100 Best Restaurants 2010: Johnny’s Half Shell

No. 44: Johnny's Half Shell

Cuisine: Traditional doesn’t have to mean hidebound. Nor does a rarely changing menu have to be synonymous with a kitchen that has grown stale. Happily, neither is the case at Ann Cashion’s culinary tour of the Chesapeake and Gulf Coast, where fish and seafood are front and center and the chef, a James Beard Award winner, recedes into the background. More than a restaurant, Johnny’s is a celebration of values that may seem to have gone out of fashion amid a rapidly changing restaurant scene: rooted cooking, simplicity of design, consistency of execution.

Mood: A classic oyster house, from the tiled floor to the white-jacketed waiters to the rolling laughter at the bar. A magnet for the House and Senate (the Capitol is visible from out front), whose staffers flock to the bar after work, the place manages to remain above the political fray—a tribute, perhaps, to the power of good food and drink to diminish what divides us.

Best for: All those who turn away from the increasingly ambitious ingredient lists of some local restaurants, with their many foams and powders and essences.

Best dishes: A roasted-beet-and-cucumber salad with smoked sturgeon and a delicate caviar parfait; charbroiled Chesapeake oysters; made-to-order oyster stew; the best gumbo in the area; Maryland crabcakes; spicy whole lobster with drawn butter and fresh shell beans; a sigh-inducing coconut cream pie, one of the best desserts around.

Insider tips: On Fridays in summer, the restaurant brings back its remarkable barbecue crabs—good-size hard-shells from Crisfield that are cut in two and dredged in Gulf Coast spices. They’re served on the outdoor patio, where a jazz trio plays.

Service: ••½

Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Expensive.

See all of 2010's 100 Best Restaurants

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.