorful palette of cara-cara orange slices and wispy fennel fronds, sprinkled generously with ground toasted coriander. The ceviche makes for an exotic but light starter, as does king crab parfait. Citrusy chunks of crab come tossed in a bright herb pistou, snuggled with pale-pink grapefruit wedges over a rich bed of crème fraîche, with crispy toast points for scooping.
DiMaio’s cuisine takes inspiration from a wide swath of Southern coastline. But don’t expect his “Creole shrimp” to taste like anything you’ve ever tried in New Orleans. His take is startlingly original, a zesty marriage of whole grain mustard, garlic, Worcestershire, soy, and lemon, all mellowed with butter, then ladled over crispy heirloom rice cakes with butterflied shrimp. And there’s nothing stagnant about his clam chowder, poured table-side over a bed of house-cut fries. It’s a showy gesture diners love, though it’s probably intended more to keep the fries fresh than to entertain.
The chef spent his childhood in Calabash, North Carolina, and those roots appear in little touches, like the thin veil of Hickory Hill buttermilk that dresses a green salad. His oblong, fluffy, golden-crisp hush puppies pack a hint of hand-grated local sweet onion, served with a side of whipped sorghum butter. Some diners may not like them (hush puppies are, after all, as highly debated as barbecue), but others will crave them daily. That’s the beauty of The Darling. There really is something for everyone. Even the seafood-averse can fill up on the kale slaw, skillet-roasted chicken, or juicy burger.
As my rich date-oat cake arrives in its warm cast-iron ramekin, my meal draws to a perfect close, but a nearby diner’s is just beginning. “Sweet Jesus!” he exclaims as he bites into a mild, smooth Chesapeake Bay oyster that goes by that same name. All the while, small groups linger outside at the picture window to watch the culinary theater unfolding within.
THE DRAW: Sociable raw bar with serious curb appeal, happy-hour deals, late-night energy
THE DRAWBACK: You might have to wait for a seat; reservations are a good idea.
DON'T MISS: King crab parfait