On the last Sunday of August, I thought I had a good strategy to beat the crowds at King Street Oyster Bar, a local chainlet that opened its fourth (and first Maryland) location in Park Potomac in March: Show up at 4 p.m. to beat the brunch and early dinner crowds and enjoy a leisurely late afternoon sipping New Zealand sauvignon blanc and slurping oysters. Instead, the place, which seats 180 inside and 120 on a roofed patio outside, was packed. A surprise birthday party for 20 was underway in one room. Every indoor and outdoor stool of the 24-seat, two-sided bar was taken. (Opened windows allow bartenders to access the outdoor side in good weather.) The patio was rocking, with families and highchairs at every other table. (In the winter, the patio, outfitted with heaters and tented sides, seats 80.)
My plan hadn’t taken into account the restaurant’s generously priced happy hour, offered seven days a week from 3 to 6:30 p.m. It features $1 Chinco-teague oysters (regularly $2) and a $7 price tag for several alcoholic beverages, around 10 appetizers, and a burger topped with ham, barbecue sauce and cheddar that usually sells for $13. (They raised the price from $5 to $7 in September due to skyrocketing costs.) Happy hour is a deliberate marketing ploy, explains the restaurant’s co-founder, Rick Allison. “I want you to come back more than once every two or three weeks. And to do that, you have to give good value.”
Allison, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, in 1989, worked as a chef for two blockbuster restaurant groups, Fairfax-based Great American Restaurants and D.C.-based Clyde’s Restaurant Group, including a stint at the Old Ebbitt Grill, renowned for its oyster bar. Loudoun Restaurant Group, which Allison owns with co-founder Jorge Esguerra, opened its first King Street Oyster Bar in Leesburg in 2016, followed by outposts in Middleburg in 2017 and Washington, D.C., in 2019.
King Street Park Potomac replaced Addie’s, which closed at the beginning of the pandemic and never reopened. Allison says Loudoun Restaurant Group signed a lease in December 2020. Construction and design on the 4,500-square-foot space, overseen by the D.C. firm //3877 Design, took only eight weeks. The main room, which was cut into two smaller rooms at Addie’s, has been turned into one open space. All other changes were cosmetic. Steel blue is the predominant color on the walls and on the new bar stools and dining chairs. Black and white honeycomb-tiled flooring and lolling ceiling fans contribute to an oyster shack vibe.
Oysters are, as the restaurant’s name suggests, the main draw at King Street, which offers a dozen varieties daily, originating from Virginia to Prince Edward’s Island on the East Coast, and California to British Columbia on the West Coast. In 2020, Allison says, his then-three restaurants sold 7 million of the bivalve mollusks.
A great way to get things going at King Street is to kick back a couple of oyster shooters. A Virginia oyster on the half shell arrives perched atop a small glass of bloody mary or sake laced with soy sauce and yuzu (a citrus). The restaurant offers a variety of grilled oysters: chipotle pepper, andouille sausage and bacon; Rockefeller (spinach and Parmesan); and garlic butter and Parmesan.
From time to time, I enjoy a decadent lunch at a bar by myself, lingering over a martini and working my way through a seafood tower meant for two or more to share. King Street’s mermaid tower comes with four oysters and four clams on the half shell; four large shrimp tossed in an Old Bay-like seasoning (so rubbery and salty I ate only one); half a chilled, poached lobster; a quarter pound of jumbo lump crabmeat; and, per the menu, a half pound of King crab legs. (On all of my visits, crab legs were 86’d from the menu, due, says Allison, to supply chain and price issues. For my tower, they allowed me to double up on any of the remaining components.) Sauces are cocktail sauce, hot sauce and two kinds of mignonette (a shallot and vinegar sauce), one made with ginger.
King Street isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for food that’s really going to blow you away. Allison refers to the person running the food operation at Park Potomac as a kitchen manager rather than a chef. The chicken, andouille and shrimp gumbo I have there one day in August has a nice dark color and deep roux flavor, but the proteins have been chopped so small and cooked so long I can’t much tell them apart. Blue crab dip is bubbly hot and tastes vaguely of red bell pepper and Old Bay seasoning, but the crab lacks sweetness or oomph. For tuna tacos, colorful slices of raw watermelon radish—rather than corn tortilla shells—are piled with chopped raw tuna, guacamole and red pepper slaw. It’s a good idea on paper, and they’re very bountiful, pretty and tasty, but a mess to eat with your hands, the stuffing oozing out everywhere. (Use a knife and fork.) Fried calamari is as it should be: lightly coated with crunchy batter and not rubbery. Shrimp and scallop ceviche is overmarinated in puckery lime juice.
For entrees, go for the lobster roll offered in two styles, one served cold with a generous amount of lobster meat tossed in lemon aioli, the other served warm and dressed with melted butter. Other dishes I sample—macadamia-crusted mahi mahi in lemon butter with cauliflower puree and grilled asparagus; lobster, grilled sea scallops and mushrooms over spaghetti with lobster ginger sauce; a lobster club salad—are just OK. Each has faults, be it an overcooked component or a lack of seasoning. There was nary a lump to be found in panko-crusted jumbo lump crabcakes, too mushy and salty to eat.
Dessert ends a meal at King Street on a pleasant note. White chocolate bread pudding sitting atop bourbon custard sauce is chunky, buttery, soaked with white chocolate and topped with vanilla ice cream. If some of the warm chocolate sauce served with your order of pillowy doughnut holes happens to make its way to that ice cream, who’s to know?
King Street Oyster Bar
12435 Park Potomac Ave., Potomac, 301-296-6260, kingstreetoysterbar.com
Overall rating: C+
Favorite dishes: Oysters (on the half shell, charbroiled or as a shooter); mermaid tower; tuna tacos; lobster roll; white chocolate bread pudding.
Prices: Appetizers: $7 to $13; Oysters on the half shell: $12 per half dozen for East Coast, $18 per half dozen for West Coast; Sandwiches: $12 to $19; Entrees: $16 to $36; Desserts: $7.
Libations: A fun but on-the-sweet-side cocktail list of 19 offerings (all $12) is divided into categories: Bright & Fizzy (such as a Corpse Revived, with gin, absinthe, Lillet blanc, orange liqueur and lemon juice), Stirred & Serious (Vesper, Old-fashioned), Sweet & Sour (Moscow Mule, a riff on a piña colada) and Other Fun Stuff, which includes a sangria made with Malibu mango, peach schnapps, brandy and white wine. An abbreviated wine list has four sparklers; nine whites; two rosés and six reds. Almost all are offered by the glass ($12) or bottle ($46), with house wine in each category going for $8 per glass and $30 per bottle. There is a rotating list of draft beer from among 10 Maryland brews, and eight canned or bottled beers. Happy hour (3 to 6:30 p.m. seven days a week) is a great bargain, with several cocktails, all house wine and house brews at $7, plus $2 off all drafts.
Service: Inconsistent but eager.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.