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Behind the Line: A culinary heirloom

Proprietor Sam Mink reclaims his family's restaurant legacy

Philadelphia's Oyster House Restaurant has been reborn
    with a more casual menu. - Photo courtesy of Oyster House Restaurant
By Lauren Kramer
April 01, 2010

Sam Mink grew up in a family restaurant business that spanned two generations. But he didn't find his passion for the industry until 2005, when he was teaching second-graders in San Francisco, far from his Philadelphia home.

To pursue that passion, he started with evening cooking classes and later dropped teaching to become a line cook. That eventually led to a job at the Zuni Café in San Francisco. But Philadelphia was calling, and by 2007, Mink returned home to follow in his family's footsteps.

His grandfather, also named Sam Mink, took over Kelly's, a local seafood house, in 1947, and upon his death in 1969, his son David, continued at the helm. In 1973 David and his wife sold Kelly's and opened the Sansom Street Oyster House, which they ran for the next 25 years.

In 1999, just before he retired from the business, David asked his children if they wanted to take over the restaurant. Both declined, and while the Mink family retained ownership of the building, a new owner took over the restaurant.

Within a few years, it had closed down, which was "incredibly personal," says Mink.

In 2008 Mink returned home, ready to take over the restaurant. He spent $1.5 million to update it, lifting the ceiling and removing a central wall to give the space a more open, airy feel. By the time the renovation was completed in June 2009, the newly renamed Oyster House had more natural light and a modern yet rustic atmosphere.

With the change in name and style came a different menu, banishing what Mink calls the "old-school style."

"We still have classics like clam chowder on the menu, but we're using fresher, seasonal ingredients and working with local farmers," he says.

Some things haven't changed. Like his father, Mink goes down to the local fish market to procure seafood. But his modern menu offers numerous small-plate options to share.

"It's a more casual style of dining that's become popular these days. Our menu makes it easier to share these smaller dishes, such as fried Ipswich clams, steamed softshell clams, Creole-style you-peel, head-on shrimp and a variety of roasted oysters," Mink says.

He eliminated some dishes from the menu, including Crab Imperial, deviled crab cakes and shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. "I prefer to offer just one crab dish done really well," he says. That dish is a traditional Maryland crab cake.

He also removed farmed salmon and today offers bluefish, cod, flounder, striped bass, grouper, pompano, tilefish, monkfish, rainbow trout and red snapper.

His signature dish is a New England-style clam bake for two with lobsters, steamer clams, mussels, linguica sausage, potatoes and kale.

A main focus of the restaurant is the oyster bar, with between six and nine oysters on the halfshell from Chesapeake Bay up to New Brunswick.

"Diners can sit around and watch the shuckers shucking oysters, which is great theatre," Mink says. Three of the oyster shuckers worked previously in the Sansom Street Oyster House. The 120-seat restaurant goes through some 5,000 oysters weekly.

It was important to Mink that with the newness came a tribute to the family's restaurant legacy. He's proud of the fact that one server, Lorraine Steele, has been in the family business for 33 years. He's also proud of the antique, milk-glass cocktail rail in the front of the restaurant, which was salvaged from Kelly's.

The family's collection of 200 oyster plates is also 
prominently on display, testifying to the many years of serving shellfish.

"Those antique oyster plates are a very visible tribute to the years of hard work that my father and grandfather put into this place," Mink says.

His parents love the changes in the restaurant. "It retains some of its history, but it's attracting a new, younger crowd," he says.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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