“A great pub and oyster bar”
Often ignored by the guidebooks and every Chicago bar guide ever written, Half Shell is as good of a pub as it is with its specialty crab legs. From its enormously popular sidewalk café in summer, to its old-school waiters and bartenders, to its cheap pitchers of beer and subterranean divey-ness, Half Shell is one of my new favorite places. Why haven’t I gone there before? After recent allergy testing, I learned that I am no longer allergic to shellfish as I was as a child. Since then, my life has been an orgy of seafood as I have had to catch up for lost time, and Half Shell has served as the perfect place for such feasting.
Since 1968, Half Shell has been located at the northeast corner of Orchard Street and Diversey Parkway and is located in one half of the basement of a two-story brownstone, the other half of which is inhabited by Matisse, also on the garden level. A modest, hand-painted sign depicting a yellow scallop shell upon an orange background can be found atop a slender metal pole above the patio, which is fenced in with a wrought iron fence along Diversey and the finest of chain link along Orchard, both adorned with string lights. Like Matisse, the Half Shell patio is a beehive of activity on warm summer days and is one of the best alfresco spots to have a meal and cocktails in the whole city, particularly now that Melvin B’s is gone, except when the smokers stand right beside your table…
Another hand-painted wooden sign can be found below a first floor picture window full of neon beer signs and just to the left of cement stairs leading down to the main entrance to the pub. A handwritten sign instructs you that no hats can be worn upon entry. It turns out that the owner is Turkish and it is disrespectful in the old country to wear a hat at the dinner table. It used to be disrespectful in this country too, didn’t it?… Step through the battered wooden door and you’ll find a long, narrow room that is surprisingly cozy, though it can get crowded especially on weekends. A long wooden bar with a sparkly top runs the length of the eastern wall. You’ll often find the sometimes crotchety Alex the bartender behind it, who has worked at Half Shell for 28 years at the time of writing, and he’s the one you’ll want to flag for a table if there’s a wait. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t ask your name as assigns available tables from memory. Opposite the bar are a dozen low-slung wooden tables along the western wall, with a few small windows overlooking Orchard. Two fireplaces warm patrons in colder weather. Rounding out the décor cement ceiling painted white with track lighting, orange-painted walls with Christmas lights, a Shell Oil sign and occasional nautical bric-a-brac, and stained glass with “384” to the left of the hallway leading to the kitchen and one-seater bathrooms (the women’s has a bathtub in it, but don’t get any ideas…). Note the kooky “happy as a clam” poster on your way out
As you would guess, the main story at Half Shell is the seafood. King crab legs, huge and often on special with snow crab legs for about $26, is the most popular dish though a few believe the Dungeness crab is even bette—you won’t even need the herb garlic butter that goes with it. The (lightly) fried jumbo shrimp is marvelous, the grilled shrimp is good too, and the Blue Point oysters, Cherrystone clams, fried scallops, and tempura-fried soft shell crabs when in season around June are also favorites. Half Shell also serves something they call the “Thirty Two Pointer,” a “generous combination platter of french fried shrimps, frog legs, smelts, perch, and clams” for $16.90. Surf and turf is also served, but the tenderloin is not recommended. Entrées are served in a red plastic basket on a bed of french fries atop a lone piece of white bread and accompanied by a pickle and lollipop for dessert. Though Half Shell is tiny and unknown by many, they actually get one ton of seafood delivered every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They tried having deliveries only two days a week but they don’t have enough storage. Dirt cheap lunch specials are available from 11:30 to 4:30pm, every day, and pitchers of Bud, Miller Lite and Heineken and a few others run about $12, served with glass steins. Though table service can be a bit slow, the waiters are quite knowledgeable and friendly, and will help instruct you how to de-shell your crab legs and will refrain from scolding you when you use you bend the bejesus out of your fork instead of using the smaller version that you were supposed to use for the cracking (this happens all the time). If you order crab, be sure to ask for extra napkins and, if you need constant refills for your soda or water, you may want to go to Red Lobster instead. You’ll also probably want to wear jeans as crab juice has a tendency to drip on your leg no matter how hard you try to avoid it. A recent Zagat’s review describes Half Shell as, “one of the best for seafood in the city (especially the raw bar and fantastic crab legs),” and rated the restaurant as, “very good to excellent” for food, “poor to fair” for décor and “good” for service with an average meal going for $26. Half Shell is CASH ONLY, so make sure you hit the ATM before you arrive.
“The atmosphere here is close to what a working class oyster bar should be.”– excerpt from Paul Camp’s Chicago Tribune article, “Winning the shell game: Best and worst of oyster eating” (August 5, 1983)
The atmosphere at Half Shell is satisfyingly pub-like: it’s friendly, ultra-casual and laid back, which draws a diverse crowd from all walks of life. Broken crab shells have the tendency to fly around and so many pitchers of beer are poured that it would rival any college bar. The only thing un-pub-like is that they officially close at 10:30pm or earlier if it’s slow, as the owners allegedly live upstairs. Upon your next visit, be sure to snag a table in the sidewalk café if weather permits, but also check out the bar and have a beer with Alex or watch the game on the TVs above the bar. Locals frequently drop by to pick up their take out orders, and through the years, Half Shell’s bounties of the sea has attracted such famous guests include Al Pacino, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, John Cusack, Enrique Iglesias, and a host of Cubs players. Since experiencing it for the first time this year, Half Shell has become one of my favorite Chicago joints. Even though Candice Denizman now runs the place after taking over from her father, Dan (a former commodore of the Chicago Yachting Association), the only thing that has changed at Half Shell over the last 40 years are the prices, except for the theft of its original sign, “that looked suspiciously like it had been copped from a Depression-era Shell Oil station,” (according to L.B. in the Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1975). If you like Half Shell, you might also like Raw Bar, King Crab and Cy’s Crab House, in addition to the more well known Bob Chinn’s (Wheeling), Shaw’s Crab House and Joe’s Crab Shack (Gurnee). For more information, check out the Half Shell website.