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Imitation & innovation at Shaw’s Crab House.

Sometimes imitation transcends flattery to create something superior to the model. That is the case at Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago. The designer of the big seafood house on Hubbard Street obviously took a long look at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York before putting pencil to paper. If Shaw’s does not have the beautiful vaulted bones beneath Grand Central to work with, it has created something else, a cozier, more inviting atmosphere due not only to its designers but also to its staff.


Lettuce Entertain You, the venerable powerhouse of restaurant holding companies in metropolitan Chicago, owns Shaw’s and looks after its asset. The rooms still sparkle and look pristine; it is hard to believe that Shaw’s has been around for a quarter of a century now. It is, like the Oyster Bar, eye watering in terms of expense, but in its case worth the cost.

The crab house has two rooms and different menus, a plush dining room and convivial oyster bar. They both are good places to eat but our interest in this Number lies with the bar. It has a bustly open kitchen and winding maze of countertops that are considerably more inviting than their model in New York.

Shaw’s cannot match the selection of oysters at Grand Central and does not attempt its legendary pan roasts but will not disappoint any oyster seeker. A typical list of offerings on the half shell twelve splits two to one in favor of Atlantic virginicas over Pacific gigas to mirror Chicago’s location between the coasts.  Oysters are fresh and shuckers are swift. Chicago has a long tradition of restaurants serving the freshest seafood; they fly it in, so the fish frequently has left the sea more recently than the stuff that New York typically trucks down from New Bedford. The quality of food here is itself worth a trip.

Unlike eastern restaurants, Shaw’s stocks freshwater fish, a welcome nod to its location along the Great Lakes. There is perch and whitefish if not trout. The selection of beers on draft also honors locale; six of ten emerge from Midwestern craft brewers although Guinness, that essential oystermate either one its own or teamed with Champagne to make Black Velvet, taps up too. Shaw’s knows its stuff, unlike so many British oyster bars that not only overlook stout but even disdain any drafts at all. Lots of wine by the glass at decent prices, including a category called ‘oyster friendly,’ which it is.

As we might expect Shaw’s serves crab, in eight or so different ways, all of it beguiling and good. But then, there is nothing not to like about this place. Among its other attributes, Shaw’s honors the old Illinois Central connection to New Orleans. While will find little evidence of Louisiana in New York, Chicago retains a taste for all things Cajun and Creole. Shaw’s fits in; they serve popcorn shrimp, oysters Rockefeller, gumbo and even jambalaya.

Finally, you will happily sacrifice Shaw’s décor once a year at its ‘royster with the oyster’ in a big tent around the corner each October. Thousands attend the party to create an atmosphere that is all New Orleans street festival; kegs of beer, paper plates and plastic forks on communal picnic tables, music by local bands and Louisiana performers. One year we caught Marcia Ball.