Want to know how the concept of luxury has shifted over the last few years? Eschew the expected white tablecloth, valet service, and attendant to pour your wine and embrace the line of humanity stretched out the front door of the little sardine can that is 167 Raw.
Here, the seafood is the epitome of casual indulgence, and there are plenty of diners waiting to indulge. So many pack the one-room space that I’ve never scored a seat in under 30 minutes; mostly I eat take-out. There are no reservations in this new world, but they will sell you flutes of champagne that a half-dozen patrons routinely sip outside on the sidewalk. Inside, fancy marble ledges line every wall, where eager eaters down platters of raw oysters and clams shucked to order, daily salads and po’boy specials, and a smattering of concoctions grounded in Latin and Asian influence.
Whether you purchase raw sides of fish from the ice-laden case to cook at home or attempt to snag one of the coveted bar stools that line the walls and counters, the fish and shellfish offered up is every bit the quality that its tony price tag suggests. Everything hovers around $20 per pound. There are no labels of species or origin detectable. You’ll have to ask the extremely busy oyster guy for assistance.
Save up your pennies and start with the $24 (or market price) lobster roll. It may be de rigueur in Nantucket, where 167 Raw has a sister location, but such a seafood sandwich eaten take-out from a brick shack across from the Harris Teeter spells an entirely new form of luxury in Charleston. The ice-cold lobster salad would be excellent all by itself, but the small loaf of toasted brioche, dripping with hot butter, forces a reexamination of the proper vehicle for seafood. Forget thermidor or even drawn butter, the best imported crustacean in this town rides on a buttered bun.
And then there are the myriad cold shellfish options. Something called the “Big Boy” will set you back $50 and ostensibly provide a smattering of everything they offer on the ice, but the real gems lie deeper within the repertoire. You might ponder a tuna burger or the daily fish sandwich; but for upwards of $18, you’d do better at one of our local soul food fish shops.
I come for the ahi poke, a Hawaiian-inflected mound of marinated seafood smacking of sesame and soy. The cold, raw cubes of tuna will make fans of sushi swoon and enchant lovers of fish tartare. The excellent chips served alongside are superfluous; one only needs a fork. As for the ceviche, it is, quite simply, the best I’ve ever tasted outside of the esoteric Peruvian joints that dot larger urban landscapes than our own. The fish is soft and perfectly “cooked” in its acidic bath, which is not too strong, nor overpowering. The recipe changes on a regular basis, but the quality is always the same. It ranks as one of the unheralded dishes that every foodie should seek out and enjoy.
That goes for the pork carnitas taco—its meat slow-roasted for 10 hours—and the delicious boiled shrimp taco bursting with avocado and pickled onions, as well. The punchiest dishes in the lineup, they offer a bit of spice and are an affordable snack worth every bit of the six dollars they command.
Cramped seats next to piles of provisions, purveyors jostling cases of frozen crab claws overhead, and reservation-less queues in the sweltering August heat will never rise to the extravagance of what 167 Raw sells. It is a victim of its own success, but the dedicated following that lines up out the door seems to think otherwise. If you get there early, sit at the little kitchen raw bar, browse your way through the small plates, and save room for dessert. The key lime pie is delectable. And it’s a measly four bucks.
The Draw: Luxe seafood prepared to order
The Drawback: The cozy space makes snagging a seat a challenge.
Don’t Miss: Ahi poke