Smoky hints of bacon waft from my first satisfying spoonful of clam chowder at The Salt Line, a D.C.-based restaurant that opened in Bethesda Row in July. The luscious, creamy broth embraces me like a favorite sweater slipped on in the fall air’s chill because it’s exactly what I want chowder to be—kissed with bacon; rife with chopped clams, celery and potatoes; slightly briny from the mollusks’ liquor; and not thickened with pasty roux. This version, even with refined garnishes of housemade oyster crackers and finely chopped chives, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, which exemplifies The Salt Line’s appeal; it offers New England-inspired dishes—mostly fish and seafood—prepared with alacrity and without pretension. D.C. restaurant veteran Eric McKamey (Mintwood Place, Masa 14, Momofuku—all closed) helms the Bethesda kitchen.
This location is the third for parent company Long Shot Hospitality, whose partners are its executive chef Kyle Bailey, Paul Holder, Jon Ball, Gavin Coleman and Montgomery County resident Jeremy Carman. The original Salt Line debuted in 2017 next to Nats Park; the second opened in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, in 2021. The company also owns Dauphine’s in downtown D.C.
“Ever since we opened in 2017, we’ve had guests from Montgomery County asking us to open there,” says Bailey. “So when the opportunity came up to take over [this] space, we jumped at it.”
D.C.-based GrizForm Design Architects outfitted the 7,500-square-foot space, which seats 170, including 24 at the bar and 60 outside. The theme, natch, is nautical, with mahogany striped paneling in the bar referencing a Chris-Craft boat, lots of gleaming subway tile, frosted geometric pendant globe lighting and plenty of seafarer photos and bric-a-brac: boat blueprints, fish spears, compasses and the like. A wall sculpture made of crisscrossing ropes and boat cleats adds even more interest. Other elements include booths in sage green pleather or beige tufted wool, dark wood floors, high ceilings and plenty of windows. But best of all are multiple soundproofing panels on the ceiling. The result? A reading of “quiet conversation” on my decibel app instead of the usual “jackhammer” that’s the norm in today’s concrete dining rooms.
The Salt Line’s bar is already a bustling see-and-be-seen scene, a perfect place to pony up with a tangy, briny blue cheese martini or two (the vodka is infused with blue cheese) that pairs beautifully with a seafood tower, an idea planted subliminally by the lavish display of oysters, lobster tails and craggy crab claws piled up on crushed ice at the entrance.
A Bloody Mary shooter topped with a mignonette-baptized oyster on the half-shell is a grand way to jumpstart a meal at The Salt Line. Then, crudos are the way to go. Two that I sampled showcase their proteins beautifully. The first, thinly sliced sea scallops marinated in orange and lime juice and zest, commingle with shaved red radish and red onion while Peruvian yellow pepper provides back heat kick and bits of fried hominy offer crunch. The second, rockfish cut into cubes and dressed with coconut milk, fish sauce, Thai chiles, lime juice, pickled chiles, crispy fried shallots and tiny cubes of cucumber and mango, follows the same formula for success as the scallops: simple, clean and pristine with a balance of heat, acid, sweetness and saltiness.
Other starters of note include “stuffies,” top neck clams with a crunchy coating of breadcrumbs tossed with smoky linguica sausage, lemon juice and hot sauce; and a garlicky fennel, arugula and pickled cherry pepper salad topped with tender sliced grilled squid that would benefit from more squid and fewer croutons. The hot dip of pimento cheese and crab meat served with puffy Old Bay-dusted shrimp crackers is a perfect shareable nosh to enjoy while making menu decisions. Consider a side dish—an enormous twice-baked potato loaded with Gruyere cheese, bacon, sour cream and chopped scallions—as an indulgent appetizer instead.
For entrees, head right to the bucatini with littleneck clams, pancetta, sweet red Jimmy Nardello peppers and garlic swathed in onion puree as a thickener. It’s another dish that lets the seafood shine without extraneous impediments. My fingers are crossed that they bring back the Nashville hot fried chicken-inspired soft-shell crabs when the season rolls around again. The two large, meaty crustaceans are dipped in buttermilk, dredged in crab-spiced flour, deep-fried and drizzled with hot honey enhanced with black garlic and cayenne pepper. They are literally finger-licking good.
Another solid entree, listed under “Classics,” is Ritz cracker-encrusted baked cod, the flaky fish offered with wilted spinach and Yukon Gold potato purée and finished with lemon-pepper butter. A less-is-more approach wins the day with this dish, but not with the Portuguese stew of clams, mussels, chorizo, salmon and potatoes, whose thin, drab broth lacks depth and needs a flavor and texture zhuzh, stat!
The Salt Line makes a respectable lobster roll with 4 ½ ounces of chunky meat (which, by the way, they will serve with romaine lettuce wraps instead of a roll if you ask) and offers a Peekytoe crab roll, too. Bailey says he prefers the fine, flaky texture and sweetness of that variety of crab meat indigenous to Maine to our mid-Atlantic blue crab. He and I part company in that regard.
The limited non-seafood options at The Salt Line include a warm roast beef and American cheese sandwich with horseradish cream, a smoked New York strip steak and a kick-ass double patty smashburger. On the dessert front—not the strong suit at The Salt Line— Smith Island crepe cake made with alternating layers of crepes and chocolate mousse is a rich coda.
I predict The Salt Line will do well in Bethesda Row because of its wide appeal, whether it be families with young children having an early dinner, couples on a date night or folks looking for a fun, lively bar perfect for socializing. (They offer a late-night happy hour menu after 9:30 every evening with drink specials and half-price oysters.) The food and cocktails are straightforward and well prepared, the staff is knowledgeable, efficient and friendly, and the place offers something not seen at many restaurants these days: the ability to hear the conversation taking place at your table. On my next trip there, I’ll be at table 79 in the back corner enjoying some oysters and a side order of peace and quiet.
The Salt Line
7284 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 240-534-2894; thesaltline.com
FAVORITE DISHES: Blue cheese martinis; seafood tower; sea scallop ceviche; Nashville hot soft-shell crabs (a seasonal offering); bucatini with clams; Smith Island crepe cake
PRICES: Appetizers: $9 to $22; Entrees: $26 to $58; Desserts: $12 to $16
LIBATIONS: Beer drinkers are in luck at The Salt Line, which features 14 draft and six canned beers (most around $7), including many brews from Maryland and D.C. Ten craft cocktails ($13 to $18) are designed to pair nicely with seafood dishes, such as a bracing gin and tonic made with housemade cranberry tonic, and the Someone Spiked the Spa Water with gin, matcha, cucumber, lime and housemade lime-green tea cordial. There are 38 offerings on the wine list, (4 sparkling, 17 white, 5 rosé/orange, 12 red), which favors French and Californian provenances. Bottles range between $54 and $168, with most around $70. Fifteen wines are available by the glass ($12 to $28).
SERVICE: Well-trained, friendly and professional
This story appears in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine.